It was the State
Since 2000, more than a hundred journalists have been killed in Mexico. 2017 set a record, with 12 deaths. Journalist Anabel Hernández knows firsthand how dangerous this work can be. She lives with bodyguards 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, due to her investigations about drug trafficking and government corruption. Why does she do it? And what does her story tell us about the state of journalism in Mexico?
You can read a Spanish transcript of the episode, it’s useful if you’re learning the language with this podcast.
Or you can also read an English translation.
Translation by Patrick Moseley
[Anabel Hernández]: For a long time, for many days, many years… I lived thinking that. That today is my last day.
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: This is the Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández.
[Anabel]: I’m a single mother. I’m responsible for two children, living with that —thinking that this is my last day, thinking that you’re in such a powerful person’s hands, you know?— It’s terrible.
[Daniel]: Anabel has spent more than 20 years making life uncomfortable for the most powerful people in Mexico: politicians, police officers, drug traffickers. She is known for her investigations into the drug trade and the abuse of power, and that has made her some enemies…
[Anabel]: So the only way I could defend myself, eh, was to keep on investigating and keep on publishing.
[Daniel]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Our editor Silvia Viñas sat down with Anabel to talk about what it’s like to investigate drug trafficking and corruption in a country where it’s so dangerous to be a journalist. Here’s Silvia.
[Silvia Viñas, producer]: Anabel was born and raised in Mexico City, but she discovered she wanted to be a journalist in San Francisco, California, after the earthquake on October 17th, 1989.
[Journalist]:Oh my God, we’re having a. earthquake. Wait a minute, wait, wait. Can you feel that?
[Journalist]: What’s going on with the baby?
[Journalist]: The upper platform is going to collapse in the earthquake.
[Journalist]: ¡Jesus! [Unintelligible]
[Silvia]: Anabel was 18 and at the time of the earthquake she was visiting family in San Francisco. It was very powerful. It had a magnitude of 6.9. Nothing happened to her and her family but 67 people were killed and more than 3,000 were wounded.
And when it happened, people were watching the World Series, the annual baseball championship in the US. That year it was taking place there in San Francisco.
(SOUNDBITE LIVE BROADCAST)
Speaker 1: At second base, so the Oakland A’s take… take…
Speaker 2: I’ll tell you what, we’re having an earthquake…
[Silvia]: It was one of the first earthquakes to be shown on live TV and Anabel was glued to the TV watching what was happening.
[Anabel]: When I saw the journalists in the wreckage trying to communicate with people, serving the people directly, gathering the victim’s voices and everything, I knew that was what I wanted to do.
[Silvia]: Before that trip to San Francisco, Anabel had decided to be lawyer. She imagined herself in a courtroom, defending her clients…but when she went back to Mexico, she told her father that she wanted to study journalism.
[Anabel]: He was not ok with it at all. He didn’t want me to study journalism but…
[Anabel]: Because journalism in Mexico has —it used to have and I think that some of that still exists— a long tradition of corruption. And the government has controlled the media for a long time. For the most part, there have always been exceptions.
[Student: Long live the student movement!…
[Silvia]: And Anabel says her father pointed out one case in particular: the way the media in Mexico covered the Tlatelolco massacre, a neighborhood in northern Mexico City.
[Anabel]: And he would always tell me that the media had never reported the truth about what happened that night, that they had always kept it hidden.
[Silvia]: On October 2nd, 1968, police and military officials opened fire on hundreds students who were protesting at la Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in Tlatelolco. Hundreds of people died. We still don’t know the exact number.
[SOUNDS OF GUNFIRE]
[Silvia]: At that time, Anabel’s father was teaching at a university near Tlatelolco, one that had been very active during the protests.. He wasn’t there that day at the plaza, but he was nearby, and he helped some of the students and took them to the hospital.
[Student]: They attack everyone: women, men, children. They trample on the Constitution. There’s no freedom of speech. There’s no freedom, none. I don’t even know who they are, they just come down…
[Silvia]: In the days following the massacre, the media reported the official version of the story: that the shooters were a group of snipers and that only 30 people had died. It took years for testimonies to come to light and for there to be a serious investigation into what happened that night.
Anabel says that her father…
[Anabel]: Was a very honest man who always fought against corruption, fought against the injustice that he saw in his community. So for him it was unthinkable that I would be part of that system, you know? What I tried to explain was that I didn’t want to do that.
