In Mexico, ‘it is the state, not the cartels, that poses the biggest threat to journalists’

Journalists arrange pictures of slain Mexican colleague Candido Rios during a demonstration in Mexico City on August 24, 2017. Rios, 55, was the tenth journalist murdered in Mexico this year, and one of more than 100 killed since 2006 in a wave of violence that has made the country one of the most dangerous for the press. Photo by Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images.

Marijose Gamboa has one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. She’s a journalist in the Mexican state of Veracruz, and the things she has endured for her work are comparable to the brutalities suffered by prisoners of war, including imprisonment, torture, and sexual assault.

As I’m leaving her brightly lit, well-scrubbed office near the Port of Veracruz, she takes my hand and places it on her midsection, saying, “Feel.” Under the fabric of her purple dress is a hard mass of scar tissue the size of my whole hand. “They used a power drill,” she says.

Veracruz, a humid, mountainous region on the Gulf of Mexico, is “the most dangerous place to be a reporter in the entire Western Hemisphere,” according to The New York Times, and “the epicenter of violence against journalists in Latin America,” according to Insight Crime. Twenty-one  journalists have been murdered here in recent years, but the culprit isn’t a drug cartel — it’s the state government.

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The drug war in Mexico, fueled by money and guns from the United States, has killed well over 100,000 people in the last decade, and Mexican journalists have been especially hard hit. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, only in Iraq and Syria are reporters more likely to be killed on the job. In April, in Ciudad Juárez, the newspaper El Norte shut down outright rather than see any more of its employees killed. In May, gunmen assassinated Javier Valdez, one of the most famous and respected journalists in the country.

About six years ago, state officials started copying the tactics of cartel hit men.

The dominant power in Veracruz is the Zetas cartel, but journalists around here don’t write about them, or their ongoing war with the insurgent Jalisco New Generation Cartel. That would be suicidal, says a correspondent for an international wire service who didn’t want his name used in connection with any statement about narcotraffickers. “They wouldn’t even bother to threaten you,” he says. “They would simply show up at your house and kill you in the worst way imaginable.”

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But self-censorship regarding the drug war hasn’t improved safety conditions in Veracruz because, beginning about six years ago, state officials started copying the tactics of cartel hit men. Today, a journalist is much more likely to be killed for criticizing the governor’s policies or exposing a mayor’s mismanagement than for writing about cartel activities. “Politics has become a very dangerous subject to touch,” says the wire reporter, who speaks softly, often glancing out the window behind him in the quiet restaurant where we met in Xalapa, the state capital. “You cannot accuse a politician directly.”

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In a January 2017 investigation, Reporters Without Borders called Veracruz “the most violent state in the most violent country in Latin America,” but came to the conclusion that “it is the state, not the cartels, that poses the biggest threat to journalists.” The RSF report detailed 19 cases of reporters murdered in the last six years. Few of them had ever written about the drug war. Almost all were on the record criticizing local politicians.

Trucks without license plates loitered around her house, and waited for her outside of church. One day, she came home to find her young daughter’s doll chopped in half with a machete.

In one of the most infamous cases, a photojournalist and correspondent for Proceso named Rubén Espinosa published an unflattering photo of former governor Javier Duarte with his belly hanging over his belt and a dumb look on his face. In July 2015, assassins tracked Espinosa down in Mexico City and executed him, along with four women who were in the same apartment, one of whom, Nadia Vera, was a human-rights activist who had posted a video saying that if she were killed, Duarte would be to blame.

By all accounts, Duarte is the chief villain in this story, a sweaty, debauched, videogame-addicted adherent of the prosperity gospel who daily repeated the mantra, “I deserve abundance,” while looting the state’s coffers to fund his dissolute lifestyle.

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Javier Duarte, former governor of the Mexican state of Veracruz, is taken under custody to board an aircraft to be extradited to Mexico, in Guatemala City, on July 17, 2017.

For Gamboa, the threats began after she wrote a newspaper column calling Duarte a thief. Trucks without license plates loitered around her house, and waited for her outside of church. One day, she came home to find her young daughter’s doll chopped in half with a machete. Then, in 2014, she was involved in a car accident that left a pedestrian dead. Although she was later cleared of any fault, Duarte seized on the chance to silence a critic. Despite testing negative for drugs or alcohol, state officials prosecuted Gamboa for culpable homicide and locked her up in the worst prison imaginable, a stinking, dirt-floor dungeon with a flyblown hole in the yard for a latrine. It was co-ed, and the female inmates were left to the depredations of the men. “You can imagine a prison with 75 men and 30 women, in an open population,” Gamboa says. “Everything was permitted to happen.”

