By Tim Johnson
After decades of poking around crime scenes, digging into conspiracies and hanging out with cops and politicians, columnist Miguel Ángel López Velasco had earned his stripes as journalistic alpha dog of the crime and corruption beat in this steamy Gulf of Mexico port.
But even Lopez might have found it hard to imagine the speed with which hit men would take his life and those of his wife and son.
It was 6 a.m. on a June day when two vehicles arrived at the journalist's custard-yellow two-story home. Hit men with assault weapons poured out. One punched through the lock on the front door.
The squad rushed in and opened fire on the columnist – who was descending the stairs in his nightclothes – then climbed to the second floor to kill the others. Each victim was given a coup de grace in the forehead.
In a nation where attacks on journalists are rampant, the killings were unprecedented. Gangsters in modern times had never targeted a reporter's family. And the killing wasn't over. Five weeks later, they kidnapped and decapitated a co-worker of Lopez's, also a crime reporter.
Every journalist in Veracruz felt the one-two punch. Within a day or so, nine fellow reporters had fled the city.
The chill that such killings put on reporting about the crime syndicates is familiar throughout much of Mexico, where many newspapers no longer try to investigate the rampant violence that has killed as many as 40,000 people in the past five years.
But scratch below the surface, and the narrative about journalists struggling to inform their readers while under siege from gangsters morphs into a different story, one in which the lines between journalists, police, politicians and crime bosses grow blurry. Many seem to be for sale. Few are held in high esteem.
Mexico's largest and oldest port, Veracruz is a metropolis of more than half a million people that lies in a state of the same name that's a key corridor for drug and migrant smugglers. For the better part of a decade, drug gangs, particularly the brutal syndicate known as Los Zetas, have been active here, gaining an ever-larger hold.
"It's kind of like the Hamptons for the narcos; enormous ranches and rest areas," said Ricardo Gonzalez of the Mexico chapter of Article 19, a London-based group that pushes for freedom of information.
Residents of Veracruz can select from a handful of newspapers. The best selling is Notiver, distinctive for its picaresque tone, political gossip and focus on crime.
Among the newspaper's peculiarities is that it depends entirely on sales from street vendors for its income. It also has no set press time. If a hot story breaks, the newspaper comes out late. Rumor and news mix easily in its pages. About half the headlines end with exclamation points.
Miguel Ángel López Velasco joined Notiver more than two decades ago, writing under the pen name Milo Vela. Nervous but persistent and gifted at putting a bite in stories, Lopez was promoted after years on the crime beat to columnist on security matters and deputy editor in charge of crime reporters.
He operated in an environment in which corruption pervaded politics, law enforcement and even newsrooms. The previous governor of Veracruz state, Fidel Herrera, plied newspapers with generous advertising contracts to win favorable treatment. Even low-level journalists felt the governor's largess.
"He'd give them computers, cars, trips and scholarships," said Hermann Ortega, the former Veracruz state chief of the National Action Party.
Many journalists readily accepted. Everybody else had an angle, and their consistently poor working conditions gave them an easy justification.
The cruelty of the execution-style slaying of Lopez, his wife and their 21-year-old son just before dawn on June 20 sent ripples of concern through Mexican newsrooms.
But anxiety wouldn't really spike until July 26, when the body of Yolanda Ordaz, a top crime reporter who worked for Lopez, was found dumped behind the offices of a competing newspaper. Ordaz, a single mother in her early 40s, had been beheaded.
Within hours, the state prosecutor said Ordaz's decapitation was a settling of scores between crime gangs, an assessment shocking both for its conclusion and its speed from an office with a poor track record of solving crimes.
But questions lingered over a number of circumstances, including accusatory videos posted on YouTube and a sign found near Ordaz's body.
It read: "Friends also betray. Sincerely, Carranza." Authorities say it was from the suspected killer, former transit police officer Juan Carlos Carranza, a fugitive criminal linked to Los Zetas.
One video posted to YouTube in mid-June contained what was said to be an audio recording of a conversation between Ordaz and an unnamed crime figure, arranging to publicize criticism of alleged army abuses. Another video affirmed that Los Zetas referred to the Notiver newsroom as "Base 40."
A fellow journalist, Cesar Augusto Vazquez Chavez, published a column that accused Ordaz of acting as media coordinator for Los Zetas in Veracruz. It described a meeting between a group of police reporters and a Zetas boss in a restaurant. The column said Ordaz was the go-between.
The accusations have been met with tense silence. Notiver's founder and publisher, Alfonso Salces, didn't respond to requests for comment.
Press freedom advocates acknowledge that while many Mexican journalists ply their trade with integrity, some are on the take from crime bosses.
"I've seen reporters in Sinaloa who drive Hummers on a salary of 5,000 pesos ($420) a month," said Gonzalez, of Article 19.
He said gangsters sometimes pressured reporters directly, calling them on their cell phones or intercepting them on the street. In some newsrooms, powerful crime groups maintain designated envoys to give a last-minute thumbs up or down on news reports, he added.
Journalists who ignore cartel edicts face real threats in Mexico. Mexico's National Human Rights Commission says 68 journalists were murdered in Mexico from 2000 to March of this year.
Colleagues who spoke only on the condition of anonymity offered up other theories of the murders, saying that Lopez and Ordaz may have been passing information to military intelligence and were killed by crime gangs in vengeance.
José Luis Cerdán Díaz, a professor at the University of Veracruz, who has taught journalism classes to hundreds of students over the years, said that only one conclusion was beyond a doubt.
"These executions and the decapitation of (Ordaz) are unequivocal signs of cruelty and malice to send a message that someone is in charge," he said.
Whoever that may be lingers murkily in the air.