Courage in Journalism Award Winner María Teresa Montaño Delgado Exposes Government Corruption in Mexico

María Teresa Montaño Delgado (right) with fellow reporter Jovana Lara speak during The International Women’s Media Foundation 2023 Courage in Journalism Awards on Oct. 25, 2023 in Los Angeles. (Vince Bucci / Getty Images for International Women’s Media Foundation)

María Teresa Montaño Delgado—winner of the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism Award—traveled over 450 miles from her home in the state of Mexico (Edomex) to Coatzacoalcos, a small oil city on the Gulf Coast. Montaño carried with her a $35-million contract for “specialists in human capital management” with the Edomex government with a Coatzacoalcos address listed. She walked along a nondescript street, littered with boarded-up businesses and dilapidated buildings, towards her destination: a small pastel-pink residential building. 

The second floor of the building was listed as the address for a corporation with over $55 million in contracts with the Edomex government. Still, Montaño found nothing but an empty apartment. 

“I was shocked by the crumbling building, but it confirmed my suspicions: The contract was completely illogical,” said Montaño. “This was a fake company, part of a scheme to embezzle huge amounts of public money.”

Montaño had been investigating the misappropriation of millions in taxpayer dollars by the Edomex government. Her initial searches on Google Maps found that multiple companies with multimillion-dollar contracts for things such as “make-up workshops” and “balloon decorations” were listed under residential addresses, empty lots or shopping malls.

Montaño—founder and director of the investigative portal The Observer—has dedicated her 30-plus-year journalistic career to uncovering corruption in the Mexican government. Her reporting has been met with smear campaigns by political leaders, tax harassment, bribery and threats to her and her family. Despite all the harassment, Montaño has continued her work. 

Journalists in Mexico face extreme backlash from corrupt government officials and drug cartels; Mexico is one of the most dangerous and deadly countries in the world for journalists. Women journalists in Mexico are facing increasing violence in the country—at least 39 women journalists were attacked last year in Mexico, according to a report by Brot Für Die Welt and Cimac NoticiasArticle 19, an organization that monitors attacks on freedom of expression, found that there is worsening violence against the press, especially towards women.

In 2021, on a rainy August afternoon, Montaño’s car broke down on her way to a doctor’s appointment in Toluca. The appointment was next to a government building with multiple outward-facing cameras. When she exited her appointment, a slender man in a white car, which looked like a taxi, beckoned Montaño to him. When Montaño was close enough, he pulled out a revolver and told her that “if she doesn’t scream, she’ll survive.” 

When Montaño was in the front seat of the vehicle, another man covered her eyes in a medical mask and lifted her shirt over her head, exposing her stomach and chest. The slender man asked Montaño if she was a journalist. Fearing for her life, Montaño initially denied it but quickly realized that the men knew exactly who she was when they arrived in the driveway of her apartment complex. 

The men ransacked Montaño’s home, taking her phone, money, computer and all her investigative notes, and then dropped her, still blindfolded, miles away in the middle of the night. The men threatened her life and the life of her family if she reported the incident. For four hours, Montaño navigated her way to a shopping mall and immediately contacted local authorities to report the kidnapping. 

“They stole my whole investigation. The message was clear, but I survived—and this information is too important to keep to myself,” said Montaño.

Despite CCTV footage of one of her attackers using her bank card, no arrests have been made in the case. Prosecutors have denied that Montaño’s kidnapping was in any way related to her reporting. 

In 2022, the state of Mexico reported a 70 percent increase in femicide. Female reporters are not only facing increased violence for their profession, but are doubly marked by their status as women. 

2022 was the deadliest year on record for journalists in Mexico, with one Mexican journalist attacked every 13 hours. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s anti-media rhetoric contributes to the harassment and murder of Mexican journalists. 

“Our president attacks journalists every day and is giving permission to do whatever you want to journalists,” said investigative reporter Annabelle Hernandez in an interview with Al Jazeera. 

This level of threats and bribery directly impacts how reporters engage with vital stories and how they report on government corruption. In the same interview, Hernandez stated, “If you ask journalists who is more dangerous, El Chapo Guzmán, the head of the cartel, or the governor, the mayor or the chief of police, the journalists will tell you that the members of the government are more dangerous because they can do this without impunity.”

Journalists in Mexico are faced with the reality that their lives will be in danger if they pursue truths that expose corrupt government officials; despite this, reporters like Montaño continue to work. 

“It’s a miracle that María Teresa has continued reporting in a state totally controlled by mafia politicians, where government publicity is disguised as journalism and independent reporters are isolated and punished, leaving the public with a huge black information hole,” said Marcela Turati, co-founder of investigative news site Quinto Elemento Lab.

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Max Fallon-Goodwin is a former editorial intern at Ms. and is completing their undergraduate degree in Africana studies and the study of women and gender at Smith College. Their work focuses on Black queer radical histories and cultural critique. Their work constantly engages with other Black queer theorists and cultural mappers.