Gunmen Attack Prominent Mexican News Anchor, Spreading Fear Among Journalists

MEXICO CITY — Around 11 p.m. last Thursday, one of Mexico’s most famous news anchors was driving home from work through his bucolic neighborhood in the capital when gunmen on a motorcycle pulled up and started shooting at him. They hit his car several times before racing off.

The anchor, Ciro Gómez Leyva, escaped unharmed, apparently saved by bullet-resistant glass windows that withstood several direct shots.

“Someone wanted to kill me,” Mr. Gómez Leyva said on his newscast the following day. “I don’t know why. I don’t know who.”

No one knows who committed the crime or the motive — but the brazen attack on such a well-known journalist sent a clear message to the nation’s media: No one is safe.

Mr. Gómez Leyva is a household name, who hosts among the most watched news and radio shows in the country. Yet his car was shot up on a tree-lined street in a wealthy enclave in Mexico City, where killings of journalists have been relatively rare.

In a slew of newspaper columns and in conversations among colleagues, Mexico’s press corps has begun to reckon with the possibility that prominence, once considered a shield against violence, may no longer offer much protection.

“You attack someone as visible and important as Ciro because the cost of doing so is very low,” Salvador Camarena, a newspaper columnist based in Mexico City, said, using Mr. Gómez Leyva’s first name. “That message has reached every journalist in Mexico, and it’s obviously terrifying.”

Much of the furor over the attack has been directed at President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has had a combative relationship with the media since taking office in 2018, using hourslong daily news conferences to vilify journalists who criticize him.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at a news conference in Mexico City on Wednesday.Credit…Pedro Pardo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Since the beginning of his tenure, Mr. López Obrador has weaponized his daily news conferences to lash out at journalists by name, putting lists of them up on a big screen and holding a weekly segment called “Who’s Who in Lies,” intended to expose supposed falsehoods published about his administration in the media.

This week, on national television, the president expressed “solidarity” with Mr. Gómez Leyva — but also raised the possibility that the attack was staged, and was actually an attempt to destabilize the government.

Mr. López Obrador said he couldn’t “discount” the possibility that the assault was planned by “someone who did it to affect us.”

The president’s response triggered a backlash from prominent media figures, who in a letter published on Wednesday suggested that he has created a hostile environment for reporters by constantly demonizing the press.

“Practically all the expressions of hate toward journalists are incubated, born and spread in the National Palace,” reads the letter, which was signed by 180 journalists. “If President López Obrador does not control his impulses of anger toward critical journalists, the country will enter an even bloodier stage.”

The president’s confrontational response has prompted growing doubt about whether the government can be counted on to protect a press corps under threat — or deliver justice in one of the most high-profile attacks on a journalist in recent memory.

“In this climate of attacks by the Mexican leader, can the government carry out an independent investigation?” Mr. Gómez Leyva said in a WhatsApp message. “I won’t say more than that.”

Mexico has long been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, and by various measures, 2022 was one of the deadliest years for the press in decades.

Three journalists have been murdered in direct retaliation for their work this year and another 10 were killed in circumstances still under investigation, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit that defends the rights of journalists around the world.

A memorial to killed journalists and human rights defenders in Mexico City in October.Credit…Isaac Esquivel/EPA, via Shutterstock

Only Ukraine, a war zone, has seen more journalists killed this year.

The slain media workers are among the more visible victims of the carnage that has consumed Mexico, despite the president’s promise to bring peace to the country when he took office four years ago.

Alfonso Margarito Martínez Esquivel, 49, a freelance crime photographer, was shot dead outside his house in Tijuana in January.

In February, Heber López was killed the day after he published an article accusing a local official of corruption. The next month, gunmen murdered Armando Linares López, the editor of a news website in violent Michoacan state, reportedly shooting him at least eight times.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has not been able to confirm conclusively that the others killed were targeted for their work. “In many cases it’s just because of the general deteriorating security situation in the country,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, the group’s Mexico representative.

Mr. López Obrador has at times taken quick action to respond to attacks on members of the press. When the news anchor Azucena Uresti received a direct threat from one of the most powerful cartels in the country last year, Mr. López Obrador quickly announced that he had arranged for the federal government to provide her protection.

But the president has not made broad policy changes that would make the country safer for media workers on the whole, Mr. Hootsen said, and more often than not he has focused on downplaying the issue.

Mexican police officers with the vehicle where Fredid Román, a journalist, was killed in front of the newspaper La Realidad in Chilpancingo, Mexico, in August.Credit…Jesus Guerrero/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The common thread in the way he responded to attacks on journalists is to minimize the damage to his reputation,” Mr. Hootsen said.

Following the attack on Mr. Gómez Leyva, Mexican City officials have started investigating the crime, and the president has promised to get to the bottom of it.

But Mr. Lopez Obrador has also continued to name and shame specific journalists he dislikes, while questioning the credibility of the independent press in general. He has not announced any new measures to protect reporters.

“What would happen if this was one of anchors at ABC, CBS, Fox News, CNN or MSNBC? It would be a major international news story and it would require immediate action by the government,” said Jorge Ramos, an anchor at Univision and frequent target of Mr. López Obrador’s broadsides. “In Mexico, absolutely nothing happens.”

It remains unclear why Mr. Gómez Leyva was targeted. A prominent media executive, among others, suggested on social media that it might be related to a segment the anchor ran two days before the shooting.

In that spot, Mr. Gómez Leyva broadcast footage of the suspected leader of a criminal group from the state of Michoacan attending a church service that included police officers. But this week, a lawyer for the man, José Refugio Rodríguez, went on Mr. Gómez Leyva’s radio program and denied his client was involved.

On his Tuesday radio show, Mr. Gómez Leyva asked his co-host to read the names of all the journalists killed in Mexico this year.

He then addressed the president directly: “They were killed within a territory,” Mr. Gómez Leyva said, “where you govern and where you promised that there would be no more violence, that there would be no more impunity and where you have failed catastrophically.”

Then Mr. Gómez Leyva asked his co-host to read all the names, one more time.

Oscar Lopez contributed reporting.

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