[Silvia]: Her dad only read Proceso, a weekly magazine that was started in the mid-70s. He had a huge collection in his house…
[Anabel]: And I told him: “Well, I can be different. I can be like the people you read,” right?
[Silvia]: She didn’t convince him, but Anabel didn’t change her mind.
Very early in her career, she was part of a group of journalists who founded Reforma, one of the most important newspapers in Mexico.
[Anabel]: In 1993, along with a bunch of journalists who really, I would say –that that generation of journalists was the generation that broke up that corruption and put in place, through codes of ethics and good journalism, a new journalism in Mexico, I would say.
[Silvia]: She reported on politics. She covered the Chamber of Deputies. She did very important reporting on electoral fraud in Mexico City… By 2000 she had already published several front page stories for Reforma and one of the other most important newspapers in Mexico: Milenio.
One day, in December of that year, her father was taking her to Congress to cover an event and before Anabel could get out of the car…
[Anabel]: I remember—I don’t know why he decided to this, you know—I remember —… he grabbed my hand and told me he was…he was very proud of me…That was the first and last time he said that.
[Silvia]: A few days later, early in the morning of December 5th, her mom called her to tell her that her father hadn’t come home that night…
[Anabel]: And it really was the first time ever, in his whole life, he didn’t make it home to sleep. He could come back late, etc. etc. but not coming home to sleep, that had never happened and right away I… I said: “Mom, I wish you had called me earlier because now it’s too late, isn’t it?”
[Silvia]: Anabel called her siblings and they started to look all over for her father. First they checked in the hospitals thinking that maybe there had been an accident. But they couldn’t find him. They looked in the jails, in case there had been some kind fight or legal issue… Nothing. They called his cell phone but he didn’t answer.
[Anabel]: So we really got more worried, you know?
[Silvia]: A friend of Anabel’s who worked in radio offered to put out an announcement. They decided to report his car stolen, in case someone had seen it…
[Anabel]: And on the night of that December 5th someone called the radio station to say that…they had found the car. On a street in a popular part of the city.
[Silvia]: Her brother went to look for the car…
[Anabel]: And there he found my dad’s shoes. And that was when we knew…something terrible had happened and then we started looking in the morgues…
[Silvia]: Soon after, they found his body in a morgue. They saw him there and realized that he had been badly beaten before he died…
[Anabel]: And… and he had actually strangled himself trying to escape…They had tied a kind of knot around his neck that ended up strangling him as he was moving, trying to escape.
[Silvia]: At that time there were numerous bands of kidnappers in Mexico City…
[Anabel]: Well, my dad was a middle-class businessman at the time. And was kidnapped for…for money.
[Silvia]: Anabel and her family wanted justice. They wanted the Mexican government to investigate the crime and find those responsible. The authorities promised to solve the case and they sent police to investigate…
[Anabel]: Until one day —I mean, I’m talking about two days after we found my father’s body— those police officers told me that if we wanted to find the people who were responsible, we would have to give them money.
[Silvia]: They talked about it as a family and said “no, we can’t accept that.” Anabel was a journalist. She knew the system well and knew that there was no guarantee that they would find the perpetrators. She knew the police could put the blame on anyone in order to get paid.
[Anabel]: So what we decided was…well…well not to…to accept that…it wasn’t possible to have justice. I’m not saying we decided to give up, because it’s something you can never give up on.
[Silvia]: They never found out who killed him.
This experience, with her father’s kidnapping and the impunity and corruption they saw after, that had an enormous impact on Anabel…
[Anabel]: I’d had to write stories about the family members of people who had been kidnapped. But when you experience it for yourself, your perspective changes completely. Absolutely. And that completely changed the way I looked at my career and the way I follow it.
[Silvia]: It pushed her to do more long-term investigations. To expose that corruption, these injustices and impunity… And what her dad told her when he dropped her off at Congress, just a few days before he was kidnapped…
[Anabel]: That he was very proud. He was very proud of me.
[Silvia]: With time, that meant even more to Anabel.
[Anabel]: For me it’s a real source of encouragement to keep going in this profession day after day despite the obstacles I face. Not just me, but a lot of journalists in Mexico.
