Violence against the press in Mexico, as told through Veracruz photojournalists
Three men come out of an old building in the neighborhood Narvarte, a middle class neighborhood in Mexico City. They had just finished raping, beating, and killing four women, Nadia Dominique Vera Pérez, Yesenia Quiroz Alfaro, Milla Martin, and Alejandra Negrete Virginia, in one of the apartments. It’s August 2015, and according to reports from various organizations, their objective was a fifth person also found dead in the same place: Rubén Espinosa, a young photographer who had taken refuge in the Mexican capital in the face of threats that he suffered.
Although authorities speak of “clean areas of drug trafficking”, for some time the deaths by organized crime know no boundaries within the country. The hole left by a 9mm bullet in the head of Rubén attests this. His crime was being a journalist in one of the most dangerous states of Mexico: Veracruz.
The riddled body of a youth on a bus in Veracruz. The battle between the Zetas and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel had led to an increase in violence. Félix Márquez.
Veracruz: Camera Shots
An old snack bar near the harbor is the meeting place of photographers and reporters to take a break from the day. Worn out walls and plastic tables are witnesses of the changing conversations among local journalists. Some have spent decades telling what happens in their state, but the violence makes them observe every day more, and to count each day less. Others are youths with miserable wages, and they live awaiting a national press or an international agency to take notice of their work. Rubén Espinosa and one of his best friends, Félix Márquez, belonged to that group.
When they started working as photojournalists a decade ago, Veracruz was a tourist town. There was poverty and contrasts were seen, but the bloodletting of drug trafficking was focused at that time in northern Mexico. This was a passageway for drugs and for thousands of migrants traveling to the United States. “When we started, we were used to shooting accidents and brawls, but suddenly we began to photograph dismembered bodies and shootouts. It was a very fast and hard change,” Félix recalls while walking along the pier of the city. A few years ago, tourists and locals were concentrated in this area at dusk. But now, the last rays of the sun have become a warning: the streets at night long ago ceased to belong to the people of Veracruz.
From this place, the real cause of this nightmare that the region is living through can be seen. A treasure becoming the reason of so much death. The port. With it, Veracruz became a strategic area: in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, in the east of the country and with maritime access for drug output from Latin America to points such as Europe or the United States. Many containers were loaded with cocaine, and sometimes, they came full of weapons.
“We see dead. It looks like a car accident on the road towards Jalapa.” It was a normal message that a journalist wrote in the mobile messaging group that is shared by many reporters. It was August 2008. Félix took his camera and came with another colleague to the place.
There was a burning car and corpses on the floor, but there had been no crash. Suddenly the sound of bullets began.
With their bodies on the ground, the photographers realized that they were in the middle of a shootout between criminal groups. It was the first time that they had heard the sound of a firearm and they weren’t small guns. They managed to crawl to a nearby street. There wasn’t any news or photos of the “shootout” in any media.
Polo shirts with their collars turned up. Skintight pants. Graffiti with the last letter of the alphabet that is still seen on some walls of the city. The bloodiest cartel in Mexico landed in Veracruz. Its citizens did not take long to notice.
Los Zetas joined in on the drug trade, and all kinds of abuses related to civilian activities: disappearances, extortion, threats. Journalists like Félix began to see things they never imagined. “We suddenly became war photographers, without ever having gone to a place like Syria.”
|A member of the autodefensas walks around a roadblock in the municipality of Tancitaro, Michoacán. Félix Márquez|
Their confrontations with other cartels soon affected the press. The state of Tamaulipas, in northern Mexico, became the best example. For years, the big media outlets stopped telling what was happening there. They kidnapped journalists recognized by the most famous media outlets. They assassinated local reporters. They threw bombs at the headquarters of newspapers.
The volume of earnings of Los Zetas was growing along with its bad reputation. Over the years, the need for a place to mobilize their merchandise became urgent and Veracruz seemed to be the ideal state.
Life changed for everyone. Especially for reporters like Felix. “As a journalist, one usually seeks exclusivity. To arrive first to places, to take a different picture. But we stopped doing it. The rules were new, and the kind of work we did as well.”
The figure of “spokesperson” of cartels became a key factor of journalism throughout Mexico. Publishers and editors of local media know what they can broadcast and what can cost them a scare. Many capos imposed red lines and editorial lines. Fear took hold of newsrooms and them of information. Although leaders were killed or were captured, the rules remained the same.
