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Memory Lost: What Dies with a Murdered Journalist?

Updated: Sep 28


Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul

The video shows a man bound to a post, slumping awkwardly as his head rolls to the side. A thick stream of blood runs from a deep gash in his forehead down the front of his open shirt. Behind the lens of the camera is reporter Francisco Romero Díaz, though we only hear his voice, asking the injured man what had happened, who had attacked him.

There was little time before the paramedics would arrive, and the reporter wanted to learn as much as he could. His video would probably be the only record of the event before it vanished, absorbed into the ever-growing files of unsolved crime in Mexico.

“Un machetazo”, you can hear the victim say, then again “machete.”

The video was uploaded to Facebook under the title “Attacked with a Machete” on the page of Semanario Playa News Aquí y Ahora, a crime tabloid in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo.

I found the video, by accident, one summer day in 2018. I was beginning to build the first records that would become Defensores de la Democracia, the living archive that recovers and preserves the work of murdered journalists in Mexico, and I had found Romero Díaz’s video while looking for stories from another reporter: Rubén Pat Cauich.

Pat Cauich had founded Semanario Playa News Aquí y Ahora after working the crime beat for La Respuesta, a newspaper that had previously closed. He had run the new enterprise from 2016 to late July 2018, when he was murdered. His death occurred 25 days after the killing of Guadalupe Chan Dzib, who had covered a different region for the outlet.

Pat Cauich and Chan Dzib are two of the more than 110 journalists who have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, according to statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists. The vast majority of them worked at small, underfunded, local news outlets. Some worked at community radio stations that gave a voice to historically marginalized populations, others at start-up websites or social-media-based portals like Semanario Playa News, while others ran family businesses or distributed broadsheets from their homes. All of them documented the daily events in the places they lived.

Over the years, the number of murdered journalists has been growing. Civil society organizations have undertaken essential responsibilities: recording new attacks, offering trainings, monitoring and critiquing problematic legislation, publishing reports, providing legal accompaniment and challenging official indifference, and memorializing those who were killed. But amid this crisis, some things have been overlooked, particularly memory and understanding.

When you look for information about a murdered journalist, the first—and sometimes the only—thing that you find is information about their death. The story of those who were killed is that of their killing, we know reporters because of what was done to them, not because of what they did in life. We remember them for their loss of agency, not their accomplishments.

While the murders were documented with increasing detail, the work they produced began disappearing from social media, blogs, and websites; printed newspapers were destroyed in floods or chewed by moths. That which remains is scattered, unprotected and uncatalogued, in basements or houses across the country. The risk is that these journalists become statistics, their murders indistinguishable, and their work forgotten.

That risk is precisely what we faced in preserving the memory of Pat Cauich. Semanario Playa News had only existed as a Facebook page, but had documented firsthand—and before anyone else—various tragic events in Playa del Carmen. The outlet described the type of violence and the increase in crime that began to rock Quintana Roo in 2017. Pat Cauich described it all, sometimes seated in a chair that he used as an improvised studio, other times reporting from his car, patrolling the streets with Francisco Romero Díaz.

One of these videos, for example, contained the first accounts of a massacre at the BPN music festival at the Blue Parrot bar in January 2017. Pat Cauich and Romero Díaz arrived at the scene before any other reporters. They filmed images of people fleeing, the tourists screaming in English, the words of a woman who tried to save a victim, and finally the arrival of the paramedics.

These reports would be essential documents for a modern history of Playa del Carmen, and they give us a portrait of the kind of reporting that many murdered journalists pursue.

In the summer of 2018, I saved what I could of Pat Cauich’s reporting. I did not save the video Romero Díaz had recorded of the man who had been attacked with a machete. Francisco Romero Díaz was alive, and I needed to focus on the work of those who were not.

I archived two videos by Pat Cauich, and four where both journalists appeared. The rest of the reportage I filed on a lengthy to-do list of links. I planned to download them later, more systematically, with a scraping code that could process many videos simultaneously.

At Defensores de la Democracia, we are building a space by and for everyone. It is the only documentary archive that recovers, stores, and organizes the work of murdered journalists in Mexico. In this living archive, you can read the stories that Pat Cauich published when he wrote for La Respuesta, before founding Semanario Playa News, and soon you will be able to see the six videos that we managed to save. You can also read thousands of stories from others, stories that help answer vital questions about their authors: What did they cover? How did they write? Did they make videos, report on the radio, write narratives, or conduct interviews?

This is how we honor the legacy of these journalists, by recovering the documentation of events they covered and ensuring the survival of their work for those who seek to understand—through the rich detail of these voices—the recent history of Mexico.

That memory is our first duty.

On May 17, 2019, almost a year after I had first seen Romero Díaz’s video, I was boarding a plane in Culiacán, Sinaloa, to return to Mexico City. I had attended the second Jornada Malayerba, a three-day event that, through various activities, celebrated the memory of journalist Javier Valdez and demanded justice for his murder.

That day, as I sat on the plane, just before I turned off my phone, I saw the news: hours earlier, Francisco Romero Díaz had been murdered outside a bar in Playa del Carmen. By then, the Defensores de la Democracia team had preserved more than 9,000 pieces from more than 40 murdered journalists, but the videos from Romero Díaz were not among them.

I logged onto Facebook as fast as I could. I opened the page of Semanario News Aquí y Ahora. I searched for “Attacked with a machete.” The video was not there. Scrolling the page, I tried to find other publications from Romero Díaz. Nothing. I opened the document where, months earlier, I had saved the links of stories with Pat Cauich. One by one, I tried to open them. Every time, the same thing happened. The work of Rubén Pat Cauich and Francisco Romero Díaz had disappeared.




Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul is a journalist and author. Her work can be read in Letras Libres, Gatopardo, Ríodoce y Pie de Página, The Haitian Times y Worcester Magazine, among others. She is the autor of El Chapo Guzmán. El Juicio del Siglo (Aguilar 2019) and co-author of No basta encender una vela (Rayuela 2015). She received her degree in Political Science from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) and a degree in Journalism from Columbia University. She founded and directs Defensores de la Democracia (www.ddld.mx)

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The Mexico Violence Resource Project is a collaborative effort housed at UC San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies.

Contact us at admin@mexicoviolence.org