Four years after the murder of María Elena Ferral, being a journalist in Mexico remains a deadly business. The international community must step up its support for much-needed reform.

As a journalist in Veracruz, Mexico, María Elena Ferral knew her life was in danger. ‘My mom knew there was a price on her head because there were constant threats,’ said her daughter, Fernanda, after Ferral’s murder. According to international civil society organization Article 19, 163 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, and another 32 are missing. In 2022, Mexico recorded an attack against journalists or media houses every 13 hours. This makes the country one of the most dangerous places for journalism worldwide, with the state of Veracruz being the deadliest.

Mexico has the third highest levels of criminality in the world, as found by the 2023 Global Organized Crime Index. And while organized crime groups have indeed been linked to many of the killings of journalists in Mexico, it would be a simplistic misrepresentation to attribute these attacks solely to them. These incidents are embedded in a context of political violence in which criminal and state actors are constantly vying for influence. The dominant narrative, which places the blame on cartels, conveniently absolves the state of its significant role in jeopardizing journalists’ safety. Article 19 found that 42 per cent of the attacks are committed by government officials, followed by criminal actors and private entities, but it is the state itself that poses the greatest threat to journalists. And most of these attacks go unpunished. 

Independent journalists in Mexico lack social and institutional protection, making them vulnerable to threats and aggression. In addition to murders and disappearances, journalists are victims of verbal attacks, espionage and bogus lawsuits. When analyzing violence targeting journalists in Mexico, it is also important to highlight the additional layer of gender impact. According to the NGO CIMAC, violence against female journalists in Mexico has increased fivefold since 2013. However, the gender perspective is rarely used in legal cases, which consistently ignore the additional vulnerability of women in the field. 

The dangerous search for justice 

Ferral’s story is emblematic of the alarming trend of the increasing risk journalists face in the country, especially female journalists. As a correspondent for El Diario de Xalapa and the owner of the news website Quinto Poder, she covered politics extensively and had political ambitions herself. Ferral had been tempted by the prospect of governing her hometown, Gutiérrez Zamora, a municipality in Veracruz that had only had three female leaders in the past 65 years. Politics offered the chance of a higher income, which was particularly attractive as a single mother and a journalist struggling to find a decent wage. Most journalists in the region do not receive a formal salary from their employers.   

On 30 March 2020, she was ambushed in the municipality of Papantla by two men who shot her three times in the abdomen. Ferral died of her wounds in hospital. 

To date, four men have been convicted, two of whom are on the run, including Basilio Picazo Pérez, the politician accused of masterminding the murder. Five other men were temporarily detained without being sentenced, including alleged hitman Antonio Zaleta Jiménez. In February 2024, a Veracruz judge authorized Zaleta Jiménez’s release, as the prosecution had failed to prove he was involved in the murder. The judge found violations of due process that could jeopardize the charges and lead to the release of those convicted. Four years after Ferral’s murder, the case is crumbling and there is a significant risk that it will end without the accused being convicted.  

Public services available to victims of crime in Mexico are often underfunded and plagued by corruption, meaning that NGOs and journalists are left filling the gaps the state does not provide. Propuesta Cívica, a Mexican NGO that provided legal assistance to Ferral’s family, found that escalating legal costs and dangerous visits to the courts in Veracruz made their financial support unsustainable.  

Journalist Miguel León, also from Veracruz, has now taken up the Ferral case. León knows the high price of revealing the names of alleged perpetrators after political assassinations in Mexico. He recognizes that this risk is precisely why Ferral was killed. In March 2018, when her friend and colleague Leobardo Vázquez asked for her help after receiving threatening messages, she sprang into action. She began raising funds to move him to a safe location, but he was murdered before the transfer could take place. After Vázquez’s murder, she tirelessly investigated his assassination while the authorities turned a blind eye. Her findings pointed to the involvement of criminal organization Los Zetas, with little to no effort from law enforcement to seek justice. 

León meticulously reviewed all the stories Ferral had pursued before her death. Among them, her coverage mentioning Picazo Pérez stood out. Allegedly, the politician led a group called Totonacapan, leveraging his influence to perpetrate a trail of documented abuses and violence. Ferral had been investigating the murder of a politician who had accused Picazo Pérez of embezzlement. León claims that the killers are aware of his investigation, and continuing to publish about it gives him the visibility he needs to stay alive, as people are following his work. ‘Silence is not an option,’ he told the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, echoing a sentiment often heard from journalists in Mexico.  

The road ahead 

Four years after Ferral’s murder, the course of justice seems to have stumbled to a halt. Since her death, political violence has increased and journalists find themselves even more vulnerable. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s approach is far from encouraging: he often uses his platforms to attack and discredit journalists who oppose him.  

Mexico has presidential elections in June this year. There are two female candidates at the top of the ticket and it is likely that López Obrador’s close associate, Claudia Sheinbaum, of his MORENA party, will win. However, the election may be the most violent yet: in the first two months of 2024, at least 33 people involved in politics, some aspiring to office, have been murdered.  

The greatest danger for Mexican journalists lies in the realm of local criminal governance, where criminal organizations have infiltrated municipal institutions. As election after election has shown, criminal networks use their power to manipulate results, stifle the media and shape political agendas to their advantage. Mexico’s hard-earned democracy is at a crossroads, its foundations weakened by the infiltration of state-embedded criminal actors and the insatiable greed of senior political office holders. The growing influence of criminal organizations, coupled with the government’s militarized response strategies, paints a bleak picture.  

Ferral’s murder underscores the high price journalists pay to expose human rights violations, as they navigate threats, violence and a broken protection system. In the face of these challenges, resilient journalists committed to the truth are inspiring change through their work, demanding justice, press freedom and renewed democratic values. The only hope lies with the international community: when murders of journalists have attracted international attention, federal authorities have felt compelled to investigate them further. The only chance for justice may be to take the cases to an international court. Academics, international civil society organizations and the diplomatic community must step up support for front line journalists who are shaping the narrative of a nation in desperate need of reform.  

The road to a more just Mexico is fraught with challenges, but with global attention and collective advocacy, a brighter future is possible – one where democracy thrives and the voices of truth prevail.