But the pressure is not only in the form of sicarios or cartel members. Federal police, the military, and governors are frequently part of this game of pressures and constraints. “In Veracruz, chayotero journalism (close to the interests of politicians) has always existed,” Felix recalls. But now, power and authority have been transformed. Extortion does not only come from the government. At least, not the government that they knew before.
Veracruz: The Power of the Narco
The boundaries between organized crime and the Mexican State are increasingly blurred. Some speak of corrupt politicians and others of drug traffickers in politics.
Neither Félix Márquez nor his parents have known a government in Veracruz that is not chaired by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for seven decades until 2000, and returned to power in 2012 in the hands of Enrique Peña Nieto. Between 2004 and 2010, Veracruz was led by Fidel Herrera. It was the period during which the rise of criminal activities in the state deepened. Fourteen DEA protected witnesses noted the protection that Herrera granted to members of Los Zetas and his ongoing meetings with leaders of the cartel. Forbes magazine included him shortly after in the list of the ten most corrupt people in the country. The Mexican government sent him to Barcelona as a consul.
“The corruption of our politicians has not only provoked crime, but also poverty,” Felix laments. During his years as governor, Herrera left a debt over 11 billion pesos (around $595,315,490 USD)
Showing the deterioration in Veracruz became a challenge for Felix. With his camera and two reporters, he arrived to the mountains of Zongolica. In this area of the center of the state, tin roofs and dirt floors make up the small houses where the farmers live. “There, not only the face of violence is seen, but the stories that cause violence: poor education, marginalization, poverty.”
Asphalt roads never arrived in this area. There’s barely any electricity and drinking water. Let alone any police or army. This facilitates the work of criminal gangs. Safe houses, kidnappings, and robberies accumulated over the years here. Ad nauseam and impunity mobilized neighbors.
“For a long time, the people have organized. Loaded with clubs and old guns, the decided to defend what is theirs.” During six weeks, Felix and his companions looked for various autodefensa groups throughout the Veracruz Mountains. His work caused a huge stir.
|Three members of the ‘Citizens’ Council for Public Security’ guard a corner during a night tour about 50 kilometers from the port of Veracruz. Félix Márquez|
“We sent the information and it was published. However, it was discredited by the state government in several press conferences in which they said that my photos were a montage.” In an area dominated by insecurity, it was dangerous to speak openly about the distrust of the authorities and about the groups organizing to defend themselves.
The government’s response was immediate. The Secretary of Public Safety accused Felix and his companions of lying. “He said that I should be in jail. We took our precautionary measures and we went for a few days to Mexico City in search of legal advice.”
Felix went to the capital to seek support to allow him to continue working without risking his life. They warned him about what he already knew. “Mexico is the most unsafe country for journalists in the world,” they told him bluntly at the offices of Article 19, a human rights organization that focuses on denouncing threats that the press goes through in the country. Its director warned Felix about the danger of continuing to show what was happening in the state where 17 journalists have been killed since 2000.
Fear or vocation. A difficult choice, especially if we consider that 96% of the disappearances and assassinations of journalists have a record of carrying out coverage on issues of corruption and security relating to officials with organized crime.
Despite everything, Felix decided to return to Veracruz and continue to work with the greatest caution possible. Like other photographers, he began to become more aware of his back than the news. But faced with fear and mistrust, stories of solidarity among peers also wove, allowing him to move forward.
|Burial of Rodrigo Benitez, autodefensa member assassinated in the town of Antúnez, Michoacán. Félix Márquez|
Moisés Sánchez: You Can’t Live With Fear
In Veracruz, journalists overcome fears through hard work. It’s the only way to forget about the risk to which they are exposed to. Of abstracting. Felix decided to concentrate exclusively on his photos to silence the threats he continued to receive.
“I wanted to follow up on the project of the autodefensas and I made contact with Moisés Sánchez, a reporter covering an area on the outskirts of the capital. He devoted himself to giving a voice to citizens, to its neighbors.” Moisés was a true symbol of local journalism in Mexico. His own cab served him to cover the news that was happening in his neighborhood. Journalism of potholes in the streets, of lights in poor condition, and unsolved crimes. Away from the major television and radio stations but with a fundamental value for the environment, for his community.
Moisés Sánchez decided to create a small newspaper with his income, La Unión. A humble daily newspaper that he sold down the street accompanied by a megaphone. But the news about insecurity and poverty that spread throughout his neighborhood must have upset someone.
