By Sarah Kinosyan
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Just after sunset on Thursday, February 10, two men in a white Dodge Ram pickup truck pulled up outside the small radio studio of Heber Lopez Vasquez in southern Mexico. A man came out, walked inside and shot the 42-year-old journalist dead. Lopez’s 12-year-old son Oscar, the only person with him, went into hiding, Lopez’s brother told Reuters.
Lopez was one of 13 Mexican journalists killed in 2022, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based rights group. It was the deadliest year on record for journalists in Mexico, now the most dangerous country for journalists in the world outside of the war in Ukraine, where CPJ says 15 journalists were killed last year.
A day earlier, Lopez – who ran two online news sites in the southern state of Oaxaca – posted a Facebook post accusing local politician Arminda Espinosa Cartas of corruption related to her re-election efforts.
As he lay dead, a nearby patrol car responded to an emergency call, intercepted the van and arrested the two men. One of them, it turned out later, was the brother of Espinosa, the politician in Lopez’s story.
Espinosa has not been charged in Lopez’s murder. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Reuters could not find any previous comments she had made about her role in the corruption or Lopez’s story.
His brother and the other man are still being held but have not yet been tried. Their attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“I’ve already stopped covering drug trafficking and corruption and Heber’s death still scares me,” said Hiram Moreno, a veteran journalist from Oaxaca who suffered three leg and back injuries. in 2019, after writing about drug trafficking by local criminal groups. . His attacker has never been identified. “You can’t rely on the government. Self-censorship is the only thing that will protect you.”
It’s a pattern of fear and intimidation that’s playing out across Mexico, as years of violence and impunity have created what scholars call “zones of silence” where murder and corruption are nowhere to be seen. neither controlled nor documented.
“In zones of silence, people don’t have access to basic information to lead their lives,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, CPJ’s representative in Mexico. “They don’t know who to vote for because there are no corruption investigations. They don’t know what areas are violent, what they can and can’t say, so they shut up.”
Presidential spokesman Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador did not respond to a request for comment on the attacks on the media.
Since Mexico’s war on drugs began in 2006, 133 reporters have been killed for work-related reasons, CPJ has found, and 13 others for undetermined reasons. During this period, Mexico recorded over 360,000 homicides.
Aggression against journalists has spread in recent years to previously less hostile regions – such as Oaxaca and Chiapas – threatening to turn more parts of Mexico into information dead zones, say rights groups like Reporters Without Borders and 10 local journalists.
Lopez was the second journalist since mid-2021 to be murdered in Salina Cruz, a Pacific port in Oaxaca. It is nestled in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a thin strip of land connecting the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific that has become a landing point for precursor chemicals to manufacture fentanyl and methamphetamine, according to three security analysts and a DEA source.
Lopez’s latest story, one of many he wrote about Espinosa, covered the politician’s alleged efforts to get a company to build a breakwater in the port of Salina Cruz in order to threaten workers into voting for his re-election or be fired.
The infrastructure was part of the Interoceanic Corridor, one of Lopez Obrador’s flagship development projects in southern Mexico.
Isthmus crime reporter Jose Ignacio Martinez and nine of Lopez’s fellow reporters say that since his murder, they are more afraid to publish stories about the Corridor Project, drug trafficking and the collusion of the state with organized crime.
An outlet Reuters spoke to, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said he had investigated the hallway but did not feel safe to post after Lopez’s death.
Lopez Obrador’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on corruption charges related to the corridor.
In 2012, the government established the Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.
Known simply as the Mechanism, the body provides journalists with protections such as panic buttons, monitoring equipment, home police surveillance, armed guards and relocation. Since 2017, nine Mechanism-protected reporters have been murdered, CPJ found.
Journalists and activists can seek protection from the Mechanism, which assesses their case with a panel of human rights defenders, journalists and representatives of nonprofit organizations, as well as officials from various government agencies who make up a board administration. Not everyone who asks for protection receives it, according to the analysis.
Currently, 1,600 people are registered with the Mechanism, including 500 journalists.
One of those killed was Gustavo Sanchez, a journalist shot dead at close range in June 2021 by two killers on motorcycles. Sanchez, who had written articles critical of politicians and criminal groups, registered with the Mechanism for the third time after surviving an assassination attempt in 2020. Protection never came.
The Oaxaca prosecutor at the time said Sanchez’s coverage of local elections would be a first line of inquiry into his murder. No one has been charged in the case.
Sanchez’s murder prompted Mexico’s human rights commission to produce a 100-page investigation into the authorities’ failings. The evidence “revealed omissions, delays, negligence and dereliction of duty by at least 15 officials,” the report said.
Enrique Irazoque, head of the Interior Ministry’s human rights defense department, said the Mechanism accepted the findings, but highlighted the role played by local authorities in delaying protection.
Fifteen people in government and civil society told Reuters the mechanism was under-resourced given the scale of the problem. Irazoque agreed, though he noted his staff of 40 had grown to 70 last year. His 2023 budget rose to around $28.8 million, from $20 million in 2022.
Besides the lack of funding, Irazoque said local authorities, state governments and courts needed to do more, but there was a lack of political will.
“The Mechanism absorbs all the issues, but the issues are not federal, they are local,” he said in an interview with Reuters.
According to Irazoque, more convictions are most needed, saying the lack of legal repercussions for public officials encourages corruption.
Impunity for murders of journalists hovers around 89%, according to a 2021 report by the Interior Ministry, which oversees the Mechanism. Local officials were the main source of violence against journalists, ahead of organized crime, according to the report.
“You would think the biggest enemy would be armed groups and organized crime,” said journalist Patricia Mayorga, who fled Mexico after investigating corruption. “But it’s really the links between these groups and state officials that are the problem.”
Many of the Mexican journalists killed worked for small, independent digital outlets that sometimes only posted on Facebook, Irazoque noted, saying their stories delved deep into local political issues.
The National Association of Mayors of Mexico (ANAC) and its National Conference of Governors (CONAGO) did not respond to requests for comment on the role of state and local governments in the murders of journalists or on allegations of corruption links. with criminal groups.
President Lopez Obrador frequently pillories the press, calling out journalists critical of his administration and holding a weekly segment in his daily “lies of the week” press conference. He condemns the murders, while accusing opponents of talking about violence to discredit him.
Irazoque says he has no evidence that the president’s verbal attacks led to violence against journalists. Lopez Obrador’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
“What kind of life is this?” Journalist Rodolfo Montes said, watching security footage from inside his home where the Mechanism, which he first enrolled in in 2017, had set up. cameras with eyes on the garage, the street and the entrance.
Years ago, a cartel rolled a ball under the door as a threat, and he’s been nervous ever since. An entire box of threats archives spanning a decade sat in one corner. Looking at his phone after a cartel threatened his 24-year-old daughter days before, he said, “I’m alive, but I’m dead, you know?”
(Editing by Claudia Parsons and Dave Graham; Additional reporting by Pepe Cortes in Oaxaca)