Over 100,000 people have been disappeared in the course of the destructive drug war waged in Mexico over the past two decades. Among the deceased are more than 150 journalists murdered for their work to expose the dense network of corruption and violence that links government officials, police, and the military with organized crime. The case of Regina Martinez, an investigative journalist assassinated in her home in the state of Veracruz in 2012, is emblematic of this war being waged against the press. Katherine Corcoran, former Associated Press bureau chief for Mexico and Central America, joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss her book on the case of Regina Martinez and the wider context of the killings of journalists in Mexico, In the Mouth of the Wolf.
Katherine Corcoran is a former Associated Press bureau chief for Mexico and Central America. She is currently co-director of Cronkite Noticias, the bilingual reporting program at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and of MasterLAB, an investigative editor training program in Mexico City.
Studio: Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Adam Coley
Chris Hedges: On April 28, 2012, an intruder broke through the metal door leading into the garden patio of the investigative reporter Regina Martinez. He apparently surprised the Mexican journalist in her bathroom, where her body was discovered. The diminutive reporter, barely five feet tall, tried to fight off her attacker. Skin was found under her fingernails. Her jaw was broken with brass knuckles, a rag was wrapped around her neck. She was apparently suffocated to death. She was one of 150 journalists murdered in Mexico since 2000.
These reporters, poorly paid, often working for local online publications, courageously exposed the collaboration between government officials, the police, and the powerful drug cartels. Martinez, who was killed at age 48, was working on an investigation into the corruption of two successive governors: Fidel Herrera and Javier Duarte, in her home state of Veracruz, considered the most dangerous place in the world to report. In Veracruz, drug traffickers and their accomplices have executed hundreds of people, including teenage dealers, families, farmers, and politicians, even young women who attended their sex parties. Many of these bodies ended up in unmarked mass graves.
Martinez refused bribes and ignored threats. Unable to be bought off or intimidated, she, like many other Mexican journalists, was murdered. The current Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has asked that the homicide case be reexamined. Katherine Corcoran, the former Associated Press bureau chief in Mexico, in her book In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, a Cover-Up, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press, uses the case of Martinez to look at a country where, in many towns and cities, there is no separation between government, the police, the military, and organized crime.
She chronicles what happens when the path of fake news and obfuscation, something that not only plagues Mexico but the United States, takes its natural course. Joining me to discuss her book In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, a Cover-Up, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press is Katherine Corcoran.
You begin the book with a death threat that you received in the AP Bureau, and that is an escalation. You chart that process of intimidation and threats that begin at the local level and work the way up the chain and how that functions. Can you explain that?
Katherine Corcoran: Yes. First of all, thank you for having me. I’m very glad to be here to talk about this. Initially, yes, the hits against journalists, they started maybe in the late ’90s, but they really were growing in the years when I arrived in Mexico in 2008. It was six or seven people a year. The year I became bureau chief, 10 people. And for the most part, initially, they were local reporters and they were working in conflict areas, the borders basically, where obviously there’s important routes for trafficking. It was an issue, a problem that a lot of people ignored, even among journalists.
Especially in Mexico City, they looked at it like, well, that’s another world, and some of those people aren’t journalists anyway. There was definitely a lot of criticism within the journalist ranks about who was a journalist and who wasn’t. There weren’t a lot of uniform ethics or standards in how people were doing their jobs. It was known that a lot of, especially journalists in smaller markets, were being paid by various sources to write good news or were under the employ of someone.
It was something that started off as it was happening, the government dismissed it, said these journalists were corrupt and that’s why they got in trouble. There was not a lot to do because there were never investigations. We really didn’t know. People just started to parrot the government story, which is, oh, they’re not journalists. The president’s office specifically called me on one case and said, they’re not journalists, Kathy. They’re not like you. They were basically saying American or foreign journalists coming into Mexico and the way we do journalism, the way these people were operating was very different.
