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Félix, shedding light on the harsh reality in Mexico, despite the dangers

6 December 2022
Written by Ekaterina Balueva
Photos by Félix and Justice & Peace

Félix is a Mexican photojournalist from Veracruz, one of the world’s most dangerous regions for journalists. In his work, he addresses issues like migration, enforced disappearances, drug violence, and freedom of expression. He reflects on the risks he faces while reporting, as well as his stay in Shelter City Amsterdam. In the Netherlands, he uses this time to rest, re-energize, and network.

Félix has worked with major international media outlets such as The Volkskrant, The Associated Press, The Guardian, and The Washington Post throughout the years. He began his journalism career as an event photographer covering concerts. However, his viewpoint swiftly changed during the six-year administration of Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s former president and one of the leaders behind the drug war.

“I started witnessing executions in front of my house, bomb threats at school. It was something so daily that I stopped photographing concerts because it seemed far more important to me to record what was happening at that moment”

Reporting on migration and enforced disappearances

Félix admits that finding stories has never been difficult for him. In some ways, he was simply documenting what was occurring around him every day. And not just around him, but throughout the country: it might happen to a friend of a friend or a neighbour.

In his last project covering migration, he accompanied the caravans of migrants as they traveled to Mexico’s northern and southern borders. Not only did he accompanied them to the border, but he also experienced the same lifestyle as the migrants while on the move: sleeping in the park with them, traveling and eating together.

Félix places a poster of his photo exhibition “With no Ithaca awaiting” in Amsterdam.

Dozens of migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean climb into a trailer in the Jesus Carranza highway in Veracruz, Mexico, as they travelled in a great caravan that crossed the country from South to North.

He also worked primarily with family collectives who are searching for their missing relatives. As a result, the project ‘Gone’ was created, which went on to winning the Amnesty International Media Award in Canada for Best Mixed Media in 2021. The project recounts the stories of nine families in Veracruz who are desperately looking for their missing relatives who were victims of enforced disappearances. They were later discovered buried in one of Mexico’s 2000 mass graves on the outskirts of Veracruz.

“We are experiencing a disappearance crisis in Mexico with more than 100,000 disappeared and missing people. The situation is terribly worrying and at the beginning, around maybe the year 2000, the disappearances were connected directly with the drug trafficking, but now anyone can disappear without any further investigation from the state. The state is, actually, a major actor participating in these disappearances alongside with the police forces. So, the families are scratching the soil themselves with their bare hands searching for their loved ones”.

Clandestine pits are observed in a ranch called Colinas de Santa Fé, located in Veracruz, Mexico, where 300 bodies of disappeared people were found, buried illegally.

The safety of journalists

The issues behind the press freedom in Mexico affects Félix directly. Back in 2014, he founded the Mirar Distinto Photo Festival alongside with his fellow photojournalist and best friend, Rubén Espinosa. Just one year later, Rubén was tragically murdered for covering protests in that part of the country.

Following his best friend’s murder, Félix decided to not end the festival, but instead turn into something more bigger than it was intended. And so, the small series of security workshops with only 3 people turned into a big international festival for journalists and, most importantly, a political statement to the authorities and in the face of censorship.

‘It was like saying “We are here and we are not only going to continue working but we are going to work even better, ”’ recalls Félix.

Rubén Espinosa, a photojournalist murdered in Mexico, gives a workshop on the coverage of risky areas during the first edition of the festival Mirar Distinto in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico.

For his ‘Vestiges’ project, Félix worked very closely with the families of his murdered journalist colleagues to recover the catalogue of objects that once belonged to them before they were killed and build the identity that the murderers wanted to erase. The objects could be represented with anything that the assassinated journalists used both in their personal and professional field: from their work badge to a camera or personal phone. Despite Félix developing the idea for ‘Vestiges’, he considers the project to be a collaboration between him and the families of his deceased colleagues. ‘The freedom of expression is something that concerns me all the time, something that I live through every day’.

Félix presenting his exhibition ‘Vestiges’ in The Hague.

Perseverance in the face of adversity and coming to Shelter City

Félix himself has been a target of constant threats and harassment coming directly from the authorities. Back in 2013, he had several problems with the police after they tried to imprison him for taking pictures of self-defence groups, armed civilians for self-protection. A year after that incident, the someone broke into his house and stole all the computers and cell phones that belonged to his family.

Earlier in January, he was detained by the authorities for covering a seizure of migrants by police officers. “They checked my phones, my credentials, where my home address came from, they deleted my photos and later on, police motorcyclists began to follow me to stop me, to check the car and harass me.”

“It was like saying ‘We are here and we are not only going to continue working but we are going to work even better’.” – Félix

And just two weeks before his arrival to Shelter City Amsterdam, Félix received a death threat for working on environmental issues in Veracruz. He recalls two people approaching him at that moment and threatening to shoot him if he did not leave the area.

The constant risks and harassment from the state and other groups led Félix to apply to Shelter City. “I applied, I think, a day before the last call. And well it was quite simple, actually, but I was thinking about myself, with everything that has happened to me this year. I applied and was surprised that it was so fast, I didn’t imagine it would be so quick to be here”.

“The freedom of expression is something that concerns me all the time, something that I live through every day.” – Félix

When coming to Amsterdam, he decided to identify three main objectives during his stay in the Netherlands: rest and get to know the city as it is his first time in Europe, network with editors, organizations, photographers and fellow human rights defenders, and, lastly, to organize an exhibition in the Netherlands, but also in Europe, to let people know what is going on in Mexico with journalists.

His stay in Amsterdam made him not only to rethink and re-strategize his work as a photojournalist and human rights defender, but also stop and consider rest and wellbeing as options now that he is away from the risks.

Future for journalism in Mexico

When asked whether he sees positive changes for journalism and press freedom happening in the future in Mexico, he answer was negative. So far this year, 18 journalists have been murdered in Mexico. “They [the journalists] continue to be published in international media and absolutely nothing happens because impunity persists in Mexico, just as they can kidnap or murder you for covering absolutely anything”.

Yet, despite the threats and attacks on his colleagues, he remains committed to show the world the truth on what is going on in his country and in Veracruz.

“When a journalist is killed, the target is not the journalist, the target is society.” – Félix

“We should definitely keep talking because there are people who need us, the migrants, the mothers of the disappeared, the families of the murdered comrades, the women who have been victims of sexual assault or the mothers of the women who have been victims of femicide…they need us and society itself needs us”.

However, Félix still acknowledges the importance of stopping for a while and taking a deep breath to continue living and be able to share the light on people’s stories.

“When a journalist is killed, the target is not the journalist, the target is society. Who is being attacked is society because beyond the fact that they are attacking their right to be informed, they are preventing them from knowing what is really happening in the country”.