Friday, March 08, 2024

By Duncan Tucker and Jan-Albert Hootsen*

For Alberto Amaro Jordán, a 35-year-old journalist from the town of Atexcatzingo in the state of Tlaxcala, just east of Mexico City, his profession is not just a passion but his family heritage.

Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who were both journalists, Amaro founded the digital outlet La Prensa de Tlaxcala in 2018. But within a year he began to receive threats linked to his investigations into local politics, crime and corruption.

Mexico’s smallest state, Tlaxcala is a major hub for human trafficking and sexual slavery. The area is home to powerful, family-run criminal networks that traffic girls and young women across Mexico and the United States, among other illicit activities.

Amaro recounted that, since 2019, he has been attackedthreatened and arrested by police officers and intimidated by members of organized crime groups. People have photographed him, his wife and children, hacked his website and smeared his reputation in Facebook posts accusing him of being a criminal. While out driving, aggressors have tried to block his passage and force him off the road, and a gunman aboard a motorbike has taken shots at him. Intruders have tried to break into his home, fired shots at his property, and fatally poisoned one of his pet dogs.

You call the Mechanism on the phone and sometimes it’s like they’re ignoring you. They think you’re lying to them.

Alberto Amaro

In an interview at his home, Amaro told Amnesty International and CPJ it took “months” for Mexico’s federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists to respond to his first requests for help. Even after he enrolled in the Mechanism in 2019 he said it still took them “approximately six months” to provide him with a panic button and they only assigned him bodyguards in 2021.

Amaro’s problems did not end there. One of the cars that the Mechanism provided for him and his bodyguards to use had faulty brakes, he said, while the private security company tasked with monitoring his panic button often failed to respond to requests for help.

Amaro reinforced the perimeter of his property and installed an alarm and 25 security cameras out of his own pocket. A giant split-screen monitor in his living room shows live feeds from each of the cameras.

Yet, even as the attacks continued, he still felt a lack of urgency on the part of the officials tasked with protecting him. 

“You call the Mechanism on the phone and sometimes it’s like they’re ignoring you. They think you’re lying to them.”

Mexican journalist Alberto Amaro working at his desk
© Duncan Tucker/Amnesty International
Alberto Amaro founded the digital outlet La Prensa de Tlaxcala in 2018

Late last year three men claiming to be members of a drug cartel approached Amaro. He said they offered him money to withhold stories about police officers who worked for them and to publish stories smearing those who refused their advances, but he declined their offer. One of the men was arrested in May, but Amaro fears the others could retaliate at any time. He reported the incident to Mechanism staff but said: “they took it lightly…. I felt that my e-mails, calls and messages bothered them. I detected a lack of humanity, a lack of humility.”

In late July 2023, the Mechanism reassessed Amaro’s security situation and concluded that he was no longer at risk. Upon reviewing the evaluation, Amaro found it continued numerous errors and no mention of the recent poisoning of his dog. Moreover, the evaluation stated that he was no longer in danger because one of the three men who attempted to bribe him had since been arrested.

“I emphasized that the risk assessment contained many mistakes,” he said. “They ignored me and decided to withdraw my bodyguards.”

At risk of being left with just a panic button and police visits as his only protective measures, Amaro hired a lawyer to file an injunction. A judge ruled in his favor in August, blocking the removal of his four bodyguards, but it remains unclear if he will be able to retain them in the long term.

There are times when you think: should I leave journalism, my passion, the thing I love?

Alberto Amaro

Amaro teared up as he described how his children have been affected by the attacks against him.

When he was just eight years old, Amaro’s son had to dash inside and hide beneath a table when a gunman opened fire in front of their house in August 2019. Now 12 years old, he still cannot sleep if their bodyguards are not on duty. Amaro’s nine-year-old daughter also has trouble sleeping in recent months, often waking up screaming “don’t let them kill you daddy!”

Amaro also recalled that when he took out a life insurance policy to protect his family in case anything happened to him, his daughter said: “Mom, my dad’s worth more dead than alive”.

The kids have had to give up soccer practice and karate lessons and can only attend school on days when Amaro is able to pick them up with his bodyguards. The Mechanism has not provided the family with psychological support, leaving Amaro to pay for weekly sessions with a child psychologist.

“Sometimes I feel guilty that they need psychological counseling… out of fear of their father dying,” Amaro said. “They’ve been very seriously affected. It really hurts me, because they’re children who are beginning to learn to live, and to see that we live in a world where violence has taken away the things they enjoy. That their dogs have been killed. That they can’t go to the movies. That we can’t go to the circus. That we can’t go for a walk in the park because we don’t feel safe.”

Amaro believes the Mechanism should hire journalists or human rights defenders to carry out evaluations – people who can empathize with those at risk and understand the dangers they face in the field.

As a result of the constant attacks and the Mechanism’s failure to guarantee his safety, Amaro has reduced his coverage of organized crime and political corruption, and even contemplated abandoning the family profession. He also said that if he had the means, he would temporarily leave Tlaxcala.

“I’ve self-censored because I don’t feel safe,” he said. “There are times when you think: should I leave journalism, my passion, the thing I love?”

*Duncan Tucker is the Americas media manager at Amnesty International. Jan-Albert Hootsen is the Mexico representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists

Tags: Mexico, Human Rights, Freedom of expression.