With a pain that still remains, Felix remembers how “Moisés was kidnapped at night in front of his family, he was taken in a truck.” His headless body was found in a nearby town. “One more death,” according to some newspaper headlines that day. Another death full of pain in the profession and his family. Another number to add to a never ending list. According to the National Statistics Institute, violence in Mexico during 2007 and 2014 caused 164,000 civilian deaths. A figure that exceeds deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan together in those seven years.
Jorge, the son of Moisés, led demonstrations and fought for a fair investigation. Again, it exposed the Mexican State. He demonstrated the threats against the mayor of the area (who later escaped without a trace). He got evidence of participation and neglect of the security forces during the kidnapping. He confirmed what his neighbors already knew: the direct relationship between authorities and drug dealers. But last month, all he got was an absurd security presence at his home: security cameras, police cars in his home, and a barbed wire fence.
They are supposed to be locking up others, not us. But that’s how it works here. Criminals go free and we have to be locked up,” Jorge laments. “I always asked my father: ‘If they said that they were going to kill you, why do keep publishing?” He always said: “You can’t live with fear. If you live with fear, things will never change.”
But impunity continues to prevail. Not even the assassination of Moisés nor any other journalist has been solved. “Anyone can kill you for writing something or for taking a picture,” Felix recalls in a gathering convened by communication professionals in front of the Government Palace. His friend, Rubén Espinosa, was also there. Shortly thereafter, it would be his funeral that the press and his peers would convene.
Espinosa was another young journalist with a miserable wage who was trying to make his passion, photography, into a profession. The difficulties in getting a well-paid position led him to work with the ruling party, the PRI.
For several months, he made the official photos of the candidate for governor of Veracruz at that time, Javier Duarte. He soon left work and specialized in social movements.
In a twist to his career, as if it were a movie script, his recognition would come thanks to a photo that he took of his former boss. Duarte already being governor, one of the most important magazines in the country used a photograph taken by Rubén to illustrate a tough cover. The face of the politician with a police cap under the title: Veracruz, estado in ley (lawless state). The publication would relate to the blood trail in which the area had become.
|Photojournalist Rubén Espinosa during a protest. Félix Márquez|
The photographer photographed. Rubén began to receive the same harassment that Félix had suffered through before. Government staff followed him and took pictures. On September 20, 2011, 35 bodies were thrown in Boca del Río, one of the upper class areas of the Veracruz capital. Most journalists didn’t dare cover the story. At the press conference that the state attorney general held shortly after, Espinosa couldn’t enter. “The press officer told me that I had nothing to do there, and that I was in the way.”
Violence continued to rise and in five years, between 2010 and 2015, there were more than 3,000 assassinations in the state alone. Local journalists began to make out a change in cartels operating in Veracruz with the arrival of the new governor, Duarte. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel spread its tentacles into major cities. Threats suffered by communication professionals become more evident.
In the case of Rubén, the danger was increasingly evident. In a student protest, an official representative came over to whisper to him: “Turn it down. Stop taking photos or you’ll end up like Regina,” referring to anther assassinated journalist.
As Felix had done months earlier, Rubén decided to leave for the capital in search of safety. The Federal District is supposed to be one of the safest places in Mexico, where, according to most politicians, drug trafficking hasn’t arrived.
It was the morning of July 31. Rubén was at home with some friends who had come to drink the night before. The building they were in had a security camera. On the streets, there were six others. As in similar cases in Mexico, almost all recordings were damaged.
Three men entered the house. They raped, tortured, and assassinated five people who were in the house. It was a new step in violence against the press in Mexico. Mexico City would cease to be the refuge for journalists who feel threatened.
We Didn’t Study Journalism to Cover a Colleague’s Funeral
The assassination of Rubén mobilized his friends and colleagues. For Félix Márquez, it was a blow from which he hasn’t recovered yet. “We don’t study the career of journalism and communication to be covering the funerals of our colleagues.”
Not only the pain; the threat also spread to journalists who wanted to freely tell what was happening in Veracruz. “Many people work to live and in Veracruz, it seems that we are working to die in journalism,” Félix says. A profession that requires you to make bags to an increasingly distant place.
To put away the camera or use it elsewhere. The new dilemma for Félix. The death of his friend was the trigger to decide to leave Mexico. Without help from any public institution, but with the support of his colleagues, he settled in another country.
Violence ends in Mexico with journalists, with activists, with anyone raising their voice and telling what is happening. Behind the labels of “the most dangerous country to report in” or of “narco-state”, thousands of suppressed stories are hidden. Stories that portray a place where killing is cheaper than reporting.
Source: Revista 5w