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Knight Center

JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Anabel Hernández tells how a U.S. university fellowship helped her investigate the disappearance of students in Mexico



If there was a Mexican case that got the attention of the country’s media and the world, it was the disappearance of 43 students from the Normal School of Ayotzinapa in Iguala, the state of Guerrero, on Sept. 26, 2014.

However, when journalist Anabel Hernández heard the news, she felt that she too should investigate the case. Her 23 years of journalistic experience has shown that in cases involving disappearances and massacres, the Mexican government’s version is often very different from reality, according to what she told the Knight Center.

Journalist Anabel Hernández (Photo courtesy).

At that time, Hernández was at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States completing an investigative journalism fellowship. The scholarship had arrived at the exact moment when she was “forced” to leave Mexico, at least temporarily, because attacks against her had intensified.

“[The fellowship came] after four years of attacks, from intrusions of armed people to my house, from decapitated animals, threats to my sources of information,” Hernández said. “The government never did anything to prevent these attacks. Impunity encouraged that if they wanted to hurt me, they would continue to do so.”

The investigation she wanted to do with the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley involved returning to the country from which she had left, a fact that not only worried her, but also the organizers of her fellowship. But the seriousness of the event “shook me as a journalist,” she said.

After convincing them, she spent the next two years investigating the case as part of her fellowship. To achieve this, she traveled to Mexico monthly with extreme security measures, until, in December 2016, she published a the Spanish-language book that resulted from this research: “La verdadera noche de Iguala” (The true night of Iguala).

“I made trips with very, very low profile,” Hernández said about the strategy she used to investigate such a sensitive issue. “I did not tell anyone, there were no dates, hours, there was nothing. I had a very specific agenda. I made my appointments from a very safe phone in California and did not talk to them any more and got right to the point. I went in and out of Iguala constantly in the same day or two days maximum.”

During the trips, she was accompanied by a recent graduate from UC Berkeley who was in charge of producing the audiovisual part of her investigations.

Without going into details, Hernández said that for the years she has been covering these issues she had cultivated sources”​ that speak to her with confidence, and that she knew how to extract information “​in a less risky way for everyone.”​

This was the first step to gaining access to the file opened by the Attorney General of Guerrero and the Office of the Attorney General of the Republic (PGR for its acronym in Spanish). According to what she said, she had sources that allowed her to get these reports.

“Convincing them that the information is going to be used in a careful manner, without manipulations, that was really the challenge,” Hernández said. “That they know there was a serious commitment not to manipulate, that my research was to find the truth, whatever it was. It did not matter if it was comfortable or uncomfortable for the students or for the accused. The idea was to clarify the case.”

Her two years of research, allowed her to check the suspicions she had from the beginning and which showed the participation of some members of the government in the events as such, but also in the “manipulation of the official investigation,” according to a release announcing the book.

According to this release, the authorities used false evidence to try to close the case and clear the government of responsibility. Hernández also found that some people who were detained, including citizens and police, were tortured during the investigation to hold them accountable for the attack on the students and their disappearance.

But, as in the past and as happened with many Mexican reporters, her investigations, the findings of which were published in some Mexican media outlets, did not land totally well.

Cover of "La Verdadera Noche de Iguala" by Anabel Hernández.

She reported that there were threats and even “risings” (kidnappings) of her sources. She was not safe either. In November 2015, for example, four people entered her home in Mexico, which she used during her investigations. Hernández believes that this event is related to her work on the Iguala case because at that time she was at a “very sensitive point” of the investigation, which related to the participation of some military members in the disappearance of the students.

“Nothing was stolen, no jewelry, no televisions. They went for documents,” said Hernández, adding that the incursion had touches of intimidation because they did so in broad daylight and in spite of security cameras she was given as part of the country’s Mechanism for Protection of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders.

On Dec. 1, when she presented at the Guadalajara International Book Fair in Mexico, she had to be urgently removed from the place. The escorts she counted on for this event told her that a “group of eight organized people” had been following her since she arrived.

Since returning to Mexico in August 2016, she understood that she should get used to the idea of being surrounded by escorts 24 hours a day. The Mechanism of Protection, which called the level of risk to the journalist as “extraordinary,” which is the highest level, was granted to her.

“I have to live with escorts in the hands of a government that I know does not want to protect journalists. So it’s a bit of a contradiction,” she said. “I have to resign myself to living in the middle of this contradiction because on the other hand if I do not accept the protection mechanism for journalists and something happens to me or something happens to my family, the Mexican government is going to wash their hands and it will say, “Anabel Hernández did not want to take part in the protection program and so they killed her.”

On this subject, she recalled the case of Rubén Espinosa who was killed in Mexico City after having fled the state of Veracruz because of threats against him.

That is why she felt it was worth her work when the PGR was forced to include her book as part of the investigation file on the case of the 43 students. A request that was not only made within the country by the Miguel Agustín Pro Human Rights Center, which legally represents the family of the 43 disappeared, but even the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) which asked the Mexican government to open investigations against some military personnel because of what was published in Hernandez's book.

She credits international organizations, especially the universities that for years have awarded fellowships to Latin American journalists, the “crucial” aid to encourage investigative journalism in countries as complicated as Mexico.

“To encourage investigative journalism, great investigations, supporting Mexican journalists and those of other parts of Latin America that are in danger,” Hernández said. “I am convinced that the coverage given to me by the University of California at Berkeley, that umbrella, because this is an investigation sponsored and promoted by the university, that gives my investigation not only much more power, but in my moment gives me much more security. It is not the same to disappear and kill Anabel Hernández during her investigation, as to kill and disappear Anabel Hernández who was a fellow of the University of California at Berkeley.”

But she is also convinced that it is journalists who must understand the importance of their work despite being in a country where the numbers of murders of journalists categorize it as the most dangerous place in the continent to be a journalist. In 2016 in the country, at least 10 journalists were killed in circumstances in which the motive is unclear.

“We must have a deep commitment to journalism in Mexico. Being aware that our work even in such a difficult time is a priority, is important,” she said. “And that we must continue with our work even knowing that there is no one to protect us, even knowing of our condemnation and our destiny is surely to die murdered like the rest of our companions.”



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