Mexican Journalists Speak Out on Reporter Murders

Mexican reporters find strength in numbers to decry official denial of the kidnapping and murder of colleagues by drug cartels.

Marco Ugarte/AP

Gregorio Jiménez was a crime reporter in an especially dangerous stretch along Mexico’s Gulf Coast of Veracruz. Goyo, which is short for Gregorio, was one of the few stringers with a camera that an editor could find living all the way out in Villa Allende, a patch of tropical green amid the petrochemical refineries not far from the thriving oil port of Coaztzacoalcos. Humble and kind are the words colleagues most often used to describe him.

Before Goyo became a journalist, he was a wedding photographer. He knew how to fix television sets. He still took on side jobs like that because the pay of 20 pesos ($1.55 USD) for an article wasn't enough for him to live on. He and his wife and children shared a cinder-block house with a roof made of sheet metal and a dirt floor. He wrote four articles a day and rewrote every one of them to resell to another newspaper for another 20 pesos.

On February 5, five armed men in ski masks entered Goyo's home and kidnapped him in front of his children. Sayda Chinas was Gregorio's editor-in-chief at Notisur. She got word of his kidnapping and reached out to colleagues in Mexico City for help. It was an unusual move for someone in newsroom management to admit that a reporter of hers was kidnapped. Media owners tend to be conflict averse. They tend to err heavily on the side of the government where kidnapping is concerned. They don't want any problems. Reporters have been fired because they received a death threat.

But Chinas says she was fed up. Nine journalists were killed in Veracruz in three years, and Goyo would be the tenth. Three others have been missing for a long time. In every case, the state prosecutor has ruled out journalism as a motive, claiming that all of the murders resulted from personal disputes or robbery. And yet the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is known for its stringent standards, maintains that at least three journalists were killed in Veracruz for exercising their profession. Gregorio was one of them. The other cases are more difficult to determine.

Seven years ago, back before the drug war became so widespread and lethal, The Network of Journalists On Foot was formed by six women and one man (“our gender quota,” jokes co-founder Elia Baltazar). The founders are reporters for national print and radio outlets, and one producer for BBC World. Initially the purpose of the group was to cover the issue of poverty in Mexico; they didn't set out to protect journalists from violence. But journalists kept showing up to the group’s workshops from Michoacan, Guerrero, Tamaulipas—states mired in drug violence. They started to talk about how they had been beaten, tortured, in some cases kidnapped, how they were being watched, how death threats were slid under their front doors.

“After that you can't be the same person as before,” said Marcela Turati, a reporter for the Mexico City's tops news magazine Proceso and a co-founder of The Network of Journalists On Foot. “It was obvious we had to do something.”

The group began organizing workshops on safety protocols for journalists reporting in conflict zones, and inviting journalists who specialized in the coverage of violence to address their meetings. They pushed for federal officials to be more accountable in matters of crimes against journalists, and, paired with groups like Article 19, Reporters Without Borders, The Committee to Protect Journalists, and made appeals before U.N. commissions and the Organization of American States. Sister networks formed in cities like Juarez, Chihuahua and Guadalajara. Guerrero and Veracruz are organizing chapters. “They always seem to be on the move,” said Rodrigo Soberanes, a stringer for AP in Veracruz. “They’re identifying reporters who want to organize and they never lose contact with them.”

Among the group’s members is editor Sayda Chinas from Coatzacoalcos, who came to its meeting of more than 100 journalists in December. She had heeded an earlier call for a demonstration on the second anniversary of the murder of Regina Martinez, a decade-long correspondent for Proceso in Veracruz known for her in-depth reporting on organized crime. Martinez was found badly beaten and strangled to death in her home in Xalapa in 2011. The state prosecutor in Veracruz called it a crime of passion, a conclusion that sowed resentment among local reporters.

Only four or five journalists attended the demonstration in memory of Regina Martinez in Coaztzacoalcos. “Most of our colleagues got pressure from their newsrooms not to participate,” Chinas said. “The government was threatening to pull its advertising from any media outlet whose reporters took part in the protests.” When Goyo was kidnapped, however, a few dozen journalists braved the risk and marched through the streets of Coatzacoalcos every day for six days straight. The lead protest banner was a photo of Goyo and the slogan “We Want Him Alive.”

