27 June 2012

How I helped get Stephania Cardoso the protection she needed | Darío Ramírez

ARTICLE 19's Darío Ramírez talks about answering the call of the Mexican crime reporter a week after she went missing with her baby on 8 June

Mexican crime reporter Stephania Cardoso is alive in Mexico and under government protection, in part thanks to quick thinking by ARTICLE 19
Mexican crime reporter Stephania Cardoso is alive in Mexico and under government protection, in part thanks to quick thinking by ARTICLE 19

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Despite trying to be optimistic, rage prevailed. My experience told me that we should start thinking the worst. The hostile and dangerous environment for the press in Mexico had reached a new level when a two-year-old child became caught up in it. Despair flooded the following days. Disinformation spread in the usual manner. Speculations started circulating that were nothing more than exactly that, speculations.

The authorities ineffective, as always, when confronted with the situation. It seemed [the incident] was not considered to be yet more evidence of the national crisis being experienced by the press in Mexico. Between empty rhetoric and false statements, the federal and Coahuila state authorities opted for silence.

The call came on a Friday afternoon. Colleagues told me that Stephania Cardoso had contacted us. For a few seconds my body entered a deep peace. I involuntarily held my breath. The exhalation carried with it days of anguish over the disappearance of Stephania and her two-year-old son.

She cried uncontrollably, it was impossible to understand her. It was a question of waiting for the voice to find its way through a sea of tears. The call ended once. She needed a break. I only managed to ask her one question: "Are you and your son safe?" The answer came: "For the moment, yes."

Very few times in my work for ARTICLE 19 has a word given me so much peace. There were still many questions. We didn't know anything about her situation. I even began to wonder if it was in fact Stephania Cardoso on the other end of the line. I didn't let myself dwell in doubt. I had to believe. It was time to believe.

We called her again. Her voice was stronger, her thoughts more clear.

We had to act quickly and carefully. We asked her not to tell us where she was. That information was irrelevant in that moment. The degree of risk was high, and as such the first option put forward was for her to leave the country. In spite of the fact that uprooting is extremely difficult, in many cases it is the only way to save a life. It always is, and always should be, the last option. The idea was not contemplated for long because she told us that neither she nor her son have a passport.

It was not possible for her to stay where she was for a long time. We would have to come up with other options. I realised that ARTICLE 19 could not provide her with the necessary protection.

Her voice was choked with emotion, crying accompanying every word. We had to take another break.

Those breaks and pauses brought to the fore what she was going through. She asked, "What do I do?" The question that nobody wants to answer in a moment of acute crisis. But she needed some direction, a suggestion, an opinion, anything that could lift from her a part of the enormous burden she was carrying.

Comforting words seemed to carry no weight. What we proposed to do had to be completely understood and approved by her. We told her that it was the Mexican government that should protect her. She retorted immediately and firmly, "I don't trust the authorities, and even less the locals in the state of Coahuila."

Over the years, part of ARTICLE 19's work has involved coordinating with the federal authorities to ensure protection for journalists at risk. The NGO's work involves monitoring and pressuring authorities to carry out their duties and responsibilities. Stephania needed to clearly understand what we were doing. So I explained.

At the time, Stephania's main concern was the lack of communication with her family. She needed to tell them she was okay.

It was 2:50 p.m. when I looked at the clock. The proposal was simple. Inform a major media outlet that she was alive and completely defenceless. The objective was to spur the federal authorities into action so that they could provide her with protection.

I picked up the phone and called [journalist] Denise Maerker to tell her I had Stephania Cardoso on the line. Denise has always provided her full support. Less than 10 minutes of air time remained. We had to act quickly.

Stephania went on the air to say she was alive, in hiding, without protection. A clear and precise message, just as we had practised.

Minutes after it aired on the radio, Laura Borbolla, the special prosecutor for crimes against freedom of expression at the Attorney General's Office, got in touch with me and offered the support of her office to protect Stephania and her son. On the prosecutor's initiative, she proposed a security plan to me. I communicated it to Stephania so she could decide. In the end, she accepted the prosecutor's suggestions. From then on, the prosecutor and the reporter communicated directly with each other.

Today we don't know where she is. But we do know she is being protected, along with her baby. We have always criticised the prosecutor's office for being ineffective, but today, without hesitation, I publicly recognise their diligent response in Stephania Cardoso's case.

We savour knowing that the reporter and her son are safe. But we will continue to demand that the Mexican government provide a secure environment for freedom of expression.

Darío Ramírez is the director of ARTICLE 19 Mexico and Central America. This article was originally published in Spanish by Sinembargo.mx on 21 June 2012.

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