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Despite living and working in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, the photographers remain determined to capture the human-rights abuses within its borders

Felix Marquez and Victoria Razo, each shown in a photograph by the other, are photojournalists who cover social injustices in Mexico, a country where intimidation by law enforcement, politicians and criminal gangs can make a journalist's job dangerous.Victoria Razo and Felix Marquez/The Globe and Mail

This story is part of a series, Moral Courage, exploring the dangers journalists face around the world. Learn more below.

Mexican photojournalists Victoria Razo and Felix Marquez live together, and on occasion work together as well. They are young, energetic, and their work is imbued with a mission. Neither were trained as journalists. Ms. Razo took photography, while Mr. Marquez studied communications. Mr. Marquez gravitated to photojournalism first. They met at university six years ago when Ms. Razo went to a presentation given by a group of photojournalists, one of whom was Mr. Marquez. They now share an apartment two blocks from the beach, where the waters are warm and the sea breezes balmy. These days, there is enough work, and their skills with a camera ensure they are in demand.

But like much in present-day Mexico, first impressions obscure a parallel reality. There is a long, dark stain that runs through Mexican society. More than 79,000 people have disappeared – the majority since 2006 – and Ms. Razo and Mr. Marquez have set themselves the daunting, dangerous task of photographing part of this national tragedy. Their focus is on human-rights abuses and the murdered and disappeared of Veracruz. Ms. Razo has a specific interest in women who have met this fate. Mr. Marquez also photographs migrants, those who fall prey to the drug cartels and the traffickers known as coyotes.

Mexico is considered the most dangerous country in the Western Hemisphere for journalists. Some states are more hazardous than others, and Veracruz is the most dangerous of them all. Since 2003, 27 journalists have been killed in the state and eight have gone missing – and are presumed dead.

The story of the mass graves of Colinas de Santa Fe in Veracruz has been told before in The Globe and Mail by journalist Stephanie Nolen, with additional reporting and photographs by Mr. Marquez. The collusion of drug cartels, local law enforcement officials and politicians – including former Veracruz governor Javier Duarte – created a culture of impunity that enabled unfettered murder and extortion, and which continues to deny justice to the bereaved.

One of the searchers at the Colinas de Santa Fe gravesite, as photographed by Mr. Marquez in May of 2020.Felix Marquez/The Globe and Mail

The general lawlessness has included the relentless killing and intimidation of journalists. To counter this grave threat, 60 journalists from 25 international media outlets came together to pursue the stories of their murdered colleagues in the Cartel Project, an unprecedented collaborative venture with French non-profit Forbidden Stories. Their message to the assassins was defiant: “Killing the journalist won’t kill the story.”

Organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists continue to highlight the plight of Mexican journalists. What is less well known, however, are the psychological consequences of this work for the media in Mexico and what factors drive the determination of some journalists to keep exposing the atrocities despite the personal risks this entails. For Ms. Razo, the imperative is a dreadful statistic: 10 women are murdered every day in Mexico. “The story is all around me,” she said. “You cannot turn away from it.” Given the complicity of the police and local politicians in the violence, it is important for Ms. Razo that these stories are told independently of the government’s official line.

Mr. Marquez feels a similar responsibility. “When people are murdered in front of your home, you become part of the violence – you are no longer an outsider; you are living it,” he said. In 2015, he began covering the unfolding Colinas de Santa Fe story. A year before, a group of eight mothers (known as the Colectivo Solecito) banding together for support had begun digging at sites rumoured to be the graves of their missing children. Mr. Marquez recalls that when they found human remains, the Attorney-General of Veracruz, Luis Angel Bravo Contreras, dismissed the find as dog bones. Undeterred, the mothers persisted – within three years, another 22,000 bones (including 298 skulls) would be unearthed.

