Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

The Covert Mission to Solve a Mexican Journalist’s Murder

"Sol Prendido" for Borderland Beat

After the death of a reporter who investigated narcopolitics, her colleagues formed a secret collective to bring the killers to justice—and challenge a culture of impunity.

For nearly two decades, Miroslava Breach documented cartel crimes and political corruption in her home state of Chihuahua. A monument to justice stands near her former office, in the state capital. Photograph by Natalie Keyssar for The New Yorker

The journalist Miroslava Breach Velducea was born in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, in a mountainous region that the U.S. government has called the Golden Triangle of drug trafficking and that Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, would prefer to be known as the Triangle of Good, Hardworking People. In the late nineteen-sixties, when Breach was a child, she was drawn to the ancient pine forests of the Sierra Tarahumara, near her home town of Chínipas de Almada. By the time she was an adult, however, many of those magical forests had been razed. Laborers would eventually turn some of the clearings into poppy fields and marijuana plantations. Later, as more trees fell, fentanyl and methamphetamine labs rose up, the better to satisfy American demand.

Much of the narcotics industry in the Sierra Tarahumara is controlled by the Salazars, a cartel that took form in Chínipas. The Salazars pay for baptisms and funerals; they kill activists and journalists when their interests are threatened; and they monitor communications throughout their territory, which extends into the neighboring state of Sonora. Many reporters are afraid to venture in. But Breach drove the treacherous alpine roads of the Sierra in broad daylight, in a cherry-red S.U.V.

For nearly two decades, she documented cartel crimes and political corruption that most residents would discuss only in whispers, and published what she’d discovered in La Jornada, a national newspaper, and Norte de Ciudad Juárez, a regional paper. Chasing leads for stories, she took hairpin curves at such speed that some colleagues refused to ride with her. “If I die,” she liked to say, one eyebrow rising, “it will be complete and in one blow.”

Breach wrote as she spoke—clearly, provocatively, and with an ethical severity that other reporters could find grating. She didn’t just return the holiday gift baskets that elected officials sent to journalists, her friend and colleague Olga Aragón told me; she attached a reproachful note saying that politicians should be giving her interviews, not gifts. “She didn’t write anything unless she had firsthand testimony and documents,” Carlos Omar Barranco, another reporter and friend, said, and she had little time for empathetic reporting about victims if it meant leaving culprits off the hook. In March, 2017, she attended a meeting at the Chihuahua state capitol about rich citizens illegally drilling water that was desperately needed by the public at large. 

As human-rights leaders held forth onstage about the water crisis, Breach, in the audience, grew agitated that they weren’t pushing state officials to stop those who were stealing the water. “No, no, no,” she said sharply, waving a leaflet in her hand and launching a fusillade of objections. “What,” she demanded, “is your concrete proposal?”

To some colleagues, the exchange was classic Miroslava—up on her high horse, telling even the do-gooders that they had to do better. But Guadalupe Salcido, the editor-in-chief of Norte de Ciudad Juárez, where Breach worked as an editor and political columnist, had noticed that her boldest colleague seemed tense, and not just about illegal water wells. One day, Salcido called her to discuss a famine unfolding in the Sierra’s Indigenous communities. Drought had led to crop failure, and children were starving: in the past, as soon as Breach had grasped the particulars, she would start shoving reporting notebooks and a change of clothes into a tote bag, preparing to race toward the story. This time, Salcido told me, Breach said she needed to “think about it.”

Breach, who was fifty-four, had been hard at work on a series of articles about the growing network of drug routes in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range, which included Chínipas and the Sierra Tarahumara. These articles had been reported in collaboration with Patricia Mayorga, who worked for Proceso, a weekly magazine, and El Diario de Juárez, a daily paper. The pieces had been causing a sensation. The reporters had amassed evidence that the Salazars and other narcos had set up political candidates as fronts for their own interests, and that the two biggest parties in the state—the center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the conservative National Action Party (PAN)—had gone along with the scheme.

Typically, after a stretch of intense reporting, Breach would crank up the music of the Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodríguez, drink some tequila, and spend a weekend hiking in the mountains with her daughter and son. Then she’d head back to her office. But as her investigative series continued, friends had noticed, she seemed discouraged.

“Time for an update!” Cartoon by Edward Koren

Mayorga knew something others did not: that, for months, Breach had been receiving threats—messages ominous enough that she had recently reviewed the life-insurance provisions she’d made to secure her children’s futures and asked a company in El Paso what it would cost to bulletproof her S.U.V. The estimate for the armor plating came to thousands of dollars; Breach was a single mother who lived on a journalist’s wages. 

Despite working multiple jobs, Aragón told me, she couldn’t swing it. Other means of protecting herself would have to do. Instead of making a living exposing the crimes of dangerous people, she told friends, she could run a restaurant, or maybe open a shop that specialized in Chihuahuan delicacies. She was interested in marine biology and relished whale-watching on the Baja California peninsula. Why couldn’t she start a magazine devoted to nature tourism? Her friends didn’t pay much mind to such talk; reporting, Breach always said, was her “essence.” Salcido told her teasingly, “You will die without journalism.”

