Murder of Mexican reporter in Veracruz spotlights official hostility toward press

McClatchy Foreign StaffMay 16, 2013 

WORLD NEWS MEDIA-MURDER 5 MCT

Regina Martinez, a reporter for Proceso magazine who was slain in Xalapa, Mexico, in April 2012, is seen here in a 2011 photo.

OCTAVIO GOMEZ — Proceso Magazine/MCT

— Regina Martinez had a premonition that she was courting danger in the months before her death. She spoke to colleagues of her fear.

She’d written articles for Proceso, Mexico’s main newsweekly magazine, chronicling the overlap between organized crime gangs and elected officials in Veracruz, a state that hugs the Gulf of Mexico. Ten days before her death, Martinez published a story telling how a mayor and former mayor in the state had taken part in a firefight with federal police on behalf of the Los Zetas crime syndicate.

“I was with her a few times when she said she felt pressure and that she was afraid,” recalled Lourdes Lopez, a veteran crime reporter in this state capital.

It’s been about a year since Martinez opened the door of her modest one-story home to the attackers who would leave her in a pool of blood in her bathroom. Prosecutors in Veracruz, the most dangerous place for journalists in the Americas, say they have solved her murder. One of the culprits, they say, is a 34-year-old illiterate drug user, Jorge Antonio Hernandez Silva, known as “El Silva,” who was sentenced last month to a 38-year jail term. His alleged partner in the botched robbery-turned-murder was a male prostitute, now a fugitive.

The evidence against the two men “is irrefutable,” said Gina Dominguez Colio, a spokeswoman for Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte.

But officials in Veracruz are practically alone in believing that the crime has been solved. Mexican and international press freedom groups decry the murder probe, saying it was designed more to cover up the crime than to clarify it.

“The skepticism is absolute amongst the close friends of Regina, at the magazine she used to work for, Proceso, and even at the federal prosecutor’s office,” said Rodrigo Bonilla Hastings, a Mexican who manages freedom of press issues for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, a Paris-based group that represents 18,000 publications in 120 nations.

Even Mexico’s federal Attorney General’s Office, which has a special division to look into crimes against journalists, is suspicious. The head of that office, Laura Borbolla Moreno, said that Veracruz authorities declined to share some results of their investigation and that she has “a series of doubts” about the state investigation.

“We can’t even place El Silva at the crime scene,” she said.

Violence and threats against journalists have reached epidemic proportions in much of Mexico in a campaign so intense that news outlets in large swaths of the country have ceased to cover organized crime and drug trafficking for fear of retribution. The story of Martinez’s murder, however, opens a window on a different facet of the violence, one in which gangsters play a lesser role than government officials, who routinely bully journalists and foster an environment in which impunity is nearly assured when journalists are the victims. Even when they are murdered.

Mexico’s democratic transition never quite reached Veracruz, a lush state of nearly 8 million people. When voters in 2000 ended 71 straight years of presidential rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish initials as the PRI, PRI governors clung to power in some states, including Veracruz. They continued to employ the strong-arm methods largely jettisoned by the party on the national level, which returned to the presidency Dec. 1 after 12 years in opposition.

Duarte, the Veracruz governor, rarely holds news conferences, and when he does, it is sometimes to chastise journalists or lambaste social media.

In mid-March, Duarte ridiculed a photographer, Felix Marquez, whose photo of a newly formed vigilante group in the town of Tlalixcoyan belied official statements that law enforcement firmly controls Veracruz. Duarte said the photo was fake. His security chief, Arturo Bermudez, said Marquez should be thrown in jail.

Less than a week later, Marquez fled the state for exile in Mexico City because of the “very hostile” attitude toward him.

Marquez was lucky. He’s alive. Nine journalists have been murdered in Veracruz in two years, making it the deadliest state in the deadliest nation in the Americas for journalists. One of the reporters, Yolanda Ordaz, was decapitated, her severed head dumped behind a newspaper office. Four others were stuffed in plastic bags thrown in a sewage canal. A prominent columnist was slain in a gangland-style attack on his home that also killed his wife and a son.

The killings coincide with the near takeover of Veracruz by Los Zetas, a notoriously brutal gang dominant here, and the gang’s subsequent clashes with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which tried to dislodge Los Zetas. The groups corrupted entire municipal police forces and town halls in the state, prompting the arrival of naval marines in late 2011 to restore order.

Martinez, who was 48 at the time of her death, was cut from different cloth than many of her contemporaries in Veracruz journalism. She did not feed off the government publicity gravy train. She lived humbly; her home is on a dirt road in a working-class area of Xalapa, the state capital.

“She was very, very respected here, respected because she didn’t bend to a government that’s been quite authoritarian for decades,” said Jorge Morales, a fellow journalist who started an online portal, plumaslibres.com, with Martinez.

“She was my boss at the Politica newspaper,” said a Veracruz journalist, one of some 15 who fled the state in the past two years for fear of losing their lives. “She was very reserved, measured and even austere.”