Relatives of disappeared Mexicans search for graves at a municipal dump in Veracruz in 2019.Felix Marquez/The Associated Press

Mr. Marquez’s photographs did not sit well with the Veracruz government. He was warned off by the secretary of public security, Arturo Bermudez Zurita. Then-governor Mr. Duarte accused him of trying to arm citizens for self-defence. That same year, his friend and fellow photojournalist Ruben Espinosa, known for his work covering social movements, fled Veracruz for Mexico City after he reported being followed and harassed. According to Mr. Marquez, Mr. Duarte had become incensed after an unflattering photograph that Mr. Espinosa had taken of him appeared on the front cover of Proceso, a weekly left-leaning magazine. The move did not save Mr. Espinosa, who was murdered in July, 2015, alongside four other women.

After Mr. Espinosa’s death, Mr. Marquez remembers thinking: “They are coming for me now.” He was so fearful of the same fate, he did not leave his apartment for 15 days. When he next stepped out his front door, it was to go into exile in Chile, where he remained for a year, only returning to Veracruz after an arrest warrant had been issued for the governor. Upon his return, he picked up where he left off.

“Turning away, doing something else would be irresponsible,” he said. “I just cannot do it. I want Veracruz to change – not to be a negative statistic.”

Ms. Razo takes pictures at a demonstration in Veracruz this past June to honour Monse Bendimes, who was killed by her boyfriend.Felix Marquez/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Marquez shows some camera equipment, a press pass and other items belonging to his slain colleagues Guillermo Luna and Gabriel Huge, part of a photographic project called Vestiges.Victoria Razo/The Globe and Mail

Navigating danger to get the photograph is only part of the challenge facing Ms. Razo and Mr. Marquez. Entering the lives of the bereaved, whose pain is ineffable, is another. The relationships that Ms. Razo has developed with some of the mothers whose daughters have been murdered or disappeared can be emotional and intense. Some must surely see in her the future denied their children. Mr. Marquez, for his part, relates to the migrants. His period of exile sensitized him to their pain because he too has experienced some of it.

Another poignant aspect of his work are the artefacts of murdered journalists brought to him by their families. He photographs them as a means of remembrance. These meagre objects give him insights into just how hard the lives of some of his dead colleagues were. It is heartbreaking for him to see that these slain photographers were doing this dangerous work for a pittance – using inferior cameras, with parts missing, because they were just too poor to buy something better or have them repaired.

To offset the stress and pain that comes with this work, Ms. Razo has learned to unplug from her camera and distract herself with video games, rollerblading and skating lessons. Mr. Marquez has not always been able to follow his partner’s example. He has turned to psychotherapy and found it helpful.

In analyzing the factors which motivate Mr. Marquez and Ms. Razo to pursue such challenging, dangerous work, it is notable that both cite their inability to look away, to ignore morally egregious behaviour. Failing to expose the vicious pique of a powerful politician whose vanity has been upset, or averting one’s lens from the dehumanizing treatment of women, are not options for them.

Their moral compass, set to an uncompromising standard of decency, keeps at bay the fate that befell the central character of an Albert Camus novel. In the midst of a global pandemic, Camus’ The Plague resonates more strongly than ever, but it is in his later novel, The Fall, that the consequences of moral injury – of inaction in response to a life-and-death situation – are laid bare. A lawyer, witness to a woman jumping from a bridge in Paris, fails to come to her aid. Beset by guilt, his life thereafter inexorably unravels.

Individuals differ widely in where they set their moral compass, of course. The brutal behaviour of the cartels and coyotes and the connivance of some police and politicians in the tragedy of the murdered and disappeared people of Mexico arouse the moral indignation of a nation and a global community. Widespread sympathy for the families is mixed with anger directed at the perpetrators and, for some in Mexico, there is a sense of national shame. While these emotions are common and readily understandable in response to morally unacceptable behaviours (acts of commission), what is more complex are the emotions that can follow doing nothing (acts of omission).

Mr. Marquez works on an election night this past June 6, which turned violent when law-enforcement officers were shot at while pursuing suspects in electoral crimes.Victoria Razo/The Globe and Mail

How far should the individual citizen go in doing something that challenges murder, cover-ups and obfuscation, particularly when action can lead to peril? Here, the moral compass swings widely.