[Silvia]: So Anabel kept going. She did deeper investigations, like a report on the small scale gangs that traffic drugs in Mexico City, which are known as narcomenudeo [lit. drug retail]. No one was talking about that at the time. But it took years for her to get to the bottom of the issue of drug trafficking. And she got to cover this, as is often the case, while she was investigating another story, one about the exploitation of children…
[Anabel]: I got a tip that there were these kids. Basically the story they were telling is that there were children between 6 and 7 years old that were being forced to work in marijuana and poppy fields. Mostly grating poppies, which is what it’s called when you extract the pulp from the poppy in order to process it into heroine.
[Silvia]: This supposed exploitation was happening in the city of Guadalupe y Calvo, in the state of Chihuahua. It’s in the heart of what’s called el Triángulo Dorado, the Golden Triangle: an area that covers parts of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango in the north of Mexico. And the area where Guadalupe y Calvo is…
[Anabel]: It’s a forested area. It’s place where there’s a lot of water. It’s area that’s full of glens.
[Silvia]: Anabel spoke with a contact in Chihuahua who informed her that teachers in the area were reporting that their students were working in the poppy fields. But the contact told her it was very dangerous to go. He wouldn’t be able to get a teacher to accompany her because that could cause problems for them. But he did give her one lead: that she should contact the church.
[Anabel]: And when I spoke the priest, he told me: “We can take you in here. We are very worried about what’s going on.”
[Silvia]: But he recommended that she not go as a journalist…
[Anabel]: But that I go almost as if I were a missionary… “No, no, don’t talk to anyone and don’t tell anyone that you’re a journalist because the narcos are the ones who control this area.”
[Silvia]: In the end, she went to Guadalupe y Calvo with a photographer. There they met by a town official who served as their guide.
[Anabel]: It’s a world that you wouldn’t believe exists, because in the sierra, most of the houses are poor.
[Silvia]: And all of sudden she sees gigantic houses, small mansions with parabolic antennas.
[Anabel]: Cadillac and Escalade trucks, and these are some of the most expensive there are…
[Silvia]: And people with weapons.
[Anabel]: Like it’s nothing. So for me, it was a new world, you know?
And doing that reporting and speaking with the children and the teachers and all that, that was when I realized that a long time ago a boy was born there named Joaquín Guzmán Loera.
[Silvia]: El Chapo Guzmán. The founder and leader of the Sinaloa cartel. He was born there, in the Golden Triangle, the city of Badiraguato, in the state of Sinaloa. At that time, in 2005, he was a very dangerous drug trafficker and he was on the run. He had escaped from the Puente Grande prison 4 years earlier.
[Journalist]: They day began in Jalisco with the unbelievable report that last night, the alleged drug trafficker, Joaquín “el Chapo” Guzmán, escaped this federal prison. Which is ironically classified as maximum security…
[Anabel]: But when you’re there, supposedly in el Chapo’s territory, I saw, well…well…well…there’s no military or authority, there’s no one. It’s like they’re allowing these people to do this, you know? Automatically, without any repercussions, without any other option either, you know, to do something else.
[Silvia]: On that trip she learned that the children really had been put to work cultivating poppies for generations. It wasn’t voluntary or mandatory. It was practically a tradition. Just like there are children in other parts of Mexico that plant corn, these children are planting marijuana and poppies.
[Anabel]: And the children took to it very naturally. And they had the illusion that they were doing it because it was a big step toward becoming an adult, you know? And when you would talk to the children, what they wanted was their machine gun, their AK-47, their truck, their woman…their woman…
[Silvia]: In other words, what they wanted was to be like el Chapo. The thing is, el Chapo had been like them: the son of a farmer who left school at the age of 7 to work in those same fields.
[Anabel]: And that was when I really became curious about who this man was and how the son of a farmer who barely knows how to read and write becomes such a supposedly dangerous criminal.
[Silvia]: Anabel published an article about el Triángulo Dorado after that trip and from there she started covering narcotics more closely. That same year, at the end of 2005, she was contacted by the lawyer who worked for the official who had worked at the prison when El Chapo escaped. This official had been put in jail.
[Anabel]: Supposedly accused of el Chápo Guzmán’s escape.
[Silvia]: At the time, Anabel was working for the newspaper El Universal. She was already used to people calling her to tell her “I have a story for you.” And should would always go to see what it was about. So she went to see the prison official and the first thing the man says to Anabel is:
[Anabel]: “We didn’t let el Chapo Guzmán escape.”
[Silvia]: He tells her “You aren’t going to believe me, because I’m sure that all of the people you interview tell you they’re innocent.”
