Julio decided to continue working as a reporter even though he was the victim of four attacks. He survived to tell a horror story that occurred in the worst context of violence to exercise his job: Mexico. Specialists argue that the poor performance of the institutions – created to ensure security and justice to this professional group- favors censorship and perpetuate impunity.
—You cannot stand on that side; you are code red. We have to take care of you.
—Go fuck yourself – answered Julio, mumbling.
—What? Do not be rude and do some exercise.
—As if I were at the gym. This is a fucking looney bin. I am sick of it.
Julio Omar Gómez, a reporter by profession, moved from the heavenly Baja California Sur, full of violence, to the Fray Bernardino Álvarez Psychiatric Hospital.
He decided to get hospitalized to the mental institution, overwhelmed by the fear of dying, to attempt suicide one more time, after surviving four attacks, leaving his home and business, forcedly moving and losing his family. However, he had not evaluated the conditions to accept when hospitalized in that hospital, where psychiatric patients are deprived of their right to decide for themselves.
Sedated to the point of losing consciousness, Julio is not aware of the length of his stay at the hospital. He only remembers that as soon as he woke up, he asked for freedom. They never put him in a straitjacket, or at least this is what Julio believes. However, they did subdue him to inject him with more medicaments.
His story is unbelievable. He grew up within cows, horses, and coyotes, within fights, scars, and scolds. ‘Stand up because a Northern boy does not cry,’ his parents were telling him when he was a child. Julio became a journalist between threats and fire, loneliness and oblivion, depression, and fear.
With his 39 years old, he still has an intimidatory appearance: wide shoulders, muscled arms, and 1.80 cm tall. His black eyes, so different from his young face, seem to have been witnesses to excessive violence. His eyes, stuck inside black circles, appear extremely tired and dull. He keeps on telling jokes and smiles. However, his thick beard has filled up with grey hairs in just a few weeks.
As a ‘farm man’ he thought to be unbreakable. But now, it is evident that he has reconsidered it. He appears moved when he thinks about the ‘red area’ of the psychiatric hospital, where he spent several days forced to ingest pills. He feels overwhelmed when telling how he was rescued by two known reporters who pretended to be his relatives. When remembering all of it, his voice appears broken, and his head lowered. ‘Where is that guy who was not crying?’, he asks, embarrassed, while he covers his eyes with a hat to hide the running tears.
On December 31, 2018, he was found memoryless on the side of the highway to Querétaro, outside a wrecked car. After recovering from his physical injuries, he went to the Ramón de la Fuente National Psychiatric Institute to find some answers. There, they explained to him that he attempted to end his life in an unconscious act of the body when he was overwhelmed with anxiety, stress, and trauma. He survived four attacks perpetrated against him for exercising his journalistic work. However, the wounds in his soul were still open and demanded rest.
Welcome to the Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), the doctor who attended him said. It was the fourth and the most dangerous of the impairments that he was diagnosed: post-traumatic stress, major depression, and anxiety.
As Julio did not have any family close to him, nor anyone taking care of him, they suggested the reporter hospitalize at the Fray Bernardino Álvarez Psychiatric Hospital. ‘However, they did not tell me the whole story: from being locked up, I became being a State’s property,’ he recalls, even though he is not sure whether he spent there 15, 20, or more days.
One of the people who took part in his rescue told Contralínea that the psychiatric hospital staff constantly sedated Julio due to his ‘hallucinations’. It turns out that they did not believe in the truthfulness of Julio’s recount concerning the assaults against his person – fires, shootings, and threats.
Julio lost the life he used to have. After the last aggression, where one of his bodyguards died, he had to run away from Baja California Sur to seek refuge. The reporter cannot see his family, and his life projects came to a standstill. Coming back today seems to be so difficult as it was the day when he ran away.
Between fire and threats
Despite living surrounded by CCTV cameras, there are still some nights when Julio’s heartbeat accelerates incessantly. When the sweat covers his body, and the air barely enters his lungs, there is no such a panic button which may soothe him. Nonetheless, intense anxiety has not always characterized his whole life. Even though today Julio feels like the terror has been going on since forever, the story of fire and threats began three years ago.
