On November 13, 2008, the reporter Armando Rodríguez, who worked for the Juárez newspaper El Diario, waited in his car with his oldest daughter, then eight years old, while his wife got the youngest ready for preschool. She heard shots, and for a moment thought that it was just part of the general Juárez soundtrack. When she looked out the window seconds later it was too late. Riddled with bullet wounds, Rodríguez was slumped over his daughter’s body, whom he died protecting.
Armando Rodríguez—known everywhere as El Choco (for “chocolate”) because of his skin color—started out in journalism as the cameraman for Blanca Martínez, who was then a TV reporter. They married, and while Blanca became the editor of the local Catholic church weekly, Rodríguez persuaded a Juárez newspaper to hire him, and he transferred to El Diario as a reporter.
He worked the police beat hard, particularly at the time of a series of unspeakable feminicidios, or serial killings, of young Juárez women, and then again when the wave of drug violence started in 2008. An elder statesman on the police beat, Choco was respected by his editors and by his colleagues for his aggressive reporting.
“They said he was temperamental,” his widow told me over the phone, “but it was just because he was so passionate about his work.” The first time he got death threats the paper persuaded him to take a break because he needed an operation. Many other threats followed. In the weeks leading up to his murder, Choco Rodríguez had published articles linking relatives of the Chihuahua state attorney general, Patricia González Rodríguez (no relation), to the dr ug trade. On November 12 he wrote a story about the gangland execution of two police officers who, according to Choco, worked directly for the attorney general, pointing implicitly to the possibility that the attorney general herself had connections to the drug trade. The story ran in the issue of November 13, which hit the street around 1:30 AM. A few hours later, Choco was dead.3
I asked Blanca Martínez how the investigation into her husband’s murder was going and her voice got small. “That December they came to question me,” she said. “I can’t remember if they were federal or state police. They asked me about his work, they asked me if he carried a weapon. [He didn’t.] One of them told me that they had precise instructions [from the federal government] to investigate the case. That was the first and only time the government ever sought me out.” There were no arrests, she said. There were no new leads. The investigation was inactive. Years had passed before she was allowed to see the court files on her husband’s murder, and then only briefly. There was, additionally, the fact that the main federal investigator had been gunned down a year after the murder. His replacement was killed shortly afterward.
Few murders in Mexico have been the focus of as much media indignation or pressure as Choco’s. It has become a cause for Juárez reporters and editors and several media associations in Mexico City. The crime has also become a flagship case of sorts for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is based in New York and is the most influential organization of its kind. In the fall of 2010, after many requests, the CPJ was able to meet with President Felipe Calderón, whose term in office is likely to be associated forever with the ill-fated decision to declare a military war on drugs, and with the atrocious violence that ensued.
During his conversation with the CPJ delegation, the president emphasized that he was just as concerned with the fate of journalists in Mexico as his visitors, and as determined to see justice done in the case of every crime against them. In fact, he said, the murder of Choco Rodríguez had just been solved; the culprit was a confessed hit man who had been under arrest for several months and had not previously mentioned murdering Rodríguez, but who had recovered his memory of this crime.
Weeks before the CPJ meeting with Calderón, a reporter at El Diario was contacted by someone who claimed to have a brother, a convicted murderer, doing time in the Juárez penitentiary. This brother was the leader of a gang of killers, and had confessed to several murders. But the source was concerned because the convict was being removed from prison every weekend and taken to a military base. There, he was being tortured mercilessly, and told to confess to the murder of Choco Rodríguez. But he continued to insist that he had not committed that murder.
The day after the CPJ delegation’s meeting with Calderón, the editors and reporters at El Diario were able to put the pieces of the puzzle together: the tortured hit man was called Juan Soto Arias, and it was he who had been identified by President Calderón as the confessed killer of Rodríguez. “Whatever limited confidence we had in the investigation disintegrated at that point,” Joel Simon told me. “Someone was acting in an incredibly cynical manner. We don’t know how high up that went. Regardless, the president told us information that was incorrect and easily confirmable as incorrect.” The investigation has been dead since that incident, “like all investigations into the killing of journalists,” as Simon pointed out. (Soto Arias reportedly remains in prison, serving a 240-year sentence for the murders he initially confessed to. He was never charged with the killing of Armando Rodríguez.)
One day recently I had a long phone conversation with Rocío Gallegos, who was Choco Rodríguez’s editor at the time of his death. Since that first murder, reporters have received many threats, and a young intern was assassinated.
El Diario is unusual in that it is relatively prosperous and concerned for the welfare of its news staff, Gallegos said. Staff reporters are given fellowships to attend journalism school and seminars. They have health and life insurance, and most are on a salary. While journalism in Tamaulipas, homeland of the Zetas, has all but vanished, news continued to flow out of Juárez, and El Diario, even when it became the most violent city in the world. (Thanks largely to a deal that appears to have been struck between the Pacific Coast drug mafias and the local drug runners, similar to a reported deal in Tijuana, violence in Juárez has greatly diminished in the last year or so.) Even before Choco’s death, the traffickers’ hostility to the media was made clear: a week before that murder, Gallegos recalled, someone placed a man’s severed head at the foot of a public statue honoring the city’s paper delivery boys.
I asked Gallegos, who is currently the news editor at El Diario, how life had changed at the paper in the long years of bloodshed. “We understood that we had to give up on exclusives,” she said. “Whether we got a scoop or not became irrelevant. [There were places] where you simply couldn’t send a reporter out alone.
“We were so unprepared for this situation!” she said.
It overwhelmed us. We’d come in from a scene where the victims’ mothers were crying, the families were crying, and then we had to sit down and write. Or it would be three in the morning and I’d find myself comforting a reporter who was weeping because she’d just received a death threat on her cell phone. You have to think: how have we been affected by all this? I think a great deal about those colleagues who have had to go out and photograph twenty corpses. How have they been affected?
I asked her what she would have wanted to see in these years of terror. “Justice,” she replied. “Less aggression. Greater safety. But above all, I would have wanted justice, because the murder of our colleagues has received no justice. I would like to know who killed them and why.”
3 In 2010, in one of the drug war’s more grotesque episodes, the Zetas distributed a video recording of the torture of the state attorney general’s brother. Before they killed him, the brother stated on camera that he and his sister had both worked for a rival drug group, and that she had ordered the murder of Armando Rodríguez. The reliability of statements made under such conditions is, of course, nil. ↩
In 2010, in one of the drug war’s more grotesque episodes, the Zetas distributed a video recording of the torture of the state attorney general’s brother. Before they killed him, the brother stated on camera that he and his sister had both worked for a rival drug group, and that she had ordered the murder of Armando Rodríguez. The reliability of statements made under such conditions is, of course, nil. ↩