Forced to flee Mexico due to death threats, journalists seek to rebuild their lives in Phoenix

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"How do you want to have Los Zetas, as friends or as enemies?"

That was the question that a man, who identified himself as Commander Ramón Rocas Suárez, asked Mexican journalist Juan de Dios García Davish, from Tapachula, Chiapas, over the phone on May 28, 2016.

The man had identified himself as a high-ranking member of the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas, at the time considered one of the most powerful and dangerous criminal organizations in Mexico.

The threat was clear: Either he abided by the man’s requests or dealt with the consequences. The man on the other side of the line had García Davish’s home, work and family members located.

That was the first of several threats made between 2016 and 2022.

Due to the increased violence in Mexico against journalists and the lack of protection provided by the government, García Davish and his wife, María de Jesús Peters, also a journalist in Chiapas, made the difficult decision to leave their lifelong home. Since June, they’ve been trying to rebuild their life in Phoenix, figuring out how to navigate a new country and calling for international governments to intervene and better protect Mexican journalists.

"The man wanted money, and although he scared me and made me nervous, I didn't fall for his game. I told him to do what he had to do," García Davish said in an interview with La Voz/The Arizona Republic. “The first thing I did was see how my daughter was and then I went to file a complaint with the general attorney’s office.”

After investigating, the Specialized General Attorney’s Office for the Attention of Journalists and Freedom of Expression of Chiapas told García Davish that the call came from a prison in Mexico City, and classified the crime as extortion.

Years of threats followed, but it was the most recent threat, received on May 13, 2022, that made them seek other alternatives outside of the promises made by Mexican law enforcement. A man who identified himself as Arturo Valencia Díaz threatened to kill Peters, García Davish and their daughter if they did not come to an agreement.

He filed a complaint once more and this time the authorities promised to provide them with protection measures, including police patrols outside their home, but he said that such protection never came.

María de Jesús Peters (left) and Juan de Dios García Davish, Mexican journalists, look through documents for the first threat they reported to the Chiapas attorney's office, while being interviewed at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix.
María de Jesús Peters (left) and Juan de Dios García Davish, Mexican journalists, look through documents for the first threat they reported to the Chiapas attorney's office, while being interviewed at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix.

Considering the increased violence against journalists in Mexico, inaction from local authorities and with their 16-year-old daughter in mind, García Davish and Peters looked into international options. At the suggestion of colleagues, they applied to the Temporary Reception Program for Latin American Journalists hosted by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which would allow them to take refuge in Spain for a period of time. However, immediate approval wasn’t guaranteed.

They then sought to obtain a visa that would allow them to enter the United States. Thanks to a letter of support drafted by several national and international colleagues, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City almost immediately scheduled an interview for them on June 10, and were approved for tourist visas.

With little clothing, a computer and a few hard drives — their most “prized treasures” that safeguard their life’s work — the two journalists and their daughter made their way to the United States. Since late June, they’ve been living in Phoenix.

According to the couple, help from the local specialized general attorney's office never came, a situation shared by many journalists in Mexico. The Specialized General Attorney’s Office for the Attention of Journalists and Freedom of Expression of Chiapas did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the organization Article 19, a freedom of the press advocacy organization in Mexico and Latin America, Mexico is experiencing one of the most violent presidencies against Mexican journalists. So far in 2022, 10 people have officially been killed in connection with their work as journalists — unofficially, 12 have been murdered.

Deadly list:These are the journalists who have been killed in Mexico in 2022

Several of them, like Lourdes Maldonado, murdered in Tijuana, Baja California in January, were registered under the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists under the Mexican government. But according to journalist advocacy groups, the protection mechanism constantly fails, acting only in a reactive and non-preventive manner.

According to Noemí Pineda, researcher of documentation and case follow-up of Article 19, from 2018 to 2021, the organization has registered a total of 21 cases of displaced journalists due to violence against the press in Mexico. But this number is higher, she said, given that not all journalists under threat let them know they are seeking refuge elsewhere.

Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that unfortunately, many journalists in Mexico are in a very vulnerable situation because they do not have the same support network that Peters and García Davish have.

“That is one of the things that we are working on here in Mexico, in creating these networks and seeking greater contact with journalists so that they have that support,” he said. “In the case of Juan de Dios, it helped him a lot that he has worked with foreign media and with media that hire his services to cover migration issues in Chiapas.”