I was suspicious initially because they were so insistent about it. But then, as you said, it escalated. I think the threat that we received at The Associated Press, we were never able to confirm whether it was a real threat or a hoax. But if it was real, we saw it as kind of a trial balloon to see how an international organization would react, because mostly they left us alone because we made a lot of noise, and they wanted to do these things without making too much noise.
We never really found the origin of what that threat was. But then in 2012, when Regina was murdered, it was a very clear message for everyone. Because first of all, they didn’t hit national correspondence either up to that point. There were these unwritten rules. As you know, when you’re operating in a country with a lot of corruption, you never operate on those assumptions, but there are a certain set of unspoken rules about who they go after and who they don’t. Well, when they killed a national correspondent for Proceso magazine, that was a whole other level. Everyone saw it that way. For all of us, we saw that was an attempt to silence a journalist that had nothing to do with her situation. She was beyond reproach. It was a clear message that they were out to silence independent journalists.
Chris Hedges: Although you set the stage with the collusion of the press or corruption of the press with the ruling PRI party, you write the press of Mexico was considered mostly a paid voice of the government rather than an independent watchdog. While they didn’t control the press outright, PRI governments had various ways to keep the press in line with money perquisites. And if that didn’t work, threats. With few exceptions. The media over the decades learned to self-censor and follow the rules. What Mexican historian and essayist Daniel Cosio Villegas called a free press that does not make use of its freedom. Many journalists in turn charged sources for positive stories and used their contacts in other ways for personal gain. The press was already weakened and corrupted by the PRI. How long was the PRI in power? 60 years or something?
Katherine Corcoran: 71 years. The interesting thing about Regina’s career is that she started in the 1980s. And in the 1980s, Mexico was already on the path toward democracy and the breakup of one-party authoritarian rule. There was a lot of political unrest. There were factions within the party. In the late ’80s, you saw the break off and the creation of new parties. In the late ’80s, you also saw opposition governors starting to get elected. The thing about the press is that they didn’t report any of that because of their previous role. They only covered official party news. If there were protests, whatever, the general press didn’t cover it.
Well, she came up in a time when that hold on the press was also breaking apart, and she did cover all of those things, and that’s what made her remarkable. I mean, if you looked at it, you might think, well, this is just normal good journalism in the United States. But in the context and the place where she was doing this, it was very remarkable. She literally gave voice to the voiceless. She covered all the groups that were oppressed by the government. Social justice was a big issue for her. She covered Indigenous groups, she covered the Campesinos, she covered the poor, and she also covered the opposition parties. And that was very unusual.
In Mexico City, with this kind of breakup of authoritarian rule, the press did become more critical, more professional, but it was generally considered that in the outlying states, in places like Veracruz, the press was really bought totally. For her – And she had a small cadre of colleagues who were like her – To be doing that was really remarkable, but also very unsettling, disturbing. She was called an uncomfortable reporter, because the government obviously plain didn’t like her revealing all these things that they were able to cover up in the past.
Chris Hedges: Well, what’s interesting about the book is that, in many ways, the narcos or the drug cartels fill the void of the PRI, and they begin to co-op the media, you write. You said this was decades in the making in turn of the co-opting, but now is a different actor with much deadlier consequences. There were countless rumors of top editors who were paid to carry cartel news in their newspapers or who benefited financially.
The director of a local news organization in the Western state of Michoacán, someone who the AP used regularly, appeared on a leaked video with the drug overlord Servando La Tuta Gomez, who was counting out bills for the journalist as the two discussed how the cartel could get better coverage. Later in the book, you write about competing cartels. One cartel would carry out a hit and they wouldn’t want it on the news and then the competing cartel would, and they’re both putting pressure on the news organization.
Katherine Corcoran: It was a very complicated situation for a lot of reporters because they were accustomed to this system where their sources would pay them. I think you might be able to say that, initially, when these new powers came into town and adopted the same system of how they deal with the press, that they might have looked at that as normal, but they didn’t realize how deadly it was. When these cartels started warring with each other and pulling the press in different directions, they literally got caught in the middle.
