When national newspaper journalist Maite Azuela opened an anonymous letter she received in her Mexico City home a couple of weeks ago she felt a swell of fear unlike anything she'd felt before.
In her hands she held a picture of herself mocked up to look like a skull and a pledge to kill her. Alongside her name lay the words bitch, slut, piece of shit, and more.
"The sense of vulnerability you feel at a moment like that is overwhelming," said Azuela, who writes on corruption and human rights issues for the national daily El Universal. "You start to constantly looking over your shoulder, wondering who might be following you."
Her fears were fueled by the knowledge that at least three journalists have been killed in Mexico this year, according to Reporters without Borders. Others say it could be significantly more.
"We are possibly looking at seven or eight cases this year alone," said Dario Ramírez, director of the Mexican branch of Article 19, a London-based organization dedicated to monitoring crimes against the press. "For Article 19, our main concern is whether the attacks were motivated by the journalists' work. In many cases in Mexico, this is unclear."
The death toll is particularly worrying given the national and international attention placed on such attacks in recent years along with repeated vows by the government to act on the issue.
Photo via Maite Azuela
"There is no doubt that prosecutors are committed to redoubling their efforts and giving proper attention to the investigation and arrest of those responsible for the threats, attacks and murders of journalists and those involved in defending human rights," President Enrique Peña Nieto said in August.
The highest profile killing in 2015 was of Rubén Espinosa, a photojournalist from the state of Veracruz who was brutally murdered at an apartment in a middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City on July 31 along with four women. One of the women was an activist called Nadia Vera who also came from Veracruz.
Of the possible eight murdered journalists this year, five came from the southeastern state where at least 16 media workers have been killed since 2010.
"The state prosecutor in Veracruz claims to have resolved all these cases," said Dario Ramírez. "Whether they have been resolved satisfactorily is another matter."
'Sadly, organized crime has links, ties, to public notaries, businessmen, public officials and also some of those who work in the media. Behave yourselves, please!'
Both Espinosa and Vera had previously claimed to have received death threats that they blamed on the administration of Veracruz governor Javier Duarte. Their deaths came a month after Duarte had told journalists it was their fault if anything happened to them.
"I say it for the good of your families, but also mine, because if something happens to you they crucify me for it," he told the assembled press pack at a formal dinner. "Sadly, organized crime has links, ties, to public notaries, businessmen, public officials and also some of those who work in the media. Behave yourselves, please!"
Mexico City authorities have insisted that politics had nothing to do with the murder of Espinosa and the four women for which they have arrested three people. They say the killings were motivated by the perpetrators' personal relationship with one of the victims and that the rest — including the journalist — just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The ambiguity over whether a journalist was or was not killed because of their job is just one of the factors that helps explain why the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists says 40 have been killed since 2000, Article 19 reports 88 deaths, and Mexico's Human Rights Commission has documented 107.
The different figures also stem from how "journalist" is defined, as well as the fact that journalism in Mexico is often so badly paid that many professionals have second jobs.
Moisés Sánchez and Juan Mendoza — both from the small municipality of Medellín de Bravo in Veracruz — were fifty-something family men who worked for small local outlets and moonlighted as taxi drivers to make ends meet.
Sánchez was kidnapped from his home in January and later found dead in a nearby town. Mendoza was allegedly killed in a hit-and-run.
The Mexican government's special prosecutor for crimes against freedom of expression, known as the FEADLE, declined to include Sánchez on its list of journalists killed because the institution said he only worked for the media "sporadically."
Aside from the dominance of Veracruz, the deaths of journalists in Mexico during 2015 have been typically diverse.
Abel Manuel Bautista, 46, played music and made public service announcements on his radio show in a small town in the state of Oaxaca. He was gunned down as he left his office in April.
Two further radio hosts, Armando Saldaña of Veracruz and Filadelfo Sánchez of Oaxaca, both covered local politics. They were shot dead in May and July respectively.
Former television reporter Juan Heriberto Santos was killed in a bar in Orizaba, Veracruz, along with five other men who reportedly included a local leader of the Zetas cartel.
Gerardo Nieto Álvarez, who worked for a local paper in the generally peaceful northern state of Guanajuato, was found dead in his apartment in June with knife wounds to his neck.
'If you look at those journalists who have been killed, they were working on a variety of issues...The one connection is that authorities didn't lift a finger.'
According to a friend of slain photojournalist Rubén Espinosa, the authorities have been able to get away with weak investigations into the deaths in part because journalists do not generally have a good reputation.
"It's not a job that's highly regarded anymore," he told VICE News, preferring not to see his name published. "In the eyes of the public, you're either a vendido or a chismoso."
A Vendido is somebody who has been bought — either by the government or the cartels. A Chismoso is somebody who spreads rumors.
"If you look at those journalists who have been killed, they were working on a variety of issues," he continued. "If I'm honest, I'd say the reasons they were targeted probably vary. The one connection is that authorities didn't lift a finger."
Whatever the specific motives for each case, the Mexican media is one of the areas where the country's potent mix of corruption and organized crime is most apparent.
Over the years, threats made by criminal organizations have led media outlets in many parts of Mexico to think twice before reporting on drug war related violence. This has been most notable in the northern border state of Tamaulipas where journalists say cartel press atachés direct what can and cannot be published, down to the wording of reports. In many other parts of the country media have been targeted in gun attacks and even by grenades.
The dangers are further complicated by the common practice — particularly pronounced in regional media — of governments making deals with media outlets or particular journalists in exchange for favorable coverage. In places where politicians may have links to organized crime this can be a dangerous business.
"There are corrupt journalists and editors just as there are corrupt businessmen or politicians," Javier Valdez Cárdenas, an award-winning reporter for Río Doce, a newspaper in Sinaloa, one of Mexico's most notorious drug trafficking states. "In Sinaloa, the threats may come from anywhere, not only drug cartels."
Benjamin T. Smith, a historian at the University of Warwick who is currently working on a book about the history of the Mexican press, said that while there has always been violent censorship of the media in Mexico, the phenomenon is likely growing.
"Journalists have been murdered in Mexico going back decades," Smith said. "Back then, however, it was only one or two per year. That could be down to the fact that there are simply more outlets operating today, or it could be a sign that censorship of the press is getting worse."
But amid the carnage and the self-censorship, Mexican journalism could be said to be in a healthier state than ever. There are more independent outlets, and Mexican investigative reporters such as Javier Váldez, Lydia Cacho, Anabel Hernández, and the team around broadcaster Carmen Aristegui, keep gaining international acclaim for their work exposing corruption. And often they do this despite receiving threats. An Article 19 report from November documented 303 separate incidents of threats, intimidation and assaults against media workers.
At first Azuela said her instinct was to try and brush off the threat she received last month as an ugly joke, but security experts advised her to take it very seriously. She also got even more nervous after noticing first police and then military personnel watching her apartment and decided that her best protection was to go public — acutely aware that if a well-known columnist in a national paper with good connections cannot stay safe, then nobody can.
"There was always a sense that this only happens to local reporters in the provinces," she explained. "Now, nobody feels secure."
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