Death stalks Mexico's journalists

Violence against activists and journalists is ongoing in Mexico – five years ago a reporter 'spoke' out against it. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

Violence against activists and journalists is ongoing in Mexico – five years ago a reporter 'spoke' out against it. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

Ruben Espinosa’s coffin was carried to the grave under a blistering Mexico City sun, accompanied by applause from friends and colleagues – and the inconsolable howling of his beloved cocker spaniel, Cosmo.

As the body of the murdered photographer was carefully lowered into the ground, weeping mourners clutched each other for support – and grappled with the realisation that they could be next.

Espinosa (31) was found dead in a Mexico City apartment last Friday, alongside four women. All had been beaten, tortured and then shot in the head. The massacre came just two months after Espinosa had fled the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz following death threats over his work.

Journalists and press freedom groups have expressed growing anger at Mexican authorities’ failure to tackle escalating violence against reporters and activists who dare to speak out against political corruption and organised crime.

Espinosa was the 13th journalist working in Veracruz to be killed since Governor Javier Duarte from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) came to power in 2011.
According to the press freedom organisation Article 19 the Mexican state is now the most dangerous place to be a journalist in Latin America.

But Espinosa’s death also marked another grim milestone: it was the first time a journalist has been murdered after fleeing to the presumed safety of Mexico’s capital city – a common destination for those seeking refuge from intimidation.

“Ruben’s murder is a clear message to all journalists: there’s nowhere safe to go in Mexico: impunity reigns,” said Felix Marquez (27), a friend and colleague of Espinosa. “Journalists in Veracruz reporting the truth are being slaughtered. Eighty percent of journalists in the state have been co-opted; the remaining 20% of us are at risk for doing our jobs.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists about 90% of journalist murders in Mexico since 1992 have gone unpunished.

‘Wiping out a whole generation’
Patrick Timmons, who investigated violence against journalists while working for the British embassy in Mexico City, said the massacre was another attempt to silence the press: “These are targeted murders which are wiping out a whole generation of critical leaders.

“Veracruz is one of the most populous states, about which [the] least is known. It is the number one untold story in Mexico, which is how the government and cartels want it. The point of Ruben’s murder is to sow terror among Veracruz journalists.”

  Espinosa was born in Mexico City but moved eight years ago to Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz, where he worked as a freelance photojournalist for the Cuartoscuro and AVC news agencies, as well as the respected news weekly Proceso.

Espinosa, who specialised in covering protests and social movements, had reported threats dating back to 2012 but two recent stories particularly angered authorities, according to friends and colleagues. A photograph he had taken of Duarte appeared on the cover of Proceso in February 2014, with the headline “Veracruz: Lawless state”.

More recently, Espinosa had covered state-wide protests after the disappearance of 43 student teachers last September after they were attacked by corrupt police officers and drug cartel gunmen. Espinosa was one of few journalists trusted by the radical student movement, and had covered their protests – which culminated in the burning of PRI and government buildings – and the subsequent violent clampdown by state police.

After a string of threats, Espinosa left Veracruz in early June, joining more than 30 other journalists who fled the state after receiving threats, according to Article 19. “Ruben really didn’t want to leave. He loved the climate and pace of life in Xalapa and didn’t like the crowding of Mexico City. He didn’t want to leave his dog, but he felt he had to go for his own safety,” said Marquez.

But, in the end, Mexico City offered no safe haven: the five bodies were found late on Friday in the apartment in the middle-class neighbourhood of Narvarte, considered one of the safest, in the capital. One of the women was Espinosa’s friend Nadia Vera, a social anthropologist and activist, with whom the photographer had been staying while looking for somewhere to live.

Student movement
Vera (32) was an active member of the student movement #YoSoy132 whose protests against political corruption Espinosa had regularly covered. She had also left Veracruz for security reasons. Another victim has been unofficially identified as Yesenia Quiroz, an 18-year-old model and student originally from the state of Michoacán. Little is known of the other two: one was a domestic worker from the state of Mexico, the other apparently a Colombian national, whose car was stolen by the killers and found abandoned about 6.5km away on Monday, according to the attorney general’s office.

All five victims were shot in the head and, according to the United Nation high commissioner on human rights, the bodies had signs of torture and sexual violence.

Prosecutors have refused to rule out robbery as a motive, despite the execution-style killings and the repeated threats against Espinosa and Vera in Veracruz. Duarte has repeatedly refused to acknowledge any possible link between the murder of 13 journalists in his state and he recently accused some reporters of involvement in organised crime.

“There’s no reason to confuse freedom of expression with representing the expression of criminals via the media,” he said. Duarte’s brief statement on Sunday lamented the “abhorrent” killings.

Speaking after his friend’s funeral, Marquez said Espinosa’s death would not deter Mexico’s journalists from reporting the truth. “I am scared, we’re all scared, but I won’t put down my camera. Ruben’s death has made sure of that.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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