Wave of murders rattles Mexican journalists

Miroslava Breach Velducea. Photo courtesy of Patricia Mayorga. Miroslava Breach Velducea. Photo courtesy of Patricia Mayorga.

When America first spoke to Patricia Mayorga a month ago, she was hardly able to utter a sentence. “I am speechless,” she said, reacting to the brutal murder of her friend and colleague Miroslava Breach Velducea.

Ms. Breach, a reporter for national newspaper La Jornada and regional daily Nortein the northern Mexican border state of Chihuahua, was gunned down in the early morning of March 23 just outside her residence in the state’s eponymous capital. The assassin left a piece of cardboard by the body. “For being a tattletale,” it said. The “letter” was signed by “El 80,” the alias of Arturo Quintana, a man identified by law enforcement as a Chihuahua crime lord.

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“Miroslava’s death was a terrible shock for all journalists in the state,” Ms. Mayorga recalls. “We were suddenly struck by fear, all of us.”

Ms. Breach, 54, was widely respected in Chihuahua as one of its most fearless journalists. She reported on politics and organized crime in Mexico’s largest state by land area, a hazardous job in a region plagued by years of rampant criminal violence and political corruption. Born in the state’s rugged western mountains, a lawless region where criminal gangs have been in control of lucrative drug smuggling routes for years, she would often venture into areas few other reporters dare tread to investigate ties between organized crime and local politics.

One of those stories may have signed her death warrant. On March 4, 2016, she wrote a report for La Jornada in which she reported on mayoral candidates in several small towns in the western mountains of Chihuahua, including the mother-in-law of Mr. Quintana, “El 80.” According to several of Chihuahua journalists, the story angered the gang leader, and Ms. Breach received several death threats.

“Miroslava’s death was a terrible shock for all journalists in the state,” Ms. Mayorga recalls. “We were suddenly struck by fear, all of us.”

To Ms. Mayorga, herself a well-respected correspondent in Chihuahua for the widely read muckraking magazine Proceso, Ms. Breach’s death was more than just a personal tragedy. The two often teamed up on long reporting trips and wrote stories on the same subjects, and some of the threats her friend had received were also directed at her. Almost immediately after the news of the murder reached her, she went into hiding.

“It was clear that I could no longer continue my work in Chihuahua,” she said. “It was no longer safe.” She left Chihuahua several weeks ago and asked America not to disclose her current location.

The murder of Ms. Breach was one of no less than four deadly attacks on Mexican journalists in less than two months. Since early March, crime reporter Cecilio Pineda was killed in the southern state of Guerrero, followed by Ricardo Monliu, a newspaper columnist based in Veracruz state. And on April 17, Maximino Rodríguez, a veteran reporter and columnist in the northern peninsular state of Baja California Sur, was shot to death in the city of La Paz. Two other reporters survived attempts on their lives—one of them recovering from severe gunshot wounds in a hospital in Veracruz.

Four attacks in such a short timespan have shocked Mexico, already a country press freedom organizations say is one the most dangerous in the Western Hemisphere for journalists. According to the New York City–based Committee to Protect Journalists (C.P.J.), at least 94 journalists and media workers have been killed in the country since 1992. In 40 of those cases, the organization confirmed the victim’s work as a journalist as the motive for the murder.

The vast majority of those killings have occurred since 2006, the year the Mexican government of then-President Felipe Calderón deployed thousands of soldiers and heavily armed federal police to combat powerful drug trafficking cartels that control entire swaths of the country. In the ensuing drug war, an estimated 200,000 people have perished in bloody gangland warfare, while approximately 25,000 people have disappeared.

Attacks on journalists take place in a generalized environment of violence and impunity. In states where organized crime is deeply rooted, such as Guerrero, Sinaloa, Veracruz, Tamaulipas and Chihuahua, reporting on organized crime and political corruption is often lethal. Attackers are rarely caught; according to Article 19, a press freedom group, the impunity rate for attacks on journalists is a staggering 99.75 percent.

Even in such a violent context, the recent number and frequency of murders has been staggering. “We’re seeing a definite rise in attacks against journalists,” Balbina Flores, Mexico representative of Reporters Without Borders, told America. “The violence has been steady in some states, but in others it has increased recently.”

Many observers, including Ms. Flores, attribute the spike in violence against reporters to the changes in government in several states after a series of regional elections in the summer of last year. In some states, such as Baja California Sur, Chihuahua and Veracruz, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of current Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto lost its governorships for the first time in decades to the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

In some of those states, the outgoing governors have been accused of corruption and having ties to organized crime. Such is the case with César Duarte of Chihuahua and Javier Duarte de Ochoa of Veracruz (not related). Both men are wanted for graft and fled after leaving office; Javier Duarte was arrested last week in Guatemala, while César Duarte is still at large.

According to Ms. Flores, organized crime tries to take advantage of changes in government by asserting itself violently, attacking journalists it considers hostile to its interests. “We can interpret much of that violence as a sort of rhetoric against incoming governments,” she said.

It certainly appears to be the case in Miroslava Breach’s murder. She was a personal friend of Javier Corral, the PAN governor who entered office last year, and the cardboard warning signed by “El 80” explicitly threatened that “the governor is next.”

“This has to do with the arrival of Corral, I’m sure of it,” Ms. Mayorga said. “Under the last governor, César Duarte, there was talk of a pact with criminal groups. That pact was broken with the election of Corral.”

The authorities, meanwhile, appear to be either powerless or, according to critics, unwilling to properly investigate the violence against journalists. Mexico’s federal government created two institutions to, at least on paper, protect reporters: the Special Prosecutor for Attention to Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE) to prosecute crimes against journalists, and the federal Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders. Both institutions, however, have been criticized for their dysfunctionality.

This is especially true of FEADLE, which since its inception in 2010 has only managed to achieve three convictions of killers of journalists. Meanwhile, the Mechanism, which evacuates journalists in imminent danger and provides them with emergency shelter and protection measures, has been plagued by a lack of funds and lack of confidence from journalists.

“We just don’t trust in the institutions,” Ms. Mayorga said. “It feels like we’re left to own devices.”

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