A Gruesome Murder in Mexico’s Last Safe City

How the murder of four women and a famous journalist has turned Mexico City upside down.

La Narvarte, a leafy neighborhood in Mexico City’s fashionable south end, is an unlikely place for a multiple homicide. And so, late Friday night, a neighbor out for a walk who saw the police cordon on the corner of Luz Saviñón and Zempoala assumed the blockage was for a film crew shooting a Mexican telenovela. The homes of La Narvarte are built in the streamlined modern style of the 1940s, with low concrete walls and colored-tile exteriors; film crews are known to pay for the privilege of filming on the inside.

The police presence was concentrated in front of the tall yellow apartment building at No. 1909 Luz Saviñón. Crime-scene inspectors scoured the fourth-floor apartment whose balcony, dense with potted flowers, overlooks the street.

Three females who lived in apartment No. 401, a male visitor, and a female domestic employee had been bound, beaten, and each shot once in the head with a coup de grâce. Their bodies were spread out in the apartment, one in the living room, two in one bedroom, one in a separate bedroom, and one in the bathroom. A fourth roommate, a 24 year-old female named Esbeidy, whose last name the police are withholding, was the first to find the bodies.

Esbeidy had let herself out at 8 a.m. and gone to her job at the Mexican Department of Agriculture. She remembers unlocking the door to let in “Señora Alejandra,” the domestic employee, on her way out. She did not return until 7:30 p.m. The owner of a business on the ground floor called the police for Esbeidy, and said the first patrol from the Mexico City Department of Public Safety arrived at 9 p.m.

A neighbor slipped inside the apartment with the first responders and managed to see two of the bodies. The neighbor told Radio Formula that one of the women was lying face down, hands tied, an object inserted in her anus. The second girl was nude as well, and splayed on a mattress in one of the bedrooms.

“When the Semefo [the Mexico City forensics agency] turned over the bodies, the faces of both girls were destroyed,” the neighbor said. “The one whose hands were tied had a pillow over her head that I think was used to kill her with a shot. And the other girl, the one with the light-colored hair, when they lifted her up she was nude, with only her pink lace panties on; the first girl was totally nude, with her pajamas around her ankles.”

The male visitor to the apartment was identified as Rubén Espinosa Becerril, 31, a news photographer for the national magazine Proceso. Espinosa, as many in the Mexico City press corps knew, had fled the eastern state of Veracruz eight weeks prior. He had been living in self-imposed exile in the capital, after having received death threats that he said came from the state government in Veracruz.

Mexico City’s chief criminal prosecutor, Rodolfo Ríos Garza, held a press conference on Sunday to address the murders. Reporters, some of whom knew Espinosa personally, pressed Ríos to say whether he was going to consider the victim’s journalism as a possible motive. He said that “all lines of investigation remained open” and that his office had notified the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against the Freedom of Expression (FEADLE). But his office appears to be investigating the quintuple homicide as a robbery, and the FEADLE shows no sign it intends to take over the case.

Initially, Espinosa’s higher profile dwarfed the news coverage of the four female victims, whose identities the prosecutor withheld, citing a federal protocol for femicidesor murders targeting women. Gradually, however, the names of the women began circulating on social media.

One of them, Nadia Vera Pérez, 32, was a political activist from the state of Chiapas who graduated with an anthropology degree from the University of Veracruz and was employed as the coordinator of a cultural center in Mexico City. Like Espinosa, who was her friend, Vera had publicly opposed the government of Veracruz and fled the state under threat, arriving in the capital a year and a half ago. Since the murder, fellow activists and filmmakers have come forward to attest to Vera’s role in student organizing in Xalapa, and her membership in the social movement #YoSoy132 and the Xalapa Student Assembly.

Less information is known about two of the other victims, Yesenia Quiroz Alfaro, 18, a makeup artist and cosmetology student from Mexicali, Baja California; and Olivia Alejandra Negrete Avilés, 40, a domestic employee from Mexico State.

Homicide investigators are focusing their attention on the fourth female victim, a 29-year-old native of Colombia, whom authorities will refer to only by her first name, Nicole. She was in Mexico for only a month, living on a tourist visa, when she was murdered. New reports differ as to her employment, reporting she was a model, a personal assistant, or unemployed. She was so new to the neighborhood, the owner of a laundromat said Yesenia Quiroz had brought Nicole down the day before to show her where to get her laundry washed.

