Privacy SOS

The information war in Mexico: journalists murdered, citizens monitored

Demonstrators protest the murders of photojournalist Ruben Espinosa, activist Nadia Vera, and three others. August 2, 2015. Photo credit.

by Kade Crockford and Paola Villarreal

On July 31, 2015, assassins broke into an apartment in Mexico City and executed five people: photojournalist Ruben Espinosa, 31, community organizer and human rights activist Nadia Vera, 32, student Yesenia Quiróz, 18, and two unnamed women. Their bodies showed signs of torture.

Espinosa and Vera had fled to Mexico City from the state of Veracruz, 200 miles east the capital, on the Gulf of Mexico. According to the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ), Veracruz is not only one of the most dangerous states in Mexico for journalists, but one of the most dangerous regions in the world.

At the time of their murders, Espinosa and Vera were living in Mexico City because their criticism of Veracruz' governor, Javier Duarte, was met with threats, surveillance, and harassment, forcing them into exile in their own country. During Duarte’s governorship, at least twelve journalists have been murdered in suspicious circumstances that activists and fellow reporters call political assassinations.

Espinosa arrived in Mexico City in June, and was very vocal about his experience, speaking out against the culture of corruption and violence that drove him from his home. On July 1, 2015, he told a fellow reporter why he left Veracruz for what he thought would be a safe haven in the nation’s capital.

I specialized in social movements. I have a cover shot for Proceso magazine with the governor in it. That cover did a lot of damage, in fact the government bought it up in bulk [to prevent distribution]. It is a photograph where the governor appears wearing a police hat and is walking in profile. Here in Xalapa we have always maintained that the government killed one of our colleagues. I was beaten during the removal of a teachers’ protest in 2013, in Lerdo plaza, along with other colleagues, and because of that we had to march. We forced congress to create the Commission for the Care and Protection of Journalists, which has done no good. I was at the unofficial ceremony to place the plaque in Lerdo plaza, where we honored Regina Martínez—another murdered journalist. I have given courses on safety to other photographers and it has been made clear to me that I am a problem for the state government.

Later, Espinosa says, he was at a demonstration taking photographs of police beating students when a man "who worked for the government grabbed [his] neck and [said] ‘Stop taking pictures unless you want to end up like Regina.’"

The purpose of this kind of intimidation against fearless journalists like Espinosa is clear: to stop negative reporting of government officials or anyone connected to power. Just weeks before his murder, Espinosa put it like this: "What they do not want to happen in Veracruz is investigative journalism, it is prohibited, everyone has to conform to the press release. We are talking about a place where there have been 12 colleagues killed, four disappeared, and from 2000 until today, 17 forced into exile. And every time a congressman or the governor organizes one of their “Freedom of Expression Breakfasts,” it fills up, because disgracefully, the press of Veracruz is at the service of those who feed it." Espinosa meant that literally, alleging that 98% of journalists in the state accept bribes from subjects of stories, either to kill negative reporting or print fluff.

The unraveling of press freedom and attacks on journalists in Mexico should shock and appall all of us, including those of us across the border in the United States. There’s a chilling message here for us, too.

Fueled by the war on drugs and recent Mexican political scandals—including notorious Sinaloa cartel leader El Chapo’s escape from a maximum security prison and the disappearance, last September, of 43 students in Guerrero—outright repression and threats to the press and activists all around Mexico are becoming increasingly common. These violent attacks threaten not just the journalists and their families themselves, but the entire society and even the world.

Journalists like Espinosa are a society’s first line of defense against corruption in public office and the cartels that practically run the state. If the government can successfully intimidate the vast majority of reporters into compliance, and disappear the rest, the entire society loses access to the most powerful asset the people have in a democracy: information.

In a chilling video shot just weeks before her death, fearless human rights activist Nadia Vera is asked who she would hold responsible in the event of her own killing. Speaking as if from beyond the grave, Vera clearly named the governor of Veracruz and his staff, men she says work hand in hand with the drug cartels that are ravaging her society (and our continent).

The July 31 murders of Espinosa, Vera, and the three others demonstrate that Mexico is a lawless state. The very people who have the courage to expose the truth behind Mexico's many struggles with corruption, impunity, and rampant injustice are being silenced. They refused to be bribed or intimidated, and they were thusly murdered. Pablo Escobar’s infamous narco warning, that “If you don’t want silver, you will get lead,” now appears to apply to the Mexican government’s treatment of its own citizens.

And for what? The Mexican students, journalists, and activists killed and disappeared because of their work or protest have not 'done anything wrong.' They shouldn't have had 'anything to hide.' They were not murderers or rapists. Nonetheless, they had (and people like them, still with us among the living, have) ample reason to fear their own government.