At that time, he was living with his family in Cabo San Lucas. Although he had studied Civil Protection and was working in the public service, he understood that he preferred working as a correspondent. That is why he joined the Reportero Urbano media writing on corruption, insecurity, and justice.
Murders were widespread. ‘News was getting increasingly more worrisome: many assassinations were occurring due to the reorganization of the hierarchy within the criminal syndicate following the detention of Chapo [the name given to the drug trafficker Joaquín Guzmán Loera]. Other Cartels took advantage of this internal fight within the Sinaloa Cartel to enter and assist in the elimination of both parties.
In December 2016, Julio suffered the first attack: they set fire to his house and car. They warned him on the phone. He ran, but when he arrived, the fire had already destroyed almost everything, including the note they left for him on a piece of paper. ‘I could only read a little part of it so that I could never know what the whole message was about.’
Before losing faith, local people and tourists arrived to support him with money, goods, and even to help him rehabilitate his house. ‘It was motivating to keep working as the spokesperson and help other people denounce authority abuses,’ he recalls.
By February 2017, Julio had already become more cautious and counted on fire-fighting devices. When they set fire to his car one more time, indeed, he was able to put out the fire and keep the full note they left, which referred to the previous threat.
‘Look asshole; we warned you not to put up with politics and to respect it. You did not want to understand. You screwed it…’, the note reads.
Following this event, and convinced that third aggression could be fatal, he accepted the coverage offered by the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.
This agency, directly dependent on the Ministry of the Interior and currently headed by Aarón Mastache, employs the services of just one company: RCU Sistemas. The latter was contracted without competitive bidding, and the civil organizations and some beneficiaries classified it as corrupt. Julio did not know it yet, but it was about to find it out.
They provided him with four bodyguards, all retired marines, a panic button for emergency calls, cameras throughout his place, and even a car with a geolocation system. However, nothing discouraged his aggressors, who tried to kill him on March 28, 2017.
Two people entered his garage. One of them began to scatter gasoline around one of the two cars. The other hid in a corner with a weapon. The journalist was at home so that if the criminals had managed to set the fire, he would have gone to extinguish it. Julio is sure that they would have killed him as soon as he had peeped out.
The aggressors did not notice when two of the bodyguards entered the house after being out for a while. They were inside one of the cars, and when seeing the intruders, they fired two warning shots. Caught in flagrante, the delinquents ran away as they could, and the one who had been hiding shot the gun while escaping. They got into a white car and fled.
Only then, Julio got to know that the intruders had shot one of the bodyguards, so he pressed the panic button to seek assistance. No one answered. He took the wounded man to the hospital, helped by his wife, and the other two guards. Julio could relax a little only when, some hours later, the Federal Police showed. He was afraid that the criminals would seek him to do what they could not achieve before at his place. Eventually, they took another life: the bodyguard Alfredo Cruz did not survive.
‘The loss of a person, someone who was taking care of you, does hurt. It was difficult to decide to move, but I wanted to avoid a fourth attack at my expense [that at the end he suffered, but in Mexico City when he was already in the status of a displaced person]’. Julio recalls that he went to shelter to one of the Federal Police’s detachments, so starting the forced displacement in which he has been living since then.
In spite of having experienced terrible events, he will not stop being a reporter; this represents his only certainty. Every time he thinks he cannot keep doing it, he reminds himself of Alfredo Cruz’s death and that bullet that should have ended with his life. ‘My bodyguard complied with the tasks required by his job. He risked his life to save mine. For this reason, I need to keep writing, so that his death has not been in vain’.
Nonetheless, Julio scarily does his job. He is not the exception within this professional group: Mexico is the most insecure country to carry out this job. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), so far this year, the country has registered 12 out of 43 murders to journalists worldwide. Beyond the numbers, violence is creating deep wounds across this group. Mental wounds that will not promptly heal.
‘The majority of my patients throughout these last few years, due to issues related to post-traumatic stress, are reporters. The rest are earthquake victims who lost their houses or families. In this country, being a journalist is highly risky’, warns Benjamín Domínguez Trejo, psychologist, and researcher at the Department of Research and Postgraduate of the Faculty of Psychology of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
No one responds for the errors of the Mechanism
Despite the use of the panic button, no one has granted help. Julio could not communicate with the Mechanism until he got to the hospital with the wounded bodyguard. Even though errors of such a kind are not rare, RCU Sistemas, headed by Israel González León, is the only company responsible for the security of over 1 thousand beneficiaries.