[Anabel]: He tells me: “Yes, we let him do whatever he wanted. Yes we let him take in alcohol. Yes we let him take in women. He could do whatever he wanted in the prison.”
[Silvia]: But he says that el Chapo’s escape wasn’t up to him. He hadn’t been able to decide that.
[Anabel]: He says, “it wasn’t us” and he starts to describe it to me somewhat, he let slip some clues that…that made it clear that…that it was really high ranking government officials in the Vicente Fox administration that had let el Chapo escape.
[Former President Vicente Fox]: Mexico has changed. Mexico has changed. Today, people like you, who participated with your votes, made possible this historic change that let loose a flood of happiness and hope in our country…
[Silvia]: Vicente Fox had won the presidential election the previous year, in July of 2000. His election ended a 71 year period of government leadership under the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
These accusations —that Fox had let el Chapo go— were serious. Fox was supposed to represent change. And up to that point, Anabel only had that testimony. But this official told his lawyer to give Anabel all of his records.
[Anabel]: And there, reading all of this, that was when I discovered that el Chapo Guzmán didn’t run away, they took him away.
[Silvia]: Anabel published an interview with the official who gave her the records. One week later…
[Anabel]: This man calls me on the phone one day and tells me: “I’m free now. Thank you.”
[Anabel]: That means the man is using the interview to threaten the Vicente Fox government, saying “well, if you want to keep me here in prison, I’m going to tell everything.” Right?
So I really understood that the point of El Chapo Guzman, the most important thing about him, wasn’t the persona of El Chapo Guzmán or this myth that the government had created, but rather, it was the people who had created el Chapo Guzmán, what was behind it all. El Chapo Guzmán was just the front, the face of this corruption that was putrefying Mexico. And that’s when I start investigating El Chapo Guzmán.
[Daniel]: After the break, what happens when an investigation uncovers connections between high ranking politicians and the most dangerous narcos in Mexico.
We’ll be right back.
[Comercial]: This NPR podcast and the following message are brought to you by Squarespace. Destiny is calling. It says you need a new webpage. Create it yourself. It’s easy and our award winning customer support is available 24/7. Sign up at Squrespace.com to start your free trial. And when you’re ready to launch your page, use the offer code RADIO to save 10% on your next website or domain name. Keep dreaming. But make it a reality. With your own Squarespace site.
[Cardiff García, host of The Indicator]: How much would you pay to avoid morning traffic? Why are plane tickets to Boise so expensive? I’m Cardiff García, cohost of The Indicator. And every episode we take on a new, unexpected idea to help you make sense of the day’s news. Listen every afternoon on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.
[Guy Raz, host of How I Built This]: What does it take to start something from nothing? And what does it take to actually built it? I’m Guy Raz. Every week on How I Built This I speak with founders behind some of the most inspiring companies in the world. Find it on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.
[Daniel]: Before the break, Anabel had begun her investigation into el Chapo Guzmán and his escape from prison in 2001.
Silvia continues the story…
[Silvia]: Those records were the start of an investigation that Anabel would carry out for five years. Anabel gathered testimonies and documents and started to establish relationships with key figures who would serve as sources.
One of those sources was General Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro. A Mexican military leader with a long and complicated history. We won’t get into the details here but Acosta Chaparro was accused of torturing and disposing of leftist activists during what’s called “the Dirty War” in Mexico… In the end he was exonerated of the charges.
Later he was imprisoned for alleged connections to the Juárez cartel but they let him go after 6 years due to lack of evidence.
Acosta Chaparro told Anabel that Felipe Calderón, the president of Mexico from 2006 to 2012, ordered him to negotiate with el Chapo and other heads of the most prominent cartels in Mexico.
Other Mexican journalists who have covered drug trafficking, like José Reveles or Jorge Carrasco, also have reported on the meetings between Gen. Acosta Chaparro and the heads of the drug cartels.
[Anabel]: When Gen. Acosta Chaparro asked el Chapo Guzmán how much he had paid for his escape, if it was true that he had paid Vicente Fox more than 20 million dollars, the general told me that el Chapo Guzán let out a chuckle and told him “Well, general, freedom is priceless.”
[Silvia]:Vicente Fox, of course, has denied these allegations. Here he is in an interview after they captured el Chapo in 2014…
[Former President Vicente Fox]: Well, it’s ludicrous that they think that. And it is precisely a lack of intelligence and how…how issues are handled publicly. It’s clear to me that it’s foolish to argue that it was president Fox who let him go or negotiated his escape.