It’s so complicated to talk about what’s behind these murders because some people, yes, were outright co-opted, they were paid to try to control what the press was reporting or what their particular media was reporting, but others were just… They had no choice. If the cartel comes to you and says you’re going to do something, you have to do it. There was willing collaboration, but there was also fear, and there was also, well, it wasn’t the cartels, it was actually the government.
It was a very complicated soup in which all this was happening, and that’s obviously one of the reasons I wanted to write the book was to sort it all out. In my time as bureau chief in the middle of all this, it was very confusing and a lot of questions and a lot of competing information for us to print, like I said, that they were just all corrupt, and that’s end of story.
Chris Hedges: The Columbian Press dealt with the same kind of threats, same kind of intimidation, same kind of corruption as you point out in the book, but they reacted very differently. Can you explain that Columbian model and juxtapose that to what happened in Mexico?
Katherine Corcoran: Yes. In the Columbian model – And again, when I was in Mexico, a lot of people talked about this and tryed to adopt it – But in the Columbian model, the press finally decided to band together and print investigations all at the same time without bylines. Normally we’re in this very competitive situation where we want to get something that nobody else has, and what they decided was that the safest way to print real reporting in the face of this violence and the threats of the cartels was to all come together, print the same story across the country in the major publications, and not put anyone’s name on it, not to put any individual in danger. And with the idea being that if they did that, who were the cartels going to go after it? It was safety in numbers.
When I was in Mexico and this epidemic of killings was just starting to take off – I mean, we thought it was terrible in those days, and it has only gotten worse – There was a lot of talk about, well, let’s use the Columbian model. The problem is, again, because there was a lot of corruption in the press – And certainly still is, even though the press has improved dramatically since then – That they just didn’t trust each other. There were too many informants masquerading as journalists or working in newsrooms as journalists.
There were also media organizations where other media organizations didn’t know who they were aligned with or who they were getting money from. There was such a lack of trust within the Mexican Press Corps. They couldn’t ever really pull that off. The fact that they couldn’t trust each other was a very effective tool in keeping them silent because there was no solidarity at all.
Chris Hedges: As we were speaking before, and this was my mistake, Martinez never actually investigated the drug cartels. What she was investigating was government corruption. And that gets to the point of the alliance or fusion between the military, the police and government officials, and the drug cartels. You write at one point about Efrain Teodoro Torres. He was known as Zeta 14, who came out of the military. But can you talk about that process and what it created?
Katherine Corcoran: In terms of the cartels?
Chris Hedges: In terms of the way that government power, police power, and military power often worked directly on behalf of the cartels?
Katherine Corcoran: Well, under the PRI, which was the ruling party for 71 years, the president of Mexico controlled everything. The president of Mexico controlled the political party, he appointed the state governors, they appointed the judges, and he also controlled organized crime. As you well know, you can’t have organized crime in any government system without some kind of approval. The president worked directly with the mafias to basically tell them where and when they could operate or cut the deals of what kind of money the government was going to skim off their business. Often, federal police were involved in protecting the cartels in various states and involved in protecting their routes.
In those days, it was mainly about drug shipping. It’s really morphed into every kind of organized crime now, but in those days, it was about shipping drugs from South America to the United States through Mexico, and they needed protection to do that, and they got it from the government. But in that kind of system, there is some control on what they can do.
Well, when democracy came and the president was democratically elected for the first time and an opposition party won, that whole system of central control fell apart. There was a lot of chaos in a lot of these regions where the cartels were operating.
That’s why you saw a lot of violence in places like Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez, because those were the smuggling routes. There was a lot of confusion about, well, how’s this new system going to work, and who’s protecting us? And so, the drug cartels were left to negotiate with the local politicians who also gained more control after that central control broke up. They were also free to make their own alliances. And that was the point when organized crime really started to morph in Mexico because there was no central control, and it depended on whatever the local, either the mayor or the governor, what they were willing to do.
