Cartel Watch

A Heroine In Mexico’s War on Journalists

It’s not just the drug barons who intimidate and murder reporters. More often it’s Mexican officials. But one woman stood up to them.

Violence against journalists is a form of public relations in Mexico.

Every other day in Mexico, a journalist is threatened with violence; every three days, a journalist is assaulted. Contrary to popular belief, only 2 percent of the attacks are initiated by organized crime. Nearly half the time, a public official is responsible, according to a 2015 report by the London-based human rights organization Article 19. None of these officials is ever punished—indeed, 90 percent of the time no one is punished at all. As in any abusive relationship, the violence is more extensive than what’s compiled in police reports, and every assault that goes unpunished contributes to a general fear.

Threats against journalists have been standard in Mexico for as far back as anyone cares to recall, and the rate of violence is increasing every year. Mexico is the eighth most dangerous country in the world for journalists, one notch behind Afghanistan and one ahead of Pakistan, according to the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Ninety-one journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, and 23 have been abducted and disappeared without a trace.

Karla Silva feels that sort of data in her bones, in her recurrent headaches, in her blurred vision. Silva is a reporter for El Heraldo de León, the paper of record in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. On Sept. 4, 2014, Silva, then 25 years old, was brutally assaulted by three men at the newspaper’s tiny storefront office in the town of Silao. Silva suspected that the mayor of Silao, Benjamín Solís, was behind the attack.

State prosecutors didn’t want to believe it. They peppered her with questions about her personal life: Do you have a husband, Karla? Did a jealous boyfriend do this to you? But she held her ground: “I told them the only man in Silao who might want to hurt me is the mayor,” she said.

It turned out to be a prescient statement. Eighteen months later, on March 11, in what may be a first in Mexico, state marshals arrested the ex-mayor of Silao, Benjamín Solís, of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and booked him as the mastermind of the assault on Silva. He is currently in the state penitentiary, in preventative custody, awaiting trial.

Within days of the mayor’s arrest, state authorities picked up his former chief of public safety, Nicasio Aguirre, who had been in hiding since the attack. Where the mayor had chosen to remain silent at his hearing, Aguirre sang like a bird. “The mayor was pressuring me for more than two months to give a scare to the reporter Karla Silva, because she was slinging mud at him in her articles,” he said in open court. “I went crazy, I didn’t want to do it.”

This tawdry spectacle played out before Silva’s eyes in a series of four hearings, one of which went on for 14 hours. She sat through them at the plaintiff’s table, forced to relive the events of Sept. 14, 2015:

It was 5:30 p.m., near deadline, and she remembered she was typing with both hands, holding the phone receiver in the crook of her neck, and conversing with her editor at the home office in León. The paper requires a minimum of five stories a day from her, and she writes mostly about city hall. Silao, like Guanajuato, is stronghold of the National Action Party, or PAN, but Mayor Solís is from the PRI. The animosity between the mayor and the city council was palpable, and Silva was reporting it in detail, which hardly escaped the mayor’s notice.

Aguirre says he observed his boss one day with that morning’s edition of El Heraldo spread open on his desk, pointing angrily to an article by Silva, “Look at this, just look at it.” By then, Solís was addressing Silva as niñita, or little girl, at press events in front of her mostly male colleagues.

In August, young street toughs on motorbikes appeared intermittently outside her office, outside her parents’ home in Silao, behind her in traffic as she made her daily rounds on a motor scooter. Strange men also came calling for her at the paper’s office after hours, when the door was locked and Silva was inside alone.

The pace of her workday gave her no time to take any of this to heart—not until that day at her desk, consumed in work, when a man’s voice startled her by shouting her name. The instant she glanced away from the computer screen his fist struck her flush in the face.

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Silva is 5-foot-2 and weighs less than 100 pounds. The punch knocked her backwards out of her chair and up against the wall. In spite of the shock—or perhaps because of it—she demanded to know why he punched her. He answered in a torrent of threats, obscenities, more punches and kicks and screamed at her to ease up in her articles or he would kill her. The second punch knocked her down and opened a deep gash on her forehead; she crawled under her desk for protection and did her best to avoid his kicks.

Over the 18 months that followed, the man who beat her confessed and was arrested, along with the accomplice who held a knife to the throat of the office receptionist, and the lookout who was standing outside the door. Video surveillance would show they were dropped outside the office that night by a municipal patrol car driven by the assistant chief of police, Jorge Alejandro Fonseca. In their confessions, the assailants alleged they were paid 5,000 pesos (about $280) apiece by Aguirre, the director of public safety, on the orders of Mayor Solís to frighten Silva into softening the tone of her reporting on his administration.

What case could be more tailor-made for Mexico’s new Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against the Freedom of Expression (FEADLE)? Under international pressure, the Mexican Congress passed a constitutional amendment in 2012 making it a federal crime—similar to a hate crime in the United States—to threaten or assault a journalist in an attempt to censor their work. Bur the special prosecutor’s office informed Silva within six months of the attack that it found no evidence of government complicity.

“They say they have no evidence, no leads to pursue,” Silva said. “They opened a file but found there is nothing to investigate.”

By making it a federal crime to assault a journalist, the idea was to empower federal prosecutors to override the obstructions of corrupt justice officials at the state level. The irony here is that the state prosecutors pursued the case for another year after the federal prosecutors let it drop. For all the lofty aspirations of “institution building” that attended the creation of the special prosecutor’s office, it was the partisan divide in Guanajuato that finally brought Mayor Solís before a judge.

“It’s a precedent,” Silva says. “At the national and international level it’s an achievement.”

She does, however, acknowledge that the mayor would be facing a more severe penalty under the federal statute. The journalist guild in Guanajuato, she says, plans to lobby the state legislature to create a special prosecutor’s office at the state level to remedy the abysmal performance of the FEADLE. “They don’t want to work,” Silva says of the special prosecutor’s office.

Carlos Lauria, the senior Americas program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, which pressed for the creation of the special prosecutor’s office in 2012, called its inaction on the Silva case “deplorable.” In only one of 10 cases does a FEADLE investigation end up before a judge, according to a 2015 report by Freedom House.

President Enrique Peña Nieto was in Guanajuato in April for a ribbon-cutting, to inaugurate a highway expansion. It so happened that elsewhere in the state on the same day, at a court hearing for the Silva case, the prosecution disclosed damning confessions by the assailants implicating Maryor Solís as the man who ordered the attack. But Solís was not in court that day. He was in Guanajuato in the public procession beside the Mexican president, who also comes from the PRI, and the president singled out the mayor for thanks by name, and gave credit to his leadership.

Silva seems determined to take the high road; she won’t be drawn into a discussion of politics. Over the 18 months of her ordeal she speaks more and more like the leader of cause rather than the victim of a crime. “Not only in Guanajuato but in Mexico as a whole—it’s a country where freedom of expression is at risk, where there are murders, and especially by the state or the government,” she says.

The arrest of the mayor of Silao “marks an important advance for us,” she says. “This is not about attacking a journalist so much as trying to prevent information from being gathered and shared. That is the importance of this case, and that is the point of journalism in this country.”