Mexico – Anabel Hernandez: Can freedom of speech save a country?

Anabel Hernandez

A recent headline:

2 Americans kidnapped in Mexico found dead, 2 found alive

The group crossed into Mexico on Friday. One of the two found alive is injured. (

And even more recently we have the Evan Gershkovich situation in Russia:

WSJ Reporter Detained in Russia on Espionage Allegations

These headlines and more like them make Anabel Hernandez’ story a must-share. As much as we may try to deny it we live in a global society; we’re all neighbors!

How It Began For Hernandez

Anabel Hernandez always felt a strong desire to help those in need. As a child in Mexico, she wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up so she could help people right the wrongs in their lives. When she was in San Francisco in October of 1989, she experienced the Loma Prieta earthquake, and the 17 year old Hernandez witnessed humanitarian efforts which would shake up her career choice for good.

Among the scenes she saw unfolding on the TV screen were police, fire, and paramedic teams rescuing trapped and injured people from the collapsed San Francisco Bay and Cypress Street bridges. She saw them rush into burning buildings, and cut open smashed automobiles. In those newscasts Hernandez also saw the brave humanitarian efforts of the journalists who interviewed the people in the midst of the debris and helped family members find each other. She decided she wanted that for herself, she wanted to help people who were suffering.

Corruption Hits Home

Hernandez began her journalism career working for the Reforma newspaper where her first front page story was about election fraud in Mexico City and later she wrote articles for the Milenio. In December of 2000, Hernandez’ father was murdered, but the police would not investigate without being paid. Not confident they would get an honest investigation, the family declined to pay the government officials. Gathering her resolve, Hernandez became more determined than ever to dig through the rubble of her country’s political malfeasance and rescue the victims of its corruption.

Her Investigative Journalism Career is Launched

In 2001, Hernandez exposed the dishonesty of president Vicente Fox’s administration in an article denouncing the new president’s frivolous expenditures of public funds, such as $400 for each towel purchased for a cabin makeover, in a scandal which would become known as “Toallagate,” (Towelgate). She won the Mexican National Journalism Award in 2002 for her coverage, but it wasn’t long before Milenio would no longer publish anything written by Hernandez.

She next went to work for El Universal, where she quit after being told she was not allowed to write about President Fox. With government dollars furnishing the advertising funds keeping the media afloat in Mexico, the government would obviously inform the content of the media.

Hernandez continued to work as a freelance journalist and in 2003 was named a laureate by UNICEF for uncovering the networks of slave labor and the sex trafficking of Mexican girls in farming communities in San Diego, CA. The girls were as young as 8 and 9 years old. This was her first experience reporting on organized crime. During a 2013 interview she said, “It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life… I went to that field… It was horrible… Now I know that the drug cartels control that business.”

As her name became more and more synonymous with heroic journalism and a search for justice, Hernandez began interviewing informants of the drug cartels.

With the formal declaration of its war on drugs in 2006, the Mexican government conscripted the military to ostensibly curb violence between the warring factions. Since then, 80,000 people have been killed, 20,000 people have become missing. According to Reporters Without Borders, from 2000 to 2022 there were a total of 150 killings of journalists in Mexico. Some sources, such as the Legatum Institute put the number closer to 100 murders. Compare that number to North Korea, a country where independent journalism is strictly prohibited, where Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reports zero murders of journalists even going as far back as 2000. Currently in Mexico, RSF states that “Collusion between organized crime poses a grave threat to journalists’ safety and cripples the judicial system… Journalists who cover sensitive political stories or crime, especially at the local level, are warned, threatened and then often gunned down in cold blood.”

In 2010, after five years of research, Hernandez published Los Señores del Narco, (three years later published in English as Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers). Her book uncovered the relationship of the drug cartels to the Mexican government and how even before the official declaration of the war on drugs, the president of Mexico — Vicente Fox — sided with the Sinaloa Cartel and the government continued to collude with them. The Secretary of Public Security, Genaro Garcia Luna, and a group of corrupt policemen who worked for him were ordered to kill Hernandez. Some of her sources were murdered, headless animals were sent to her home, her house was broken into, and she received several death threats, prompting the recruitment of two bodyguards commissioned by the National Human Rights Commission. Though her life was threatened, she continued to be Mexico’s leading investigative journalist in what is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.

In Los Señores del Narco, Hernandez’ exposition of the Federal government’s complicity with the drug trade won her the 2012 Golden Pen of Freedom from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. Through her investigations of corruption, abuse of power, human rights violations and the drug cartels, she exposed a group of very high level officials in the police, army, and the president who were involved with the Sinaloa cartel.

