Gabriel Huge, Guillermo Luna and Esteban Rodriguez must have hoped they would be spared. Until last year the three had been members of a tight band of journalists covering the drug war that has swamped the Caribbean port city of Veracruz.
Huge and his nephew Luna had worked on the local newspaper Notiver, Rodriguez with a rival publication, Diario AZ; but all three resigned in July after two of their colleagues were killed – one of them with his wife and one of his children.
The three photographers fled the city after hearing that their names were also on a hitlist, but soon returned. Earlier this year, Huge and Luna picked up their cameras and – figuring that the threat had passed – started working again, as freelancers. Rodriguez decided that enough was enough. He got a job as a welder at a mechanic’s workshop.
On Thursday night, the three men’s bodies were pulled from a canal behind a sewage plant with that of a fourth victim, Irasema Becerra, who reportedly worked as a secretary at a local paper and was said to be Luna’s girlfriend. All four had been tortured.
Attacks on the press in Mexico have escalated since President Felipe Calderón began an offensive against organised crime in December 2006.
“Veracruz has seen a wave of lethal anti-press violence that is sowing widespread fear and self-censorship,” said Carlos Lauria, of the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “The Mexican authorities must act now to end the deadly cycle of impunity in crimes against the press.”
The latest murders came five days after Regina Martinez, Veracruz correspondent of the investigative national weekly Proceso, was found beaten and strangled in her bathroom in the state capital, Xalapa. Martinez was one of the few journalists in the area who still covered drug violence and corruption in any depth.
Huge was reportedly last seen when he returned home around midday on Wednesday to pick up his car. Luna covered a car accident about 3pm, but his colleagues raised the alarm after he failed to return from the job.
Mexico’s National Human Rights commission says 74 media workers have been killed since 2000. The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists puts the figure at 51. The estimates vary according to who is defined as a journalist and whether their murder appears directly associated with their work. But whatever the numbers, few question that Mexico is now one of the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters.
Those most at risk work for local outlets in parts of the country where rival cartels are fighting for control of smuggling routes and other crime rackets such as kidnapping and extortion.
In Veracruz, attacks on the press are part of an increase in general violence which observers say began when a change in local government shook up the links between local politicians and organised crime. Drug war violence in the state pits the Zetas cartel against the Gulf cartel and the Sinaloa cartel, as well as the navy, which has a heavy presence, and the state authorities. There is speculation that state-sponsored death squads are also involved.
Veracruz governor Javier Duarte expressed his outrage at the latest murders of journalists. “We repudiate these atrocities that hurt all of the people of Veracruz,” he said.But none of the investigations into the murders of media workers in the state he governs have got anywhere.
Self-censorship continues to be one of the few options available to reduce the risks. Most Veracruz media hardly covered the latest murders, discovered on World Press Freedom Day. Notiver,the local paper with the most daring reputation, ran a story from Proceso that, based a few hundred miles away in Mexico City, is under less direct pressure.
“Self-censorship was extraordinarily strong but whoever killed these journalists wanted more,” the Mexico-based representative of the Committee to Project Journalists, Mike O’Conner, told the Associated Press. “It still wasn’t enough to satisfy whoever killed those journalists.”
Veracruz appears to be following the state of Tamaulipas to the north, were local papers long ago stopped publishing almost anything about crime and corruption there. In some cities in Tamaulipas cartel press attachés directly inform newsrooms what they can and cannot cover. Sometimes they even detail the words they want used.