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Nicole is the focus of the DA’s hypothesis that robbery, and not a settling of political scores with Espinosa and Vera, was the motive behind the murders. The DA is leaking details about her to media outlets, like that she wore gold jewelry and drove a 2006 Mustang Shelby that belonged to someone else. The news reports in the capital include mentions of a “Colombian burglary ring” operating in high-rent neighborhoods.

On Tuesday morning, the Mexico City daily La Razón ran the headline “Murderers knew their victims.” The news article, like a similar item that ran in Reforma, alleged the women had invited their killers to the apartment for a party on Thursday night. The stories float the possibility the assailants were friends of Nicole’s who returned the following day to rob and murder the four women and Espinosa, who was Vera’s guest to the supposed party.

Adding to the speculative details, La Razón obtained the first video surveillance of the alleged assailants exiting 1909 Luz Saviñón at around 3 p.m. on Friday. The footage, shot from a camera posted on the street outside the building, shows three blurry figures, one of whom is wheeling a heavy suitcase. They jump into a parked Ford Mustang and drive away, heading south. (The Mustang was located, abandoned, in the Coyoacán neighborhood of Mexico City.)

But on Wednesday, a next-door neighbor refuted that the women had hosted a party on Thursday night. The neighbor saw two of the women chatting quietly on the balcony at 2 a.m., and told Radio Formula, “I listened to them chatting on the balcony and when they saw me they went inside, but there was no party.” The DA’s Office then denied that there was a party and said the murder suspects did not spend the night at the apartment.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the murders, the Mexican public is being introduced to Nadia Vera. On Monday, RompeViento TV released a video of the interview it had filmed of Vera eight months ago. Vera answers questions for a documentary film, Veracruz: The Forgotten Grave. On the outbreak of forced disappearances in Veracruz, she called women and boys the raw material for organized crime: women for sex-trafficking and boys for killers. She says the current governor, Javier Duarte de Ochoa of the ruling Party of the Institutional Revolution, is privy to what is happening because he is in league with el narco, a word for organized crime.

“Because el narco is who governs this state, el narco is who gives the orders,” she says. “The Zetas are literally pulling the strings, governing the entire state; they extort protection money, they charge you to open a bar, they charge you to work; the merchandise here is you. And now is the time to act, before we are annihilated. We have to do something.”

At the close of the interview, Nadia looks directly at the camera with eyes wide open and addresses the question of whom she would hold responsible in the event that some harm were to befall her or someone she cared for, a poignant question in the aftermath of her murder.

“We put all the responsibility completely on Javier Duarte de Ochoa, the governor, and on all members of his cabinet for anything that happens to us,” she says, “We want to be very clear that the government bears all responsibility for our safety because it is they who give the orders to the people who would harm us.”

The life of Rubén Espinosa will also be forever intertwined with that of Governor Duarte’s. Espinosa rose to prominence as a photojournalist in Veracruz at the time when Duarte became infamous as the chief executive of the deadliest state in Mexico for reporters. Espinosa is the 13th Veracruz journalist to be murdered since Duarte assumed office in 2010. An additional four journalists have been forcibly disappeared in Veracruz and 12 others live in self-imposed exile due to threats, intimidation, and harassment.

The highlight of Espinosa’s career came after a photograph he took of Duarte ran on the cover of Proceso magazine in February 2014. Two days after Espinosa was murdered, SinEmbargo republished what it called “Ruben Espinosa’s Photo that Enraged the Governor of Veracruz.” The text of the article opens with this description:

“Bloodshot eyes. A lost look. Parted lips. Ears back like a lurking dog’s. Stern-faced in his glasses and a police cap. Gut hanging over his belt. The buttons threatening to explode off of his shirt embroidered with his name. Ruben Espinosa Becerril’s photo of the Veracruz governor was merciless: Javier Duarte portrayed from head to toe: an authoritarian, resentful, suspicious, angry felon.”

Espinosa told SinEmbargo that teams of men in cars fanned out to every magazine stand in Xalapa and bought up every copy of the issue on the morning it appeared.

On July 1, after Espinosa went into exile in Mexico City and a month before his murder, he sat down for an interview with SinEmbargo. He said he had fled Veracruz because the Duarte government was harassing and threatening him over photos of his it found objectionable and because he covered protests and social movements.

