Violence, impunity and distrust make Veracruz one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist in Mexico

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  • November 4, 2016

By Josefina Mancilla

The Mexican state of Veracruz has proven to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for the press with 17 journalist homicides in the last six years. This year alone, three journalists have been killed in the state.

With recent news of former Veracruz governor Javier Duarte de Ochoa’s resignation from office and subsequent flight from justice, the media has highlighted the dangers in this state not only for ordinary citizens, but for journalists and communications workers. Duarte, who faces corruption charges, first took office in 2010. Since then, 17 journalists have died and five have disappeared under his administration, according to Article 19 Mexico, a human rights organization based in Mexico City.

In August, journalist Noé Zavaleta was forced to leave Veracruz after receiving widespread harassment and threats upon the release of his book “The Hell of Javier Duarte: Chronicles of a fateful government.”

However, there are state organizations, such as the State Commission for the Attention and Protection of Journalists (CEAPP for its acronym in Spanish), that were created to protect journalists from these types of dangers.

On the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, CEAPP urged “all authorities to continue implementing concrete measures to prevent attacks against journalists, ensuring that those responsible are brought to justice and guaranteeing the right of victims to full reparation.”

However, Leopoldo Maldonado, director of protection and defense for nonprofit organization Article 19 Mexico, told the Knight Center that journalists oftentimes are threatened against asking for help or are scared of retaliation and therefore do not approach organizations like CEAPP. “There is a large distrust,” Maldonado said. Because CEAPP is a state commission for Veracruz, “[it] lacks the independence from executive powers, in this case, the governor.”

He stated that “there needs to be a human rights commission with autonomy from the government” because oftentimes the ties to the government are what keep investigations from being successful.

“There are no legal consequences,” he said. “The investigations simply don’t move forward.”

In some cases, Duarte accused journalists of collaborating with criminal groups “citing, in large part, circumstantial evidence that was hard to prove,” said Carlos Lauría, senior program coordinator for the Americas at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), to the Knight Center. These “persistent” accusations often lead to murderers walking free. In cases that do move forward, there seem to be irregularities in the judicial process, Lauría said.

“Impunity in Veracruz is common currency,” Lauría explained. “Despite affirmations from ex-governor Duarte that a functional judicial system existed, the reality is that Veracruz—with the number of journalist assassinations since Duarte assumed office—is one of the most lethal places for the press in all of the Americas.”

In a notable case last year, Rubén Espinosa, a photojournalist who fled Veracruz, was found dead in Mexico City along with four women. According to Article 19, this was the first time a journalist was killed in the Federal District, a place formerly associated as a safe haven for journalists.

More recently, in July, Pedro Tamayo Rosas, a correspondent from El Piñero de la Cuenca and other media, was shot several times in front of his wife and children just outside his home. Tamayo had been under state protection since January.

In another case this year, journalist Anabel Flores Salazar, was found dead on Feb. 9 in Puebla after being kidnapped from her home in Veracruz the day prior. Like Tamayo Rosas, Flores Salazar reported on organized crime.

Just a few months following Flores Salazar’s death, journalist Manuel Torres González was shot and killed on May 14 in northern Veracruz. Torres had no history of asking for protection.

Maldonado notes that it is cases like these that keep journalists distrustful of seeking protection.

“We need to clean the police force, clean and punish,” Maldonado added. “They practically work for criminal networks; all of this passes through a political process.”

Many journalists who face threats and assaults, like Tamayo Rosas, cover beats related to crime or government, according to Article 19. Tamayo Rosas wrote about disappearances, kidnappings, executions and cartel-related news.

Since journalists do not often approach organizations like CEAPP for protection, Maldonado said many have created their of networks of protection between colleagues, though, there is a social distrust even amongst journalists. He added, “What many have done is just stop talking about delicate topics, which is tragic.”

Article 19 noted that since 2000 to May 3 of this year, there have been 93 journalist deaths in Mexico, with the last 20 being under President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration. Additionally, it reported in August that from January to June, there were 218 attacks against journalists, and 28 of those occurred in Veracruz.

Lauría added that even though Peña Nieto has made some constitutional reforms in the investigative processes for assaults on journalists, they really haven’t changed the situation.

“Beyond the rhetoric of the President who says that the Mexican government is respectful of freedom of expression and is committed to freedom of expression, he still has a great distance to travel to support his words with actions,” Lauría said, adding that the situation in Veracruz places democracy at risk.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.