[Silvia]: El Chapo also told Gen. Acosta Chaparro…
[Anabel]: That he hadn’t escaped, he had walked out dressed as a policeman and that Genaro García Luna and Jorge Enrique Tello Peón’s people had gone to get him.
[Silvia]:Ok, that’s a lot of names. Genaro García Luna. When el Chapo escaped, he was in charge of the Federal Judicial Police, which was the agency in charge of federal crimes at the time. Years later he became the Secretary of Public Safety in the Felipe Calderón administration. And in fact, while Anabel was carrying out this investigation, she started to investigate García Luna in parallel…
[Anabel]: Because when people said “García Luna is taking money, millions of dollars, in bribes,” I said: “How can I prove that?”.
[Silvia]: So she investigated his assets, comparing his tax returns, his income as a civil servant and what he owned: properties, vehicles, all of that. And Anabel and her investigation started to make García Luna uncomfortable…
Ok. And the other name el Chapo mentioned: Jorge Enrique Tello Peón. At the time of el Chapo’s escape he was the undersecretary of Security. He was at the prison that day.
But el Chapo’s escape was just the start. Anabel’s investigation expanded to explore how el Chapo’s cartel, the Sinaloa cartel, had become the most powerful cartel in Mexico.
[Anabel]: Also, during my investigation I was able to go and find out why there was this war, what were its real causes. Who was the game changer among the Mexican cartels who started the war between them, you know?
[Silvia]: In 2010, Anabel published her investigation in a book: Los señores del narco, or Drug Lords. It wasn’t the first book about drug trafficking, or even about the Sinaloa cartel, obviously. But before that investigation…
[Anabel]: Everyone focused on the, quote, “supposed bad guys” alone, you know? The drug traffickers, the assassins, their violence, how they would rape people, how they would cut people to pieces and how they would leave bodies everywhere. But no one talked about the other drug lords —who were the politicians, the senators, the businessmen, the presidents and secretaries of state— who worked for the Sinaloa cartel.
[Silvia]: So, of course, when she published her book.
[Anabel]: Evidently it was very inconvenient. Not for el Chapo. That I know. El Chapo Guzmán read the book and he didn’t have any problems with it at all. It was very inconvenient for Felipe Calderón. It was very inconvenient for Genaro García Luna. It was very inconvenient for a lot of Mexican businessmen. So when they started to see those names, evidently it was like…like a pact had been broken, you know?
[Silvia]: And once the book came out…
[Anabel]: There’s absolute silence. There are no threats.
[Silvia]: Which was a little weird, considering what had been revealed. She had gotten threats before for other investigations.
[Anabel]: I knew this book would be dangerous, but honestly I hadn’t anticipated how dangerous.
[Silvia]: So, in the middle of this silence…
[Anabel]: I get a call from a source of mine who worked for the federal police, and he told me he needed to see me right away.
[Silvia]: Anabel went to see him and this person was with one of her best friends, someone she trusted.
[Anabel]: So when I talk to him, he tells me: I just came out of a meeting where Genaro García Luna and Luis Cárdenas Palomino —they’re police leaders— they are hiring police officers to kill you. They’re going to kill you now. They going to kill you here in a few days. They’re going to make it look like it was an accident. They’re going to make it looks like a failed robbery or a failed kidnapping and they’re going to kill you. Be very careful, ok?”.
[Silvia]: At the time, Anabel thought: “This is how it always is. It’s something they say they’re going to do and in the end nothing happens.”
[Anabel]: So, uh, I tell that source in a way that—now I think it’s stupid on my part, right because I tell him: “Well, call them. Save them the trouble. Tell them I’m here and I’ll see them.”
So my friend is standing there like this with his eyes wide-open and says: “You don’t understand.”— he tells me—. “This is serious. This is serious. In other words, it’s not a threat. You won’t even know what hit you, they’re going to do it.”
[Silvia]: Even though she trusted her friend and this source, it wasn’t the first time she had been threatened, so she didn’t lend too much importance to it.
[Anabel]: The truth is I thought “it’s another thing they say they’re going to do that they won’t do,” you know?
[Silvia]: That night she went to get her son…
[Anabel]: He was a baby. He was barely a year old. And when I arrive at the daycare, I see that one of Genaro García Luna’s vehicles parked at the door. And I knew because I had done all of that research into his assets.
[Silvia]: She knew his escort’s cars.