Decades covering Indigenous peoples, migrants in Southern Mexico

García Davish, 62, began his career in journalism in 1985. He currently serves as director of Quadratin Chiapas, a news site that covers topics ranging from community to politics, with a focus on migration to Mexico from Central America.

In the late '90s, he founded Agencia Gráfica del Sur, a wire service that provides articles and photographs from Southern Mexico to national and international newspapers.

Peters, 52, was until her move to Phoenix an 18-year correspondent for the national newspaper El Universal in Mexico. She has also worked for the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre and other outlets in Honduras.

In November 2020, Peters was awarded the Ortega y Gasset award for the 2020 Best Photograph in Journalism in Spain. The winning photograph portrays the desperation of a Haitian migrant who cries alongside her son from the other side of a fence that guards a migrant detention center in Chiapas. She recently picked up her award in June 2022, before making her way to the U.S.

Both García Davish and Peters claim to know every corner and road in Chiapas like the back of their hand, which is why they would sometimes provide fixer services to international media.

"We know all the roads and the most remote routes of the Chiapas jungle, where migrants walk, and we also know the dangers they face on those routes," said García Davish.

They have always lived in Tapachula, Chiapas, about 11 miles away from Mexico's southern border with Guatemala. For the same reason, they say, they have had to see the crudest aspects of migration, the abuses and the violence that takes place on the southern border.

“We have seen people fall from the train (known as ‘The Beast’), have their legs amputated. Also how the gangs control the passage of migrants, human trafficking, organized crime violence,” said García Davish.

They have also documented and reported to the authorities the exploitation of Indigenous migrant children of Guatemalan origin on coffee farms in Chiapas.

“As journalists and human beings, it hurts us that no law enforcement acts to prevent labor exploitation in these places, allowing up to 12-hour work days. These Indigenous children live in an inhumane way, aside from the fact that they are marginalized from receiving education and basic nutrition,” reads a complaint document that the couple sent to the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico.

The forced displacement of Indigenous people in the highlands of Chiapas, the kidnappings by organized crime, the trafficking of migrant women and the abuses by the National Institute of Migration (INM) are instances that have been documented by both Peters and García Davish, showing the corruption that prevails in that southern region.

"With our reporting, we make visible a lot of corruption and bad things that are happening in the south of Mexico, and of course, that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, from organized crime groups to government authorities,” Peters said.

A call for intervention from beyond the northern border

Peters and García Davish have been in the U.S. for less than a month and much of their time in Phoenix has been used to shed light on the issue, calling for the Biden administration to intervene in order to cease the violence against journalists in Mexico.

According to an official list from the Mexican government, a total of 10 journalists have been murdered so far in 2022. The most recent murder was that of Antonio de la Cruz on June 28 in the state of Tamaulipas. Unofficially, and recognized by journalism advocacy organizations, 12 have been murdered this year. Mexican authorities ruled out the deaths of Roberto Toledo in Michoacán and Jorge “El Choche” Camero in Sonora, stating that their deaths were not in relation to their work as journalists.

“(U.S.) Congressmen have already spoken about the murdered journalists … they must press for the Mexican government to do something,” said Peters.

María de Jesús Peters (left) and Juan de Dios García Davish, Mexican journalists, listen to an audio recording of the first threat they received in 2016, while being interviewed at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix.
María de Jesús Peters (left) and Juan de Dios García Davish, Mexican journalists, listen to an audio recording of the first threat they received in 2016, while being interviewed at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix.

On June 6, several Democratic congress members, including Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking his administration review how U.S. funds intended for the Mexican protection mechanism are actually being used.

“I urge the Biden administration to work with our Mexican partners to bring justice to the families of the disappeared and ensure that the Mexican press can operate freely and without fear,” Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro said in a statement.

As indicated on the Secretary of the Interior in Mexico website, the protection mechanism was created in 2012 with the goal to protect journalists who have suffered threats and intimidation in relation to their work. An exact amount of funds dedicated to this program isn't available.

Through a partnership with USAID and Mexico, for the years 2017 through 2021, the U.S. government granted a total of $7.1 million to help fund the protection mechanism in an effort “to improve the ability of the (government of Mexico) to prevent, investigate, and prosecute human rights abuses,” a USAID fact sheet reads.

It is unclear how much additional U.S. funds have been channeled into the Mexican protection program after 2021.