The day that Breach insisted human-rights leaders do more to stop the wealthy from stealing public water, a gray Chevy Malibu with a ducktail spoiler was passing down the quiet residential street where she and her children lived, circling back, and passing again. Just before 7 a.m. the following morning, March 23rd, Breach was in the driveway in her red S.U.V. when the gray Malibu turned down the street one more time. She was waiting to take her fourteen-year-old son to school, and, as he came outside and shut the front door, a man in a bright-blue baseball cap exited the Malibu, approached the S.U.V., and shot Breach eight times at close range through the windows. 

The assailant jumped into a white Malibu that had been waiting nearby, and both cars sped away. Breach’s S.U.V. jolted into reverse, smashing into a car across the street. Her twenty-five-year-old daughter, who had sometimes accompanied her mother on reporting trips, ran outside when she heard her little brother scream.

Breach was dead, and within minutes the news of her killing had spread through the journalism community in Mexico, and beyond. Javier Valdez Cárdenas, a prize-winning investigative journalist and a former colleague of Breach’s, who reported on drug trafficking in Sinaloa, wrote on Twitter, “Let them kill us all, if it is the death sentence for reporting this hell.” Within weeks, he, too, would be shot and killed in the street.

Since 2000, as drug conflicts have intensified in many parts of the country, more than a hundred members of the Mexican media have been murdered or have disappeared. There have been precious few arrests for these crimes, which are thought to have been carried out by members of the cartels and their accomplices. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, no peacetime government in the world provides less redress for such killings than Mexico. In the past decade, by C.P.J.’s count, there have been more unsolved journalist murders in Mexico than in Syria, South Sudan, and Myanmar combined. But, in the case of Miroslava Breach’s murder, there were several reasons to believe that an entrenched culture of impunity might finally be challenged.

The murder scene had been captured on at least five security cameras, from multiple angles. The circumstances—a mother about to start the school run killed in front of her children—had horrified the public. And the victim had had an influential friend. Despite her insistence that journalists remain aloof from politicians, she had been close to the most powerful elected official in the state: the reform-minded new governor of Chihuahua, Javier Corral Jurado, who had been a journalist himself. When he was elected, Breach had been elated. “Together, they would battle corruption,” Aragón recalled. Now, Corral signalled, he’d be personally involved in the effort to track down Breach’s killers.

On the morning of the murder, he went directly to the crime scene. He also alerted Patricia Mayorga, who had been receiving threats herself, that police protection was on its way; an armored police vehicle promptly arrived at her home. A few hours later, at a press conference, he stated plainly what other politicians, in similar situations, did not dare say: that Breach had almost certainly been killed as retribution for something she wrote.

To some of the grieving journalists in attendance, Corral, a member of the PAN, felt almost like family. After winning the governorship in 2016 on an anti-corruption platform, he’d brought respected journalists and human-rights activists into an administration he was calling New Dawn. He was openly disgusted with narcos and their political bribes, and now he was saying that the state wouldn’t stop until justice for Breach had been secured. In subsequent months, in interviews and press conferences, he’d go further. Governor Corral intended to make the investigation a model of how to solve the murder of a journalist in Mexico.

Miroslava Breach’s father, a struggling shopkeeper, died when she was eight. Shortly afterward, her widowed mother lost land that the family owned. “They almost immediately fell into poverty,” Aragón told me. For the rest of her life, Miroslava, the third of six siblings, gravitated toward topics of injustice and dispossession.

After her mother opened another shop in a new town, young Miroslava often worked its counter, undermining family profit margins by giving away food to needy neighbors. Later, animated more by Karl Marx than by anything on offer in class or at Catholic Mass, she would come to understand how little occasional acts of charity meant in a context of intractable power.

The Salazar family, before becoming a mafia, had been ranchers. Not long after diversifying into narcotics, however, the family began driving longtime inhabitants, including Indigenous peoples, out of the forests in order to use their land. By the early two-thousands, the process could be methodical and brutal. Families who were not of use as labor in the poppy and marijuana fields or narcotics labs were sometimes evicted from their communities at gunpoint.

Adán Salazar Zamorano, a septuagenarian with a heavy brow and a handlebar mustache, is the patriarch of the family. In the nineties, under Don Adán, as he is known, the Salazars began to collaborate with the Sinaloa cartel, the famously violent organization once led by Joaquín (El Chapo) Guzmán Loera. In 2011, Don Adán, wanted by the U.S. government for drug trafficking, was detained and imprisoned in Mexico. Around 2016, his younger brother, Crispín, took control of day-to-day operations.

In the course of Salazar-Sinaloa maneuvers, and the destruction of communities that these entailed, many people were murdered or disappeared: activists, Jesuit priests, journalists, census takers, tourists. Don Adán is suspected of presiding over the 2005 disappearance of a journalist, Alfredo Jiménez Mota; Mexican authorities said that one of Don Adán’s sons, Jesús Alfredo, was behind the vanishing of an activist and a lawyer. (The New Yorker was unable to reach the Salazar family, and a lawyer who has represented them in the past declined to comment.)

Some Indigenous communities in the mountains allied with the cartels, under duress or out of financial need, but a people known as the Rarámuri had a reputation for resisting interference. In 1997, when Breach was working as a reporter at one of Chihuahua City’s daily newspapers, El Diario de Chihuahua, a group of Rarámuri and other resisters camped out in front of the attorney general’s office, to protest having been exploited by a corrupt administrator. As Breach watched, the state police tried to disband the protest, their efforts soon turning violent. One of Breach’s colleagues took a photograph of a policeman with his boot on the back of an Indigenous man who was face down and covered in blood.

