Mexico has a special prosecutor for crimes against journalists and a federal protection unit for journalists under threat known as “the mechanism.” But the criticism across the board from journalists and international observers is that neither is working. The confidence level in both is near zero among the journalists they are supposed to defend. The special prosecutor’s office has only secured two convictions out of 779 cases of attacks since 2010. Only 20 percent of journalists attacked in 2015 sought help from the mechanism.


In the fall of 2015, the mechanism added a prevention unit to try to boost its effectiveness, a way to monitor violence and step in before there is an attack. The prevention unit issues alerts for high-risk areas for reporters, and state and local authorities are supposed to draft a plan to protect them. Even with the new prevention unit, 2016 was one of Mexico’s deadliest years for journalists, with nine killed.


Here are excerpts from an interview last fall with Patricia Colchero, head of Mexico’s federal human rights defense agency and the person who started the prevention unit.



Q: When did you start with the prevention unit?

A:  We started in October of 2015 … the idea of the prevention unit is to make structural changes in a way that hopefully reduce the number of cases that require protection. … We monitor media and social media so we know where the risks and the attacks on journalists are … we are building a database so we can measure risk and know when we need to issue an alert. … Right now the alerts are in Veracruz and Chihuahua (states.) In Veracruz, the alert started under a lot of tension because there were two demonstrations in November and December (2015) where there were attacks against journalists.  There were reports that (police) were using electric shocks on them.


Q: What did you do?

A: We said we’re filing a formal complaint …of course Veracruz authorities said they were not using electric shocks, so we said whether you did or did not, we want an official statement saying any police officer caught using electric shocks at a protest will be sanctioned. It took a long time for them to issue that statement.


Q: How long?

A: Three months. But we got it. And if you notice, there have not been any problems with protests since then.


Q: But the killings continue. There have been three in Veracruz this year (2016).

A: Of course, and disappearances. Effectively we haven’t been able to change that. I’m telling you what we can do and what we can’t do.


Q: So what else do you consider as successes?

A: We can coodinate with authorities … I can resolve things quickly with authorities. I had a reporter saying the authorities were following him and taking pictures. “Help me, I feel threatened.”  … So I talked to the authorities and now the reporter feels at ease. The connection with authorities helps us resolve things quicker.


Q: But like you say, the attacks and killings continue.

A: Of course, we haven’t been able to, the alert doesn’t work for that.


Q: Why not?

A: The alert lacks a lot of force.


Q: There doesn’t seem to be political will on the part of the authorities to change that.

A: We would say there aren’t the conditions.


Q: According to the statistics, 81 percent of the attacks in Veracruz are on the part of police, authorities, army, navy ... how do you handle a situation like that? The people who are in charge of protecting journalists are the ones attacking them. How do you fix that?

A: Well, it’s very complicated. That’s why I say we have to work with the institutions that can help us and the people, the journalists. Like the issue of investigations, instead of saying it doesn’t work, we say as the mechanism we will work with you and review the investigations.


Q: But I’ve reviewed many cases and there are no investigations … they never investigate a reporter’s work as a possible motive for the attack … your charter said public safety has to come up with the protection plan, but they are the criminals. Everyone knows that. So how can you put criminals in charge of making the protection plan?

A: Well, what can I tell you? They’re in charge of investigating and we know the investigations are very deficient, but it’s something we have to do… we as the mechanism can help people who are filing complaints, to get access to the prosecutors and help with revision of their cases.


Q: Yes,  but how do you change the police and their links to organized crime?

A: (laughs) Well, that’s not my responsibility as an organization ...Tell me how an alert can fix that?


Q: Then what can you do?

A: Look, we can provide protection, and we do provide protection. We can monitor the marches, for example, so reporters aren’t attacked … we can organize, we can talk to journalists so they work together on issues, that’s what we can accomplish. And we will go as far as we can because I think it’s better to do something than nothing … the alert is in no condition to stop people from disappearing or getting killed … Is it sad to say that? Yes. Can I do anything about it? No I can’t. I can’t do anything else.


Q: So what’s the use of a prevention unit?

A: Mexico is a federation and as a federal entity, we don’t have jurisdiction over state authorities. We can’t order them to do anything. If it were another system of government we could say this person is corrupt  or whatever and they go, but we don’t have that power. Effectively, we have a big problem there. … Instead we’re working on job security. A lot of reporters have no contracts, no social security, so we’re starting to work on that.


Q: Another problem in Veracruz is that there is no trust among the journalists. Some are being paid off, some are spies. How do you deal with that?

A: For that reason I think we have not been able to establish the same networks we have in other places  … but what can we do about that? Nothing … the truth is that it’s very complicated.


Q: The special prosecutor for crimes against journalists hasn’t done anything either. There’s not been a single conviction (under the current prosecutor.)

A: Yes, we have a big problem in the area of justice.


Q: And who has to change that? Where does the incentive come from to make it a priority? The president?

A: What has to change? The priorities of the state, I think.


Q: But from where, what authority? What person?

A: From all authorities and all the states. It’s a federal and a state issue. The federal government has a certain reach but it can’t do everything. The states have total reach.


Q: Why do you think the situation is so bad?

A: I don’t know. I really don’t know.


Q: With so much attention on the problem, with the mechanism, with new laws, the attacks just keep increasing.

A: Yes, well, yes. … We’re trying to do everthing we can, but from the standpoint of the mechanism, we have very little influence …what we can do we’re trying to do. But I think what needs to happen is an alliance with civil society, no? I think this part is extremely important, and that every authority makes the issue of security a priority.

Patricia Colchero is director of the federal Agency for the Defense of Human Rights, which oversees the Mechanism to Protect Defenders of Human Rights and Journalists



Q&A with Patricia Colchero

Patricia Colchero is director of the federal Agency for the Defense of Human Rights, which oversees the Mechanism to Protect Defenders of Human Rights and Journalists