MEXICO CITY, Jan 21 (Reuters) – Just after sunset on Thursday, February 10, two men in a white Dodge Ram pulled up in front of Heber Lopez Vasquez’s small studio in southern Mexico. A man came out, went inside and shot and killed the 42-year-old journalist. Lopez’s 12-year-old son, Oscar, who was with him, went into 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 rights group. It was the deadliest year for journalists in Mexico, now the world’s deadliest country for journalists outside of the war in Ukraine, with CPJ reporting that 15 journalists were killed last year.
A day earlier, Lopez – who ran two internet sites in the southern state of Oaxaca – published a Facebook post accusing local politician Arminda Espinosa Cartas of corruption in her elections.
While he was sleeping, a nearby patrol car responded to an emergency call, seized the vehicle and arrested the two men. One of them, it was later discovered, was the brother of Espinosa, the politician in Lopez’s case.
Espinosa has not been charged in connection with Lopez’s murder. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment and Reuters could not find a previous comment about his role in the corruption scandal or the Lopez case.
Her brother and the other man are under arrest but have not been charged. Their attorney did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“I already stopped reporting fraud and drug trafficking and Heber’s death still scares me,” said Hiram Moreno, a former Oaxacan journalist who was shot three times in 2019, injuring his legs and back, after writing about drugs and local gangs. . The attacker has not been identified. “You can’t trust the government. Self-examination is the only thing that can protect you.”
It is a culture of fear and intimidation that is happening in Mexico, because years of violence and impunity have created what experts call a “quiet zone” where murder and corruption are not controlled and kept.
“In quiet places people don’t get basic information about their lives,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, CPJ’s representative in Mexico. “They don’t know who to vote for because there is no corruption investigation. They don’t know which are the violent areas, what to say without saying, so they stay silent.”
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the attack.
Since the start of Mexico’s drug war in 2006, 133 journalists have been killed for reasons related to their work, CPJ determined, and another 13 for unknown reasons. During that time Mexico registered more than 360,000 murders.
Violence against journalists has spread in recent years to previously hostile regions—such as Oaxaca and Chiapas—threatening to turn large parts of Mexico into death 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, the Pacific port of Oaxaca. It sits on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a narrow strip of land connecting the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific that has become a hub for the production of fentanyl and meth, according to three law enforcement experts and a DEA source.
Lopez’s last article, one of several he wrote about Espinosa, described the politician’s efforts to get the company that was building the port of Salina Cruz to threaten workers to vote for his candidacy or face dismissal.
The infrastructure was part of the Interoceanic Corridor—one of Lopez Obrador’s development projects in southern Mexico.
Jose Ignacio Martinez, a crime reporter in the area, and nine of Lopez’s fellow journalists said that since he was killed, they have been afraid to cover stories related to the project, drug trafficking and collaboration with the government.
One Reuters spokeswoman, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said she conducted an investigation on the balcony, but did not feel comfortable publishing it after Lopez’s death.
A spokesman for Lopez Obrador did not respond to a request for comment on the corruption allegations related to the cage.
In 2012 the government established the Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.
Known as the Mechanism, the organization provides security for journalists such as panic buttons, surveillance equipment, a home police watch, armed guards and evacuations. Since 2017, nine journalists protected by the Mechanism have been killed, CPJ has found.
Journalists and activists can apply for protection at the Mechanism, which examines their case together with a group of human rights activists, journalists and representatives of non-profit organizations, as well as officials from various government agencies that make up the governing body. Not all who apply for protection receive it, according to the analysis.
There are currently 1,600 people registered with the Mechanism, including 500 journalists.
One of the victims was Gustavo Sanchez, a journalist who was shot at close range in June 2021 by two people on motorcycles. Sanchez, who wrote articles criticizing politics and gangs, registered in the Mechanism for the third time after surviving an assassination attempt in 2020. The defense did not arrive.
Oaxaca’s prosecutor at the time said Sanchez’s statements on local elections were the first step in the investigation into his murder. No one has been charged in the case.
Sanchez’s killing prompted Mexico’s human rights watchdog to launch a 100-page investigation into government failures. The evidence “revealed omissions, delays, neglect and violations of the duties of at least 15 public employees,” the report said.
Enrique Irazoque, head of the Ministry of the Interior’s Department for the Protection of Human Rights, said the Mechanism accepted the findings, but highlighted the security measures taken by the authorities.
Fifteen people in the government and non-governmental organizations told Reuters that the Mechanism is not necessary considering the scale of the problem. Irazoque agreed, although he noted that his 40 employees increased last year to 70 employees. His budget for 2023 increased to approximately $ 28.8 million from $ 20 million in 2022.
In addition to the lack of money, Irazoque said that the authorities, the government and the courts should do more, but there was no lack of political will.
“The Mechanism is taking all the problems, but the problems are not federal, they are local,” he said in an interview with Reuters.
Many beliefs are what Irazoque believes to be the most important, saying that the lack of rules for government officials encourages corruption.
Impunity for killing journalists hovers around 89%, a 2021 report from the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the Mechanism, showed. Civil servants were responsible for most attacks on journalists, ahead of organized crime, the report found.
“You would think that the main enemy would be armed groups and terrorists,” said journalist Patricia Mayorga, who fled Mexico after investigating fraud. “But the real problem is what is between these groups and the authorities.”
Many of the Mexican journalists who were killed worked for small, independent outlets, which were sometimes only published on Facebook, Irazoque said, adding that their stories were deeply embedded in the political landscape.
The National Association of Mayors (ANAC) and the National Conference of Governors (CONAGO) of Mexico did not respond to a request for comments on the role of the state and local governments in the killing of journalists or allegations of fraud by violent groups.
President Lopez Obrador often targets the media, lashing out at reporters criticizing his administration and holding a weekly session in his daily press conference about “the lies of the week.” He condemns the killings, while accusing his opponents of using violence to insult him.
Irazoque said he has no evidence that the president’s words caused violence against journalists. A spokesman for Lopez Obrador did not respond to a request for comment.
“What kind of life is this?” Journalist Rodolfo Montes said, looking at the security footage inside his house where Mechanism, in which he registered for the first time in 2017, installed cameras with eyes on the garage, the road and the entrance.
A few years ago, a group rolled a bullet under the door as a threat, and he has been at war ever since. The whole box of threats that had spread for ten years sat in the corner. Looking down at her phone after a group threatened her 24-year-old daughter a few days earlier, she said, “I’m alive, but I’m dead, you know?”
Edited by Claudia Parsons and Dave Graham; Additional reports from Pepe Cortes in Oaxaca
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