Tony Wood talks to Anabel Hernández

One of Mexico’s leading investigative journalists, Anabel Hernández has written hard-hitting reportage on themes ranging from corruption in the presidential administration to the web of collusion between drug lords, businessmen and state officials. Her book Los señores del narco sold over 100,000 copies when it originally appeared in Spanish in 2010; an updated paperback edition of the English translation, Narcoland: the Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers, came out last September. Having fled Mexico after receiving multiple death threats, she is now a fellow at the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program.

Tony WoodYou’ve worked at a number of papers and magazines since the early 1990s, under different political regimes. How has journalism as a profession changed over that time?

Anabel HernándezI was very young – barely 21 years old – when I started at the newspaper Reforma in 1993. I was a novice, so I was given fairly simple topics – community issues like electricity, water, basic things like that. I mention this because my perspective at the time was short-range. But I could see that, sadly, the majority of journalists were very obsequious and servile towards the government, except the magazineProceso. Very few people asked uncomfortable questions, and very few journalists denounced corruption scandals when they happened. This was at the end of the Salinas presidency; then came Zedillo, from 1994 to 2000, who handed over power to the PAN. In all that time, I don’t think it’s the government that’s changed – it’s society and journalists that have changed. If you make a list of all the journalists who are doing more critical, objective work, demanding accountability, they’re people from my generation. And a lot of them were trained at Reforma, which changed the poisonous inertia that used to reign. For example journalists used to accept gifts, travel ticket and other perks from the government, whereas Reforma had a rule that you couldn’t accept anything, not even a glass of water. Things as simple as that changed a whole generation of journalists.

TW People talk a lot about the impact of new technologies on the media, and in particular about “citizen journalism”. Do you think this kind of reporting can have a positive role in Mexico, given the current situation

AHI was a little critical of this at the start, because early on this “citizen journalism” was often very underdocumented, and sometimes ended up disinforming people rather than informing them. But over time, this citizen journalism began to grow, especially during the Calderón presidency, because of the violence. The media stopped publishing accounts of shootouts and executions – on the one hand out of fear, and on the other because of pressure put on them by the government, which made a “pact” with the media to tone down reporting on the drug war and concentrate on good news. That situation made citizen journalism become more mature. It’s gone from being something very spontaneous and informal to being something participatory and responsible, with information of increasingly high quality and precision.

TW Citizen journalism has played a key role in drawing attention to the case of the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa. But why was this the case that provoked such a strong public reaction, as opposed to the many other tragedies that came before?

AHWell, on the first point I’d say that it wasn’t just Ayotzinapa, but also the case of Tlatlaya [where soldiers killed 22 civilians in June 2014], and the “White House” belonging to Peña Nieto’s wife [which caused a huge scandal when it became known in November] – it was citizen journalism that kept these stories alive, even though the government wanted to close them down. Our citizens were thirsty for information, for justice, and were sick and tired of so much impunity, so many deaths. And this is important, because the government can easily control the media, by means of censorship or state spending on advertising. But it’s impossible for them to control free citizens. Concerning Ayotzinapa, it’s really a cocktail bringing together very broad sectors of the population, and I think that’s why this was the “drop that made the glass overflow”. In the first place, we’re talking about young people, and most of Mexico’s population is young. Second, they were students from poor backgrounds, not criminals. So on the one hand, people in similar economic circumstances identified with the case straight away; and on the other hand middle-class people from intellectual backgrounds also identified with it. It brought different social groups together, beyond political ideologies. This is what will make it the emblematic case of the Peña Nieto presidency, more than the tragedies that have already happened or those that may occur in future.

TW One of the most powerful slogans at the recent demonstrations has been “Fue el estado” (“it was the state”). Doesn’t your work, and I’m thinking in particular of Narcoland, suggest that this needs to be applied not just to the case of the 43, but much more broadly?

AHIn the case of Ayotzinapa, there was clear participation by the state. But what we Mexicans have learned in the last few years, especially since the start of the Calderón presidency, from all the blood, pain, disappearances, executions and constant violations of human rights, is that the state is a direct participant in all that violence. Partly because of the repressive character of the Mexican state, and partly because of the collusion of different parts of the state at various levels with criminal groups, controlling the population’s daily life. It’s no longer possible to deceive the citizenry about this: they live it every day all over the country, and that’s why the government was powerless to stop this cry of “Fue el estado”. There’s also the fact that it came just after what happened in Tlatlaya in June. The government tried to hide that incident by saying the deaths came after a confrontation between narcos and the state, which is what they always say. But then two journalists got hold of testimony from eyewitnesses, who said “No, it was a summary execution, and the victims were unarmed.” So there was this awareness among the public of the state’s role. In the Ayotzinapa case, there were also clear signs from the beginning that this wasn’t the normal modus operandi of organised criminals. Organised crime never goes to the effort of hiding its victims – on the contrary, exhibiting the victims is part of the “performance” of organised crime, it’s part of the strategy of terror. Remember that only a few years ago they left a truck piled high with bodies at the entrance to the Guadalajara Book Fair. I think this was why people started automatically to doubt that Ayotzinapa was a matter of organised crime, and to suspect the state had taken part. People from the region also knew that, however corrupt the municipal police may be, they didn’t have the capacity – intellectual or logistical – to carry out an operation like the one that was done that night. A lot of the initial denunciations made it clear that the government was closely involved, though it wasn’t understood exactly how. But the documentation we’ve obtained shows that this was an operation that was planned from the moment the students left Ayotzinapa.

TW One question that arises is how and why crimes like these have gone unpunished for so long. How do you explain the strength and persistence of this impunity in Mexico?

AHSince 2005, when I started to work on the relationship between organised crime and the state, it’s become clear to me that we live in a state that’s totally corrupted, at every level and every area of life. You can flee to the realm of culture or football, and it’s corrupted. Organised crime is involved in every aspect of life, in collusion with different levels of government, and with businessmen too. And it doesn’t suit anyone for there to be a solution to this, because sadly, even in the midst of humanitarian and economic crisis, there are groups who gain from this chaos. Political groups, business groups and organised crime form a perfect triangle of chaos, and as long as they carry on making profits, the situation won’t change. That’s why it’s important for people to know the names of people benefiting from the chaos, so that we can find a solution.

TW A lot of things would need to change in Mexico to improve the situation, and it’s going to be a long road. But what do you think the priorities should be?

AHIt’s a difficult question, but I’ll try to answer. From my experience as a journalist, I think there are things that have changed, above all the citizenry. It’s been a slow and painful process, involving a lot of pain, but Mexican society has begun to change. The political and economic interest groups, within the state and among organised crime, aren’t going to change, though, and there is no incentive for them to do so, because the more chaos there is, the more money they make. Only when you grasp this logic can you understand how the richest man in the world can be a Mexican – it’s the chaos that allows it. The only people who can make this change are the citizens. And I do believe it’s possible. That’s why I think journalism is important, because if people know the truth, hard as it may be, they can identify those responsible. And if they can do that, if they can point to the source of the problem, they can fight against it. The only people who can reverse the terrible situation in Mexico are its citizens, and for that they need to understand their own power.

  • Anabel Hernández