The paper’s news director, hoping to curry favor with the governor, refused to publish photographs of the protest that might incriminate the police. Infuriated by the censorship, Breach helped slip the photo of the man covered in blood to La Jornada, a far bigger paper. When the image appeared on its front page, and El Diario executives realized that it had been leaked, she was fired and marched out of the newsroom by security.

The story of how Breach, then the single mother of a young child, lost her job over a matter of journalistic principle circulated in media and activist circles. Mayorga was studying literature at the time, and remembers a friend thundering down a hallway at the university to tell her that Breach had been fired. “My friend had heart problems,” she said. “He was so angry she’d been fired I worried he might collapse.”

Not long afterward, La Jornada hired Breach, and her new editors supported her ambition to do serious reporting on the region where she grew up. In subsequent years, she produced work on femicides, international mining companies breaking environmental laws, politics, and narco turf wars. A piece from September, 2015, told with her trademark incisiveness, described a morning in which rivals of the Salazar cartel descended upon a town in the Chínipas municipality, one vehicle full of armed men after another, and summarily displaced three hundred families. 

Two men were murdered, a child was wounded, and other citizens were abducted as the mayor, Hugo Schultz, made himself scarce and the state attorney general said through a spokesperson that he knew of nothing amiss in the area. “Some neighbors hid in the hills; others escaped to the towns of San Bernardo, Álamos or Navojoa, Sonora,” Breach wrote. “According to relatives of some of the displaced, ‘not a soul remained by afternoon.’ ”

As dauntless as Breach’s reporting seemed to others, she sometimes felt imperilled as she went about it, and in 2015 she decided to collaborate more with other reporters. She started her own news agency, eventually spending down her savings to pay the salaries of three other Chihuahua reporters. And she asked Mayorga if she’d like to team up.

Breach had been impressed by work on forced displacement that Mayorga had published in Proceso. Although they were nominally competitors, the two women agreed that they might be safer, and have a bigger impact, working together. Over the next two years, they documented how the cartels subdued the citizenry and expanded heroin and marijuana routes in multiple towns by handpicking political candidates and infiltrating police departments.

The nexus between drug traffickers and politicians, often called “narcopolitics,” is an especially risky subject for journalists. And yet Breach and Mayorga showed in painstaking detail how cartel leaders were setting up candidates for local elections. After a statewide outcry, the PRI was forced to pull two candidates, one of whom was Adán and Crispín Salazar’s nephew, Juan Miguel Salazar Ochoa, also known as Juanito. He had been running to become mayor of Chínipas.

As it turned out, the candidate selected to replace Juanito was reportedly close to the Salazars, too. Something Breach made plain to her readers was that candidate replacements represented only the illusion of change, just as the competing political parties offered only the illusion of choice. In her Norte column, Breach wrote, “The inhabitants of the Sierra have learned that political eras come and go, alternating PAN and PRI mayors without changing the underlying conditions of insecurity and violence and without touching the territorial control, economic and political influence that the region’s narcos command.”

As the pieces trickled out, spokespeople for both the PRI and the PAN tried to put a stop to them. Mayorga told me, “They said things like ‘Stop covering this, muchachitas. You’re putting yourselves at risk.’ ” A warning about the gravity of that risk was left in Breach’s mailbox. Another attempt at intimidation, by phone, was overheard by her son. Yet another message, from a public official, insinuated that the well-being of her children was at stake, and an equally distressing communiqué was delivered to her through some of her relatives in Chínipas. The Salazars objected to her articles, the terrified relatives reported back to Breach, and her life and theirs were on the line.

Chínipas’s mayor, Schultz, a square-jawed PAN stalwart, was among the politicians upset by her reporting. In 2016, she called him an “errand boy” of the narcos and noted that he’d chosen a nephew of Crispín Salazar as his chief of police. (The Chínipas police declined to comment.) Schultz had let Breach know that she could never set foot in the Sierra again.

He and other PAN officials were under pressure themselves, according to a recording of a phone call between Breach and Alfredo Piñera, the PAN spokesperson for the state at the time. In the recording, which was later recovered by state police, a nervous-sounding Piñera tells Breach that “they”—almost certainly the Salazars—suspect that Schultz and other PAN officials were sources for the story that got Juanito kicked off the ballot. “So if we, then, are able to prove that it wasn’t us, then nothing will happen,” Piñera said.

“Ask them why they’re acting stupid,” Breach replied briskly. When Juan Salazar’s name appeared on a list of candidates, she told Piñera, she immediately recognized his connection to the cartel leadership. Still, narcos were going around threatening to harm people they suspected were her sources, as if the Salazar family tree were some big secret. She told Piñera, “Tell them this: There are no sources. Miroslava Breach knows Chínipas and every stone in the place.” Before hanging up, she added, sounding exasperated, “If they want to hurt someone, let it be the reporter!”

Late on the day of Breach’s murder, Mayorga went to her computer and pulled up notes from the final investigation they had worked on together. The story traced how narcos had infiltrated law enforcement in Chínipas and other towns in the Sierra. Breach had already published her account in La Jornada, but Mayorga had held off on doing the same in Proceso, hoping to ascertain a few more details. Now, her turmoil giving way to a flash of lucidity, she finished her work and published it—but only after removing her byline out of fear. Less than two weeks later, as rumors that she would also be killed spread, Mayorga fled Mexico, unsure when or if she could return.