The Artículo 19 organization offers support to Julio before the Mechanism. Lawyer Diego Martínez, who is in charge of this and other cases of aggression to the detriment of journalists, asserts that the problem with panic buttons is not only linked to their inutility when an emergency occurs. On the contrary, reporters have received threats through these devices.
‘Assistance buttons work with Telcel sim cards. Frequently, they are called on those numbers to settle the bills of the credit or debit cards of the former owner of the number. If they are recycled numbers, they can also represent a risky source’, he says.
Artículo 19, Propuesta Civica, and other organizations gathered in the collective Espacio OSC, denounced the ‘structural’ flaws of the Mechanism relating to its contract with RCU Sistemas.
Diego Martínez sustains that every mistake is accountable to the Mechanism, as it is responsible for requesting and paying the service. What is more, he mentions that RCU Sistemas is imputable not to answer journalists’ and organizations’ calls to point out errors in these devices.
As a beneficiary, Julio has identified other abnormalities within the company. In financial terms, he believes that RCU Sistemas do well out of the recipients as it opts for the most expensive solution to provide the same service. ‘As for me, it has been three years since I have cameras (which are rented and not bought) installed. By now, they would have been already paid off. However, it would no longer be a business for the company’.
Moreover, he points out that the energy employed by the CCTV system as well as the exterior lighting is very costly, and the support offered by the Mechanism does not include these services. Julio adds that some of his colleagues, who earn 50 or 100 Mexican pesos each note, have serious troubles to pay such a service.
Sara Mendiola, director of the organization Propuesta Civica, says that the reporters who benefit from the Mechanism ‘do well to point out that there is much corruption as the services are privatized by an enterprise which did not provide the agreed services. We insisted on the idea that they should audit the company, how they employed the resources, as they are very gross amounts. Sometimes, they are not adequate nor functional to the risk that the person experiences’.
The future in the hands of others
Currently, the lack of money has represented another problem for Julio. Being a displaced person has had a direct impact on his primary source of sustenance: his journalistic activity. Even though the Mechanism provides him with a house and a basic food basket, he also needs to support his sons.
Lawyer Sara Mendiola, a human rights expert, explains that ‘once journalists are displaced and hospitalized in another place, the government has not any plan to make them come back. This situation is generating a huge crisis since, first of all, it implies that the majority loses their jobs because communication media do not support them’.
Diego Martínez, the lawyer of Artículo 19, agrees on the idea that for a refugeed journalist is complex to exercise their job. ‘If he used to write on the events occurring in the state of Baja California Sur and you bring him to a different place, then he can no longer deal with the same topics. These measures create censorship. The Mechanism, unlike us, does not take into account that depriving journalists of their job is an aggression’.
Many communication media in the Mexican capital have interviewed Julio for some job positions. After going through his cv they told him that he boasts good experience, but they cannot hire him as he could represent a risk factor for the other employees; he is a ‘red light’. His friends reiterate something similar – he assures.
According to Diego Martínez, the measures of the Mechanism are a ‘palliative’ generating other kinds of issues of work, emotional, and cultural nature. ‘When someone experiences a traumatic event, it is recommendable to start having social interaction step by step. On the other hand, the Mechanism generally suggests not to get out of the shelter’.
Julio does not go out frequently, as he does not feel safe. Nonetheless, when he goes out, he wears a jacket with a Mexican flag, his name and the word ‘JOURNALIST’ embroidered on it. He says that it is a way to show that, ‘if anything happens’ to him, they cannot claim that it was an isolated event but, instead, that there was a connection with his professional activity.
He says that he spends little time with his friends, and most of them, like him, are displaced or harassed journalists. He admits that he is emotionally unstable and finds it very hard to start interacting with other people. Moreover, he affirms that the majority of them argues that they take distance from him for fear, as the life of a refugee is not ‘normal’.