[Anabel]: There was no doubt about it. So I get to the place and I’m petrified and I say: “What’s happening?” Or rather, if I get out what’s going to happen? And if I go get my son?…” I mean, I was really frozen. At that moment, I understood that this…this is serious, you know?
[Silvia]: She says she called a general, an ally she had made during those years investigating such a delicate topic. He was someone who could help her in situations like these. She told him what was happening and the general told her not to worry, that he would see what he could do, but he told her not to get out of the car.
[Anabel]: He tells me: “You have to understand that it is certain that your phone has been bugged, that they’re listening in.” He tells me “You’re talking to me” —he says—, “I am making myself responsible for you, ok? They should know that. That I am making myself responsible for you.”
[Silvia]: And he told her to call the National Commission on Human Rights, the CNDH (by its Spanish initials), and lodge a complaint.
[Anabel]: “You can lodge your complaint right now, over the phone, making someone responsible for you no matter what happens.”
[Silvia]: So, right then, without getting out of her car, she called the emergency number for the CNDH and reported everything that happened. She reported everything that had happened…
[Anabel]: And then the vehicle moves…The vehicle moved. And I could get out and pick my son up from daycare.
[Silvia]: She went home and locked herself inside for three days.
[Anabel]: It was terrible. It really was terrible because seeing that vehicle at my son’s daycare, it was…it was clear, it was evident that this was not a joke. That it was not a threat, that it was a real definitive plan.
[Silvia]: That was also a time when she thought a lot about her job.
[Anabel]: And in the end, I thought “I should keep going with this,” and I didn’t…I didn’t stop investigating police corruption.
[Carmen Aristegui]: Well, Anabel Hernández, our fellow journalist, who we have actually spoken with this week about her new book,entitled Drug Lords, has filed a complaint before the National Commission for Human Rights…
[Silvia]: Anabel decided to make the complaint public.
[Anabel]: Presumably, García Luna and Cárdenas Palomino had started to recruit agents in the ACI, offering them promotions in the Federal Department of Public Safety in exchange for causing a…a supposed accident, an attempted robbery or something that looks like one…
[Silvia]: From there, Anabel’s day to day changed completely. She was accompanied by escorts, for safety.
[Anabel]: From then on I live with security cameras and alarms in my house. And with these bodyguards who sleep… who are with me 24 hours a day, there taking care of me. And… it’s like giving up on life.
[Silvia]: But she stayed in Mexico, trying to keep on living with her two children. But the threats and the danger continued. And not just for her. In 2012…
[Anabel]: They killed Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro. Who was one of my main sources.
[Silvia]: He was the general who had interviewed el Chapo, who had told Anabel what he had said about his escape and Vicente Fox.
[Anabel]: I tried to distance myself from him so as not to cause more harm to his family or the people who were close to him.
[Silvia]: He was the general who told her that Felipe Calderón had ordered him to negotiate with the heads of the cartels.
And in those years, some of Anabel’s other sources also disappeared and…
[Anabel]: My family suffered attacks. Uh…They left decapitated animals on my doorstep.
[Silvia]: The number of animals…
[Anabel]: Would correspond to the number of bodyguards. Even one day when one of them wasn’t there, the total number of guards was written on the box, but since one of the guards wasn’t there, there were only as many dead animals as there were guards there…
[Silvia]: Meaning that she was obviously being carefully monitored all the time.
[Anabel]: Until finally, in December 2013, a group of 11 armed federal police officers entered my home.
[Silvia]: Anabel lived in a condo where there were several houses.
[Anabel]: And since they didn’t know where I lived, they went into my neighbor’s houses, threatening them at gunpoint, asking them which house was mine.
[Silvia]: The neighbors told them and the men entered. Anabel wasn’t there.
[Anabel]: They didn’t take anything. I think they were looking for records, because they had been searching…even emptying out the walls of my closet, throwing out all of the clothes like they were looking for secret compartments in the walls and in the floor of my house. I think that they thought that maybe there was more proof or documentation at my home.
[Silvia]: The armed men even went as far as to dismantle the security cameras.
[Anabel]: After that it was already too much, because it was already… One of my neighbors, uh, reprimanded me really harshly because he had a six year old daughter who had a gun pointed at her head.
So, honestly, I felt very guilty.
When you’re in this line of work, you learn to take on risks for yourself, you know? But when totally innocent people… I feel too responsible, so I needed to leave Mexico. But I didn’t want to run away.
