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In Veracruz, Mexico powers that be have clear message: Don't mess with us

Thousands of journalists have been killed for reporting on issues of public interest and social justice. Together, the International Press Institute (IPI) and Transparency International (TI) are working to end impunity; to make sure that reporting on crime, politics and corruption is no longer a matter of life and death. Ahead of the International Day to End Impunity on Nov. 23, IPI and TI are releasing a series of interviews describing the plight of journalists today. As advocates for press freedom and against corruption, it is our collective obligation to demand justice and ensure that those trying to suppress the voice of the people do not get away with it.

A well-known investigative journalist who covers organised crime for a nationally renowned news magazine is found beaten and strangled to death in her home. Shocked, the local authorities immediately launch an investigation, exhausting any and all possible leads in order to find out who killed her and why. The national government, alarmed at the implications for reporter safety, sends in reinforcements and doesn't rest until the killer is behind bars.

That's how it might go elsewhere. But not in Mexico. And, more specifically, not in the state of Veracruz. After all, this is a state where, despite the murders of 13 journalists there since 2000, authorities insist that press freedom is 100 percent guaranteed.

More than a year and a half has passed since the murder of Proceso journalist Regina Martínez Pérez in Xalapa, Veracruz on April 28, 2012. But despite Proceso's dogged efforts, nothing has happened. Impunity still towers over the case.

To be sure, that's not entirely accurate. Several things have happened. A suspect was tried and sentenced to 38 years in prison – only to have his conviction overturned by the courts in the face of evidence suggesting his confession had been extracted under torture. The Proceso journalist following the state's investigation reported on an alleged plot by certain state officials to kidnap and harm him, and is now under the protection of the federal police. The federal government conducted a parallel investigation that, it seems, went nowhere.

But what hasn't happened is a substantiated account of who murdered Regina Martínez and why.

Ahead of International Day to End Impunity, Scott Griffen, IPI Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean, spoke with Proceso security and justice correspondent Jorge Carrasco – the journalist threatened in the alleged plot mentioned above – about the magazine's efforts to win justice for Regina, and why they haven't succeeded.


IPI: What was Proceso's initial reaction to the killing of Regina Martínez in Xalapa?

JC: Surprise, which turned into indignation. We heard the news in the form of a rumour toward the end of the evening on Saturday, April 28, 2012. The editors asked us reporters to try to confirm what was being said. Around 8 p.m., I was able to reach the spokeswoman of the governor of Veracruz. She confirmed the news. She told me that [Regina] had been murdered in her home early that morning. She told me that there wasn't much information, but that experts from the Veracruz state prosecutor's office were already on the scene.

IPI: What were the first steps Proceso took after hearing the news of the murder? Did you initiate contact with the state authorities or vice versa?

JC: The magazine's editor, Rafael Rodríguez Castañeda, got in touch with the state's governor, Javier Duarte de Ochoa, who promised to find the person or persons responsible and bring them to justice. Julio Scherer, the magazine's founder and president of its Board of Directors, decided to go to Veracruz right away. In the early hours of the following day we – Julio Scherer, Rafael Rodríguez, deputy editor Salvador Corro, photographer Germán Canseco and I – set off for Veracruz. I went along not only because I was the one who confirmed the news, but also because I had reported a number of stories involving violence and insecurity in Veracruz in my role as security and justice correspondent.

IPI: How would you characterise the spirit of cooperation between the magazine and the Veracruz authorities? Did the authorities welcome Proceso's involvement and help in the investigation?

JC: When we arrived, the governor deployed the state machinery. He sent in helicopters from the Department of Public Security to transport us from Veracruz City, where we had flown into, to Xalapa, the state capital. We were transported in official vehicles to the government house. There, we were greeted by Duarte and a dozen officials from the prosecutor's office. Duarte began to talk: to talk of promises of a professional investigation and of the recognition of Regina's work, and asked the prosecutor, Felipe Amadeo Flores Espinosa, to give the initial report regarding the murder. Duarte began to speak again, but Julio Scherer stopped him. Scherer told him that Proceso would not believe him until it found out the truth, and that the murder was a sign of the decomposition of life in the state. [He added that] Regina's case was not unique – four other journalists had already been murdered.

Rafael Rodríguez told the governor that the Veracruz government had created a hostile work environment for Regina. It shut the doors of state offices to her, she wasn't invited to press conferences, and whenever the magazine would publish information related to Veracruz, copies of the issue disappeared from the state. Duarte was silent for a moment. Then he returned to his speech of promises.

Proceso rejected from the get-go any theory [of the murder] that was not proven by evidence, including that of a crime of passion. In the face of this incredulity, it was agreed that Proceso would take part in the investigation. Duarte spoke before the media of an “investigative commission”. That never happened and was never going to happen. Proceso only asked to be an intervener (coadyuvante) in the investigation, a figure foreseen [by the rules of] investigations into criminal offences.

At the end of the meeting, Proceso asked the state government for support in putting together a press release in order to present our position to the public. State officials brought us to a hotel in the city. We were given a small room with a desk and a computer. It was all that we needed. When we finished writing the press release, the deputy editor and I went out to the central plaza where there was a gathering to protest the murder of our correspondent.

The government of Veracruz had reserved hotel rooms with all expenses paid for each representative of the magazine. We told them no. Duarte also offered to fly us back to Mexico City in an official plane. We said no again.

IPI: In April 2013, Jorge Antonio Silva Hernández was convicted of killing Regina and sentenced to 38 years in prison. Proceso strongly rejected this apparent success, saying it "underscored impunity and the deceit of the Veracruz authorities." Why?