‘I prefer being alone rather than having a bad time,’ he comments. However, he recalls that when he has anxiety attacks, he regrets being alone. Recently, his heartbeat accelerated so much that he thought he was going to experience a cardiac arrest. Soaked in sweat, he got to the doctor, who prescribed him medication for arterial pressure. Nonetheless, he said there was nothing to worry about: his health was excellent, and the unfortunate event had been caused by anxiety. Julio did not want to leave so early, so he asked the doctor if he could stay some more time in his office.
‘Sometimes living alone scares me. I say to myself: ‘who is going to realize that something happened to me or that I fainted?’.
Benjamín Domínguez – a psychologist and researcher – explains that intense fear reactions cannot be easily forgotten or eliminated as they are engraved on the brain. They are like wounds that will not heal promptly.
‘What can be done? People can learn how to live with their fear reactions. Before trying to hide them, we need to understand that they are signals that our brain sends us. It is important to know how to interpret them: my hands sweat, my mouth gets dry, I feel my heart is getting out of my chest. When these signals manifest, it is crucial to distance oneself from the source of the danger or to practice mental detachment. It is not something unreachable. Some people can achieve it thanks to music, someone else by doing exercise or spending time with friends’.
In his opinion, drug treatments to address post-traumatic stress do not solve the underlying problem. The psychologist explains that pills block the fear reaction, but once the effect has gone, the intense fear comes back through ‘dreams, sweat, and palpitations…’
Julio Omar Gómez, still with the fear to end his life, takes big doses of anxiolytics prescribed by the National Psychiatric Institution. He is aware of the fact that these medicines, like the refuge where he hides, are just an artificial remedy against his fears. However, Julio cannot find any other option. He is unable to make decisions on his present or future, at least not until the threat remains unpunished, he explains.
— What does look at the future mean to you?
‘I cannot look at the future as I have no control of my life, considering I depend on the decisions of the Mechanism. If the Mechanism makes evaluations, let’s say every six months, and tells me the place where I live is unsafe, I need to move to another place or another State. It is not my decision; it depends on this group having the meetings’.
Since he cannot make plans for himself, Julio is committed to secure the livelihood of his sons for the near future. Considering that he still does not have a permanent job, he has begun to sell some of his properties. ‘Who knows if Julio Omar will still be alive tomorrow. You had better arrange your things so that your sons will be able to benefit from them’, he tells himself.
Mexico City, is it a shelter?
Yes, Julio believed that Mexico City represented the best refuge to avoid aggressions. However, a brutal event erased this utopic idea from his mind. Over two months ago, Julio survived what he thought to be an attempted robbery. He managed to get rid of a criminal, but the other three delinquents arrived to subdue him. They did not take any of his pertinence. Nonetheless, they hit him until damaging his face, and he had to undertake an urgent surgery.
‘Violence got to us,’ photojournalist Cristopher Rangel comments during a conference on coverage and journalist treatment of violence at the UNAM university. On that occasion, he explained that the capital – for population density and as it hosts the headquarter of the security and justice bodies – seemed to be an excellent place to hide. ‘However, it’s here that they killed photographer Rubén Espinosa [on July 31, 2015]. Hence Mexico City is no longer a shelter city’, he warns.
As a photojournalist dealing with drug trafficking issues and organized crime, he asserts that it is not necessary to get to Guerrero or Veracruz. Instead, he carries out reportage in Tepito, Tláhuac, Santo Domingo, and Ciudad Universitaria [which are some neighborhoods in Mexico City].
He tells that although he is still making reportage in Mexico City, he has stopped signing his photos. At that time when he brought a hided camera to the point of sale of drugs and guns. ‘(These measures) are like locks that you yourself create. Because you live here’, he says.
Sara Mendiola believes that in Mexico, there is no State which can offer a refuge for those escaping from threats. ‘The number of victims of a crime violating their human rights increases daily. It seems that the authorities pretend not to be aware of the situation. The solution is not a Mechanism, a law, or displacement. The solution is, instead, an effective fight against impunity, corruption, and the creation of an integrated public policy on protection matter’.
The murky circumstances of the attack favored that the Federal Mechanism did not cover the costs of Julio’s medical treatment since this institution only deals with aggression linked to journalistic work. It was the Mechanism of Mexico City that supported him with the procedure to receive resources from the Executive Commission for Victim Assistance.
