Only six months after escaping from Mexico's highest security prison through a mile-long tunnel, drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán is once again in the news -- this time for his recapture and stranger-than-fiction meeting with American actor Sean Penn.
Penn's Rolling Stone interview set off a media storm, still playing out across news and entertainment pages around the world. Most of those stories leave questions unanswered about the state of Mexican media and what role international press play in covering violence and drug trade in Mexico.
One of the country's top journalists has called out news organizations for framing the problem as a local fight between "rogue narcos" and glorifying cartel lifestyle for profit. John Ackerman, also a professor at the Institute of Legal Research of Mexico's National University, sees those visions of a chaotic and lawless country excusing the actions of its government.
In his work as a journalist, Ackerman has covered how both press and protesters have come under heavy fire since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office, now resulting in an attack on a Mexican journalist every 26 hours. He is also outspoken about the administration's influence on the country's major broadcaster, which commissioned campaign material for Peña Nieto during his candidacy, according to Guardian reports.
Ackerman is in Vancouver this evening giving a public lecture titled "The Battle for Mexico and the Future of Justice and Democracy in North America" at SFU Harbour Centre. Ahead of the talk, The Tyee asked Ackerman about the state of press freedom in the country and the gaps global watchdogs can fill.
The Tyee: It seems outside of Mexico we rarely hear about the government's role in the country's lawlessness. Yet we are inundated by news items about El Chapo in the entertainment section. What role is international media playing in all of this?
John Ackerman: Since [the unsolved disappearance of 43 students in] Ayotzinapa, some media outlets have started to inform readers about these details. But the big step, which hasn't been taken yet, is understanding that the problem is not bottom up but top down. There's still this general impression that the problem in Mexico is local and in the informal narco realm -- it's rogue narcos in the hills of Sinaloa and Guerrero killing policemen and kidnapping students. You can imagine them with their cowboy hats and dark glasses and golden pistols.
That's still the image, there is a generalized refusal to accept that this is a structural, national and international issue. And that the real source of the problem is the federal government, as well as the private sector. Those are the people keeping alive this situation of violence and corruption in Mexico. We will never be able to end the situation if we visualize it as a local problem of informal bandits. People still think Peña Nieto is a good guy and that Chavez and Putin are bad guys, this is at least the way the U.S. press presents it. This is unfortunate because Peña Nieto is worse than these guys.
What role does the Mexican press play in this lack of democracy?
The Mexican press is in a very interesting contradictory situation. On one hand we have total control over TV and radio, so we have an absolute lack of debate in television and radio. Simultaneously, in the written press, we have a very dynamic and active sector, independent journalists and reporters. This creates the situation of vulnerability for the press... an extreme situation of repression and censorship. Mexico is very unsafe for journalists. Attacks on the press have direct complicity or involvement of government institutions. Once again, this is not a question of the government intervening, it's government institutions that are directly responsible for the oppression and censorship of the press. The optimistic side is that we have this dynamic independent press, but they're extremely vulnerable and they need international support.
How does the media circus around El Chapo reflect the state of the press in Mexico?
Just looking at the way the Mexican media has covered the re-capture of El Chapo is a very eloquent case study. The government is able to mobilize the entire national press core, particularly radio and television, to celebrate and applaud this action... they've been able to rally up the troops and create an incredible media spectacle around this issue. And it's just another case of how the Mexican government works. Instead of actually giving results, it's a propaganda government.
As you mentioned, Mexico's government has powerful influence over a very concentrated broadcast sector. How do you view radio and TV coverage of cartel violence?
The thing is the way in which it's covered. So long as narco violence can be covered as that, just a fight between cartels, this is in the government's interest. Because it shows that they're the bad guys, the violent ones, and that justifies increased invasion of privacy and militarization of the streets. And, in the end, it's used as a smoke screen to repress and control social protest. So it's very much in the government's interest to promote a certain vision of chaotic and violent Mexico. While simultaneously, internationally, and among the elites in Mexico, promote the idea that the federal government is doing everything possible and reducing the amount of violence in Mexico.
Simultaneous to all of this, there has been an increase of narco glorification -- be it through narcocorridos (folk music from northern Mexico that uses the lyrics to narrate stories of famous drug dealers) or shows like Netflix's Narcos. How does this relate to the situation in Mexico?
This is a product of the system as well. The system has created on one hand the incredible wealth and power of these narcos. And on the other hand, by totally abandoning the Mexican population both economically and culturally, there's no real vision of where Mexico should go in terms of values. It's all about creating national insecurity, psychological and social insecurity. And so the people naturally look for other options, again, economically and in terms of values. And the narcos are happy to fill in that role. This speaks to a serious problem that goes beyond an economic crisis and goes into the destruction of the social fabric of Mexican society, which is a very extreme situation.
But my hope is, and my conference is framed in this optimistic light, in Mexico we still have a revolutionary heritage. We still have important traditions of solidarity, and of social justice. We still have an important cultural and historical reserve which can help us overcome this moment.