The Fate of Journalists in Mexico

On a sunny afternoon in seaside Acapulco, Journalist Nelson Matu was getting out of his car in a shopping center parking lot. Gunmen – we don’t know how many – quickly moved in to pay their respects to journalism in Mexico. They fired, killing him, and fled never to be apprehended. They never are. Killing offending journalists is a licensed activity, as it were, among the drug cartels that rule Mexico.  The death of journalists is collateral damage. Matu had been a longtime irritant, covering violence for fifteen years and directing a group of journalists similarly inclined. He had survived two previous assassination attempts. The third succeeded. The cartels are persistent. This is why Acapulco, once the famed playground of the rich and famous, is now shunned. The U.S. State Department warns not to go there.

The body of another journalist, Luis Martin Sanchez, was found in a village north of Acapulco in the violence-ridden state of Guerrero. There were signs of possible torture and two messages on cardboard attached to his chest explaining their action, a typical cartel ploy. Sanchez had been a correspondent for La Jornada, a newspaper in Mexico City that had already lost two other newsmen to cartel violence. Sanchez’ death brings to seven the number of journalists murdered so far this year. It’s estimated that over 150 have been killed since 2000. The figure is imprecise because some just disappear and never turn up. It’s reasonable to fear the worst.

Missing persons bulletin for Luis Martin Sanchez Iniguez issued by the Mexican state of Nayarit Attorney General’s Office

It doesn’t take much to arouse the cartels. Israel Vasquez usually wrote about neighborly goings on. He wasn’t on the violence beat. But one day he got involved in a story about a group of dismembered bodies discovered in a church in the town of Salamanca. As he was preparing a broadcast for Facebook on the subject, two men on a motorcycle pulled up and shot and killed him. No stone can be overturned in the cartel view.

If Mexican journalists are fair game, their American colleagues are not a target. Few go to Mexico, but those who do are treated with care. The cartels know that while Americans are indifferent to the slaughter of Mexicans, they’re outraged if an American is harmed. The media follows suit. That means bad publicity for the drug business. A day of reckoning can be put off. Meanwhile, the cartels are making much progress in the U.S. The latest round of immigrants are mostly robust young men who obviously don’t need asylum in the U.S. Indeed, we may need asylum from them since many will doubtless link up with the vast drug distribution network stretching from coast to coast. When I was recently on the border, they seemed anxious to get on with their journey and not at all apprehensive.

Israel Vazquez Rangel

One destination might be the many thousands of drug cartel marijuana farms springing up in the American west. Though clearly illegal and undercutting legal American growers, they seem strangely tolerated. They are virtual armed camps since if anyone gets too close, out comes a threatening armed guard. Invasion, anyone? People in the area are terrified and local law enforcement can’t cope. The cartel farms are better armed. Surely, this is a national problem, but where are the feds? Could the FBI set aside its current preoccupation with classified documents to get involved? Unlike Mexican journalists, U.S reporters don’t have to worry about being killed if they come to take a look. This is America. So what’s keeping them?

Can We Be Stoics Today?

In the early years of the first century of our era a popular playwright and politician named Seneca lectured and wrote about a philosophy called stoicism. Here in one of his many letters to a young friend he sums it up: “The only safe harbor in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.”

The Death of Seneca, Luca Giordano (1632-1706)

This outlook is not only life fulfilling, he assured readers and listeners, but the road to happiness. He wrote at a time of political upheaval as Rome changed uneasily from republic to empire at the cost of many lives and social disorder. Thus, he chose as an example of stoicism the champion of the republic Marcus Cato who, confronted with two warring parties for control of the empire, stood his ground against both and fought to the last at the cost of his life. Content with empire, Seneca nevertheless paid tribute to the man who more than any other symbolized the esteemed republic.

On the Grecian sides there was famed philosopher Socrates, who spent his life under various wars and was eventually sentenced to death for poisoning the young with his opinions. He was appropriately executed by poison. Seneca writes that this brutal end had “so little effect this on Socrates’ spirit that it did not even affect the expression on his face. To the very last no one ever saw Socrates in any particular mood of gaiety or depression. Through all the ups and downs of fortune his was a level temperament.” If this was the behavior of a man in extreme stress, stoicism can support those in far less trouble.

Seneca’s stoicism was sorely tested by his times. A popular figure in Rome, he aroused the envy of the violent emperor Caligula, who sentenced him to death, then had second thoughts. The following emperor, the more subdued Claudius, considered execution but decided on an eight-year exile to the island of Corsica, where Seneca wrote some of his plays depicting the horrors of excess passion. Then suddenly came a change in fortune. Agrippina, the ambitious mother of the newly installed emperor, sixteen-year-old Nero, chose Seneca to be his tutor. In that post he failed to tame unruly Nero, who eventually killed his mother along with innumerable others. At the same time, aided by a military commander, Burrus, Seneca skillfully captained the ship of state through perilous times, enacting various legal and fiscal reforms. The later great emperor Trajan commented that Seneca’s five years in charge were among the finest in Roman history.

This abruptly changed when Nero went on a murderous rampage after learning of a plot to overthrow him in which Seneca was involved. Massive executions followed with Seneca drawing the blood from his veins to end his life. Some of the plotters had wanted to elevate him to emperor with the overthrow of hated Nero. Considering the centrality of Rome, that could have effected a change in world history – a dedicated stoic in command of events.

Nero and Seneca, Eduardo Barrón (1904)

Today’s passions are also intense, though hardly matching the lethality of ancient Rome, at least not yet. One full scale war is under way between Russia and Ukraine, amply supplied by the U.S. Others are threatened, with smaller wars taking place in Syria, Somalia and elsewhere. Stoicism would suggest damping down the passions that lead to these wars as well as staying in self-control as they continue. Stoics are not pacifists, but they want to act rationally, not emotionally. Passions undo us, says Seneca. A good life can be maintained by not giving into emotion. Stoicism to the rescue.