Books to Further Garner Awareness

Upon the 2013 publication of her book in English (Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their God Fathers) Hernandez was recorded in an interview with the Frontline Club attributing the book’s best seller status in Mexico to the people’s desire for answers. “They want to understand why the known leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin Guzman Loera (El Chapo), was not in jail,” then she went on to say, “Good journalists can change the story…” “… If we don’t write the stories the people will never know what is happening in Mexico. If Mexicans don’t really understand what is happening, they will never be able to change things,” and Hernandez, mother of two, wants things in Mexico changed in the worst way.

Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers is not only about drug cartels per se. It’s a story which repudiates the gratuitously hyped gore and violence usually portrayed in such work in the hopes of revealing the nation’s biggest problem on a level people can grasp hold of and begin repairing. It is government corruption, along with the malfeasance of the drug cartels, which the world must come together and address. Narcoland is a plea by its author to come together and save Mexico from its crumbling structures.

Student’s Deaths

On September 26, 2014 a stupefying tragedy occurred near Iguala Mexico when two buses carrying 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Teachers College went missing. The nation was up in arms over what appeared to be a mass kidnapping and protests sprung up all across Mexico to no avail. The families of the 43 students were in deep anguish, and the nation along with them.

Anabel Hernandez immediately went to work to uncover the story of what happened to the students, publishing articles in the weekly magazine Proceso. What happened on that fateful night of 2014 to the group of students, six of whom were found dead, dozens injured, and the 43 missing, was uncovered by Hernandez who released the story in book form in 2016.

La Verdadera Noche de Iguala (The True Night of Iguala), revealed that though the government denied any knowledge of the missing 43 until well after their disappearance, Hernandez found they’d been monitoring the student’s travels for hours before the incident. In the book, Hernandez reveals it was the drug cartel, the army, intelligence services, and the police who were all involved with what happened.

Under President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s administration, the case is being re-opened and arrests are being made. What really happened to the students is they accidentally made the mistake of using buses loaded with $2 million worth of heroin intended for the U.S. border. What really happened to Mexico is that the army, the federal police, the state police, and the city police actively recovered the heroin for the drug cartel and made the students disappear. According to the New York Times, as of October 3, 2021 100,000 persons are listed as missing in Mexico. The busload of missing students serves as a stark reality when so many students were taken so swiftly.

Though Hernandez and her children were exiled to another country for their safety, she feels the sacrifice was worth it as long as a grieving Mexico can get the truth it needs to recover, to get answers and maybe find its many thousands of missing persons. In a broader sense, as she stated in a 2019 interview in the Guardian, “This corruption can destroy every country,” which makes reading of her investigations that much more relevant to everyone who lives in a country where illegal drugs are traded. And that same year, when she won the Freedom of Speech Award from Deutsche Welle, she said: “Today in many nations it is not the citizens who make the decisions about their destiny on a daily basis but groups that concentrate more political, economic, technological and social power every day. They take possession of natural resources, of our minds through the control of communication platforms and social networks, and impose on us a model of life, of “success,” of “happiness” that will generate more benefits for them. For them there are no borders or walls, only privileges and impunity.”

The Traitor will be released in December 2023


Freedom of Speech Award, from Deutsche Welle (Germany), 2019

International Journalism Award, from El Mundo (Spain), 2018

Named a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, 2017

Golden Pen of Freedom Award, 2012

Recognition by UNICEF in 2003

National Journalism Award, (Mexico) 2001

Deslandes, Ann. “It Could Happen Anywhere: Anabel Hernández Reflects on Mexico’s 43 Missing Students.” The Guardian, 2 May 2019, reflects-on-mexicos-43-missing-students.

“Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman Found Guilty on All Charges in US Court.” ICE, charges-us-court.

Legge, James. “Attacks on Her Family, Headless Animals Being Sent to Her Home And.” The Independent, 18 Sept. 2013, americas/attacks-on-her-family-headless-animals-being-sent-to-her-home- and-several-death-threats-a-sure-sign-anabel-hernandez-is-the-woman-the- mexican-drug-barons-fear-8824947.html.

Muno, Martin. “‘Why Do They Want to Silence Us?’”, 27 May 2019, hernandez/a-48909099.

Rancano, Vanessa. “Why This Mexican Journalist Finally Fled the Country.” Cosmopolitan, 30 Oct. 2014, anabel-hernandez.

Rasidi, Yasmeen. “Mexican Journalist Wins Freedom of Speech Award Amid Violent Atmosphere for Journalists.” Citizen Truth, 31 July 2019, mexican-journalist-wins-freedom-of-speech-award-amid-violent-atmosphere-for- journalists.

Staff, Wan-Ifra. “Golden Pen of Freedom Awarded to Mexican Journalist.” WAN- IFRA, 10 Feb. 2021, to-mexican-journalist.

Vulliamy, Ed. “‘Mexico’s War on Drugs Is One Big Lie.’” The Guardian, 22 Mar. 2018, narcoland.

Anabel Hernandez DW

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