On April 28, 2012 journalist Regina Martínez was found strangled in the bathroom of her home in Xalapa, the capital of the southern Mexican state of Veracruz. Martínez was a renowned journalist with the Mexican weekly magazine Proceso, which for the past 36 years has been publishing articles about narco-trafficking, the war on drugs, and government corruption, among other topics. While Martínez reported frequently on all of these aforementioned topics, the Veracruzan government negated the fact that she was killed for her publications, instead attributing her murder to a common robbery.
Her assassination and the impunity surrounding it has become an emblematic case in the crisis suffered by journalists in Mexico. Over the last decade, Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, with increasing assassinations, forced disappearances, and physical threats against members of the media. According to press freedom group Article 19, threats against journalists in Mexico rose 20 percent from 2011 to 2012. Meanwhile, in the four months since president Enrique Peña-Nieto has taken power, the number of threats has risen another 20 percent. The Committee for Protection of Journalists has classified Mexico as the eighth worst country in the world for journalists in its annual Impunity Index.
Meanwhile, Veracruz tops the chart in the country with 9 journalists killed in just the past 3 years according to the press freedom group Article 19. The state’s populace and the journalists and photographers reporting on the state of affairs live at the crossroads of organized crime and institutional impunity. Veracruz, as a long skinny state on the Gulf Coast, is prime territory for drug trafficking and the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel fight to control the smuggling routes.
Regina Martínez was known for her investigative reports into government corruption and the close relationships that many state security agents and public officials had with drug trafficking organizations. She had received much pushback, including a criminal complaint against her after she published an article and photos revealing that a 73-year-old indigenous women, Ernestina Ascencio, had been raped and assassinated by military soldiers. The government had maintained that Ascencio had died due to acute gastritis.
When Martínez’s death became public, Veracruz’s government immediately attributed her death to a simple robbery and refused to make the logical connections between her journalistic work and her assassination. Government officials claimed that the fact that her cell phone and computer had been stolen, proved that the motivation was robbery.
Martínez’s murder became emblematic of government impunity, censorship, and repression, ringing the alarm for freedom of press organizations across the globe because of the gravity of the situation for journalists in Veracruz.
Proceso’s correspondents released this statement following her death:
“This blow affects us directly. It cannot be understood without focusing on the institutional discomposition in this country, the corruption, the impunity for pompous criminals, the alarm and social fear all derived from a stubborn and failed war against crime.
It is within this environment that there is an absence of democratic normalcy in Mexico and no authority can say to the journalists of Veracruz and those across this country, that their exist guarantees to inform the people”
Proceso has held fast in their dedication in pressuring the government to investigate her death.
Many journalists feared that the government would give “carpetazo” to the case meaning that it’s filed away, forgotten and left unresolved; also known as impunity. With the mounting pressure from journalists associations and civil society, the government opened a cursory investigation into her death. On April 8, 2013, shortly before the year anniversary of her death, they sentenced Jorge Antonio Hernández Silva (aka “El Silva”) to 38 years in jail.
Following his conviction, Proceso immediately released a statementhighlighting inconsistencies in the case including that “El Silva’s” fingerprints didn’t match those at the scene of the crime and stated that his mother faced death threats and he was tortured into confessing. Additionally, the other presumed assassin José Adrián Hernández Domínguez, El Jarocho, is still at large.
Article 19 also denounced the investigation because it was based only on one testimony and that only a brief cursory investigation was done into her death, not taking into account her work as a journalist.
Omar Rábago who works with the Program for Freedom of Expression and Protection of journalists of Article 19 spoke to Upside Down World about rampant impunity across Mexico. Rábago stated that over 90 percent of murder cases are not investigated and that this contributes to a “double murder” effect for journalists.
“There are not special prosecutors and they don’t follow the line of investigation of journalism. They treat it like a common crime and this is terrible because as is the case with Regina Martínez, and other journalists they don’t stop being journalists. 24/7 they still do their work,” said Rábago.
The Proceso has diligently been pressing for a thorough investigation in the case while publishing articles about the impunity and inconsistencies in the case. Journalist Jorge Carrasco authored the most recent investigative pieces on Martinez’s case and his life was threatened as a result. Proceso stated that they had been informed that current and former government officials met in Veracruz and discussed using police data banks to search out Carrasco and cause him harm. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, “A source close to the case who asked to remain anonymous told CPJ that there had been a plan underway to kill the reporter, with men looking for him in Mexico City.”
Veracruz: A Censored, Bribed and Compromised Media Corps
Journalists’ salaries in Veracruz average between a paltry 2,000 to 6,000 pesos a month, the equivalent of $160 to $480. With this salary many journalists are forced to take on 2 or 3 full-time jobs, simultaneously covering the same story for various outlets with cursory investigations into the subject. The field is full of young, fresh journalism graduates who are often the only reporters who can afford to work at these low rates, as many don’t have to support their families.
