Mexico has hit a record for most journalists killed in a year—at least 13 in 2022—and we’re only in October. If you ask why most people say “the narcos.” If you ask Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, he says there is no persecution of journalists by officials and no impunity, and anyone who says otherwise only wants to smear his administration.
Neither is entirely correct.
I worked as a journalist in Mexico for nine years. The spike started in 2006 with seven killings. In 2010, when I became Associated Press bureau chief for Mexico and Central America, there were 10. Since then, the numbers have grown beyond comprehension, unseen outside of war zones (Ukraine has had 15 journalist killings so far this year), and shocking for a democracy where freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Constitution.
Though the targets tend to be local journalists far from the capital and not foreign correspondents, the killings dominated our coverage and forced us to create new security protocols for covering the country. The safety of our teams was my responsibility. By the time I left Mexico, I couldn’t leave behind the paradox: Why was Mexico, a democracy, the most dangerous country on Earth for journalists? The free press is the enemy of despots and authoritarians, not freely elected governments.
I eventually learned the answer, and it made me fear for the free press in my own country.
More from TIME
When the murders started, the government blamed the cartels—and the journalists. If a reporter was killed, it meant they were corrupt, being paid by narcos, or some other dark interest for good coverage. It was an easy sell. Mexico had a long history of corruption and collusion in its press corp. Politicians repeated the script: “They’re not really journalists.” So did my fellow correspondents. It was likely true in some cases. Yet we really had no way of knowing for sure. The crimes were never investigated, nor did they result in arrests.