Some of them did try to fight them, as you would expect a government to do. Others cut all kinds of deals: we’ll leave you alone, you leave us alone, or we’re going to do this together. There was a variety of forms of government and organized crime collusion that were created, and I call that an unintended consequence of democracy in Mexico.
Chris Hedges: Well, you talk about, with the breakdown of the PRI, candidates relied on drug money or money from the cartels to run for office in the same way that candidates in the United States rely on corporations.
Katherine Corcoran: Yes, very much so. With competitive elections, candidates needed money. And with the breakup of the central control in Mexico, the mafias needed protection. There was a mutual benefit for them to start working together.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about surveillance, not just you talk about Mariella San Martin an Aurea, an informant who’s sent to press conferences to spy on journalists, but there’s also technological surveillance of journalists. These journalists like Martinez are heavily monitored.
Katherine Corcoran: Yes. She in particular was heavily monitored. When you look at the Mexican scandal over the software Pegasus, which allows you to intervene just about anything and was designed to be used on criminals, not on journalists, but was regularly used on journalists in opposition in Mexico, and you look at who bought and used Pegasus, and Veracruz is right up there on the list. Veracruz had very heavy surveillance of all the journalists. Particularly Regina and journalists like Regina, she did feel that her phone was being interfered with. She often had trouble with internet access in her house.
She also felt that there were various people or posts set up outside to watch her. She was very aware of that. She was a very hermetic person, a big reason for her own safety. She didn’t want people to know much about her personal life, her family, and very much what she was working on. She was very aware of these kinds of surveillance. She had her mitigating measures the best that she could.
Chris Hedges: Let’s get into her murder. You write, Regina didn’t cover drug cartels. She investigated politicians, and the details of her murder being beaten and strangled to death didn’t fit the cartel pattern. That’s one of the reasons you wanted to investigate. They did actually arrest someone, I think, who’s still in prison, but he claims, he says he was tortured into confessing. But it didn’t fit the pattern. Talk about that.
Katherine Corcoran: No, it didn’t. The other journalists who were killed, presumably by drug cartels, were killed in very brutal manners. They were snatched off the street. They were tortured. Many of them ended up, they were found in pieces in garbage bags. Incredibly gruesome stuff. And that did not happen to her. This is where I would get into some speculation – And just be clear that I never was able to prove this – But it seems like a good tactic if you don’t want someone to recognize who’s behind a murder to make it look like kind of a regular street crime. And that’s how it looked: like someone broke in, they robbed her, they beat her up and killed her.
Chris Hedges: You write, Mexican reporters said they feared the government more than the cartels.
Katherine Corcoran: Yes. And especially in Veracruz, people started talking about that. This is, again, another reason why I wanted to write this book. If you ask people – And I still do this just for my own informal survey – Whenever I’m talking about this subject of journalist killings in Mexico, people always say it’s the drug cartels up to this day. If you ask the Mexican journalists, no, that’s not it. What I call them are criminal governments. It’s criminal governments who are often colluding with organized crime, but sometimes they become the organized crime themselves. If anyone tries to expose that activity or those connections, that’s what puts them in the most danger. In Mexico, people always say, you can investigate the government, you can write about the government, you can write about the drug cartels. But if you write anything about them being one and the same, that’s when you’re on very dangerous ground.
The thing about her is that she didn’t cover drug cartels. In general, since the ’80s and ’90s, there were always drug runners in Mexico. She knew that was a topic that could get you in trouble. And in the ’80s and ’90s as well, it was very much clandestine. It was under the radar. The drug cartels didn’t want people to know what was going on. Every once in a while, a story would pop up about a mayor growing marijuana or having clandestine airfields, all kinds of things out in the rural areas of the state. Actually two major capos, including Rafael Caro Quintero, had a ranch in Veracruz.