Ángel Ramos Trujillo is a journalist with the Veracruzan newspaper Imagen de Veracruz and the independent magazine Era. Ramos believes low salaries generate censorship because reporters in economically vulnerable positions are more willing to accept “bonuses” from government officials or organized crime, in exchange for favorable coverage. He estimates that 80 percent of his colleagues are “periodistas chayoteros”, signifying that they have been bought off by external interests that control what they publish.
Many articles have been published about the violence and aggression suffered by Veracruz journalists, but little about the lack of freedom of expression for those who continue to work in the field.
“Beyond the murdered reporters, are the reporters who are dead while still living. I believe that there are many reporters who could do many interesting things but are they are not doing them because the media will not publish them or they are tired of trying to get things published when in the end they are never published because the media outlets are not open to losing the money they receive from the government,” said Ramos.
Various journalists interviewed for this article commented that the majority of Veracruzan media outlets are so dependent on these government funds that they refuse to publish on a wide variety of topics that could portray the government in a negative light, including the environment, public budget, education, and the marginalization of indigenous communities.
“In my case, we wanted to publish an infographic about pollution in different parts of the state but our editors said we couldn’t do it because it would make government officials angry,” said Ramos.
He shared another anecdote about wanting to publish a piece about millions of pesos that were unaccounted for in the government budget when the figures became public. They were forbidden to write about the missing funds until the story was published two weeks later in the national press, forcing Veracruzan outlets to also publish the news.
The government has been trying to maintain a public image that Veracruz is a safe, beautiful state and therefore suppresses any news that proves the contrary. Numerous reporters have stated that they have received calls from the Secretary of Social Communication urging them not to focus on certain subjects. Gina Dominguez is the current Secretary of Social communication and was previously the Chief of Press for ex Mexican governor Mario Villanueva Madrid, who is currently incarcerated in the U.S. for his role in trafficking 200 tons of cocaine to the United States. Dominguez is famous for issuing communiqués to delegitimize the work of journalists who publish any information that strays from the official government discourse, including mentioning the names of victims of the drug war without automatically assuming that they are connected to organized crime groups.
This government pressure has led journalists to think twice before publishing anything that could be deemed controversial. Ruffling the wrong feathers could lead to a complaint call from a local politician, firing from their jobs because most journalists have weak or non-existent contracts or in the worst case it can result into their disappearance or assassination.
“There is another type of violence, the censorship, the lack of opportunities for work, the precarious conditions in which we work…We are paying our taxes to keep ourselves uninformed,” said Ramos.
The situation is slightly better for those who work for national and international press outlets because they are better paid and have the backing of organizations located outside the state.
There are a few noteworthy independent magazines including the Magazine Era and Plumas Libres. It is assumed that these outlets are not accepting bribes, yet censorship reigns, because many reporters who publish in these outlets are also publishing in non-independent outlets and fear the repercussions they will face in their formal work based on what they publish elsewhere.
Pretending to confront the violent situation faced by journalists, the government of Veracruz created the State Commission In Defense of Journalists (known as CEAPP for its Spanish acronym). The commission is supposedly dedicated to protecting freedom of expression in the state. It has a budget of 15 million pesos and 32 employees of which the majority of the budget is dedicated to their salaries. A remaining portion doles out 20,000 pesos monthly to people serving on an advisory council who are only obligated to attend one meeting every other month.
El Premio Chayotero: Rewarding the Governor’s Impunity
On April 2, Veracruzan governor Javier Duarte received an award from the Mexican Association of Newspaper Editors for his “commitment to freedom of expression.” This award caused outrage among journalists nationwide who viewed it as putting salt in the wounds of all those whose family members and colleagues had been murdered while in the field.
“It is a mockery, it is a lack of respect, if you look at the statistics - 9 deaths, 4 disappearances, one of these this year. Thirty people who have been exiled, some outside of the country trying to be journalists, which is virtually impossible for them,” said photojournalist Félix Márquez, who is based in the Port of Veracruz.
Immediately El diario Veracruzano, Notiver and El Diario de Juárez requested that that their names not be associated with this problematic award, despite the fact that they belong to the association that granted it. In the past three years Notiver has seen 5 of its journalists and photographers, Miguel Ángel López Velasco, Misael López Solana, Yolanda Ordaz, Guillermo Luna Varela y Gabriel Huge, killed. After numerous death threats Notiver journalist María José Gamboa lives in the newspaper offices fearing for her life if she leaves.
The facebook page “A mí también me da asco el chayopremio a Javier Duarte” was created: which loosely translates to “I’m disgusted by the bribery award given to Javier Duarte.” Close to 2000 people have liked the page and it features active conversations of Duarte’s corrupt activities and situations faced by journalists across the state.
