Last Tuesday night in Mexico City I headed to a bar with some press colleagues. It was late and the bar was lit with candles for mood lighting. As we sat down to order drinks my friend Joan took hold of the candle in front of her and said, 'I'll hold onto this for the next journalist to be murdered.'
We had been at a vigil to mourn the murder of renowned journalist Javier Valdez and to protest the ever-escalating number of journalist murders in the country in a legal and political climate of almost total impunity.
Valdez was a highly respected reporter and critic of the drug cartels and the Mexican government's war on drugs, and had expected his death to come at the hands of the powerful drug traffickers in Sinaloa where he was based. He was the fifth journalist to be killed in Mexico this year, and the 26th to be killed since 2006.
In the crowd of around 500 journalists and allies who gathered outside the Secretarí a de Gobernació (the country's interior ministry), many had themselves been kidnapped or knew and loved others who had; many had already lost other close colleagues before this year has even hit its halfway mark.
Joan was joking in that dark way that people do when they know there's little hope. Hope is something I asked everybody about that night — do you have hope that anything could change? That the murders could stop? That the disappeared could return? That there could be solutions to the political and economic corruption that strangles the country?
Everyone had their own take on why the situation is as it is, but they were united in telling me they had no hope, that it was all 'fucked', that they they were just keeping on keeping on; and anyway, let's get more chelas and mezcal and keep talking, tonight.
Naturally, I was shocked and saddened by the murder of Valdez, as I am every time the news comes that another journalist has been killed. As a writer myself who occasionally reports on Mexico it's frightening, though I know that my white skin, Australian passport, and general biographical distance from the issues makes me the least likely candidate for that next candle.
Few of these feelings appeared on the surface of my friends' bodies as we sat around the bar. You learn, I guess, to manage them with cynicism, alcohol, and fellowship. And you keep on keeping on, because even if there's no hope, there is truth, and honour, and those things are worth pursuing.
"'No to silence' went the chant at the vigil, but what a heavy 'no' it is when its inverse is 'yes' to death."
Valdez was certainly the most high-profile journalist to suffer the fate that everybody knows they too could meet. He had written several well-known books about the drug cartel culture in his home state of Sinaloa, won press freedom awards such as the Courage Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, and founded the newspaper Riodoce, for which he wrote columns exploring crime and impunity in Mexico in a style that was equally investigative and narrative.
When Chihuahua correspondent Miroslava Breach was shot dead in March, her killers left a card saying she had been murdered por lengua larga; for running her mouth. Valdez shot back with a tweet: 'They killed Miroslava for "running her mouth". Why don't they just kill us all if it's a death sentence to report in this hell. No to silence.' 'No to silence' went the chant at the vigil, but what a heavy 'no' it is when its inverse is 'yes' to death.
At the bar, we talked about how many foreign journalists had been there; the cameras of a hundred international outlets trained on the demonstrations of mourning and defiance. 'What's the use of them?' I asked. In Rio de Janeiro last year I'd seen the foreign presence be very effective in boosting signals that their own government repressed; could it be the same here?
Twisting the wick of Joan's now-extinguished candle in her hand, another friend said, 'Sometimes it's like they're just really excited by the violence, or addicted to the drama. And yeah, they can always go home, while we have to live here, with this.' Then, back to the gallows register: 'But I guess we need some people around here who can still feel.'
Ann Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher from Sydney. Read her other writing at xterrafirma.net and tweet her @Ann_dLandes.
Photo: Jorge Dan Lopez