Veracruz is only the most extreme example of increasingly homicidal state actors in Mexico. Of all the mass atrocities committed in the last decade, none provoked so much outrage as the 2014 disappearance of 43 student-teachers in Iguala, who were commemorating the most infamous incident of an earlier era, the 1968 massacre of student protesters in Mexico City. What exactly happened to the 43 student-teachers may never be known, but an international investigation implicated the mayor of Iguala, the local police, and the federal government. In a furious protest in front of the National Palace, demonstrators chanted, “Fue el estado,” or, “It was the state,” and tried to storm the ceremonial presidential residence, whose doors they set ablaze.

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People take part in a march commemorating four months of the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, on January 26, 2015, at the Zocalo square in Mexico City.

In June, The New York Times exposed the Mexican government’s use of sophisticated Israeli spyware to monitor activists, lawyers, and journalists, including those who were investigating the disappearance of the Iguala 43. The cyberarms software, known as Pegasus, costs millions of dollars and is sold exclusively to governments for the purpose of tracking terrorists, but the targets in Mexico included Carmen Aristegui, a television reporter who revealed the sweetheart deal a government contractor gave Mexico’s first lady on a $7 million house.

On a recent night in Medellín, a sweltering little town just inland from the Port of Veracruz, a solitary officer sits in a police truck, fingering the screen of a phone that casts his face in a bluish light. The cop is posted to protect the house of Jorge Sánchez, but it’s an empty gesture. More than two years earlier, in January 2015, armed men came and “lifted,” or kidnapped, Jorge’s father, Moises Sánchez, an eccentric, self-taught character who used his wages as a taxi driver to publish a tiny newspaper called La Unión, known for its forthright criticism of the local government.

“He didn’t like to see injustice,” the younger Sánchez says of his father, whose picture hangs on the kitchen wall. He taught himself law and human rights from textbooks and studied the Constitution of Mexico, which guarantees the freedom of the press. For years he used his newspaper to criticize the lack of security in the town, but it wasn’t until he accused the mayor, Omar Cruz, of embezzling municipal funds that they came for him. Police found his mutilated body in a plastic bag.

Jorge continues to publish La Unión. He’s one of a surprising number of journalists in Veracruz who continue to criticize the government despite the danger.

“I’m used to living in fear,” says Claudia Guerrero, an incongruously cheerful woman who has worked as a journalist in Xalapa for the last 15 years. She arrived for our interview escorted by a male companion because, she says, she doesn’t go anywhere alone anymore. A few years ago, acting on a tip from a friend, she started investigating price-gouging in state-run hospitals. “An aspirin costs three pesos,” she says. “Do you know how much they were charging for one? Fifty pesos.” Threats soon followed. Eggs, rocks, and coins were thrown at her house, breaking the windows. Feces and viscera were flung on her stoop. A fake activist group linked to the governor held a protest outside her office and, in a bizarre act of intimidation, collectively disrobed. She received a cut-and-pasted letter in the mail that said, “Claudia Guerrero, keep up your nastiness. Fucking bitch, we’re going to cut off your head.”

She received a cut-and-pasted letter in the mail that said, “Claudia Guerrero, keep up your nastiness. Fucking bitch, we’re going to cut off your head.”

Guerrero wasn’t intimidated. “If you threaten me, I won’t quit,” she says. “On the contrary, I’ll hit back harder.” Other reporters joined in the medical-fraud investigation, which turned out to be widespread. It emerged that in Veracruz hospitals, cancer medicines had been diluted for profit, and sick kids who were supposed to be undergoing chemotherapy had been treated with ordinary water.

That and other mounting scandals proved too much for Duarte to withstand. His six years in office had left the once-wealthy state debt-ridden and pitted with mass graves, bringing down intense international criticism on Mexico’s ruling party, the PRI, or Revolutionary Institutional Party. He fell out of favor with his political bosses in Mexico City, and in October 2016, just weeks before his term was out, he fled the country. Six months later, Interpol agents apprehended him Guatemala. In July, he was extradited to face charges including embezzlement and corruption, but not murder.

