Complacent. Ineffective. Bungling. Inept.
The adjectives pile up as top editors, writers and free press advocates level their aim at the division of the Attorney General’s Office in Mexico responsible for prosecuting crimes against journalists.
Reporters and photographers keep getting killed. By one count, 84 have been slain since the year 2000. More than a dozen others have disappeared. Threats against journalists are so frequent that large swaths of the country simply are without media coverage of crime and corruption. Yet top federal investigators can barely make a single prosecution stick.
“The message from authorities is clear. In Mexico . . . it is all right to kill or to attack journalists. It is all right because you can, and there are no consequences,” said Ignacio Rodriguez Reyna, editor of the weekly magazine emeequis – whose name is the way Mexicans pronounce the letters “mx.”
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Such verbal darts are usually aimed broadly at the federal government, but when personalized, the target is often a 35-year-old lawyer, Laura Borbolla Moreno. Her title is special prosecutor for crimes committed against freedom of expression.
Borbolla has been in her job for 15 months. Three previous prosecutors have held iterations of the post since 2006.
Borbolla acknowledges that it has been “extremely frustrating” that public opinion fails to grasp that Mexican law endows her office with only “the most feeble” tools to prosecute those who attack the Fourth Estate.
“Even without sufficient tools to investigate, we’ve been able to carry out many investigations and clarify some crimes,” Borbolla said.
Lawmakers created the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Journalists in 2006 but failed to resolve jurisdictional problems that left the federal office often unable to assume control of homicide cases from state prosecutors and courts, where murder cases are normally investigated and tried.
Since watchdog groups say that authorities – usually at the municipal or state level – are responsible for a significant number of the attacks on journalists, it is little wonder that state courts and prosecutors haven’t been eager to cooperate with investigators at the federal level.
“They don’t want to share information,” Borbolla said, “and when they do, it comes doctored or manipulated or edited.” She cited a case from the state of Chihuahua involving the murder of Armando Rodriguez, a crime beat reporter in Ciudad Juarez who was gunned down Nov. 13, 2008. Federal investigators wanted a certified copy of a key witness’s testimony. It took state officials nine months to produce it.
Under mounting criticism both at home and abroad, Mexico’s Congress passed a constitutional amendment last year that empowers federal authorities to take over prosecution of crimes involving journalists. A majority of state legislatures approved the measure, and it went into effect in June 2012.
But without a secondary enabling law, the “federalization” of cases involving crimes against journalists does little good. Borbolla said courts were returning 80 percent of her division’s cases to the state level, taking them out of her hands.
A legal remedy has just arrived. On April 11, senators approved a proposed enabling law that allows federal prosecutors to take over a case at their own discretion, particularly if there is suspicion that a government official is involved in the crime or that state prosecutors are not acting with due speed. The lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, also approved the enabling law, and it went into effect May 3, World Press Freedom Day. Now, federal prosecutors can sweep aside any state prosecutor who they deem inept or corrupt, and the law orders federal judges to rule on the cases.
Some critics say Borbolla’s appointment is symptomatic of the disinterest in prosecuting crimes against journalists. Rather than picking a heavyweight within the Attorney Generals’ Office to head the division – now called the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression – her superiors picked a younger lawyer with no prosecutorial experience. Borbolla previously had spent seven years handling extradition requests.
“She’s a good person. Her collaborative attitude is aimed at advancing investigations,” said Balbina Flores, the representative in Mexico of Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based advocacy group. “But she doesn’t have the expertise of an investigating prosecutor.”
Flores said none of the four federal prosecutors who’ve occupied the post since it was created has achieved significant results: “Not a single (murder) case has been cleared up. This is what is most serious.”
Prosecutors are even more likely to allow cases of journalists who vanish, presumably at the hands of gangsters, to gather dust.
“To give you an example, the best documented case of a missing journalist is Jose Alfredo Jimenez of El Imparcial, who went missing in April 2005,” Flores said, referring to a newspaper in Hermosillo in Sonora state. “There are no results, and the case is eight years old.”
The impunity surrounding attacks on the media has many facets, including public attitudes that little can be done to protect a free flow of information.
“We have the defect in Mexico of assuming that journalism is a high-risk activity in which threats or abuse are intrinsic,” Borbolla told a hemispheric forum of the Inter-American Press Association in Puebla in March.
Mexican lawmakers have agreed to spend money on the problem – they financed programs to protect freedom of expression to the tune of nearly $100 million through the National Human Rights Commission, a government-funded body. But there’s little practical effect from such an astronomical sum, and television journalist Karla Iberia Sanchez recently denounced it at a recent news conference as waste.
For its part, Mexico City’s local legislature allotted more than $1 million to set up a “safe house” and fund a program for reporters fleeing threats elsewhere in the nation. To the ire of some journalists, the ramshackle property is on a historic register, and the facility has yet to be renovated even as managers eat up remaining money with high salaries and other expenses.
Borbolla and her team of nearly 20 investigators are based out of an office in Mexico’s City’s historic downtown. They have about 300 open investigations, 26 of them involving murders of journalists.
The probes of two of the murder cases have concluded, arrest warrants issued, and case files turned over to judges, she said. Those cases involve three deaths – those of two reporters for a community radio station in southern Mexico’s Oaxaca state in 2008 and the third of a journalist killed in Coahuila state in 2010.
Yet in Mexico’s multilayered public security apparatus, turning over a case to a judge is no guarantee that suspects will face justice.
Borbolla says her office has issued more than 30 arrest warrants for suspects in different cases, all of which linger.
Other changes come in small steps. Up until mid-2012, her division was not empowered to solicit wiretaps, having to ask other divisions in the Attorney General’s Office to do so. That has changed, she said.
“We’ve now got several investigations going with tapped phone lines,” she added.
Such changes are leading to an increased pace of prosecution, she said.
“Investigations now are significantly more solid,” Borbolla said. “This is not all that we would wish, but you can’t say we’ve done nothing or gotten no results because this is not true.”
Danger to journalists in Mexico