The majority of people, while appalled at such events, do nothing other than keep their heads down hoping that the endemic violence passes them by. A smaller segment of the population expresses their outrage through collective action, such as joining a mass march to protest the dead and missing women. Ms. Razo notes that just such an effort was taken as a personal affront by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who pilloried women protesters by accusing them of being hired to attack the police.

Fewer still are the number who, as individuals, pursue a course of action that lifts the lid on this national tragedy, despite the potential for serious personal repercussions. It is here, along the far end of a continuum of responses, that we find grieving parents, human-rights activists, law enforcement officials untainted by corruption, and a select group of journalists.

If courageous action for that rare breed of person is their antidote to moral injury, it is important to recognize that such a response is not invariable. It is, in Mr. Marquez’s case, calculated, his actions always weighed against the risks they entail. Not every atrocity is filmed, not every crime exposed. Some are simply too dangerous to reveal. It is a constant struggle, he admitted – self-censorship versus the drive to tell the story. So grave are the dangers, he has seen many colleagues leave journalism “to open a taco stand in the U.S. or drive a cab.” He does not judge them for this. After all, he reminded me, he fled to Chile in 2015 when fearing for his life.

Underpinning the photography of Ms. Razo and Mr. Marquez is the pressing need for widespread social change: Safe streets, diminished cartels, less corruption, untainted justice, accountable politicians, respect for women, a press unshackled from fear – in short, the basic building blocks of a functioning civil society.

The moral imperative for this – and by extension the desire to avoid, or limit, the consequences of moral injury – is not centre stage in their consciousness. Indeed, not once during my interview with them did they spontaneously mention it playing a part in motivating what they do. But it is there, subtly yet powerfully percolating in the background – unrecognized, influencing decisions, guiding reactions and responses with profound consequences for them and the subjects of their photographs. How else to explain their inability to look the other way and divert their lenses from the murdered and missing of their beautiful country?

Ms. Razo and Mr. Marquez document a tropical cyclone off the coast of Veracruz in 2018.Patricia Morales/The Globe and Mail

Listening to Ms. Razo and Mr. Marquez tell me of the meaning they derive from their work reminded me of the memorable lines that come at the end of the animated film version of Ryzard Kapuscinski’s Another Day of Life. In 1976, Angola has just shed its colonial shackles. Augustino Neto’s socialist MPLA movement, with Cuban help, has seen off the invading South African army. Mr. Kapuscinski covered the war from the MPLA side, with whom his sympathies lay. Some of the combatants who were killed had become his friends. We see him sorting through their photographs as he reflects on the loss and how he should respond as a journalist.

“You must save something if you can, because people disappear without a trace – completely and irretrievably. First from the world, and then from our memory.”

And as he works, he imagines what the dead ask of us, the living:

“I was here.

This is how I looked.

This is the face I had when I was alive.

Look at me for a moment before you turn to something else.”

Moral Courage: About the series

Journalists are key to civil society, keeping readers, viewers and listeners informed of events both local and international. At times, this work entails exposure to grave danger. The factors that motivate journalists to continue this work despite these threats are many and complex, but central to it all is moral courage. Simply put, to some journalists, doing nothing in response to the egregious behaviour of corrupt or genocidal politicians, human traffickers and drug cartels is worse than the repercussions that come from exposing such crimes. These journalists are driven by a moral imperative to risk their own safety and psychological well-being for the story – and the price paid for this steely determination is invariably steep.

Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, is an authority on the psychological effects of conflict on journalists. Together with Dr. Feinstein, The Globe and Mail is running Moral Courage, a project that will feature frank and intimate interviews between Dr. Feinstein and a journalist working in hazardous situations around the globe. Each story showcases the work of these journalists, the factors that explain why they feel compelled to pursue such an all-encompassing mission, and the personal consequences their work entails.

More in the series

From on the ground in Idlib, Yakeen Bido bravely chronicles Syria’s pain amid its decade-long civil war

In exposing organized crime in Paraguay, Candido Figueredo Ruiz became a target himself

Khadija Ismayilova pushes through persecution to uncover corruption in Azerbaijan