According to a 2020 Mexican government report, the Ministry of the Interior requested 241 million Mexican pesos to cover expenses in 2021. This figure implied an increase of 26.9 million Mexican pesos more than what was requested in 2020, the report indicates. In 2018, 337 million pesos were allocated for the program.

In a retort to that report, the Mexican Federation of Public Human Rights Organizations lamented the lack of resources allocated to the mechanism, indicating that the funds were not enough to make the safeguards promised under the mechanism a reality.

In a recent press freedom index, Mexico ranks at 143 out of 180, according to the latest report published by Reporters Without Borders. As comparison, the United States ranks at 42.

“I have spoken to friends who were taken. Now anyone (criminals) can come and grab you, attack you, threaten you and nothing happens”, said García Davish. “We want to continue being that voice for other colleagues that nobody pays attention to. We want to make it visible that journalists are being murdered. The president (of Mexico) gives (criminals) his blessing so that they can do with us what they want.”

Hootsen said that during the last three and a half years, President López Obrador has made a constant and clear divide between good journalism, which is his ally, and bad journalism, which is his adversary.

“That has created adverse situations for us. It has cost us a lot to convince that sector of Mexican society that free and independent journalism is important, that the protection of journalists is important and that fighting impunity for crimes against the press is important,” Hootsen said. “When the president says that journalists are corrupt, that they are conservative and that they go against his political agenda, then his followers, who are around 50% of the population, also follow him.”

A protection mechanism that has failed many

Balbina Flores, Mexico representative at RSF, said the protection mechanism currently has more than 1,500 people registered, of which more than 500 are journalists, the rest are human rights activists.

“(The protection mechanism) has been working, but it has flaws, lack of personnel, resources ... In this six-year term, the demand has increased by more than 60 or 70 percent, and therefore the capacity would also have to be increased in terms of of human and economic resources in the mechanism,” Flores said.

RSF, CPJ and Article 19 work collaboratively, supporting journalists throughout Mexico in the best way they can. Just as they did with García Davish and Peters, alerting the protection mechanism, guiding the couple to file complaints and collect the necessary documents and spreading the word among colleagues in the national and international media about their situation.

The work they do goes hand in hand with the protection mechanism, which provides bodyguards, a panic button to alert law enforcement, police surveillance and on occasion the use of safe houses, Hootsen said. But what the Mechanism offers is not always enough and the promised protections do not always arrive.

Flores said that in 2022, RSF released a report analyzing the protections offered by the protection mechanism and how it can be improved.

According to the report, the protection mechanism does not obligate local or municipal authorities to take charge of the protection of journalists, and only 12 of the 32 states of Mexico have agencies dedicated to investigating cases of violence against the press — like the specialized general attorney’s office that García Davish and Peters reported their threats to.

In the absence of financial and human resources to enforce what the protection mechanism promises, RSF recommended several changes, including:

  • Adapt protection measures according to imminent dangers, such as changes in unforeseen risks.

  • Share the obligation to protect journalists between federal and local levels.

  • Increase funds earmarked for the protection mechanism.

  • Improve psychological, legal, self-protection and digital security support measures.

Pineda of Article 19 said that 98% of violence against journalists cases are in total impunity.

María de Jesús Peters (left) and Juan de Dios García Davish, Mexican journalists, look through the many documents of filed complaints and reports they've submitted to the Mexican authorities while being interviewed at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix.
María de Jesús Peters (left) and Juan de Dios García Davish, Mexican journalists, look through the many documents of filed complaints and reports they've submitted to the Mexican authorities while being interviewed at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix.

As an example, she mentioned García Davish and Peters’ case. For six years, the couple received numerous threats related to their work as journalists, and even after reporting the threats, authorities dismissed them as extortion. Another case she mentioned was that of the journalist Susana Carreño who was stabbed on July 1 in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco — an incident that the authorities wrote off as an attempted robbery.

“The mechanism is more reactive than preventative, which responds only to events that have already occurred. It does not have specific actions aimed at preventing violence,” Hootsen from CPJ said. "We recognize the courage that Juan de Dios and María have because there are those who censor themselves after being displaced, they prefer not to raise their voices, they leave journalism. (García Davish and Peters) are making the problem visible," he said.

Reach La Voz reporter and editor Javier Arce at or on Twitter @javierarce33.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Journalists who fled Mexico from violence call on Biden to intervene