Mexico: The War on Journalists

Rubén Espinosa.jpg
Stringer/Mexico/Reuters/Corbis
Photojournalist Rubén Espinosa in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, January 20, 2014

At some point during the day of July 31, perhaps between the hours of two and three in the afternoon, in a peaceful middle-class neighborhood in Mexico City, five young people were murdered. They were Nadia Vera, age thirty-two, a cheerful radical activist who had moved from the southeastern state of Veracruz to the capital a year earlier; her two roommates, Yesenia Quiroz, eighteen, who was studying to be a beautician, Mile Virginia Martín, thirty-one, and Alejandra Negrete, forty, who had recently been hired as a maid by the other women. The fifth person was Rubén Espinosa, thirty-one, a news photographer, who had recently returned to his native Mexico City after long years away.

Espinosa was shot in the back of the head, as were the four women in the apartment. That much, out of the government’s evolving, confused, and contradictory account, we can believe. Also, it would seem to be the case that a single 9mm gun was used for all the killings and that two of the women were raped before being killed, one brutally so.

Like his friend Nadia Vera, whom he was visiting, Espinosa had worked for several years in Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz. Two months before he was killed, he felt his life to be in danger and fled Xalapa for Mexico City. There, he joined several dozen other reporters from Veracruz who had received threats in the past and feared for their lives. Twelve of their colleagues had already been murdered in Veracruz since 2010, mostly in atrocious ways, in cases which have never been satisfactorily resolved, and many of the exiled reporters openly accused the administration of Javier Duarte, the governor of Veracruz, who is of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, by its Spanish initials, of involvement in the crimes. The killings are a record even in a country where at least eighty journalists have been murdered since 2000.

Although Duarte, who took office in 2010, has been able to count on the central government’s unconditional support throughout his term, his administration has been characterized by graft and misrule. During the Duarte years, a bloodthirsty drug group, the Zetas, challenged the so-called Gulf Cartel for control of Veracruz. Hundreds of victims later, the Zetas seem to be comfortably installed in large portions of the state.

For those who have been following these horrors for years, Espinosa’s murder brought a new fear: that journalists were now fair game in Mexico City, traditionally a haven for reporters fleeing the violence in the provinces. The multiple murders prompted an unprecedented condemnation this week by journalists, writers, academics, and artists from more than forty countries. (In a statement released by the Interior Ministry on Tuesday in response to the protest letter, the Mexican government pledged to work with the authorities to pursue every avenue of investigation in the case.)

At the very least, the forces of law and order in Veracruz have shown no great zeal in investigating and prosecuting reporters’ deaths. The victims’ profession has been dismissed by prosecutors as a possible motive in every case, and in those cases in which arrests have been made, supporting evidence against the detainees has been flimsy, at best. In no case has there been an investigation of who might have hired the hit man. Instead, government officials have been at pains, in private and in public, to portray the victims as involved with the drug trade. But many victims, like Regina Martínez, who was a stringer for the prestigious newsweekly Proceso, and who was killed in April 2012, are hard to depict as anything but straight-arrow. In her case, the government announced that Jorge Antonio Hernández, a petty burglar with no previous record of violence, had confessed to using a length of wire to strangle Martínez, in the course of an incursion into her painfully modest home. (Given the widely-reported use of torture in Mexico—confession is generally not taken by reporters or the public at large as reliable evidence.)

According to Proceso, Hernández, the alleged killer in the Martínez case, is kept in isolation in a local prison, and is not allowed to see a lawyer. In three other Veracruz cases, law-enforcement authorities accused, but were unable to arrest, three men who reportedly belonged to known criminal organizations. Later, authorities announced that all three had died in confrontations with the army.

