In Mexico, ‘It’s Easy to Kill a Journalist’

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TIERRA BLANCA, Mexico — The calls come often now: another body discovered, broken and left in rags, felled by bullets. They surface at daytime, midnight and dawn, the deaths keeping to no clock.

Members of the tribe gather to pay their respects, the grainy photographs and stripped-down dispatches a testament to another journalist killed here in the Mexican state of Veracruz. It is the most dangerous place to be a reporter in the entire Western Hemisphere.

“We have lived in this hell for some time now,” said Octavio Bravo, a journalist staring at the coffin of a colleague gunned down in Veracruz last year. “You can’t imagine the frustration, the impotence we are feeling.”

Mexico is one of the worst countries in the world to be a journalist today. At least 104 journalists have been murdered in this country since 2000, while 25 others have disappeared, presumed dead. On the list of the world’s deadliest places to be a reporter, Mexico falls between the war-torn nation of Afghanistan and the failed state of Somalia. Last year, 11 Mexican journalists were killed, the country’s highest tally this century.

And there is little hope that 2017 will be any better.

March was the worst month on record for Mexico, ever, according to Article 19, a group that tracks crimes against journalists worldwide. At least seven journalists were shot across the country last month — outside their front doors, relaxing in a hammock, leaving a restaurant, out reporting a story. Three of them died, dispatched by armed men who vanished without a trace.

The reasons for such killings are often varied: cartel assassins annoyed at aggressive coverage, corrupt public officials targeting critics to silence them, random violence and even reporters crossing over into the criminal worlds they cover.

But according to government data, public servants like mayors and police officers have threatened journalists more often than drug cartels, petty criminals or anyone else in recent years, imperiling investigations and raising questions about the government’s commitment to exposing the culprits.

Cases include journalists tortured or killed at the behest of mayors, reporters beaten by armed men in their newsrooms on the order of local officials, and police officers threatening to kill journalists for covering the news.

But of the more than 800 serious cases of harassment, assault or homicide committed against journalists in the past six years, the federal office created to prosecute crimes against the freedom of expression has convicted suspects in only two.

“It isn’t that they can’t solve these cases, it’s that they either don’t want to or aren’t allowed to,” said a senior Mexican law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the government. “This is a political issue. Dead journalists look bad for the government, but it’s even worse if they were found to be killed as a result of their work.”

The government balks at the criticism, noting that it has passed laws to protect journalists, giving them panic buttons, surveillance equipment and even armed guards if the threat is severe enough.

“It is an undeniable fact that freedom of expression exists in Mexico,” the Mexican attorney general’s office said in a statement, noting that “the constant exercise of it has created risks and obstacles.”

Attacks on the media are fully investigated, and exhaustive measures are taken to protect journalists, it added, demonstrating the care “that the Mexican state is taking to uphold this right and oppose any threat against its free exercise.”

Not one of the hundreds of journalists under the government’s protection in recent years had been killed — until last summer, when a crime reporter with multiple threats on his life was shot dead on his front stoop.

But even the officials who run the protection program acknowledge that spending millions to keep journalists from being killed cannot solve the problem.

“We know this isn’t a situation we can fix one by one,” said Roberto Campa, the Interior Ministry’s deputy secretary for human rights. “The challenge of impunity is massive.”

The consequences for Mexico are far greater than a few more deaths in a country where 98 percent of murders go unsolved. In the eyes of many Mexican journalists, crime, corruption and indifference are killing the basic promise of a free press in Mexico — and with it a central pillar of the nation’s democracy.

“Freedom of expression here becomes a myth,” said Daniel Moreno, director general of Animal Político, an independent news organization in Mexico. Given “the fact that the authorities have proven they are incapable of solving most crimes against journalists, and are often the perpetrators of this violence themselves, then we can legitimately say that journalism is in a state of emergency in this country.”

After nearly a decade of growing violence against the media, whether from local officials or organized crime, the press has adapted by severely cutting back on what it reports. Self-censorship is not only common; it is often the standard.