The murders of Breach and Valdez and the exile of Mayorga had a chilling effect on colleagues left behind. Marcela Turati, one of the country’s most renowned investigative journalists and editors, told me that it felt as though journalism itself was dying in Mexico.

Governor Corral seemed more optimistic, at least about his crusade to find Breach’s killers. Less than a month after the murder, he said in an interview that “the material author, partners, and of course the intellectual author” of her killing had been identified, and that arrests were imminent. “We have practically all the elements to go and catch those responsible, and we are reinforcing the process and chain of custody with the greatest scientific, technical, and legal rigor,” he said.

Corral wasn’t a conventional figure on the Mexican political scene. He thought of himself as an erudite defender of the free press and democracy, and went around with his tie tucked into a sweater, like a professor. As 2017 progressed, though, there were times when he carried himself with the swagger of a TV detective.

In Mexico, the wall between the executive and judicial branches of government can be porous; governors, and even Presidents, often involve themselves in legal investigations. However, the intensity of Corral’s involvement was unusual. In addition to heading to the crime scene on the morning of the murder, he personally asked for security-camera footage at nearby homes and businesses. He was also present three days after the murder as the police searched a modest house in a neighborhood twenty minutes from the crime scene. There, in the garage, was a gray Chevy Malibu with a ducktail spoiler and other detailing that matched the car that had been caught on the security cameras.

One inhabitant of the house, it turned out, was a university student with close ties to the Salazar family named Wilbert Jaciel Vega Villa. He had disappeared around the time that Breach was murdered, but Corral and the police seized what he’d left behind, including seven cell phones and a laptop. On the laptop were audio recordings of Breach, Mayorga, and Piñera, the PAN spokesperson, including the recording in which Breach made clear to Piñera that she wouldn’t be intimidated.

In October, Corral told reporters that Breach’s murderers were organized-crime leaders with a huge arsenal at their disposal and an ability to hide in remote areas, including outside the state, and that he had requested the federal government’s help in picking them up. The following month, Proceso reported that the organized-crime leaders whom prosecutors believed to be responsible were Crispín Salazar and his incarcerated brother, Don Adán.

Finally, on Christmas Day, 2017, Corral, seated in an ornately carved chair between the Mexican and Chihuahuan flags, had something definitive to say. After an investigation that involved upward of two hundred hours of surveillance videos, more than twenty informants, and extensive forensics, the “main director” of Breach’s murder had been found. It wasn’t Crispín Salazar or his brother after all. Rather, the mastermind was Juan Carlos Moreno Ochoa, the leader of a group of sicarios, or hit men, who served the family. Moreno Ochoa, who was known as El Larry, had been arrested that morning in Sonora. “The people of Chihuahua and all of Mexico know today that the crime against Miroslava Breach has a name, a face, and will not go unpunished,” Corral said firmly, hands folded on his empty desk. “The justice that has been demanded for so long will be done.”

Two days later, members of the press crowded into the state’s Center for Justice for a hearing on the case—Chihuahua’s first high-profile public trial involving a journalist’s murder. A decade earlier, Mexico’s Congress had voted to transform the country’s judicial system, which had been battered with accusations of corruption and wrongful convictions. It would do away with its “inquisitorial” approach (written trials mostly held behind closed doors where the accused was presumed to be guilty) and instead adopt an “adversarial” one (public trials before a judge—and without a jury—with a presumption of innocence). Chihuahua, like many states, had been making the transition gradually.

In advance of the proceedings, the state had produced a video summarizing what the prosecutor would call a “complete, clear, responsible, and results-based investigation.” The video showed workers in lab coats analyzing cartridges under microscopes, investigators scrutinizing a wall of surveillance screens, and police officers holding assault rifles and marching in formation. Among the things that the state had learned from all this diligence was that El Larry hadn’t pulled the trigger. 

The alleged pistolero had been one Ramón Andrés Zavala Corral, who had, unfortunately, turned up dead in Sonora the previous week. Nor, it seemed, had Adán or Crispín Salazar asked the hit man to do the terrible deed. Instead, according to media accounts, El Larry had been so eager to ingratiate himself with the Salazars that he’d arranged Breach’s murder on his own, as a gift. “There is no one above this person,” one of Corral’s top officials told the press.

El Larry wasn’t present in the courtroom when the prosecution began to lay out its version of the killing. He’d been injured during the arrest, and the day before the hearing enterprising reporters had found him on a cot inside the prison, swollen and bruised. He’d also been prevented from meeting with his defender, who seemed frustrated in the courtroom. He complained to the judge both about the violation of his client’s rights and about the fact that the state’s argument would be made in part by a succession of PAN officials who’d been granted anonymity in exchange for their testimony, despite evidence that several of them might be complicit.

An image of Breach became protest art when reporters gathered after her death to demand justice.Photograph by José Luis González / Reuters / Redux

The prosecution kept letting the names of these anonymous witnesses slip, and it soon became clear that among those helping the state secure El Larry’s conviction was Hugo Schultz, of Chínipas, whom Breach had called a lackey of the narcos. This development alarmed several of her confidantes, who knew that, shortly before her death, she had broken off her long friendship with Javier Corral, and that Schultz had been a primary cause.