[Silvia]: Not just because she wanted to keep working as a journalist, but also…
[Anabel]: To show these people that they don’t own my life. And they really aren’t in control of my life.
[Silvia]: And she told me that there are many journalist who feel the same way.
[Anabel]: We’re the ones who choose to do this…to take this path. Even if it may be very very dangerous and risky, you know? So, I didn’t…I didn’t want to give in. I didn’t want to surrender. And…I didn’t want to teach my children to run away. I didn’t want people to remember me that way either.
[Silvia]: Anabel knew the stories about exiled Mexican journalists. How some of them had their lives ruined and were no longer able to do journalism. She had been offered asylum by organization in Europe and in the US but she had refused. She says it would be like letting the people who threaten her win.
[Anabel]: They’d throw a party, you know, a grand celebration, the national holiday when Anabel Hernández left…left Mexico.
[Silvia]: The UC Berkeley Center for Investigative Journalism invited her to participate in a conference and there they encouraged her to apply for a fellowship. She applied and won and in 2014 she went to Berkeley with her two children. There they could be safe and Anabel could keep doing journalism.
But arriving in Berkeley also made her realize how the threats and living with bodyguards for years had affected her children.
They lived on a first floor apartment. They heard people coming and going. And one day, after they had just arrived, they were unpacking…
[Anabel]: When I went looking for my son because all of a sudden I couldn’t see him. My daughter was there, but not my son. I thought “Did he go out to the street? What happened to him, you know?” Then, I was shocked to find him under the table. He was shaking. Because he had heard the noise and thought that people were coming to get us.
I think the greatest price I’ve to pay, aside from… the deaths of my informants, is the trauma that my family has gone through. I don’t know how I’m going to resolve it. I don’t know how my life is going to make my pay for that.
[Silvia]: In August of 2016 Ababel went back to Mexico.
[Anabel]: With this…in the middle of this hell, if you can call it a life.
[Silvia]: With guards, security cameras and the same threats… I asked her if the drug traffickers or the government made her more concerned for her safety.
[Anabel]: The narcogovernment is more dangerous. The officials who are supposed to work legally and respect the law but are really working for the cartels are more dangerous. On that small margin where public officials are part of the cartels and journalists start mentioning them, that is where the real… the real danger is.
[Silvia]: According to Article 19, a human rights and freedom of speech organization, more than half of the aggressions against journalists in Mexico come from public officials. And so, according to Anabel, Mexican journalists are caught in two lines of fire.
[Anabel]: The narcogovernment doesn’t want us to correctly inform the public of what’s going on, they don’t want us to name who’s involved —businessmen, priests, artists, governors, presidents— and the cartels don’t want us making things inconvenient for them. So we are completely vulnerable: if it’s the State that’s killing us, then who’s protecting us.
In Mexico there is no freedom of expression In Mexico, we live in a narcostate, where the president of the Republic and the PGR are accomplices who allow journalist to continue being assassinated. This wouldn’t be happening if the president of the Republic really wanted to protect freedom of expression and ensure that there be justice.
There have been so many special prosecutors in the PGR and they don’t investigate the murdered journalists’ deaths, it’s clear to me that they do want to. They don’t care. Because while they aren’t investigating public officials and the people who have killed journalists, they go unpunished.
[Silvia]: A month before I met with Anabel to talk, her colleague and friend, journalist Javier Valdés, was killed…
[Journalist]: Drug-related violence in Mexico has cost another journalist his life: Javier Valdés. He was killed in broad daylight by a group of men…
[Journalist]: We know that the journalist Javier Valdés Cárdenas, who was killed in Sinaloa, Mexico, was threatened because he said so himself several times during a visit he made to Mexico City.
[Journalist]: There have been many articles in which he connected organized crime to the highest levels of government and several companies. In his most important books…
[Silvia]: Javier Valdés was know for covering narcotics in Culiacán, Sinaloa, in the “mera mata del narcotráfico” [the hotbed of drug trafficking] as Anabel describes it. He had founded a local media outlet, Riodoce, and had also written several books on drug trafficking. The last book he published is about journalists who continue their work despite the risks. It’s called Narcoperiodismo, or Narcojournalism.
(SOUNDBITE LIVE BROADCAST)
[Javier Valdés]: The narco controls newsrooms, either because it makes direct threats or because it creates an atmosphere —like in Sinaloa— in which it’s not productive to write everything, where you can’t cross the line, a certain limit, because you could be killed.
