In Mexico, a reporter published a story. The next day he was dead

In Mexico, a reporter published a story. The next day he was dead


By Sarah Kinosian

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Just after sunset on Thursday February 10, two men in a white Dodge Ram pickup pulled up outside the small radio studio of Heber Lopez Vasquez in southern Mexico. A man got out, went inside and shot the 42-year-old journalist. Lopez’s 12-year-old son Oscar, the only person with him, was in hiding, Lopez’s brother told Reuters.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based human rights group, Lopez was one of 13 Mexican journalists killed in 2022. It was the deadliest year on record for journalists in Mexico, now the most dangerous country for reporters in the world outside of the war in Ukraine, where 15 reporters were killed last year, according to the CPJ.

A day earlier, Lopez, who ran two online news sites in the southern state of Oaxaca, posted a story on Facebook accusing local politician Arminda Espinosa Cartas of corruption related to her re-election efforts.

As he lay dead, a nearby squad car responded to a 911 call, intercepted the pickup, and arrested the two men. One of them, it later turned out, was the brother of Espinosa, the politician in Lopez’s story.

Espinosa has not been charged in connection with the Lopez killing. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment and Reuters was unable to locate any previous comment she had made about her role in the corruption or about Lopez’s story.

Her brother and the other man remain in detention but have yet to be brought to justice. Her attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“I’ve already stopped covering drug trafficking and corruption, and Heber’s death still scares me,” said Hiram Moreno, a veteran Oaxacan journalist who was shot three times in 2019 and sustained injuries to his leg and back after speaking about drug deals of local criminal groups. His assailant was never identified. “You cannot rely on the government. Self-censorship is the only thing that will protect you.”

It’s a pattern of fear and intimidation playing out across Mexico, as years of violence and impunity have created so-called “silent zones” where killings and corruption go unchecked and undocumented.

“In quiet zones, people don’t get access to basic information to go about their lives,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, CPJ’s Mexico representative. “They don’t know who to vote for because there is no corruption investigation. They don’t know which areas are violent, what they can and can’t say, so they remain silent.”

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on attacks on the media.

Since the drug war began in Mexico in 2006, 133 reporters have been killed for work-related reasons, the CPJ found, and another 13 for unexplained reasons. During that time, Mexico has registered over 360,000 homicides.

Aggression against journalists has spread to previously less hostile areas like Oaxaca and Chiapas in recent years and threatens to turn more parts of Mexico into information dead zones, rights groups including Reporters Without Borders and 10 local journalists say.

Lopez became the second journalist to be murdered in Salina Cruz, a Pacific port in Oaxaca, since mid-2021. It nestles in the Tehuantepec Isthmus, a thin sliver of land connecting the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific that has become a landing pad for precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl and meth, according to three security analysts and a DEA source.

Lopez’s last story, one of several he wrote about Espinosa, covered the politician’s alleged efforts to get a company to build a breakwater in the port of Salina Cruz in order to threaten workers to cast their ballots for re-election or otherwise get fired.

The infrastructure was part of the Interoceanic Corridor – one of Lopez Obrador’s flagship development projects in southern Mexico.

Jose Ignacio Martinez, a crime reporter on the Isthmus, and nine of Lopez’s fellow journalists say since his assassination they have become more afraid to publish stories dealing with the corridor project, drug trafficking and the state’s collusion with organized crime.

An outlet Reuters spoke to, which asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said it conducted an investigation in the corridor but didn’t feel safe about making it public following Lopez’s death.

Lopez Obrador’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on allegations of corruption related to the corridor.


In 2012, the government set up the Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.

Known simply as the Mechanism, the panel provides journalists with protections such as panic buttons, surveillance equipment, house police station, armed guards and relocation. Nine reporters protected by the Mechanism have been murdered since 2017, CPJ found.

Journalists and activists can apply for protection from the mechanism, which evaluates their case together with a group of human rights defenders, journalists and representatives of non-profit organizations and officials from various government agencies, who form a board of directors. According to the analysis, not everyone who asks for protection receives it.

There are currently 1,600 people enrolled in the mechanism, including 500 journalists.

One of those killed was Gustavo Sanchez, a journalist who was shot dead at point blank range by two motorcyclists in June 2021. Sanchez, who had written articles critical of politicians and criminal groups, signed up for the mechanism for the third time after surviving an assassination attempt in 2020. Protection never came.

The Oaxacan prosecutor at the time said Sanchez’s coverage of municipal elections was a primary line of inquiry into his murder. Nobody was charged in the case.

The killing of Sanchez prompted Mexico’s Human Rights Commission to produce a 100-page investigation into the authorities’ failings. Evidence “showed omissions, delays, negligence and derelictions of duty by at least 15 public officials,” the report said.

Enrique Irazoque, head of the Department of Human Rights Defense at the Interior Ministry, said the mechanism accepts the findings but stressed the role of local authorities in delaying protection.

Fifteen people from government and civil society told Reuters that the mechanism is understaffed given the scale of the problem. Irazoque agreed, although he noted that the number of employees has increased to 70 from 40 last year. The 2023 budget has increased from $20 million in 2022 to approximately $28.8 million.

Alongside the lack of funding, Irazoque said local authorities, state governments and courts needed to do more, but lacked political will.

“The mechanism absorbs all the problems, but the problems are not federal, they are local,” he said in an interview with Reuters.

Irazoque believes more convictions are most needed and says the lack of legal ramifications for officials encourages corruption.

Impunity for killings of journalists is around 89%, according to a 2021 report by the Interior Ministry, which oversees the mechanism. According to the report, local officials were the biggest source of violence against journalists, ahead of organized crime.

“One would think that the biggest enemy would be armed groups and organized crime,” said journalist Patricia Mayorga, who fled Mexico after investigations into corruption. “But actually, it’s the connections between these groups and state officials that are the problem.”

Many Mexican journalists who were killed worked for small, independent digital media outlets, which sometimes only published on Facebook, Irazoque noted, saying their stories delved deeply into local political issues.

Mexico’s National Association of Mayors (ANAC) and its National Conference of Governors (CONAGO) did not respond to requests for comment on state and local governments’ role in the killing of journalists or allegations of corrupt ties to criminal groups.

President Lopez Obrador frequently pillories the press, calls out reporters who criticize his administration, and has a weekly section devoted to the “lies of the week” in his daily press briefing. He condemns the murders and accuses his opponents of extolling the violence in order to discredit him.

Irazoque says he has no evidence that the president’s verbal attacks led to violence against journalists. Lopez Obrador’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

“What kind of life is this?” said journalist Rodolfo Montes, viewing security footage from his home, where the mechanism he first enrolled in in 2017 had installed cameras overlooking the garage, street and entrance .

Years ago, a cartel rolled a bullet under the door as a threat, and he’s been nervous ever since. In the corner was a whole archive box of threats spread across a decade. After a cartel threatened his 24-year-old daughter just days earlier, he looked down at his phone and said, “I’m alive but I’m dead, you know?”

(Editing by Claudia Parsons and Dave Graham; Additional reporting by Pepe Cortes in Oaxaca)

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