Saturday, December 17, 2022

In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, A Cover-Up, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press, by Katherine Corcoran

 "A society without truth is a scary place to live."

Bloomsbury, 2022
315 pp


In the preface of this excellent, informative book, the author reveals that on her first day of work in 2010 as Associated Press bureau chief in Mexico City, she received news of a threat from a drug cartel.  If a particular story was not published, they said, the bureau would receive a "special visit."  Part of her job was to ensure the safety of "more than dozen correspondents and twenty freelancers around the region ... protecting the entire Mexico team of a U.S.-based international news agency."   Having worked in Mexico by then for more than two years,  she already knew what needed to be done, knowing that the press in that country was "under siege."  Normally, the international media was left alone, but as she notes, "this was an epidemic," and it was only a matter of time until that would change.  Although Mexico's constitution provides for freedom of the press, it is, as the author notes,  "the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist, outside of a war zone," with some fifty-one journalists having been killed there since the Committee to Protect Journalists started keeping track back in 1992.   

The death of Regina Martinez, a correspondent for Proceso,  an "investigative magazine"  on April 28 2012 captured the attention of Katherine Corcoran, who had admired her journalistic work over the years and had actually spoken to her on the phone once.     Regina had been discovered brutally beaten to death in her home in Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz.  This was only a few months after she had been away and had returned to find that someone had been in her house, leaving behind steam in the bathroom (as if they'd just taken a shower) and some open bottles of soap.  She was used to threats and had always taken precautions, but the invasion of her space really rattled her.   Despite friends' and colleagues' advice to contact the police, she refused, not trusting the justice system since she had firsthand knowledge of just how the system worked from covering the government in Veracruz, "a state known for corruption" and she had written "many exclusives" on the topic, preferring to avoid covering the cartels because of the danger involved for reporters who did.  The overriding narrative in the cases of murdered journalists landed the blame squarely at their own doorsteps, as they were blamed by Mexican officials for their own deaths, implying that "they must have fallen into malos pasos, 'bad ways'." In Regina's case, the police decided that she had been the victim of a crime of passion, but, as Corcoran realizes after talking to Regina's friends and colleagues, there was absolutely no way that was the case here.   On the contrary, Regina's work in investigating and exposing the betrayals of the Mexican people by the government is what ultimately became her "death sentence."  But what was it exactly that she was working on that would have caused her to be so brutally killed?  

Regina Martinez, from Forbidden Stories

Katherine Corcoran certainly hoped to find the answer to that question.  Meeting with colleagues and friends of Regina Martinez, she hoped to "solve the whodunnit" and "shine a spotlight on those who had gotten away with murder."   That would not be an easy task at all; as she says,  "the realities of reporting in Mexico were far more complicated" than she had encountered anywhere else.  As the dustjacket blurb notes, a lot of people were afraid to even talk about Regina, while Corcoran and Regina's friends "battled cover-ups, narco-officials, red tape and threats," many from the government itself, the institution which is supposed to guarantee and protect the rights of journalists.   

Corcoran's search for answers in Regina's case also shines a light on corruption at the highest levels of the Mexican government, as well as the state of journalism in Mexico where all too often journalists are pressured to either say nothing under the threat of "plata o plomo," or they report the "facts"  sanctioned by the state or other players, going along with the approved version of the news; some, as in Regina's case, are simply killed for daring to publish the truth.   She also makes connections between what was happening in the United States  in terms of freedom of the press, which has come increasingly under attack, where "Truth became optional; and information, a weapon used to control and manipulate," not to mention that somehow the independent press, "the bedrock of our democracy" came to be called "the enemy of the people."  What she saw happening in America appalled her enough to realize that her country had "started to look like Mexico."  It is a truly frightening thought, one that should scare anybody who truly believes in the Constitutional right to freedom of the press in a democracy.    And yet, through all of her work in putting together this book, the author never loses sight of her subject, Regina Martinez, who paid an unthinkable price for trying to bring truth to the people of Mexico, to open their eyes as to what was happening in their country.  

I cannot do justice to this book in just a few paragraphs, but I absolutely loved it and hated putting it down for any length of time. It is well written, beyond timely given what's going on in the US at the moment when journalists are being silenced on Twitter; it is researched in depth, it is informative, and drew me in completely.  It also opened a number of avenues of exploration once I made my way to various websites the author mentions in her book including Forbidden Stories  and The Committee to Protect Journalists, and heightened my interest in the attacks on journalists in Mexico in such stories as the murder of Fredid Román in August of this year, who wrote "critically" about the Truth Commission created by Mexico's President Andrés López Obrador, the purpose of which was to investigate the disappearing of  43 students from Ayotzinapa in Guerrero in 2014.  That in turn led to two different documentaries on Netflix as well as the purchase of a book of in-depth reporting of that incident by journalist Anabel Hernandez called La Verdadera Noche de Iguala.  Any book that can move me to take a further look  (and fall down a few rabbitholes in doing so) is well worth reading, making me appreciate the author's hard work and her meticulous research even more.  

I recommend this book so very, very highly -- it's certainly one of the best I've read this year.  

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