The journalist, who lives in a safe house in Mexico City paid for by a press advocacy group, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear that relatives still living in Veracruz might be slain.

“Regina didn’t just receive one threat. She’d received many,” the journalist said. “She was looking into very delicate matters.”

Asked whether the threats came from gangsters or government officials, the journalist shrugged: “It’s like trying to separate a zebra into black and white parts.”

As a correspondent for the nation’s premier national newsweekly, Martinez may have thought that she had a measure of protection.

If so, she was proved wrong after 10 p.m. on Friday, April 27, 2012, when someone came to her front gate. Martinez apparently recognized at least one of the visitors because she let them in. There was no sign of a break-in.

The next morning, a neighbor saw the gate open. She called out to Martinez but got no answer. So she dialed the police.

Investigators later said the attacker plunged Martinez’s head repeatedly into a toilet bowl, hit her with a fist wrapped in brass knuckles, then threw her so hard against a tub that it cracked her skull. Martinez fought with a kitchen knife, drawing blood from the attacker’s forearm. But as a slight woman, weighing only 108 pounds, she was no match.

The legal file in the Martinez murder probe is voluminous, befitting her high-profile killing, perhaps the best known case of dozens of journalists slain in Mexico in recent years. A file from the state prosecutor’s office has about 1,500 pages, while the federal Attorney General’s Office file comes in at 2,442 pages.

Nearly from the outset, state prosecutors declined to pursue leads that her journalistic work may have angered someone into murdering her.

“We turned over dozens and dozens of her articles,” said Jorge Carrasco, a veteran reporter whom Proceso designated to help with the state investigation. “The prosecutors did nothing with them. They rejected them entirely.”

In late October, Veracruz State Prosecutor Amadeo Flores Espinoza said that the case was solved. He brought forward El Silva, a convicted motorcycle thief, and said he’d confessed. El Silva only completed one year of primary school and told prosecutors he didn’t know his own birth date.

The state prosecutor said El Silva joined a friend he’d once met in jail, Jose Adrian Hernandez, known as “El Jarocho,” in a plan to rob Martinez’s home. He described the two men as “crooks.”

Court documents say El Jarocho, who is 27 and remains a fugitive, earned a living as a male prostitute and smalltime drug dealer. They asserted that he was an occasional lover of the slain journalist, explaining why she opened the door for him.

Some time after letting the men in, prosecutors said, Martinez went out to buy beers, returning to dance with one of the men. They asked her for money. She declined. A tussle grew violent, ending in Martinez’s death.

Investigators who arrived at the scene the next day said the men carted off a 32-inch LG plasma television, two cellphones, a Toshiba laptop computer, a small boom box, a camera and Martinez’s wristwatch.

Proceso’s chief editor, Rafael Rodriguez Castaneda, voiced incredulity at the sudden resolution of the case, saying he felt “absolute skepticism.”

“I can’t imagine Regina giving access to her house – to the intimacy of her home – to people considered crooks,” he told Radio MVS. “I don’t believe it.”

Three days after prosecutors announced El Silva’s arrest to the media, he was taken before a judge, where he said he’d been framed and mistreated.

“The first thing that El Silva says is, ‘They’ve tortured me. They kept me enclosed in a closet for three weeks until I learned this story,’” said Carrasco, adding that authorities “threatened to kill his adoptive mother.”

None of the fingerprints found in Martinez’s house match those of El Silva. No one places him at the scene of the crime except an unnamed witness, who said he’d heard El Silva talk about the murder.

Martinez’s death deepened unease among journalists, an anxiety that grew more acute amid rumors that a hit list was circulating of other reporters to be killed.

“A few days after that, an official came up to me,” said Lopez, the local crime reporter who had heard Martinez express concern for her safety. “It was someone with a deep friendship with the governor and the spokeswoman. He said, ‘There’s a list and your name is on it.’ He said he didn’t know who was behind it, whether Los Zetas or who.”

The official said the state government was offering to pay journalists their expenses to leave the state for a few months.

“He said, ‘Go to Cancun! Go to Mexico City! Go to Spain! Take your daughter.’”

More than a dozen left the state around then, and two have sought exile abroad, one in the United States and another in Europe. Only a handful has returned.

Carrasco said he believes Veracruz officials foresee a positive outcome in the Regina Martinez case, one that inters the matter forever.

“For them, what is the best scenario? It is that El Silva, who is HIV positive, dies in prison, and El Jarocho turns up dead somewhere,” Carrasco said.

Carrasco’s links to the case may have made him a target for violence. On April 16, Proceso magazine said that it had learned that former and current members of the Veracruz government were plotting to abduct Carrasco in Mexico City. Gov. Duarte adamantly denied such a plot was afoot but said he would investigate.

Carrasco has gone into hiding under the protection of armed guards.

Danger in Mexico for journalists

Email: tjohnson@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @timjohnson4

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