Last month, when a respected reporter was fatally shot eight times while leaving her home, a newspaper she wrote for abruptly announced that it was shutting down, warning of the deadly landscape journalists were forced to inhabit.

“We fought against the tide, receiving attacks and punishments from individuals and governments for having exposed their bad practices and corrupt acts,” the editor of the newspaper, Norte, wrote in a front-page letter. “Everything in life has a beginning and an end, a price to pay,” he added, saying, “I am not ready for one more of my collaborators to pay for it and I am not either.”

President Enrique Peña Nieto, who rose to office vowing to push his nation past the drug war, has pledged to address the violence visited on the media.

But the federal government has consistently decided that crimes against journalists are not attacks on the freedom of expression, which means they do not warrant federal involvement. Federal investigators have reviewed 117 killings of journalists going back to 2000, but have chosen to pursue only eight. One has been solved.

Sometimes the government states, only hours after a journalist is found dead, that the killing had nothing to do with the person’s work, well before an investigation has even begun.

The nation’s supreme court rejected the government’s standard last month, writing that all crimes against journalists should go to the federal courts. But the ruling is not yet binding and may apply only to new crimes, meaning that scores of murder cases will stay where they are, in local courts, where resources are slim and vulnerability to corruption is high.

“In Veracruz, it’s easy to kill a journalist,” said Jorge Sánchez, whose father, Moisés, was murdered two years ago.

Moisés Sánchez published a newspaper, La Unión, for over a decade. But he waded into deadly territory, his family said, when he started writing stories about a local mayor pilfering money as the small town grew more dangerous.

In January 2015, armed men came to Mr. Sánchez’s house and dragged him away as his family watched helplessly. Days later, the pieces of his body were discovered in three black trash bags.

For months, relatives and journalists in Veracruz demanded that the federal government investigate the case as an attack on the freedom of the press. But the special federal prosecutor’s office established to protect free speech resisted.

“We could not find a single piece of evidence to support that claim,” said Ricardo Celso Nájera Herrera, the head federal prosecutor.

The refusal bewildered Mr. Sánchez’s family because officials in Veracruz had obtained evidence that the killing was politically motivated. A bodyguard for the mayor of the town, Medellín de Bravo, admitted that he had been ordered to abduct and murder Mr. Sánchez on behalf of his boss.

“This case is absolutely related to his journalism,” Luis Ángel Bravo Contreras, the former chief prosecutor of Veracruz State, said late last year.

After two years of relentless pressure, the federal government has agreed to take the case. But years have passed, only one of the six suspects has been captured and the former mayor is nowhere to be found, having gone into hiding long ago.

Like dozens of journalists interviewed in Veracruz, Mr. Sanchez’s family has little hope for justice. The deaths of journalists, they say, fall into a graveyard of impunity, true of almost all murders in Mexico.

“The only thing we can do,” said Jorge Sánchez, who has continued publishing his father’s newspaper, “is make a fuss.”

Nothing to Do With Reporting

This April, as they have for the past four years, reporters in Veracruz erected a plaque in the city of Xalapa to honor their slain colleague Regina Martínez.

And for the past four years, the government has promptly removed it.

There is perhaps no case in Veracruz more symbolic of Mexican journalists’ struggle than that of Ms. Martínez, a correspondent for Proceso, a stalwart of independent coverage.

The magazine has historically taken a critical stance toward the government, both local and national. And its reporters have paid dearly for it. They are among the most threatened journalists not just in Veracruz but across the nation.

Ms. Martínez, a tough reporter with 20 years of experience, was a mentor to younger colleagues. They looked up to her as an example of a serious journalist unafraid to cover the most critical issues of the day, specifically the nexus of crime and politics.

But on the night of April 28, 2012, a day after publishing stories on the mysterious death of a political official and the arrest of nine police officers working for drug traffickers, Ms. Martínez was found strangled and beaten to death on her bathroom floor.

The killing sent a chill across the country.