The journalist and the governor had planned to fight corruption together. Following his inauguration, however, Breach began to have doubts about Corral’s New Dawn, and in the weeks before her death those doubts had spiralled. After Schultz had threatened her, according to two people who knew Breach and to a WhatsApp message she wrote at the time, she told Corral that her reporting on Chínipas might get her killed and that she needed his protection. 

Instead of offering it, Corral blindsided her by letting Schultz take a new post in his education department—a position coördinating the instruction of children throughout the Sierra region. To Breach, the betrayal felt devastating and total. Corral had entrusted the futures of the young Indigenous people she’d been trying for decades to defend to a menacing narcopolitician. (Corral told The New Yorker that he and Breach had remained close until her death, that she had refused his offer of protection, and that they had never discussed Schultz.)

And now, in court, Schultz and other officials in Corral’s party—officials whose cartel ties Breach had lambasted—were key witnesses in a prosecution that could, if successful, relieve top narcos, and themselves, of responsibility for her death. Although making recordings of courtroom proceedings is generally forbidden in the state of Chihuahua, a skeptical reporter in attendance nonetheless hit record on her phone. Soon afterward, to her surprise, the prosecutor began to read a vast amount of the state’s investigative case file aloud.

This litany of facts—hours upon hours of evidence—would prove of great use to a small band of journalists, most of them women, who were fast losing confidence in the state’s commitment to pursuing justice. As the new year began, these reporters started slipping into Chihuahua from all around the country, to secretly conduct a murder investigation of their own.

Some of the journalists participating in the parallel investigation had loved Miroslava Breach. Some had admired her courage but found her prickly. Some knew her only through her work. Each set aside other commitments to be part of an enterprise that Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, describes as “absolutely unique in Mexican history.” The reporters, who would ultimately grow to more than thirty in number, would name themselves the March 23rd Collective, for the day of Breach’s murder.

A drafty two-story house in a middle-class neighborhood of Chihuahua City served as what they called their “investigative bunker.” Journalists rotated in and out of it, the hard core among them staying for weeks. They pored over the hours of evidence that had been recorded at El Larry’s public hearing, seized on leads that the state seemed to have dropped, and tried to pursue them surreptitiously, without attracting the attention of police or other officials.

Members of the collective, sharing a detailed account of their work for the first time, told me that from the beginning they operated as if the bunker were under surveillance by the cartels, the government, or both. A chart in the living room covered with colored Post-its of clues and suspects was positioned to be hidden fast, should strangers arrive at the door. 

Code names were used for critical actors, such as the Salazars. Even so, before comparing notes on investigative leads, the journalists would place their cell phones inside a canvas bag, which was deposited next to a blaring TV—“an old-school way to make sure no one was listening,” as one collective member, John Gibler, said. (Gibler, an American investigative reporter who has written four books on Mexico, agreed to speak to me on the record, but for the sake of safety I’ve used pseudonyms to conceal the identities of the participating Mexican journalists.)

The ambient anxiety in the bunker was often leavened with humor—say, about how many hips would break when a team of mostly veteran journalists had to leap from the house’s second-story windows. But jokes did nothing to erase the simple understanding that, if Breach could be killed without fear of reprisal, so could they.

María, an investigative reporter skilled at government-document searches, joined the collective to help it secure public records relevant to the case, including those detailing land holdings and criminal histories. Whenever she and her colleagues left the bunker or returned to it, they would settle on a cover story to use, should they be stopped by police or sicarios. One day, she and another woman in the collective frantically hid when they suspected a car of following them to the house. Another day, members were shaken when they believed someone had gone through their garbage. “We would have these moments of complete paranoia,” María said. “But, honestly, it could have also been true.”

Those in the collective taking the greatest risk, everyone understood, were the members who lived in Chihuahua. In much of the state, deep investigative journalism had virtually ceased, leaving the citizenry with little reliable information about their leaders. Were they worthy of support, or corrupt and owned by the narcos? All that many citizens knew, or sensed, was that it wasn’t safe for anyone to be asking such questions.

One day, a collective member named Karina told me, a military source warned a fellow-member of the group to stop trying to obtain information about Breach’s murder. Just moments after that warning, the contacts and call history on the reporter’s cell phone were wiped clean. According to the Citizen Lab, a watchdog group based in Canada, a powerful spyware tool called Pegasus was then being used in Mexico—likely by the government—to surveil journalists and hack into their phones. (Mexican officials have steadfastly denied this charge.) Remote wiping might have been a bug in the spyware, a Citizen Lab analyst told The New Yorker. At the time, the collective understood enough to be terrified, and a therapist who was brought in to help members cope with the soaring anxiety could calm them only so much.

As 2018 progressed, López Obrador—a left-wing populist who shared with the former U.S. President Donald Trump a habit of attacking the media—campaigned for the Mexican Presidency, drawing large crowds; in July, he won by a landslide. In Chihuahua, as the trial of El Larry was delayed because of requests for injunctions by the defense and debates over jurisdiction, Corral publicly accused the federal government of doing little to help apprehend other Salazar cartel members who he believed were involved in Breach’s murder. (“To date,” Corral told The New Yorker, “they enjoy broad protection among security forces of different levels of government.”) And the members of the collective kept trying, very quietly, to untangle the facts surrounding the killing.