In the same week that Duarte was awarded his prize, Mexican president Enrique Peña-Nieto visited Veracruz and incorrectly named the state capital in a speech. Just as George W. Bush’s blunders became viral Internet fodder so have Peña-Nieto´s. Verónica Danell, an editor at Mega Noticias in Veracruz, circulated the video of Peña-Nieto´s blunder and was immediately fired without explanation and the employing agency MegaCable refused to comment.
Veracruz: A Beautiful and Tranquil State?
In the past four months Mexico has seen an explosion of “Auto-defense groups” in small, rural largely indigenous communities where narco-related violence in rampant. Some of these newly armed civilian groups have sprung up in the state of Veracruz and after investigating the situation for nearly two months, Veracruzan journalists traveled to the town of “El Ingles” March 5 to document the existence of one of these groups. The following day Cuarto Oscuro photographer Félix Márquez published one of these photos showing the auto defense group masked and armed. The secretary of public security immediately responded stating that the photos were either reprinted from an archive or that Félix Márquez had paid the men to pose with arms. He also stated that Márquez should be incarcerated for this work.
Given the climate for journalists in Veracruz, this statement was not to be taken lightly as previous journalists have been charged and incarcerated for defamation and other crimes related to their profession.
Commenting on the government’s threats against him, Márquez brought up the issue of censorship. “This comes from a politics of simulation that exists in the state of Veracruz because they don’t want [negative] things to be brought to light and if they are published, the government tries to discredit them,” said Márquez.
Márquez was forced into temporary exile in Mexico City. His colleagues at the national photography magazineCuarto Oscuro and photographers across the world united in his defense publishing photos of them posing with their cameras and signs saying “We are all Félix Márquez”. A few weeks later Márquez was able to return to his native Veracruz and continue with his photojournalism.
Omar Rábago of Article 19 said that what happened to Félix Márquez is commonplace:
“The journalists doesn’t just face threats from organized crime groups but also face aggressions from politicians especially if they are critical and are viewed as a ‘rock in the shoe’ of the government.”
Mexico: No Country for Critical Journalists
It is important to note that the state of Veracruz is not alone it its violent repression and censorship of journalists. Aggressions against journalists across the entire territory of Mexico have severely increased over the past decade.
In many northern border states like Tamaulipas and Chihuahua, media outlets have stopped publishing articles about murders linked to organized crime. The online Chihuahan news portal Ojinaga Noticias declared they would cease to exist following the murder of their chief editor, Jaime Guadalupe Domínguez on March 3, 2013. With a lack of critical media reporting on current events, social networks like twitter and facebook have filled in the void. Organized crime groups in Tamaulipas announced a reward of 600,000 for any information identifying the moderator of the Valor Por Tamaulipas facebook page, which keeps people informed about the current situation in the state. A few months after the threats, the administrators announced that they will not continue maintaining the page.
Article 19 published the report “Double Murder: The Press Between Violence and Impunity” where they investigated the 207 aggressions suffered by journalists and communication workers in 2012. In this report they found that local, state and federal government officials were responsible for 43.96 percent of the attacks on freedom of expression, three times more than organized crime who were responsible for 14 percent of aggressions.
Civil associations, press freedom groups, and human rights groups joined together to work with the government of passing a law of protection for human rights defenders and journalists. It has been one year since its passage but only a few months since its implementation. Many journalists who have been violently threatened have not availed themselves of the mechanism of protection, due to lack of confidence in a government that has been responsible for many of the aggressions law.
They Can’t Stop Us From Reporting
All of the repression against Veracruzan journalists in the month marking the anniversary of the murder of Regina is having a “snowball effect” considering the growing indignation amongst journalists. Some journalists are talking about starting a association of journalists who work in these at-risk situations to be better prepared to confront these kinds of emergency situations
“Our struggle has to continue behind our cameras, recorders and pens so we can continue informing the people what happens in Veracruz,” said Márquez. “This doesn’t just affect me or Veronica Anell or the photographers who were detained and threatened. Journalists are now putting themselves in the shoes of others and asking if this happened to him or if this happened to her or if they can just give a prize to Duarte, what can happen to us?”
Honoring Regina Martínez a year after her assassination, the association Periodistas de a Pie held activities in her native city of Xalapa to “exist justice for all the cases, and show our solidarity with all the journalists who fight every day against the silence.”
Reporters groups worldwide held actions in 10 cities across Mexico and in Los Angeles protesting the severe crisis suffered by journalists in Mexico. A central theme as seen among chants and signs in the action was the desire to realize their journalistic work safely.
Proceso Journalist Jesusa Cervantes, spoke to the journalists protesting in Mexico City “We want it to be very clear that a country that doesn’t have free information , a country that doesn’t have the conditions that allow people to denounce abuses of power, can not be a democatric country.”