By Sarah Kinosian
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Just after sunset on Thursday, Feb. 10, two men pulled up in a white Dodge Ram pickup in front of Heber Lopez Vasquez’s small radio studio in southern Mexico. A man got out, walked in and shot the 42-year-old journalist dead. Lopez’s 12-year-old son Oscar, the only one with him, was 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 human rights organization. It was the deadliest year on record for journalists in Mexico, now the most dangerous country for reporters in the world outside of the war in Ukraine, where 15 reporters were killed last year, according to CPJ.
A day earlier, Lopez, who ran two online news sites in the southern state of Oaxaca, had published a story on Facebook accusing local politician Arminda Espinosa Cartas of corruption related to her reelection efforts.
As he lay dead, a nearby patrol car responded to a distress call, intercepted the pickup 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 connection with 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 corruption or about Lopez’s story.
Her brother and the other man remain in custody, but have yet to be tried. Their lawyer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“I have already stopped covering drug trafficking and corruption and Heber’s death still scares me,” said Hiram Moreno, a veteran Oaxacan journalist who was shot three times in 2019 and sustained injuries to his leg and back, after he had written about drug deals by local crime groups. . His attacker has never been identified. “You can’t count on the government. Self-censorship is the only thing that keeps you safe.”
It’s a pattern of fear and intimidation playing out across Mexico as years of violence and impunity have created what academics call “zones of silence,” where murder and corruption are unchecked and undocumented.
“In quiet zones, people don’t get access to basic information to live 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 which areas are violent, what they can and can’t say, so they keep quiet.”
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about attacks on the media.
Since the start of Mexico’s drug war in 2006, 133 reporters have been killed for work-related motives, the CPJ found, and another 13 for undetermined reasons. In that time, Mexico has recorded more than 360,000 murders.
Aggression against journalists has spread to previously less hostile areas, such as Oaxaca and Chiapas, in recent years and threatens to turn more parts of Mexico into information dead zones, say rights groups such as Reporters Without Borders and 10 local journalists.
Lopez was the second journalist since mid-2021 to be killed in Salina Cruz, a Pacific port city in Oaxaca. It nestles in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a thin stretch of land connecting the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean that has become a landing site for chemical precursors to make fentanyl and meth, according to three safety analysts and a DEA source.
Lopez’s latest story, one of many he wrote about Espinosa, dealt with the politician’s alleged attempts to get a company building a breakwater in the port of Salina Cruz to threaten workers to keep their vote for her re-election or else be fired.
The infrastructure was part of the Interoceanic Corridor, one of Lopez Obrador’s major development projects in southern Mexico.
Jose Ignacio Martinez, a crime reporter in the Isthmus, and nine of Lopez’s fellow journalists say they have become more afraid to publish stories about the corridor project, drug trafficking and the state’s collusion with organized crime since his murder.
An outlet Reuters spoke to, which declined to be named for fear of reprisals, said it had conducted an investigation into the gang but did not feel safe publishing after Lopez’s death.
Lopez Obrador’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment regarding allegations of corruption related to the gang.
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, surveillance equipment, home policing, armed guards, and relocation. Since 2017, nine reporters protected by the mechanism have been killed, CPJ found.
Journalists and activists can seek protection from the Mechanism, which evaluates their case with a group of human rights defenders, journalists and representatives of non-profit organizations, as well as officials from various government agencies that form a board of directors. Not everyone who asks for protection gets it, the analysis shows.
Currently, 1,600 people are enrolled in the mechanism, including 500 journalists.
One of the dead was Gustavo Sanchez, a journalist who was shot at close range by two motorcycling hitmen in June 2021. Sanchez, who had written critical articles about politicians and criminal groups, enrolled in the Mechanism for a third time after surviving an assassination attempt in 2020. Protection never came.
The Oaxaca prosecutor said at the time that Sanchez’s coverage of local elections would be a primary line of inquiry into his murder. No one has been charged in the case.
Sanchez’s murder prompted Mexico’s Human Rights Commission to file a 100-page inquiry into the authorities’ failure. 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 division, said the mechanism accepted the findings but stressed the role local authorities played in the protection backlog.
Fifteen people in government and civil society told Reuters that the mechanism is under-resourced given the magnitude of the problem. Irazoque agreed, though he noted that the headcount increased from 40 last year to a headcount of 70. The 2023 budget has increased from $20 million in 2022 to about $28.8 million.
In addition to the shortfall in funding, Irazoque said local authorities, state governments and courts need to do more, but there was a lack of political will.
“The mechanism absorbs all the problems, but the problems are not federal, they are local,” he said in an interview with Reuters.
More convictions are most needed, Irazoque said, as the lack of legal repercussions for government officials fuels corruption.
Impunity for murders of journalists hovers around 89%, according to a 2021 report from the Interior Ministry, which oversees the mechanism. Local officials were the biggest source of violence against journalists, before organized crime, the report said.
“You would think that armed groups and organized crime would be the biggest enemy,” said journalist Patricia Mayorga, who fled Mexico after investigating corruption. “But it’s really the ties between those groups and the state officials that are the problem.”
Many murdered Mexican journalists worked for small, independent, digital outlets that sometimes only published on Facebook, noted Irazoque, who said their stories dug deep into local political issues.
Mexico’s National Association of Mayors (ANAC) and its National Conference of Governors (CONAGO) did not respond to requests for comment about the role of state and local governments in murders of journalists or allegations of corrupt ties to crime groups.
President Lopez Obrador regularly rails at the press, calling out reporters critical of his administration and holding a weekly segment in his daily press conference devoted to the “lies of the week.” He condemns the killings, while accusing opponents of fomenting 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?” said journalist Rodolfo Montes, viewing security footage from his home where the mechanism, which he first enrolled in in 2017, had installed cameras with eyes on the garage, street and hallway.
Years earlier, a cartel rolled a bullet under the door as a threat, and he’s been tense ever since. In the corner was an entire archive box of threats spanning a decade. Checking his phone after a cartel threatened his 24-year-old daughter a few days earlier, he said, “I’m alive, but I’m dead, you know?”
(Edited by Claudia Parsons and Dave Graham; Additional reporting by Pepe Cortes in Oaxaca)