[Silvia]: This is Javier, presenting his last book at the Guadalajara International Book Fair in 2016. The journalist Lydia Cacho —who is also very well known— was interviewing him.
(SOUNDBITE LIVE BROADCAST)
[Lydia Cacho]: How substantial is fear for you and your team at Riodoce. Where are you afraid? How do you talk about fear in the newsroom?
[Javier]: We’re scared sh**less [laughs] We feel it in our core. It’s as substantial as, well…it’s immeasurable, it’s as substantial as…opening and closing your eyes, as substantial as sleepless nights. It’s keeping us from going beyond, requiring us to censor ourselves, to not publish information because, well…we wouldn’t be here, you know?
[Anabel]: He was a man who was very conscious of the fact that that could happen at any moment. And he was a man who hadn’t given up. In the face of fear.
(SOUNDBITE LIVE BROADCAST)
[Lydia]: And how great is your hope in the newsroom to keep you going?
[Javier]: I want to think that it’s greater, more substantial. I believe that writing is an act of hope, of faith. Remaining in silence, not doing it, not telling these stories, doing journalism in these conditions is an act of complicity and death.
[Silvia]: When Anabel would meet with Javier, his sense of humor always caught her attention.
[Anabel]: Javier Valdés was the antithesis of the kind of journalist that covers drug trafficking because he was always in a high spirits.
[Silvia]: His jokes were sometimes disconcerting to Anabel.
[Anabel]: I would say: “But this is a serious issue!”.
[Silvia]: And he would tell her:
[Anabel]: “Calm down, Anabel, calm down. I mean, we are in this because we want to be. But we also have to learn to enjoy life in the midst of all this tragedy, right?”
[Silvia]: Javier’s murder was very hard for Anabel. She decided that she had to do something. She had to investigate. And this investigation is very personal for her.
[Anabel]: Because it has to do with a friend’s story, because it has to do with the stories of other colleagues who are threatened or have already been killed. Because it has to do with a story of impunity. Because that’s what impunity is: impunity is putting a gun to the head of every inconvenient journalist in Mexico.
For me, at the moment, reporting the death of Javier Valdés is like reporting my own death, or my potential death.
I don’t know, I try to think about what his final thoughts would have been, because the way Javier was killed was brutal. It was terrible. It was very, very cruel.
I wonder what would have gone through his head, I wonder…I wonder if he would have thought it was worth it. Because I ask myself that now every day.
[Silvia]: Anabel told me that she can already tell this investigation is going to change her life.
[Anabel]: I still don’t know how Because it’s making me reflect so much on my work, so much on…on what the people who love me are telling me, you know? That I should be done. That I should stop. That I should save my life.
[Silvia]: On the hand, she sees her fellow journalists who continue doing this work and even though she doesn’t judge those who decided leave it behind to live in peace, she thinks: “No, I can’t retire.” At least not for now.
[Anabel]: I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think that in the end I am going to be at a crossroads where I can continue my work to honor Javier’s name, so his death wouldn’t be in vain, or go home and take a break and enjoy the life that Javier thought I should enjoy. Also, so he won’t have died in vain. I don’t know.
[Silvia]: For the time being, Anabel continues.
[Daniel]: Silvia Viñas is an editor and producer with Radio Ambulante. This story was edited by Camila Segura. Dulce Ramos did the fact-checking. Mixing and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri.
Thanks to Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and Radio Diaries for sharing the archival audio about the massacre at Tlatelolco in 1968. On our web page you can find a link to their episode.
Anabel Herández’ most recent book is La verdadera noche de Iguala: La historia que el gobierno trató de ocultar., [The Real Night of Iguala: the story the government tried to hide]. It was published in 2016.
On December 19th, in Veracruz, Gumaro Pérez was killed at his son’s school at a Christmas party. With his death, the number of journalists killed in Mexico in 2017 rose to 12.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Jorge Caraballo, Patrick Mosley, Laura Pérez, Ana Prieto, Barbara Sawhill, Ryan Sweikert, Luis Trelles, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, y Luis Fernando Vargas. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO
With this story we are saying goodbye to our friend and colleague Andrea Betanzos. For the past year she has worked as our program coordinator. Thanks for all of you hard work and good luck with everything that’s coming next.
Radio Ambulante in produced and mixed on the program Hindenburg PRO.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.