Anabel Hernández: Breaking the silence

Siobhan McGuirk spoke to Anabel Hernández, the investigative journalist whose book Narcoland brought international attention to Mexican politicians’ collusion with drug cartels – and led to a wave of threats against her

August 10, 2014 · 9 min read

a-hernSiobhán McGuirk You are extremely dedicated to your work. What drives you?

Anabel Hernández My father, Emiliano Hernández, used to fight against corruption, impunity and injustice. He was not a journalist, or an activist. He was just an engineer. He came from a very poor town. Once he had some money he went back to his town and fought for water, electricity and the rights of the people. I grew up watching that.

When I told my father I wanted to be a journalist, he almost killed me! He said: ‘You’re crazy, all the journalists here in Mexico are corrupt; the whole media is corrupt.’ I told him: ‘I watched you fight against things and I think that my way of fighting against the same things is as a journalist.’ But he didn’t want to understand. He wouldn’t pay for my university – my mother did. He was abducted and murdered in December 2000. Before then, he told me that he was proud of me and my work. I fought to be a journalist. I am still fighting for that now.

SM You have received countless threats because of your work. Your house was ransacked in December. Have the authorities managed to find the people responsible?

AH The attorney general is leading the investigation. I am pushing them to find these people and put them in jail. I am tired of being under threat. I am tired that innocent people have to pay because these corrupt guys want to silence me. Before the break‑in, my neighbours were also intimidated by the people looking for my house. It is not fair.

SM Does having bodyguards, or an international profile, offer any protection?

AH These people showed me it doesn’t matter how many bodyguards I have, if I have security cameras, if I have an alarm in my house. They can do whatever they want with me. They got inside my bedroom. They searched through my documents, my desk. They went through my clothes, my lingerie. It was very aggressive, very invasive. I asked myself: ‘What’s next?’

A few days ago, my colleague Gregorio Jiménez, from Veracruz, was murdered. Every time that happens, I think: ‘I don’t want to be next.’ I’m fighting not to be the next. But I am also fighting so that no one has to be ‘the next’. This has to stop.

SM The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently published a report on reporters’ deaths worldwide. It claimed that no journalists were murdered in Mexico in 2013, and implied the situation for journalists could be improving there. You don’t agree?

AH Of course it’s not true! The Mexican government is playing a dangerous game. They are trying to twist the truth and obscure reality, in newspapers and presidential speeches. The everyday reality is very different. The government is showing a kind face to the rest of the world but inside Mexico, we see a very ugly face. They don’t care that journalists are murdered. They don’t care that innocent people face extortion. Right now, we have a human crisis. It’s not just about journalists, or freedom of expression, but in many areas of Mexican society. When Mexico explodes, what will the government say?

SM What do you mean by ‘explode’?

AH Under the government of Filipe Calderón [2006-2012] more than 80,000 people were murdered between the cartels. I think we will see even more now, an explosion in the number of people killed.

This country is not under the control of the government. Right now, it is under control of the drug cartels, which are divided and competing. We have an explosion waiting to happen, just south of the most important country in the world. The traffic in weapons is huge. Mexican cartels have guns capable of bringing down an aeroplane. The situation could get much, much worse.

SM There has been less international attention on Mexico, and the ‘war on drugs’, since Enrique Peña Nieto was elected in 2012. Has the new government altered cartel activity, or levels of corruption, at all?

AH The only change is that it is worse. Now, for example, the government is legalising paramilitary groups. In Michoacán and Guerrero we have militias pretending to belong to the local community but which actually are linked to cartels, fighting other cartels. 

We have groups of people with guns, not trained or connected to the police. They pretend to be good people who want to take care of communities, but they are really bad people. Our government has legalised these groups. It’s terrible. Recently, members of the government appeared on the front pages of the newspapers sitting beside members of the cartel. No one said anything. The situation has become worse.

SM You make it clear in your work that this situation is not only about drugs, but political corruption, trafficking, slave labour, many intertwined issues. Does the focus on the ‘war on drugs’ detract from the other issues?

AH I don’t think the world really understands what is happening in Mexico. Commentators just record the numbers of dead. No one really wants to understand what is happening behind that. Corruption is the mother of the cartels, the militias, the abuse of power, the impunity. If that doesn’t change in Mexico, nothing will.

The current situation is the result of the government, over many decades, making arrangements with the cartels. Of course, now the cartels do not want to make arrangements with the government. They give orders to the government. 

The world is not watching that. But neither is the world watching its own corruption. Yes, Mexican drug cartels move thousands and thousands of pounds of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and more across the world. But this cocaine is in New York, Paris, London, Oceania, Africa. It’s everywhere, because corruption is everywhere. In every country you find drugs, there are corrupt people to let them get inside.

The international community is just thinking: how many guns can we buy for the Mexican government to increase that war? No one is thinking: why don’t we freeze the bank accounts of these cartels? Why doesn’t anyone want to freeze that money, take that money away?

SM What about the Mexican media?

AH All of this is happening in the midst of an economic crisis. The money the media companies make is not from people buying the paper on a street corner, or subscriptions. The money comes from advertising, in particular local and federal government advertising. Media companies prefer to be nice and polite to the government and not to their audience. The corporate media wants to be in the payroll of the government and it doesn’t matter if they lie to society.

Honest journalists who want to publish the truth face many obstacles. When they succeed, if they are murdered the media says: ‘Well, Gregorio died. We are sorry. End of story.’ The media companies don’t prepare their journalists to work safely and ethically. Neither the government nor the media wants to have a well-trained force of journalists.

SM Can citizen journalists, or grassroots collectives, fill the gap?

AH Independent journalists have created their own blogs, and citizens use sites to publish information. I think that’s good, but they need more training to do their jobs well, with a better code of ethics and more investigative methods. Many blogs publish ‘street information’ – things that people believe and talk about, but which is not true. Investigative journalism is another kind of work. You need proof to support what you say.

Also, many do not use protocols to protect themselves, so they are vulnerable. It’s sad because even people publishing information under a false name on blogs have been decapitated. They have good intentions, but they need better training to keep safe and give quality information to the people.

SM Are there possibilities for this kind of training?

AH As journalists we have to do things ourselves. Last December, Free Press Unlimited, based in Amsterdam, supported me to run a bootcamp in Mexico City, for 125 journalists from all over the country. We provided training in ethics, investigative journalism and safety: how to encrypt emails, that kind of thing.

There are many parts of Mexico in silence, where the media doesn’t publish anything about the drug cartels, or even acknowledge they exist. The purpose of the bootcamp was to break the silence. The people deserve to be informed. The experience was amazing. I heard the voices of all these partners in Mexico. We have many things to do here, but people really want to fight for access to information.

SM What does the future hold for you?

AH I fear being tortured and murdered. Leaving my child without a mother. Not being able to be a journalist any more, not having the opportunity to inform the people and not being able to fight for the causes I believe in. I hope I can survive. I am preparing one project to break the silence in Mexico. I just need to stay alive to do it.

My country needs a very big change. That change will only happen if the people have accurate information – that makes this struggle worthwhile. What moves me is much stronger that what moves the people who want to silence me. Sometimes I am tired, maybe I need a rest, but I will never stop.

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