Unpunished investigations lie in the Feadle
The hope that Julio may come back to his previous life and exercise his profession of journalist in Baja California Sur mainly lies in the investigation of the Special District attorney’s office for crimes against the freedom of expression (Feadle). This year the Feadle has a budget of 12 billion 889 thousand 904 Mexican pesos. The index of impunity, or unsolved cases, is almost 100 percent, experts say.
Nataly Quintero, part of the legal team of Propuesta Cívica, explains during the interview the underlying causes of impunity: the duplicity of the investigation that occurs when the Feadle takes on legal cases linked to crimes against the freedom of expression. ‘They waste institutional resources in wages and travel allowance. However, sometimes, they carry out the same investigations conducted by the District Attorney’s office without employing a different approach’.
The lawyer, who deals with other cases concerning murdered or harassed reporters, refers that the Feadle follows ‘malpractices’ and refuses, a priori, to exercise jurisdiction over those cases of local authorities’ competence. ‘Recently, we were granted a writ of amparo as they did not answer promptly to our request to take the case. They said that they were investigating to evaluate whether to take the case, but then they left the journalist on his own’.
Nataly Quintero sustains that the Feadle has to take over the cases. If, after the investigation, it appears that the aggression was not accountable to the journalistic activity, then they can refuse to take it. However, in practice, they ‘first search for elements to refuse the case, and when they refuse it, they do not dispose of enough proofs,’ she says.
Julio comments that by now, the Feadle has not solved yet four of his files. They did not find any fingerprints nor hints. Nor are they aware of the people responsible for the aggression, nor what car they used. ‘They do not have any investigation line,’ he regrets.
‘Unfortunately, when investigating a person, the Feadle tries to criminalize them. (They asked) whether he had an extra girlfriend or some other women. Instead of investigating other actors, they begin to examine the journalist’s life looking for some loose end to finally say that the aggression was not attributable to journalistic work’.
That is why Julio was lucky to have written proofs showing that he was assaulted for writing on political issues. However, he admits that for others, it is not that easy. Many reporters did not graduate, nor do they have a badge from a national medium. Hence, they cannot show, according to the Feadle, that they are journalists.
Christopher Rangel, a former employee of the newspaper El Universal, is nowadays a freelance photojournalist. In his opinion, working for a national medium does not imply support from the enterprise. He assures that, in practice and as he experienced himself, the medium does not commit to the cause to avoid problems. On security matters, he explains that such media do not even provide their employees with antibullet jackets or satellite telephones when they carry out dangerous investigations.
Against the spread of fear
Is fear contagious? ‘Yes, but so is trust,’ psychologist Benjamín Domínguez replies. In a context of extreme violence, he explains that Mexicans – including reporters – have a more exceptional ability to overcome traumatic events.
Socialize and relax is vital to face difficulties. ‘When I used to go to other countries, they were telling me that Mexicans, we, love to party. I felt offended. Now (after 20 years of research in psychology) we are aware that have parties, relax, enjoy breaks, is our lifeline. We would have already died otherwise’.
When they assault a journalist or even kill them, the freedom of expression seems to open the way for censorship. Indeed, besides silencing a person, it spreads fear into the whole professional group on a national level.
The Mexican society has an excellent ability to resileince. That is why also the journalistic group in Mexico has survived. On the contrary, how can one explain that nine out of ten reporters in this country – according to the 2019 Report on the freedom of expression by the Collective of Analysis of Security with Democracy (Colectivo de Análisis de la Seguridad con Democracia (Casede)) – know at least a case of aggression in the local professional group? And they do not quit their job?
Even though someone has chosen to shut up, others keep on risking, convinced of the importance of their job. Currently, ‘disinformation is an ingredient that contributes to eroding mutual trust. People do not know whom to trust. They do not trust the police nor priests. However, some of us trust in journalists, and this is an advantage’, Benjamín Domínguez says.
Julio is a wounded journalist, almost destroyed and discouraged with every month that passes away from his family. But despite the numerous aggressions, he continues to study and prepares to practice the job he chose. When are threats going to reduce? When will governmental institutions grant integral security? When will impunity be punished? When?
By Marcial Yangali
(Translated by: Federica Antoniani)