The role of Ana, a photojournalist from Mexico City, was to help the collective create a list of people who might have had reasons to want Breach silenced. This responsibility entailed travelling to communities where she had reported and figuring out whose interests she might have threatened in the mining, timber, and ranching industries, as well as in the cartels.

Accompanied by a human-rights attorney, Ana first travelled to Baqueachi, a Rarámuri community in the Sierra where Breach had documented the struggle of residents to regain their land after decades of encroachment by cattle ranchers. An activist fighting that battle had been murdered, and Breach’s 2010 account in La Jornada of the killing and the community’s fight for survival ultimately helped the residents reclaim their rights to the land. When community members learned that Ana was there to find out who had killed Breach, they grew emotional. “They held a ceremony for her, and I came to understand that they viewed her as a member of their community,” Ana said. “This is not something that happens—an isolated Indigenous community accepting an outsider on such terms.”

From Baqueachi, Ana went to Madera, a town riven by conflicts between the Sinaloa and the Juárez cartels, and then to a community that had lost much of its water supply to cartels and wealthy families with political connections. As Ana absorbed the intricacies of Breach’s reporting, she grew impatient with an idea that some politicians and even journalists had espoused: that Breach hadn’t fully grasped the impact her reporting would have and had got in over her head.

“She was a journalist who understood perfectly well what the risks were,” Ana told me. “As journalists, we’re in all the wrong places, with all the wrong people, because that is our job.” For decades, Breach had been on the road connecting dots, exposing wrongdoing, and challenging powerful interests. Any number of the stories she had pursued could have doomed her.

Cartel hit men have a tradition of editorializing their work, often by leaving messages on their victims, and right after Breach was killed a cardboard sign turned up at the crime scene. It blamed Breach’s death not on the Salazars but on one of the cartel’s enemies: Carlos Arturo Quintana, known as El 80, whom the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has called a leader of the Juárez cartel. (That Quintana had a grievance against Breach was entirely plausible: in 2016, she had revealed Quintana’s attempt to appoint mayoral candidates, including his mother-in-law.) Another sign materialized beside the body of a retired martial-arts instructor who had been shot in the head. It claimed that he was the person who killed Breach.

Under federal law in Mexico, families of victims are theoretically allowed to review investigative files in criminal cases, in order to see for themselves what police and prosecutors are doing to bring about justice. But, as leads multiplied and crisscrossed in the Breach case, her siblings found themselves thwarted by the state when they tried to gain access to the file. Losing faith in Corral, they petitioned for federal intervention in the case, securing it in April, 2018, with the help of Sara Mendiola Landeros, the director of Propuesta Cívica, a legal organization that defends human-rights activists and journalists. 

The siblings also finally received a copy of the state’s investigative file and shared its contents with the collective, according to Karina and Gibler. (The siblings declined through Mendiola to comment for this article, citing their need for “emotional tranquillity and security.” Breach’s daughter also declined to comment.)

“I may be emotionally unavailable, but the rest of me can be found right here, twenty-four seven.” Cartoon by John Cuneo

Examining the thick file, collective members were shocked at what wasn’t in it: any indication that a state investigator had travelled to Chínipas, the place from which direct and indirect threats had been coming steadily in Breach’s final months. (Corral told The New Yorker that the state investigation was not yet finished when the federal government intervened.) Nor, it appeared to the collective, had tough questions been posed to the PRI and PAN officials who had warned Breach and Mayorga to stop reporting.

“There’s this myth that reporting on the cartels gets you killed,” Gibler told me. “And yes, it can, if you publish specific information about who is doing what and where. But, if you look at the majority of the more than one hundred journalists killed in the last decade in Mexico, most of them were working on stories about the collaboration between the political state apparatus and organized crime.” Breach had done that work “very explicitly,” he added. “First and last names, and names of criminal groups and political officials.”

Collective members had long suspected Hugo Schultz, the former Chínipas mayor who had warned Breach never to return to her home town, of having a role in her killing. So, when Gibler and three other members of the collective chanced upon Schultz at a congressional hearing on education in the state capital, they decided that they owed it to Breach to confront and question him themselves—even if it meant they’d be recognized and their identities revealed to the cartel.

When the hearing concluded, Schultz, in dark glasses, entered an elevator with his smiling wife and two bodyguards, and the collective members crowded in, too. A video taken by one of them shows the face of Schultz’s wife fall as another member asks the politician, “You gave [the Salazars] the recording—why did you give them the recording? We just want your side of the story.” Schultz hesitated, then replied, with controlled civility, “I have nothing to say, Miss.” Before stepping out, he added, “I am not hiding, I am working— I am coöperating with the government.”

Later, the elevator ride would seem to encapsulate the quixotic wishfulness at the heart of the collective’s project: journalists, already vulnerable, had made themselves more vulnerable still, with little to show for it. The reporters chased after the politician’s entourage for a few minutes, “but then,” Gibler told me, “we had to let them go.”

In some newspapers, elements of the state’s version of the plot to murder Breach—that the killing had been orchestrated by El Larry, the sicario chief—seemed to lock into place with uncanny precision. One of those elements involved a pilot named Jorge David Coughanour Buckenhofer, who owned a regional air-taxi service that connected Chihuahua City to other parts of the state.