Journalists in Mexico are at once investigators, chroniclers and victims of the violence and corruption unleashed by the drug war. They are sometimes even participants. Some reporters in semi-lawless states openly admit to receiving extra money from cartels to sway their coverage.

“I’m not proud of accepting their money,” said one reporter in Veracruz, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals from the cartels. “But once you start, there is no going back.”

Colleagues saw Ms. Martínez as beyond reproach, however. She was simply an aggressive, respected reporter. If she could be killed, then no one was safe.

Her publication, Proceso, demanded a thorough investigation and access to the case files to ensure the authorities were taking it seriously. The government agreed, but flaws in the inquiry surfaced immediately, according to journalists and former officials.

Evidence like empty beer bottles had been cleared from the scene, along with DNA, whether on purpose or because of shoddy police work. When federal investigators came to help, they were left with almost nothing to go on because the crime scene had been handled so poorly.

In the meantime, the reporter assigned to the case for Proceso, Jorge Carrasco, began receiving death threats of his own, requiring round-the-clock protection and limiting his ability to follow the story.

When an official version of what happened emerged, colleagues were skeptical. The murder, the authorities claimed, was unrelated to Ms. Martínez’s work. She was killed in a botched robbery by a man she was seeing romantically, they said.

Though the suspect went into hiding, his brother-in-law, a homeless man, was picked up and charged as an accomplice. The man made a confession but months later, during a public hearing, told a court that he had been tortured into confessing, prompting a judge to overturn his conviction.

The state supreme court reversed the decision, upholding the conviction after all. Journalists in Veracruz were devastated, believing that the truth behind Ms. Martínez’s death would never come out.

One option remained: to file a case with the independent Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has the authority to open investigations when a nation’s court system has been exhausted.

But Proceso refused.

“Frankly, we didn’t do it out of fear, for the insecurity, given the genuine evidence that they kill journalists,” Mr. Carrasco said in an interview. “When they continue to threaten you, what can you do? You put at risk those who are still on the street, reporting.”

Mr. Carrasco said Proceso had a different hope: that the public furor over Ms. Martínez would deter something like her murder from happening again.

Whatever hopes they had were quickly dashed.

Journalists in Veracruz continued to die, and before long it was another one of Proceso’s own.

Two months after fleeing Veracruz because of government harassment — including being followed and intimidated by the authorities — a photographer for Proceso, Rubén Espinosa, was killed in 2015 along with four women in a Mexico City apartment.

The next morning, editors for Proceso and media advocates turned up for a briefing at the city prosecutor’s office.

The first thing the prosecutor told them was that the murder had nothing to do with journalism.

A Life of Precautions

Seated at a seafood restaurant, clutching a diet Coke, Jesús Olivares heard the blare of an ambulance approaching. He swiveled in his chair to peek out the windows, catching a glimpse of the red-and-white lights as the vehicle raced past.

“Could be news,” he said, pushing back from the table.

It was not. After a quick jaunt down the highway on his moped, his hulking frame sagging over the sides, he discovered that the plume of smoke rising from a field was not a body, or a wreck, or any other grisly end he had come to know intimately as a crime reporter here.

This time, it was just farmers burning crops.

“Nothing to see here,” he said, flashing a smile.

For nearly three years, Mr. Olivares has reported for El Dictamen, one of the largest daily newspapers in Veracruz. His work is a sampling of the drug war’s fare: dismembered bodies, gunfights, kidnappings.

The work has taken its toll. In February, a police commander threatened to kill him if he did not stop taking pictures at a crime scene. He reported the episode and now carries with him a government-issued panic button, which offers faint comfort, he said. The button summons the same police he feels threatened by.

“The government is the worst,” he said. “At least the threats from the narcos are direct, simple.”

And so, like most reporters here, Mr. Olivares has taken his well-being into his own hands — adopting a system of both vigilance and safety in numbers.

He speaks cautiously around public officials and deploys euphemisms when writing to avoid the buzzwords that the cartels dislike, such as “shootout,” “kidnapping” and “execution.” He has also made friends with a team of firefighters, whose station is something of a second home.

