Mike O’Connor, an experienced war correspondent who in recent years worked in defense of journalists in Mexico at a time when it had become one of the most treacherous countries for reporters in the world, died Sunday morning in Mexico City. He was 67.
O’Connor suffered a fatal heart attack while sleeping in his apartment, according to his wife, Tracy Wilkinson, the Los Angeles Times’ Mexico bureau chief.
Since January 2009, O’Connor had worked as the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based nonprofit group, traveling to some of the most dangerous parts of the country to investigate the intimidation, murder and disappearance of journalists targeted by drug cartels or corrupt government officials.
The reports he produced with his colleagues gave outsiders an unvarnished understanding of the scope and bloody mechanics of Mexican censorship: According to the group, 26 journalists have been murdered in the country since 1992, 23 of them with impunity.
Within Mexico, O’Connor’s reputation among reporters and editors was as a rare trustworthy confidant. He was especially helpful to journalists in the regions beyond the Mexican capital, where intimidation of the press is more common. Reporters from far-flung papers called him regularly to discuss details of threats, updates on the disappearance of colleagues, and advice on how they might go into hiding or exile.
“He was an activist close to the low-level journalists — the ones in the streets of combat, the ones in the struggle — more than those from the journalistic heights,” Javier Valdez Cárdenas, a correspondent and founder of Riodoce, a newspaper in the drug cartel-plagued state of Sinaloa, said in a phone interview Monday. “When other people would run away from dangerous areas, Mike would go to them to figure out what was going on with the journalists there. He was a brave, passionate man.”
O’Connor had said that his life’s work was likely rooted in his search for the truth about the mysterious lives of his parents, Jerry and Jess O’Connor. When Mike was a child, they moved back and forth between the U.S. and small-town Mexico, where their son learned to speak fluent Spanish. The couple, who offered scant explanation for the moves at the time, believed they were being hunted by the U.S. government, due in part to Jess O’Connor’s connections to left-wing political circles.
O’Connor would write about this unusual upbringing, and his later attempt to unravel his parents’ complicated story, in a well-received 2007 memoir, “Crisis, Pursued by Disaster, Followed Closely by Catastrophe: A Memoir of Life on the Run.”
O’Connor was born Feb. 8, 1946, in Germany, where his father was stationed after World War II, tasked with overseeing a camp for displaced persons. He worked as a local TV reporter in the San Francisco area, then became a correspondent with CBS News, covering the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
After another stint in local TV news in California, he returned overseas, reporting for the New York Times in Central America and the former Yugoslavia, and for National Public Radio from places like Haiti and the Middle East.
In a blog post this week, Carlos Lauria, the senior Americas program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, noted that O’Connor had been instrumental in convincing the Mexican government to pass a constitutional amendment in May that grants federal authorities broader jurisdiction to prosecute crimes against reporters.
“Mexican journalists have lost one of their most formidable advocates,” Lauria wrote.
In addition to his wife, O’Connor is survived by his sons, Sean O’Connor of San Francisco and Gabriel O’Connor of Washington, D.C.; two granddaughters; two sisters; and two half brothers.