“Duarte didn’t just rob our money,” says author and critic Virginia Duran, the grand dame of the Xalapa press corps, who has covered Veracruz for the last 40 years. “He robbed us of our tranquility, our peace. We live kidnapped.”

The new governor, Miguel Ángel Yunes, has tried to distance himself from Duarte, but despite superficial competition, Mexico is fundamentally a one-party state, dominated by the PRI for nearly 90 years. Yunes belongs to the PAN, a party that once offered some opposition, but is now considered interchangeable with the PRI. Journalists refer to them collectively as the PRIAN. Comparisons to Coke and Pepsi are common. Politicians switch back and forth. Yunes, for instance, served 30 years in the PRI before he joined the PAN, and he is an old hand at state security and espionage. After a brief respite at the outset of his term, attacks on the press have begun again: On March 19, journalist Ricardo Monlui was gunned down by motorcycle assassins in an eastern Veracruz town called Yanga. The Yanga police chief said the motive was unknown, but Monlui mostly wrote about local industry and politics. He didn’t cover the drug war. Ten days later, newspaper editor Armando Arrieta was shot in front of his home in Poza Rica, but survived and went into hiding. He was known as a critic of the government. On August 22, newspaperman Cándido Ríos was assassinated in front of a convenience store in Hueyepan, nine days after the former mayor, Gaspar Gómez, posted a chilling video threatening his life.

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Paramedics transport Mexican journalist Armando Arrieta Granados after he was attacked by armed men outside his house in Poza Rica, Veracruz state, Mexico on March 29, 2017.

 

Ríos, who had criticized Gómez and the police in his town, was the ninth journalist killed in Mexico so far this year and the third in Veracruz. At the time of his death, he’d been under the protection of a federal program called the Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, which allows media workers to sign up for home surveillance cameras, police patrols, and a portable panic button. Reporters Without Borders has criticized the lack of political will to effectively implement the program. When I met with Guerrero in Xalapa, she had left her panic button at home; she said it wasn’t worth carrying around. Ríos was also enrolled in a similar, state-level program in Veracruz, the State Commission for the Protection of Journalists, whose reputation with the press is even worse.

When Gamboa was falsely prosecuted, “CEAPP did absolutely nothing,” she says. After enduring eight months of torture and abuse, she was exonerated and released around the time that Duarte fled the country. In an unusual career shift, she rode popular outrage at her unjust incarceration to seat in the state congress. Now, she says, her top legislative priority is to “eliminate and disappear” the CEAPP, which has been pilloried for its cushy salaries, accounting irregularities, and failure to improve security for journalists. “We need real support,” Gamboa says, “not this white elephant.”

He was a real journalist, and they killed him for it.

Namiko Matsumoto, president of the State Commission on Human Rights, was the head of CEAPP during Duarte’s administration, and defends the agency’s record. She says CEAPP has only limited powers and no authority to conduct investigations or make arrests. Of the 65 journalists who enrolled in its preventative monitoring program during her tenure, she tells me, none have come to harm.

But once our formal interview is over and my voice recorder is turned off, Matsumoto leans back, lights a cigarette, and says that in her opinion, journalists in Veracruz are too aggressive, and fail to take seriously the risks of their profession. She singles out the case of Moises Sánchez, the murdered founder of La Unión. She calls Sánchez an amateur, not a real journalist. She says that contrary to popular belief, Sánchez wasn’t killed for exposing the mayor’s pilfering, but for “heating up the plaza,” that is, drawing the attention of security forces, and making life more difficult for drug traffickers. The implication is that he earned his fate.

Her comments left me uneasy, as did the opulence of her office and the rich jewelry she wore, especially when I thought of the humble house of concrete and tin where Jorge Sánchez carries on with the work of his slain father. Moises Sánchez may have had no training in journalism or formal education, but he wasn’t an amateur. Riding around town in his taxi, visiting with people, he learned what the bosses, cops, and politicians were up to, and he published the truth that others wouldn’t. He was a real journalist, and they killed him for it.

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Seth Harp is a journalist based in Austin, Texas. Since graduating from Columbia Journalism School and the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop in 2016, he has been a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone, covering the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Mexico.