TIJUANA – Mexican journalist Lourdes Maldonado dedicated her last program to a fellow journalist one day after he was gunned down outside his home, and then she described her own vulnerability covering the violent, border city of Tijuana.
In her trademark bold style, she blasted Mexico's corruption and accused a state official of drug ties before telling her viewers she had been under state government protection for eight months.
“They take good care of you," she said on her internet radio and television show called “Brebaje" or “Potion." “But no one can avoid—not even under police supervision—getting killed outside your house in a cowardly manner."
Her words eerily predicted her fate. Five days later, Maldonado was shot outside her home at 7 p.m. in the evening. She was the third journalist this year to be killed in Mexico.
Their deaths over the span of a month is an unusually high toll in such a short period even in Mexico and drew the largest protest yet over the killings with thousands demonstrating nationwide on Tuesday. The murders have left journalists working in the most dangerous place for their trade in the Western Hemisphere — feeling angry and hopeless.
On Friday, a day after Maldonado’s funeral, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador returned to criticizing the press. He said that his government guarantees free speech but “very few journalists, women and men, are fulfilling their noble duty to inform. Most are looking to see how we fail."
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since the current administration began on Dec. 1, 2018, at least 32 journalists have been killed and 15 disappeared, despite a government program to protect them.
“The government’s protection is worthless,” said Tijuana radio and television journalist Odilón García, who was under it for three years. “They give you a phone and if something happens you can call a central office that then notifies the police who then locate where you are and by then you are dead.”
García's own problem ended when the two people threatening him died. One was killed by organized crime. The other died of COVID-19 after the court ruled in Garcia's favor and ordered the man to compensate Garcia for his lawyer's fees and other damage his threats had caused.
Journalists and watchdog groups say reported threats are still not taken seriously enough and when something does happen police often are slow to investigate it.
More than 90% of murders of journalists and rights defenders remain unsolved, according to Mexico's Interior Undersecretary Alejandro Encinas. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists puts the percentage at 95%.
There is a lack of political will to stop the impunity, in part, because such a large percentage of the cases are believed to have ties to public servants, according to Article 19, an international human rights organization that works to defend and promote freedom of expression. The president demonizing the press also is contributing to the hostility against journalists, said Paula Saucedo, an advocate with the organization’s chapter in Mexico.
“Theoretically the state is attacking the press," she said.
In Tijuana, journalists have turned to each other for safety. They have organized into groups, such as “Yo sí soy periodista," or “Yes I am a journalist," which has a WhatsApp chat where journalists alert each other to their whereabouts and any risks.
Maldonado dedicated her last show to Tijuana crime photographer Margarito Martínez who was shot multiple times in broad daylight on Jan. 17 as he got into his car outside his home. A week before that attack, Mexican journalist José Luis Gamboa died in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz after suffering from stab wounds during an apparent robbery.
The attorney general of Baja California, Ricardo Carpio, said they have found no evidence Maldonado's killing was linked to her work. They also have not found any connection between Martinez's death and the attack on Maldonado. Baja California Gov. Marina del Pilar Ávila has said she is appointing a special prosecutor to look into the murders of the Tijuana journalists.
Maldonado had gone further than most to let her fears be known publicly, flying in 2019 to Mexico City where she stood up in a televised press conference and personally challenged López Obrador to help her.
She got state protection and police were assigned to patrolling her home but they only passed “once in a while,” said García, who met her in 1989 when they were launching their careers in the gritty, newsy city of Tijuana.
Like Maldonado, García said he is not censuring himself. But he knows the deaths are having a chilling effect, especially on young journalists.
“A lot of people are afraid," García said.
Among her family and friends, Maldonado didn't talk about her fear, preferring instead to relay the latest adventures of her rescue cats. She had adopted five. She also had a Pitbull, which now is being cared for by her neighbors along with the other animals.
In her work, colleagues said she was known for her boldness, naming officials on her live streaming show who she said were incompetent, corrupt and/or tied to drug traffickers.
When she met López Obrador in 2019 she told him “I fear for my life" and described her years-long labor dispute with Jaime Bonilla, who at the time was a candidate from the president's Morena party. Bonilla later was elected governor of Baja California, where Tijuana is located. He left office late last year.
Maldonado had recently announced that she won her dispute with a media company Bonilla owned after nine years of litigation.
After her death, Bonilla posted an interview with Radio Formula on Twitter in which he denied any involvement and offered condolences to her family. He said her legal dispute was against his company not him, and there was never anything personal between them.
López Obrador has promised there will be no impunity.
But he also cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
García agreed, writing in a tribute to Maldonado on his Facebook page that so many journalists like her have put themselves at risk for doing their jobs “that an attacker could hide among the many enemies of the press who speak the truth."
Renee Maldonado said Tijuana's journalists were like a second family to her aunt, who never had children. She said her family is grateful for the outpouring of support they have received from press members worldwide. Dozens attended her burial this week.
“Journalists in Mexico and around the world should follow her passion and always fight for the truth," she said.
Watson reported from San Diego. Associated Press writer Maria Verza in Mexico City contributed to this report.