But while the Mexican government’s intimidation campaign against journalists—offering the bribe or the bullet—constricts the quality and amount of information the public can access about the powerful, those very powerful people appear hell-bent on acquiring as much information about everyone else as possible.

Mexico: Hacking Team’s most profitable client

In early July, at around the same time Ruben Espinosa fled the state of Veracruz for the capital city, international news broke: hundreds of thousands of emails from the notorious malware firm Hacking Team had been stolen and posted online. Among those emails were contracts and documents revealing that Mexico is the Italian spy company’s largest client, paying out nearly six million Euro for hacking software and services. One purchase order for the Mexican government shows it obtained Hacking Team software called “Remote Control System.”

Hacking Team brags that its Remote Control System can,

Take control of your targets and monitor them regardless of encryption and mobility. It doesn’t matter if you are after an Android phone or a Windows computer: you can monitor all the devices. Remote Control System is invisible to the user, evades antivirus and firewalls, and doesn’t affect the devices’ performance or battery life. Hack into your targets with the most advanced infection vectors available. Enter his wireless network and tackle tactical operations with ad-hoc equipment designed to operate while on the move. Keep an eye on all your targets and manage them remotely, all from a single screen. Be alerted on incoming relevant data and have meaningful events automatically highlighted. Remote Control System: the hacking suite for governmental interception. Right at your fingertips.

Among the Mexican agencies that reportedly contracted with Hacking Team is the Federal Police, which has long faced accusations of extensive narco corruption.

Ruben Espinosa and Nadia Vera weren’t doing anything wrong when they reported on government corruption, or made allegations that the Governor of Veracruz state was in league with the very drug cartels that are eating away at Mexico’s democracy like a cancer. The 43 disappeared students were not doing anything wrong when they protested that same Mexican government. But their peaceful, democratic agitation and fearless freedom of expression nonetheless put them in the target sights of very powerful people—people who presumably had access to lots of information about them, and therefore the means to control and even end their lives.

Here in the United States, hardly a week goes by without the publication of at least one story in the national press about police or federal law enforcement monitoring of political activists. We hear over and over again that the FBI and DHS spy on Black Lives Matter protests and activists across the country. Just today, Mother Jones reports on a private corporation called Zero Fox, which has compiled dossiers on Black Lives Matter activists Deray McKesson and Johnetta Elzie, calling the dissidents “THREAT ACTORS.” Zero Fox even “briefed…classified partners” at the Fort Meade army base in Maryland on Baltimore protest related “intelligence.”

To our knowledge, the US government has not assassinated Black Lives Matter activists for resisting police violence or white supremacy. But there’s precedent that should concern us, especially in light of the relentless reports of corporate and government spying on activists reminiscient of COINTELPRO. In December 1969, the FBI and the Chicago Police Department assassinated Black Panther activists Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in their beds. But there's a brutal, present-day context, too: today, police get away with killing black citizens on a routine basis. Already, nearly 700 people have died during police encounters in calendar year 2015 alone, according to the Guardian newspaper.

Things aren’t as bad here in the US as they are in Mexico, where just speaking out against the state or the narco gangs can get you killed. Journalists in the United States do not generally fear that they will be tortured or murdered simply for doing their jobs. But as journalists are beaten and arrested, and whistleblowers targeted in expensive witch-hunts, the US’ press freedom ranking is falling. We have the world's highest incarceration rate. Police kill far more civilians in the US than in similar nations. Billions of dollars are funneled annually into secretive spy systems that churn out SITUATIONAL AWARENESS bulletins warning about activists like Deray McKesson and Johnetta Elzie. The fundamental power imbalance that has so corroded Mexico’s system of government exists here, too: the government has much too much information about us, and we know far too little about it.

Courageous photojournalist Ruben Espinosa was killed because he spread information to the masses. The brave human rights activist Nadia Vera was killed because she used her words to push back against government corruption and violence. They didn’t do anything wrong, but they had a lot to hide, and a lot to fear. Their work, their lives, their heroism, and their tragic deaths must serve as reminders about why we fight for basic democratic norms like press freedom and freedom of speech.

Espinosa, Vera, and the countless others who have been murdered in Mexico because of their politics or professional integrity weren’t doing anything wrong, but they still ended up dead. To honor their memories, tell their stories to any person who says they don’t mind government spying because they’re law abiding, uninteresting people. Remind those people about what’s happening in Mexico, where you or your entire family could be cut down simply for speaking freely.

We cannot accept a nation or a world in which an imbalance in informational power produces the kind of dynamic that we see unfolding in Mexico today. Let’s never forget Ruben Espinosa and Nadia Vera’s courage. May their heroism breathe life into our struggles for basic rights, no matter where we live. As their tragic deaths remind us, when it comes to basic rights, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Paola Villarreal is a Ford-Mozilla fellow with the ACLU of Massachusetts and native of Mexico City. She tweets at @paw.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.