The journalist Jo Tuckman arrived in Mexico in 2000 to write about the end of seven decades of one-party rule, eager to cover what she thought would be a time of intense political change. The energy of that transition quickly wilted though, and she turned her reporter’s gaze to chronicle the social and political pressures hovering just beneath Mexico’s surface.
In two decades of covering Mexico for the Guardian and other publications and in her 2012 book, Mexico: Democracy Interrupted, Jo, who has died of cancer aged 53, wrote with empathy of the people she met and dispassionately of their leaders’ failings.
It is the enormous gulf between the governed and the governing, she proposed in her book, that underlines the partial nature of Mexico’s democratic transition – a conclusion that still holds good today. As a colleague and as a friend, Jo was tenacious and compassionate, always pushing herself to seek out just another interview and listen just a little longer.
By treating people with dignity, she gave her subjects the confidence to speak up. “There is almost always someone willing to tell their story,” Jo said in a 2013 interview, “even if it’s anonymously and even though their efforts are practically insignificant to confront the forces that crush them.”
In one of her last stories, a young mother revealed to Jo what neighbours were afraid to say openly, that a vicious new drug cartel had taken control of the region. When Central American families first began to seek asylum at the Texas border in 2014, Jo gathered their stories from Honduras to show that the gang violence that threatened even the youngest children was pushing families north. Her trenchant tales about the drug war explored its failure, often through the voices of those whose lives had been overturned by it.
She was dogged to the point of obsessiveness but it paid off. She persuaded Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of Mexico’s Zapatista rebels, to speak to her after years of silence, and she was among the first to track down the little boy believed to be “patient zero” in the 2009 swine flu epidemic.
Among her most influential stories in Mexico was her 2012 reporting of apparent deals for favourable coverage between the broadcaster Televisa and leading politicians, including the former president Enrique Peña Nieto as he was building his candidacy. Televisa denied any bias and challenged the authenticity of the documents Jo had acquired, which she had always said she had not been able to verify “beyond doubt”. After Televisa threatened legal action, a joint statement was linked to the stories, but they were never retracted and remained unchanged.
She also had an eye for the quirky, interviewing a man who spent 32 years alone in the Guatemalan jungle, and a sly sense of humour. Trotsky’s grandson, she wrote, showed the “kind of confidence in inexorable historical processes that would do his grandfather proud”.
Born in London, Jo was the younger daughter of John Tuckman, a cardiologist, and his wife, Nina (nee Harvie), who later became an environmental campaigner. She attended Camden school for girls, studied social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and then gained a master’s degree at the Institute of Latin American Studies, part of the University of London.
During a research trip to Bolivia to write her thesis about female tin miners, she decided to become a journalist. Going almost full-circle, she interviewed the ousted Bolivian president Evo Morales when he fled to Mexico in November 2019. She conducted the interview at home, where a photograph of a Bolivian miner graced the living room.
After university, as a volunteer with the Central American human rights committee in London, she took visiting activists to the House of Commons dressed in Dr Martens boots and a skirt made of Bolivian fabric. Told to dress up to enter parliament, she applied red lipstick and announce: “Ready!”
She moved to Guatemala in 1994 to cover the end of the war there as a freelance journalist and then took a staff position at the Associated Press in Madrid in 1997 before abandoning job security to move to Mexico.
She had two children, Natasha and Oliver, with Eduardo Prud’homme, a Mexican energy economist, and was determined to pass on to them her spirit of independence. Her children were never far from her mind and she would chat about them with colleagues on long drives to chase down stories. She was generous with her time and her strong opinions, delivered with soft-spoken assurance and a scepticism for conventional wisdom.
Still, she remained painfully modest about her work, and could not tolerate arrogance, said Mark Stevenson, a journalist for the Associated Press who was her reporting companion for many years. Jo was also the Latin America bureau chief for Vice in 2015 and 2016, mentoring a generation of young reporters.
At times Jo seemed to live on coffee and she was imbued with physical endurance and agility. She appeared fearless. Once, when her mother’s bag was snatched in Madrid, she ran after the muggers and persuaded them to return it.
Years later, in the Guatemalan highlands, an indigenous community threatened to hold Jo and two female colleagues hostage. She talked their would-be captors out of the plan.
She is survived by her children, her father, her sister, Philippa, a niece, Marianne, and a nephew, Gabriel.
• Johanna Harvie Tuckman, author and journalist, born 23 May 1967; died 9 July 2020