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In Mexico, signs of life in the fight against impunity

The following is an IPI Blog post by Scott Griffen, IPI Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean:

A bad joke. That's how one prominent Mexican editor described to me the trial of Jorge Antonio Hernández, also known as “El Silva”, who was sentenced this April to 38 years and two months in prison for the murder of an esteemed investigative reporter, Regina Martínez Pérez, in the state of Veracruz, allegedly during a robbery.

Earlier this month, the Veracruz Supreme Court apparently also found the trial lacking in humour. In striking down Hernández's conviction, the Court ruled that the defendant had been denied constitutionally mandated due process by the Veracruz authorities and, worse, that his confession — which had been the only piece of solid evidence against him — had been extracted under torture and was therefore invalid.

The decision will not have sat well with the Veracruz government, whose pathological denial that the state's journalists are under threat has spawned allegations that it fast-tracks convictions of possibly innocent individuals, relying on dubious theories as to the motive for the crime, in order to protect the state's reputation.

According to the International Press Institute's (IPI) Death Watch, a staggering 58 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2006 for reasons likely or possibly related to their profession. Nearly one-sixth of those killings (11 in total) took place in Veracruz, statistically Mexico's most dangerous state for the media. The Mexican federal prosecutor's office counts 13 killings in Veracruz since 2006, second only to Chihuahua.

But try telling the Veracruz government any of this, as we did during our press freedom mission to Mexico in February (read our mission report).

In a memorably surreal encounter organised by the state government in a posh Mexico City hotel, Veracruz officials, including the head of its so-called journalist protection program, declared to IPI and its mission partner, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), that “freedom of expression is 100 percent guaranteed in Veracruz”. According to their count, zero journalists have been killed in the state due to their profession, a discrepancy they explained through insinuations about the private lives of the murdered reporters. As for the state's exiled journalists, the claims of official censorship, allegations of threatening phone calls from the governor's office to media houses — they'd never heard of such a thing.

And when we asked about the allegations surrounding Hernández's conviction, we were met with the defensiveness and lack of cooperation one expects from a wounded tiger. “I examined him myself,” one official said. “And I am telling you he was not tortured.”

We don't normally cheer the release of a convicted journalist killer. But in a country where widespread violence against the media still has not been fully acknowledged by all authorities, and where an estimated 50 percent of prison inmates are innocent of their accused offence, we make an exception.

The Veracruz Supreme Court's decision to free Hernández — whose innocence, it should be noted, is also not proven — was courageous and important. Courageous, given the Veracruz state government's authoritarian tendencies and its wilful refusal to accept the facts at hand; important, because it gives Mexico's federal Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression, Laura Borbolla, a chance to find out who really killed Regina Martínez and why. (A day before the Court released its ruling, Borbolla confirmed that her office could not rule out the possibility that Martínez was murdered because of her profession.)

Borbolla's office, known by the acronym FEADLE, has been the target of vociferous criticism over its failure to convict a single journalist killer since its creation in 2006. Some of this criticism is perhaps undeserved, as until a constitutional amendment was enacted in June 2012, FEADLE essentially had no legal authority to prosecute crimes against the media under Mexico's federal structure. And it took the federal Congress until early May of this year — a scandalously long 11 months — to pass the necessary “secondary” legislation to put the constitutional amendment into practice. In that light, the Office itself has been a victim of the lethargy that has plagued Mexico's response to its journalism crisis.

But what has FEADLE done since May 4, when the legislation took effect? According to documents provided to IPI, as of July 31 FEADLE had assumed jurisdiction over just three cases, all dealing with (relatively!) less serious offences of property damage and abuse of power. Just three — out of over 300 incidents that the Office has documented or pursued “parallel investigations” in since 2010. Moreover, the cases came from the states of México and Tabasco, where violence against the media still pales in comparison to silenced Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, or Veracruz.

In comments made in early August to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Borbolla said: “We have the authority, but I want the states to give us these cases, if possible.” Preferable, maybe, but do we really expect, say, the Veracruz government to simply hand over jurisdiction to FEADLE? It bears reminding, too, that local officials are believed to be responsible for the majority of press freedom violations in Mexico — and not just according to press-freedom groups. When IPI met with Borbolla in February, she informed us that in 70 percent of the cases that reach her office, a public official is considered the principal aggressor.

Borbolla appears to be slowly testing the waters, gauging the reaction to her Office's newly won power. But after the murders of 58 journalists in less than seven years, hesitation is a luxury that Mexico can no longer afford.

So it was gratifying to hear the news, announced in mid-August, that FEADLE had stepped up to assume jurisdiction over the 2008 murder of Armando Rodríguez Carreón, known as “El Choco,” who covered organised crime for the newspaper El Diario in Ciudad Juárez.

IPI is expecting a swift and conclusive investigation into the Rodríguez case, and will be following developments closely.

The fact that it took nearly five years for the case to be properly examined is a tragedy, one that would be compounded if FEADLE delays in assuming jurisdiction over the other 57 unsolved — or wrongly solved — murders, including that of Regina Martínez.

Impunity in Mexico remains a many-headed monster. In our report on our February 2013 mission to Mexico, we singled out a broken criminal-justice system and authoritarian practices at the local and state level as two of the leading obstacles to holding those responsible for Mexico's media crisis accountable. These are major systemic issues with stubborn staying power — but that does not mean they cannot be ultimately overcome.

We are still in a wait-and-see mode when it comes to Mexico. But this month has provided signs that the federal government is heading in the right direction, at least on the above-mentioned fronts. Now let's just pick up the pace.

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