What Avocados Teach Us About Protecting Mexican Journalists

There is a constant lament that Mexico is the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. UNESCO recorded the killing of nine Mexican journalists in 2021, and in the first few months of 2022, at least five more have already been reported. Current protection measures are clearly not doing the job. Here is a lesson about effective protection measures from the recent suspension of Mexican avocado imports to the United States.

Around the time of the Super Bowl, when Mexican avocados are scooped up in US grocery stores to feed our guacamole habit, a US avocado inspector located in Michoacán was threatened. In response, US Department of Agriculture announced the suspension of Mexican avocados and that it would stay in “place for as long as necessary to ensure the appropriate actions are taken, to secure the safety of APHIS personnel working in Mexico.”

This did not go unnoticed. There were complaints from many sectors about how this hurt the wrong people, not the criminals, but the producers, consumers and everyone on the supply chain in between. What this action did was hurt the bottom line. That is the main reasons that it was the right thing to do. It sent an unequivocal message that the US would not tolerate violence against its inspectors – punto final.  Threaten our people and we will shut this down.

Criminal organizations have run amuck in Michoacán for decades. Efforts to control these organizations have been unsuccessful, although many have died trying. The region has settled into a less than peaceful co-existence between criminal organizations, agricultural producers and politicians. Those who really want to make change have never found sufficient support to make it last, or to do so without becoming targets.

That is why this action by USDA was so important. By suspending avocado imports, it forced a lot of different interests to draw a line at not tolerating violence against the inspectors.

Here’s a lesson for what the Mexican government needs to do to protect journalists.  They need to make it abundantly clear that violence against Mexican journalists will not be tolerated. The message must be big. It must broadly hurt the interests of those adjacent to this problem. If a journalist is killed, the government’s retaliation will be so complete that it will disrupt their lives as well. The consequence of killing a Mexican journalist must be economic as well as judicial.

After a week, the USDA lifted the avocado suspension. A costly message was sent, but I do not expect to see violence against avocado inspectors any time soon.

We need to get away from the idea that panic buttons (a phone app that can be pushed at the moment a journalist feels threatened) are going to protect journalists, and start demanding that the price of threatening journalists – not just killing them – be made dramatically clear. Business, the media and the state have to come together to develop a strategy that sends a clear message. That is not the message we see when the president of Mexico makes journalists the target of complaint during his daily media session.

Until there is a united resolve — including a high price to pay for threats, no less killings – -Mexican journalists will continue to be free game.

*First published 3/14/22 in MexicoToday.com, La Reforma’s English language site.

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