There was always this presence, but it was something that really didn’t affect people’s everyday lives. Her whole career, her coverage was very consistent. It was about marginalized communities, oppressed communities, and what the government was doing to them, and how the government basically was failing the people. She was always looking into the finances and finding examples of corruption and graft when it was what you would just call straight old government corruption, people stealing money from the public. She was always into those stories. Opposition people would leak her documents, and they told me she was the only reporter who even wanted to look at documents or sift through documents to really verify and write a solid story. Her career was all those kinds of stories for years.
But then with this morphing and the government and organized crime becoming more aligned, her interest was still the government. Her interest was how the government was failing the people by aligning themselves and becoming criminals themselves. In the end, that was more of what she was trying to reveal, and that, I think, ultimately led to her murder, that she had some information, some very dangerous information, that people didn’t want to get out.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about the mass graves. They’re not only running drugs, the cartels, they’re running migrants into the United States. In Veracruz, you’re uncovering these mass graves largely of Central American migrants. Can you talk about that?
Katherine Corcoran: In other parts of Mexico, there are mass graves of migrants, and certainly in Veracruz as well. But the mass graves in Veracruz were discovered later on. That route that goes straight through Veracruz, for people who don’t know, it’s a very long, thin state that goes along the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s very close, just one or two states south to get to the Guatemalan border. And then you go straight up through Veracruz and you’re in Tamaulipas, which borders Texas. That route goes straight from Guatemala to the Texas border.
Initially, along that route of migrant smuggling, yeah, there were a lot of graves, and I’m sure there still are that haven’t been discovered. But when the graves started to be discovered in Veracruz, they were people from Veracruz. They were people who had been kidnapped for extortion, who had been kidnapped for various reasons. Sometimes families paid the ransom and the people were killed anyway. They were political rivals. They were cartel rivals. At one point, the Veracruz police decided that they were just going to round up anybody who they suspected was a Zeta or a member of a certain cartel and just get rid of them. That was their method. Forced disappearance was their method of justice. Those are the people who were in those graves.
A lot of them may have been working for the cartels, but a lot of them weren’t. A lot of them were just innocent civilians, and they were taken for their money or they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. A lot of times they rounded up young men to work for the cartels, and if you didn’t work for the cartels, you would end up in a mass grave. There are really all kinds of people in those mass graves. And unfortunately, there are a lot of missing people in Veracruz, and there are a lot of mass graves. And unfortunately, again, with the failures of government, they’ve not been able to identify very many of those remains to confirm who they are and if they match up with the missing people.
But it’s just an enormous human rights crisis there. The government, like the cartels, clearly was involved in some of those disappearances, because the police were doing it. If somebody crossed a politician or a military person the wrong way, they didn’t like them, they’d have their goons go out and get them up and they’d end up in a mass grave. It was just total impunity. Or maybe they had a girl they liked and they’d go get her, and then after a while just throw her away. It was just beyond the pale. Now all that is being discovered.
That is really one of the points of the book, is that because of this criminal government, with the killing of Regina, which just terrorized everyone, there were a lot of reporters who left Veracruz after that killing. The other ones who stayed basically decided, I better keep my head down so I don’t end up like her. It was a very effective silencing tactic, that and the other killings which had everyone terrorized. So that in the face of this lack of independent reporting, any kind of real information about what was going on, the government was able to victimize its own people in a very serious way, not only stealing money, but literally kidnapping and killing their own citizens.
In the papers at the time and the media at the time, there was nothing about any of this. There might have been a few. There were a couple outlets that maybe did write some of this, but they were more sensationalist. They had other protections, and so they were able to get away with it a little bit. But for the most part – I took photographs of some of the newspapers at the time and the press had big headlines every day about what a great job Javier Duarte was doing for this day. That was the level of news coverage at the time, when all this terrible stuff was going on.
Chris Hedges: I just want to stop there, but you wrote an amazing, I didn’t know this, you say “The number of missing continues to climb up to 80,000 missing as of the end of 2020, according to the government’s own statistics.” This is you again. “This is far more than under any of the right-wing dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, or other South American countries during the Cold War. And given the under-reporting of crime in Mexico, many think the actual number is much higher.” We’re going to stop there.
I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.