As Espinosa himself readily admitted, quite a few reporters do allow themselves to be censored by local drug traffickers, or even supply them with information; these journalists place their bets as best they can, given the realities of receiving small supplements to their miserly incomes or immediate death. A reasonable conjecture is that many undertrained, underpaid, and overworked reporters may have died after they failed to obey particularly distasteful instructions, or unwittingly pointed their cameras at something a local narco wished to keep hidden. But even in cases where this conclusion might be drawn, pretrial investigations are sloppy, and crucial witnesses and accused parties often look terrified or have unexplained bruises when they are put on trial. Somehow, the insinuation slides in, under all the accounts of the victims’ drinking habits or their moonlighting activities, that murdered reporters have not been killed in connection to their professional activity, and so deserve their horrendous fate.

Rubén Espinosa had already fled Veracruz when governor Duarte made his now-famous statement to journalists at a lunch in their honor in late June:

Lamentably, some of the media workers have links to these [drug] groups. What do I want to ask you, compañeros and compañeras? I’m asking you for your family’s sake, but also for mine, because if anything happens to you it’s me who gets crucified: behave yourselves. We all know who’s not walking the line, we all know who’s got links and who’s involved with the underworld. Behave yourselves, please! Hard times are coming, which in the end will bring better times. We’re going to shake the tree and a lot of rotten fruit is going to fall.

Espinosa was an articulate, pleasant, and clean-cut young man with radical ideas and the exalted view of his profession common among young reporters everywhere who have to work for low pay in difficult conditions. This made him something of a leader among his colleagues; he taught workshops and gave inspirational talks to his juniors. Unlike many of his murdered colleagues, he chose not to cover the more lucrative crime beat, focusing instead on protest marches (they are frequent in Veracruz) and social movements. He was a decent press photographer, and gutsy; he took damning photographs of police brutality against students and demonstrators, but also of the many projects—housing, public works—that the Duarte government is leaving to the elements, half-finished and unpaid for. His colleagues in Veracruz remember working with him in areas where the Zetas drug group had free reign, and of being followed by suspicious-looking men.

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Stringer/Mexico/Reuters/Corbis
Javier Duarte, Governor of the state of Veracruz, at a news conference in Xalapa, Mexico, August 10, 2015

Espinosa had a girlfriend in Xalapa, family in Mexico City, and many friends in the rowdy, irreverent profession, but some thought that he suffered from a disturbing and in some way self-glamorizing paranoia. He had a habit of looking over his shoulder dramatically, of leaving conversations and restaurants without warning; in Mexico City he was afraid to sleep at home and went from couch to couch among his friends. The threats he recounted seemed hazy, unfocused: one morning early in June he saw some men in a taxi outside his home in Xalapa who seemed to be pointing at him; he saw them again that afternoon at a different location; one of them waved and took a picture of him. That evening someone, possibly one of the same men, brushed against him in what he felt was a threatening manner. He left for Mexico City two days later. It’s easy to regard such vague, menacing impressions as trivial, but it’s hard to figure out, when one is in a situation of generalized fear and impunity, whether there really is a reason to feel terrified, and how long to wait to find out the answer.

The journalist’s movements in the hours before he was killed can be pieced together from the accounts of his friends and neighbors. On the evening of July 30, Espinosa indulged in a favorite pastime among his colleagues: drinking cheap beer and shooting the breeze. It was quite late when, with another reporter, he went to the apartment of his friend Nadia Vera for a few beers more, and then decided to stay over. At around 1 AM, a neighbor who went outside to look at the night sky saw the group chatting on the balcony. They seem to have carried on the conversation for a long time, because Espinosa slept late. The next day he texted a friend jokingly about the late night, told him that he had guard duty at a Veracruz news agency’s Mexico City office, and wrote that he was happy, because the following day, a Saturday, he would be meeting his girlfriend in the nearby city of Puebla, and going with her to a medical appointment and then to see her family. The time of this last message was 2:13 PM on July 31.