Mr. Olivares became close with them after his mother died two years ago and the firefighters collected her body. The men attended her funeral days later, making a deep impression on the young reporter, who was grateful for the warmth.

At first, Mr. Olivares began spending evenings with the firefighters to escape the sadness left behind at home. When he kept showing up, they gave him a uniform and a place to sleep in the firehouse.

But once the threats began, it became much more useful than he could have imagined — a sanctuary, with capable defenders around him at all hours.

These days, he suits up and joins the men on their runs, helping where he can while reporting at the same time. He likes the idea of dressing up in uniform when duty calls.

On a recent night, Mr. Olivares huddled in the bay of the station, adjusting his reflective vest while his friends swapped stories. One of the men recounted how, until recently, the firehouse was run by organized crime, as a way to extort those who needed their services.

But with a new commander, the situation changed. The station was open to the public, and passers-by honked a friendly hello at the men as they clustered on the sidewalk under the orange glow of a streetlight.

Mr. Olivares, having registered the day’s mayhem, seemed relaxed, the thrall of a day’s work over. He retired to the back room of the station house, joining the laughter of his adopted family.

Impediments to Justice

In late July, Pedro Tamayo Rosas, a crime reporter, was on his front stoop, helping his wife at the hamburger stand she ran from their modest home here in Tierra Blanca, a city in Veracruz. At approximately 11 p.m., a gunman pulled up in a black truck, ordered a burger, emptied his magazine and vanished.

Mr. Tamayo, who sat on the sidewalk bleeding for 25 minutes, died on the way to the hospital. He was the first journalist in Mexico to be killed while under state protection, ending the government’s remarkable streak of guarding nearly 500 journalists and human rights advocates in the program over roughly five years without any serious problems.

He knew the risks of returning to Veracruz. After a series of threats on his life, government officials had helped Mr. Tamayo and his family flee a few months earlier. But six months later, jobless and homesick, he returned, telling friends he would rather die in Veracruz than live in Tijuana.

As with many cases, it is unclear who ordered Mr. Tamayo’s murder. His wife thinks the police were involved. Not only did the officers parked on her street fail to pursue the shooters, but one of them also brandished a firearm to keep her at bay when she tried to aid her husband, she said. Since then, a series of threats and assaults and the arrest of her son have convinced her that the state is to blame.

Friends think the cartels were behind it. According to those close to him, Mr. Tamayo was revealing information about the theft of oil in and around his hometown.

That the responsible party could credibly be either the government or organized crime — or both — reflects the existential crisis facing reporters in Mexico today.

But the crisis did not stop with Mr. Tamayo’s death. At least not for his family.

His wife, Alicia Blanco Beisa, has told her lawyers and state authorities responsible for protecting journalists that she has been repeatedly threatened by officials in Tierra Blanca, including on the day of her husband’s funeral.

Her home suspiciously burned down. Her son was arrested over a car theft, a crime she says he knows nothing about. And she says she was threatened by a top security official who told her at gunpoint to keep quiet about her husband.

The case has gone nowhere, her lawyers say. At a recent meeting with the state attorney general’s office, Mrs. Tamayo’s lawyers asked the prosecutor to include the assault, arson and her son’s arrest in the same case file.

But the attorney general refused, viewing them as separate episodes, unrelated to her husband’s murder, according to people at the meetings.

He then turned the question on Mrs. Tamayo, asking why she had not filed formal complaints with the government.

“I have,” she replied, claiming she went to the proper government offices to file her complaints. “They refused to register them.”

Her lawyers, who work for the journalist rights group Article 19, worry about her safety. Harassment complaints against public officials are a deadly gambit in Tierra Blanca, a particularly deadly part of a deadly state, they say.

“It is one of the most emblematic cases,” said Erick Monterrosas, a lawyer for the group.

And as in most cases, he added, the people responsible for her husband’s death are still walking free.