After El Larry was captured, El Heraldo de Chihuahua published several stories alleging, without apparent evidence, that Coughanour also worked for the Salazar cartel and had whisked the supposed mastermind to Chínipas on his plane after the murder. The flight to the mountains had ended tragically, the newspaper said: as Coughanour landed, he accidentally hit and killed two girls who had been hanging out on the runway, and he then fled the scene in his plane.

Collective members secured a state forensic report, with photos, indicating that two girls had indeed died that night—but with small wounds on their heads that were inconsistent with being hit by a plane. The collective’s suspicions were further aroused by the fact that Coughanour was unavailable for questioning, either about those deaths or about the getaway flight after Breach’s murder. One evening a few weeks after she was killed, a car had pulled alongside Coughanour’s Mercedes, where he was seated with a friend in front of an Italian restaurant in Chihuahua City. Within moments, the pilot was shot at least six times through the driver’s-side window.

Months later, Gibler visited Coughanour’s family and discovered that they were anguished not just because of his murder, or because he’d been called a narcopilot in the paper, but because the notion that he had run over bystanders while landing impugned his skills. A volunteer air-ambulance pilot, Coughanour had a reputation for safety so impeccable that he’d been chosen to fly the state’s most important political figures, among them Javier Corral when he was running for governor.

Coughanour’s father shared with the collective the investigative file he’d received from the police. Law enforcement didn’t get a warrant for footage from a security camera outside the restaurant, and the responding homicide detective—who was also a detective in the Breach investigation—questioned only two witnesses at the scene. Gibler came to believe that state officials had no desire to determine who had killed Coughanor, and to what end. 

Their real goal, he thought, was to give the public a hard-to-refute story of how El Larry had commissioned a pilot to help him elude the police, in order to stop more penetrating questions from being asked.

Gibler told me that Coughanour’s father said to him one day, “Even you are here because of that journalist’s murder, not because of my son.” Gibler had replied, ruefully, “I’m sorry, but yes, you’re right.”

In 2010, an agency of the Mexican government was created to do what the March 23rd Collective would later try to do on its own: conduct a rigorous investigation of the facts when a journalist is murdered. The Special Prosecutor’s Office for Attention to Crimes Committed Against Freedom of Expression, known as FEADLE, was given the power to assume control of a state-level case if there appeared to be a connection between a journalist’s reporting and her death. By 2019, a FEADLE prosecutor was in control of the Breach case. El Larry’s trial was to resume later in the year, and Corral’s prosecutors had handed over state files.

FEADLE’s track record was something short of inspiring: since its founding, according to reports from the attorney general’s office, only one of FEADLE’s murder investigations had resulted in a conviction. But, after complaints from journalists and activists, an ambitious new prosecutor, Ricardo Sánchez Pérez del Pozo, had been hired. He had a graduate degree in human rights from Northwestern University, in Illinois, and had cut his teeth on the United Nations tribunal on war crimes in the Balkans.

At this point, collective members were exhausted. They needed to take a break and refocus on their paying jobs and families, instead of continuing a parallel investigation with many risks and no legal authority. The U.N., Reporters Without Borders, C.P.J., and other organizations were also doing what they could to keep the public from forgetting the case, and surely with that outside pressure FEADLE would now ask probing questions in Salazar territory.

However, when collective members met with Sánchez Pérez del Pozo, they were dismayed that he wouldn’t confirm that his investigators would be braving the mountains to ask questions. (The prosecutor told me that it would imperil his investigators to say anything about where they went.) As the federal investigation of the murder of a reporter who exposed links between politicians and drug traffickers appeared to tiptoe around both groups, demoralized collective members decided there was only one thing left to do: rest, recover, and then write the hell out of everything they had learned about the plot to kill Miroslava Breach.

When a celebrated Colombian journalist, María Teresa Ronderos, heard about the emotional and investigative difficulties that collective members had faced, she was determined to help. Ronderos understood the personal toll of this kind of reporting better than most: she had worked through the nineteen-eighties and nineties in Colombia, when reporting in many regions was perilous, and later she contributed to an investigation by Colombian journalists of the 2002 murder of the political columnist and editor Orlando Sierra Hernández—a project whose example had inspired some in the March 23rd Collective. Ronderos had since co-founded the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism, in Costa Rica, and offered her Mexican counterparts its assistance, she said, “so that they did not feel so alone.”

Before long, Ronderos had also secured the support of two other organizations. Bellingcat—an independent investigative group based in the Netherlands, which is famous for its stories about Russian wrongdoing under Vladimir Putin—would help the collective do a last push for open-source intelligence research. Forbidden Stories—a nonprofit formed after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in Paris, to continue the work of journalists who have been assassinated, jailed, or threatened—would help promote and distribute the collective’s findings in English and French as well as Spanish.

Breach’s grave, in Chihuahua City.Photograph by Natalie Keyssar for the New Yorker

In September, 2019, nearly two years after a journalist made an illicit courtroom recording of the state’s evidence, the March 23rd Collective published three investigative stories. The first piece documented how state and federal prosecutors ignored leads about Salazar operatives and PAN officials, including Schultz. The second examined suspicious murders and police failures linked to the Breach investigation, including the filed-away killing of Jorge David Coughanour. The final installment probed Breach’s work and the death threats against her. More than seventy publications in Mexico and around the world published the stories. Ronderos said, “One of the first questions everyone wanted to know is: who’s behind this anonymous collective?”—the question contributors were, of course, most reluctant to answer.