He mentioned one recent protest in particular—a student demonstration that was charged by police while he stood and photographed it—when a plainclothes policeman from an elite group in the state government grabbed him by the throat and told him he would “end up like Regina.”

Regina Martínez Pérez was the veteran Veracruz correspondent for Proceso who was found strangled to death in her apartment in Xalapa on April 28, 2012. Martínez was known for her in-depth reporting on the links between organized crime and government officials. Her murder remains unsolved.

Espinosa had attended a ceremony in May honoring Martínez with a plaque in Plaza Lerdo in Xalapa. He went to protest when thieves removed the plaque in June, telling a reporter “This is an open form of repression, a way to try to silence dissidents, because that is how the State sees us.”

Some of Espinosa’s colleagues in Veracruz begrudged him as a “guerrilla photographer”—a moniker that stuck after he began to give trainings on personal safety for reporters in danger. He was also outspoken against the use of violence against reporters and social movements. He filed a human-rights complaint against the Duarte government after he and his colleagues were attacked by police in October 2013 during the dispersal of a protest encampment of students and instructors from the University of Veracruz. (Nadia Vera was one of the student demonstrators.)

He successfully campaigned the Chamber of Deputies to form the Legislative Commission for the Attention and Protection of Journalists, a watchdog agency he later ridiculed as “worthless.” He founded FotoreporterosMx, a new photographers collective that staged a public protest blindfolded outside the state government offices in Xalapa.

Espinosa fled Veracruz the day he spotted three strange men dressed in black gathered outside the front door of his home in Xalapa. One of the men took his picture and glared at him. He saw the men in the same spot three times in one day; it was June 9 and he fled to Mexico City that night, not taking the time to pack his things or even to take his cocker spaniel, Cosmos.

In all the eight years of pressure building in Veracruz, Mexico City was his refuge. He debriefed gatherings of reporters and editors on the situation in Veracruz, and solicited their support for his embattled colleagues there.

“A repression is coming,” he told SinEmbargo, “so much worse than what we have seen so far, and we can’t forget that Javier Duarte at the start of his term said he was an admirer of Franco; it is a reference lost on people at the time and now the veracruzanos are living through it. All I ask of people, of society, of journalists, is that they turn around and look at Veracruz, because our freedom of expression is being murdered.”

A legal adviser with the Mexico City office of a London-based human-rights organization, Article 19, told SinEmbargo that the threats against Espinosa had continued in the capital. Espinosa mentioned an encounter in which a stranger approached him in a café and said, “You’re that reporter from Veracruz who’s being followed.”

The murder of Espinosa in Mexico City marks a new milestone in the long years of violence against the press in Mexico. Mexico City has long been a refuge for reporters under threat. Espinosa is the first known case of an internally displaced journalist being murdered in the capital. If Espinosa was assassinated, it is a crime with major implications for the freedom of the press in Mexico.

Demonstrations calling for justice for the Narvarte murders were also held in Jalisco, Guerrero, Nuevo Leon, Oaxaca, and in the city of Xalapa, the Veracruz state capital where Espinosa worked covering social movements for eight years before he fled. Many protesters wore masks with Espinosa’s face and held up pens and cameras.

A crowd of several thousand people gathered Sunday at the Monument to the Angel of Independence in Mexico City to condemn the murders. Daniela Pastrana, a journalist and director of The Network of Journalists on Foot, an advocacy group, said the Mexico City government must prioritize the threats against Espinosa that originated from the government of Veracruz. Article 19 also called on the Mexican special prosecutor to attract the case and devote all the resources of the federal government to find those guilty of this murder.

District Attorney Rios stated that his office has requested the Duarte government hand over a copy of Espinosa’s human-rights complaint. Governor Duarte issued a statement in which he “lamented” the murders, including Espinosa’s, and he has subsequently expressed a willingness to cooperate with authorities. A Mexican congressman has proposed bringing Duarte before a subcommittee to discuss the measures he has taken to ensure the safety of journalists in Veracruz.

But the murder investigation remains in the hands of the city police; the special prosecutor has not asserted jurisdiction over the Narvarte murders. (This is in keeping for the FEADLE; since its inception in 2012, the special prosecutor has brought an average of only 1 of every 10 attacks on journalists before a judge, according to Article 19.) Rios’s office is proceeding with the investigation as though the quintuple homicide were a common crime and not related to Espinosa’s work as a journalist.