In Mexico City, the network of journalists used the same slogan to build a campaign on social media. Reporters across Mexico took photographs of themselves holding a photo of Goyo with the hashtag of “we want him alive.” Reporters from as far away as Spain and Argentina sent selfies. Tens of thousands of messages of support came in on Facebook making the kidnapping of an obscure police reporter in Veracruz a cause celèbre on social media. But the elation was brief. Goyo’s body was found in a shallow grave on February 11, beside that of a labor union official who had been kidnapped two weeks prior. Goyo had reported on the man’s disappearance when it happened.

Goyo’s wife, Carmela, believes he was killed for reporting on kidnappings in Villa Allende, including that of the union leader. He had been afraid that someone had seen him take a photograph, printed in the paper, of the house where some of the kidnapping victims had been held captive. The property belonged to an old woman whose chain of seafood restaurants was popular with men in the government.

The networks of journalists convened a meeting in Mexico City. The journalists decided on two courses of action: to march in the streets of cities throughout Mexico in a show of solidarity with their colleagues in Coatzacoalcos, and to go to Veracruz and investigate what happened to Goyo.

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Maria Idalia Gomez is a reporter with the Interamerican Press Society. “It was done without a thought,” she says of the decision. “All of us saw that Gregorio’s case was unique, the type of reporter he was, the type of person he was, the place where it happened, a state in which crimes against the freedom of expression are committed with impunity.”

The authorities in Veracruz had already declared Gregorio’s murder the result of a dispute between neighbors. Seventeen of his colleagues rented a van in Mexico City and drove to Coatzacoalcos to make a collective inquiry into the role that Gregorio’s journalism had played in his murder. “It was a self-guided initiative, something never done before,” Gomez said.

To the surprise of many, the state government of Veracruz handed over the homicide file to the visiting delegation of journalists. The reporters involved said it was a concession to the pressure of the public campaign.

“During an interview on the government spokeswoman had said that they had nothing to hide, and offered to show the file,” recalled Marcela Turati of The Network of Journalists On Foot. “So when we got there we made a public statement that we were taking them at their word. The state prosecutor agreed and showed us the file on Gregorio’s murder.”

The 17 journalists divided up the responsibilities. All did interviews, some did newspaper research, studying Gregorio’s final articles for clues to a motive. They interviewed reporters, relatives, the state prosecutor, the investigators, the owners of media outlets, and other journalists who had been threatened. They visited the house where Gregorio lived and the grave where his body was found, and spoke to reporters who were there the day it was discovered. Others researched the regional context of the crime, the competing interests, the political parties. Others wrote the 87-page report.

“We didn’t want the case to go away,” said Elia Baltazar, an independent journalist, radio news producer and co-founder of Journalists On Foot. “We didn’t want the state prosecutor’s version of events to be the only one.”

Two government officials in Veracruz resigned soon after the busfull of journalists departed. Gina Dominguez, the spokeswoman for Gov. Javier Duarte and his cudgel with the local press, resigned a mere three days later. Felipe Amadeo Flores, Gov. Duarte’s state prosecutor under whose watch the murders of 10 journalists have both occurred and remain unsolved, while three others are missing and presumed dead, also resigned.

The title of the completed report is a tip of the hand as to its conclusion: ‘Gregorio: Killed for Reporting.’ Marcela Turati delivered a hard copy of it in person to the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C.

At a press conference last week, the new state prosecutor, Luis Ángel Bravo Contreras, announced that the government is investigating the possibility that Goyo was murdered for his work as a journalist. He also said the original hypothesis of a neighbor’s tiff is as valid as ever. At the end of his speech he left open the possibility that either or both are correct.

The Special Federal Prosecutor for Crimes against the Freedom of Expression has not taken action with respect to Goyo’s murder. Unless the government of Veracruz determines Goyo was killed for his reporting, the federal government is unlikely to step in.

During the reporting for this article, another Mexican reporter was kidnapped and murdered, this time in the seaside Pacific resort city of Acapulco. The Network Journalists on Foot is back in crisis mode again, waging a media campaign, building relationships through support for local journalists. They intend to form another independent murder investigation in Acapulco.

The mafia in more and more parts of Mexico, like the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, have imposed a ban on crime reporting altogether. Turati spoke of a crisis mentality that has set in.

“First they silence the journalists in Tamaulipas. Now there are parts of Veracruz, a bit of Tabasco, Coauhuila, parts of Morelos, Michoacan, parts of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Sonora where silence is the rule.

“So silence is closing in, and the situation gets more dangerous all the time.”