There is one fact in the official version of the five young persons’ murder that seems indisputable: Mile Virginia Martín, one of the four women—one of the two who was raped—owned a red-and-white striped Mustang that she bought for about thirteen thousand dollars. It’s an extravagant toy for someone who shared a modest apartment with three other women and had no declared source of income. According to her brother, who was interviewed on television after she had been identified, Martín wanted to work as a model, but she wouldn’t have had much of a future in fashion. She was pouty and sexy in a Sofía Vergara sort of way, and posed and dressed accordingly, as is the style along Colombia’s Atlantic Coast. She was, in fact, Colombian. Combined with the red Mustang, her nationality has been at the center of the government’s successive accounts of the crime, as presented over the last two weeks to the press. The photograph the government chose to release showed her in a bikini, and there was much talk, in the early days of the investigation, of the Mustang’s possible use as a drug trafficking vehicle. (The previous owner of the car announced himself to the authorities and cleared his name; Martín still owed him some money on it, he said.)

In a burst of efficiency, police recovered the security video from a street camera on the nearest crossroad to the scene of the crime. It shows a blurry image of a man the police identified as a perpetrator emerging from the apartment building at 3 PM—less than an hour after Espinosa’s final text message—and climbing into the Mustang, which was parked almost in front of the entrance. Two other men said by the police to be involved in the killings are seen in the same video to leave the building a few minutes later and cross the street calmly and on foot. One of them, police said, had left fingerprints in the apartment. He was Daniel Gutiérrez Pacheco, an ex-convict who made his living parking and washing cars on the street. He remained at home for days after the murder and was picked up by the police on August 6. The car, meanwhile, was abandoned.

There was a fourth roommate in the apartment, known only as Esbeidy, who survived because she left for work early on Friday morning; she was the only one of the four with a steady job. It was she who found the five bodies when she came back from work that evening; she spoke only to investigators and vanished soon after. According to the initial account of Esbeidy’s testimony offered by Mexico City Attorney General Rodolfo Ríos Garza, on the night before the murder Esbeidy saw her three roommates, with Espinosa “and other men,” conviviendo, a winking term for being in the same room together. When she left for work the next morning, Esbeidy is said to have told authorities, the group was still conviviendo.

As the news took off that a reporter from Veracruz who had received threats had been shot, execution-style, the theory offered by Mexico City authorities was that the unidentified colombiana must have known her killers, since there was no sign of a forcible entry in the apartment; that she had a red Mustang; and that the attack was really directed at her. Eventually, the same authorities allowed that there had been no strange men with Espinosa in the apartment other than his friend that night, and that there had been no party.

There were other confusions, misrepresentations, and errors: Espinosa, the hardworking freelancer, was “not murdered…in the course of practicing his profession; he was unemployed, ” according to Ríos Garza, the attorney general. Espinosa, he said, had left Veracruz simply to look for better job opportunities. When Sara Pantoja, a reporter from Proceso, asked the district attorney in charge of homicide investigations about the text conversation—the one at 2:13 PM on the day of the murder, saying Espinosa was on his way home from Nadia Vera’s apartment—he seemed genuinely surprised. By then, August 5, the messages had already been circulating for days, and published on the news website Sin Embargo, but the DA politely wondered how the reporter Pantoja had gotten them, and whether he could talk to the person who had texted with Espinosa. It was the mayor’s office, Proceso reports, that leaked grotesque images of Mile Victoria Martín’s naked and tortured body to the local scandal sheets.

There are many legitimate questions to be asked, and answered, about last month’s horrific murders. No matter whether Espinosa or Martín was the target, why was it necessary to kill so many others? Why on earth would the only detainee, whose fingerprints could be identified because he had served nine years in jail, have calmly taken himself back home after murdering five people—without taking the precaution of using gloves?

Perhaps the government will find the answers. Perhaps the fact that Rubén Espinosa felt threatened, that the governor of Veracruz has made unsettling and menacing statements in the past regarding the situation of journalists, that fourteen other Veracruz journalists have been killed since Duarte’s governorship began, four of them so far this year, should not be taken into account in this case. But given the almost complete lack of trust under which law enforcement authorities labor everywhere in Mexico, it is not surprising that the Mexico City district attorney’s preliminary conclusion, that Rubén Espinosa and his friend, the activist Nadia Vera, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that la colombiana was dealing drugs and was done in by her distributors, was met with general disbelief.