Sara Mendiola and Sánchez Pérez del Pozo told me that they lamented the timing of the stories, which had named and therefore endangered witnesses in the case of El Larry, the sicario leader, whose trial had been about to resume. But Hootsen, the Mexico representative of C.P.J., gives the collective credit for bringing international attention to the case at a critical moment.

In February, 2020, El Larry’s oft-delayed trial resumed. “Not only was Miroslava’s life affected,” Sánchez Pérez del Pozo said in his arguments, “but also society’s right to know these facts that, without Miroslava’s courage, we Mexicans would not have otherwise known.” El Larry was convicted of premeditated murder, and that summer he received a sentence of fifty years in prison.

What came next from the office of Sánchez Pérez del Pozo was a genuine surprise to many people, including members of the collective: he issued an arrest warrant for Hugo Schultz as an accessory to Breach’s murder. In 2021, the former PAN official pleaded guilty, ultimately receiving eight years in prison for helping the Salazars get information on Breach in order to target her.

Schultz declined to testify in his trial, but a son of Crispín Salazar had talked. In jail and facing charges of kidnapping a woman and holding her for ransom, Crispín’s son, Édgar, began to hear rumors that authorities might implicate him in Breach’s murder and that his own family had placed a hit on him. He decided to turn, he told the judge. 

Shortly before being transferred to a prison outside the state, he testified that control of the town of Chínipas was essential to the cartel’s ability to smuggle narcotics through Sonora and into the United States, and that Breach’s exposure of the cartel’s plan to install friendly mayors and police chiefs in Chínipas and other municipalities in the region had jeopardized its goal of a frictionless route into the American market. Schultz, whom Édgar identified as a daily presence at the Salazar-family compound, became part of the operation to solve the problem.

Cartel leaders had initially hoped that a campaign of threats might scare Breach off, and one of Schultz’s assignments was to gather more information about her. Schultz admitted recruiting to this effort other PAN officials. These included José Luévano, whom Corral would hire soon afterward as his personal secretary, and Piñera, the party spokesperson. Luévano declined to respond to my specific questions on the ground that the case is still open. 

Piñera also declined to answer specific questions and said that he bore no responsibility for Breach’s murder and had never been in touch with the cartel. But one bit of information Piñera admitted collecting and giving to Schultz had helped seal Breach’s fate: the recording of the phone call between Piñera and Breach in which she said that she knew every stone in Chínipas and would not be deterred.

Schultz passed the recording on to the Salazars, the investigation showed, and after hearing Breach’s voice the cartel set in motion a new plan to silence it. This plan would be the subject of yet another warrant the FEADLE prosecutor would secure, for the arrest of Crispín Salazar. The charge would be murder.

By Édgar Salazar’s account, Crispín had become alarmed by the “dirt” that Breach was stirring up—sufficiently alarmed that, according to the prosecution, he sent an emissary to the prison where his elder brother was being held to discuss the problem. Édgar testified that, shortly afterward, on the family’s porch, with El Larry and other trusted associates gathered round, Crispín Salazar made the decision to take Breach’s life.

Édgar told the judge that he was present when the chief of sicarios returned from Chihuahua City, found the cartel leader in the middle of a large and raucous Salazar-family birthday party, and told him the job was done. “Good,” Crispín said, and then burst into laughter.

In 2022, C.P.J. documented an unprecedented number of journalist murders in Mexico, and underlying that fact was an even uglier one: the government’s failure to aggressively investigate earlier cases had helped produce the record-setting death toll. It’s not outlandish to think that collaborations like the March 23rd Collective will help shape the future in the opposite way, by demonstrating how a culture of impunity sometimes weakens under scrutiny.

The Forbidden Stories founder, Laurent Richard, a documentary filmmaker, told me that his organization’s minor role in the pursuit of Breach’s killers had inspired a second collaboration with journalists in Mexico, this one investigating the 2012 murder of Regina Martínez Pérez, a Proceso correspondent. “A journalist killed in Mexico is not only a Mexican crime,” he said. “Because the drug cartels are multinational corporations.”

Ana, the photojournalist, told me that working as part of the March 23rd Collective allowed her and others to accomplish more than they would have been able to on their own, and she’s optimistic that the model will prove useful elsewhere. “So many journalists are afraid of being killed, afraid to continue investigating. We see this in El Salvador or Guatemala or Nicaragua, too,” she said. “But working together we can expose corruption without having to flee our countries. With less risk. And that gives us hope.”

In addition to sending El Larry and Schultz to prison, Sánchez Pérez del Pozo has had success in several other cases, including securing two murder convictions for the killing of Breach’s colleague, the investigative reporter Javier Valdez. However, more than a year after FEADLE issued its warrant for the arrest of Crispín Salazar, federal law enforcement has yet to bring him into custody. In other words, the work of the collective is not finished. And perhaps even the members’ decision to speak to me is one more covert action on behalf of a journalist for whom partial justice would be an unworthy ending. 

New Yorker


  1. Why give your life to something everyone knows that El MENCHO for example a drug lord would not be anything WITHOUT help from government officials and that nobody cares to do anything about not the people of mexico or else they would have overthrow their government

    1. Mencho died over a year ago. But yes CJNG is still striving, family members run the show.

  2. Mexico is Fucked. Y'all have no chance of being a upstanding country. My suggestion put all the bad politicians in a hall and drop the MOAB on them fools


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