JC: The relationship [between Proceso and the state government] was marked from the beginning by Proceso's mistrust of the Veracruz government. Despite our saying that we would not believe anything that was not backed up by a solid investigation, the Veracruz government began leaking stories to both the local press and the Mexico City press. They let circulate the idea of a crime of passion in which another journalist was even involved. At that point, as representatives of the magazine before the prosecutor's office, we had delivered to the prosecutor any and all information about the relationship between Regina and Proceso. We turned in work information, financial information – whatever they needed to solve the case. We turned in a folder containing two years' worth of stories by Regina that appeared in Proceso, the Proceso News Agency (Apro), and the magazine's web page, with the goal being that they would follow one particular line of investigation: the relationship between Regina's work and her murder.

We wanted to know whether her work had affected any individual or interest group in particular. We told them about [the magazine's] work dynamic, of the investigation assignments that Regina had left pending, and of the reservations she had about covering security issues, for which reason some of us reporters used to come to Veracruz to cover that topic. The response of the Veracruz government was to send judicial summons to local reporters who were friends of our correspondent. They not only interrogated these reporters, but also took their fingerprints – and from some they even took dental imprints because it was suggested that among the wounds suffered by our journalist was a bite to the face.

There was another reason to doubt this version [involving Silva Hernández]. The Veracruz prosecutor's office declined to share information with the federal Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE). I testified in a meeting at the state prosecutor's office in which the deputy prosecutor for human rights of the federal Attorney General's Office, of which FEADLE forms a part, complained about the lack of collaboration. Using its own resources, the federal prosecutor's office did not have information that pointed to Silva Hernández's guilt.

When the accused – destitute, HIV-positive, and with no family – was presented before the press, he had already confessed. But in his first appearance before the judge assigned to the case, Silva Hernández alleged that he had been kidnapped and tortured into supporting a version in which he was the accomplice of José Adrián Hernández Domínguez, whom prosecutors identified as the mastermind behind Regina's murder. The official version was a crime of passion. It stated that Hernández Domínguez, a sex worker, had been Regina's boyfriend. Without proving it, the Veracruz government implicated our correspondent in a double life in order to support the idea that her death had no relation to her journalistic activity. In spite of that argument, the prosecutor's office delayed for almost a year in indicting Hernández Domínguez, who remains a fugitive.

In any case, despite the lack of evidence, the judge found Silva Hernández guilty – even before the results of an Istanbul Protocol test, administered to Silva Hernández to ascertain whether or not he had been tortured, were known.

IPI: Also that month, the magazine reported threats against you and said the Veracruz authorities would be responsible for “any aggression” that you might suffer. Do you believe that there was a relation between the threats and Proceso's fight against impunity in this case?

JC: Without a doubt, since the communications I received hinted that I didn't understand that the case had been solved. Throughout the entire year between the murder and Silva Hernández's conviction, I reported on the way in which the Veracruz prosecutor's office was carrying out the investigation. However, I did not publish so much as a single line as to what the investigation files contained, so as to prevent the Veracruz government from making us responsible for any failure in the inquiry. During this time, though, we did insist in various reports that appeared in the magazine that we did not agree with the investigation, above all because it had set Regina's journalistic work to the side.

IPI: Speaking of impunity, did the authorities open an investigation into the threats against you?

JC: The revelation of the plot was raised to the level of a formal accusation. First, it was brought to the attention of the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH), which has a programme for offences against journalists. CNDH put the case in the care of the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders, the intergovernmental organization headed by the Interior Ministry. As a party to the mechanism, FEADLE opened an investigation. I formally reported the threats to FEADLE.

In addition, Proceso's editors delivered a report to the Veracruz government detailing the accusations. The governor of the state, Javier Duarte, once again promised an investigation. The CNDH requested from him a report regarding the accusations. He limited himself to questioning the state officials in question through bureaucratic channels. Their response [to the accusations] was negative. That's where his investigation ended.

In the case of the federal investigation, FEADLE confirmed the existence of the meetings that we had reported on, in which the plans against me were discussed. The federal investigation remains open. As part of the actions of the Mechanism, since last May [2013] I have been under the protection of three federal police officers. I cannot go anywhere without this protection. My reporting is now geographically limited and I have not returned to write on Regina or Veracruz.

IPI: In August 2013, the Veracruz Supreme Court of Justice threw out Silva's conviction. Has this brought hope?

JC: The Court's decision vindicated us. It confirmed the reservations that we had always expressed about the case. It was a very important decision because it was Veracruz's own justice system that put into question the official version of the murder. Now the case is in the hands of the federal courts because one of Regina's brothers was not in agreement with the freeing of Silva Hernández. He says he is convinced by the Veracruz prosecutor's version. We hope that the federal courts confirm the local court's decision. In that case, the impunity would continue and we would be back at the beginning: who murdered our colleague and why?

IPI: Since May of this year, the federal Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE) has the legal authority to prosecute state-level cases. Is there contact between Proceso and FEADLE? Does Proceso have more faith in the capability of a federal investigation, if one were to occur?

JC: FEADLE led its own investigation from the moment the murder occurred. It arrived at the scene two days after the incident. It took its own evidence samples and did its own expert work. Although it is true that the local prosecutor's office denied it information, it is also true that, one year and seven months after the incident, the federal investigation remains thin. The information that we gave the Veracruz government was also given to FEADLE, above all so that they would investigate whether Regina's killing was related to her journalistic work. There hasn't been any response from them either.

IPI: In your opinion, what has been the effect of the impunity in this case on the media in Veracruz? And on Proceso?

JC: The effect has been pernicious. The message of those in both formal and informal positions of power is very clear: do not mess with us. The Veracruz media have caved in, due to fear or economic reasons. The owners of media companies keep their mouths shut in exchange for advertising contracts and journalists have a well-founded fear of violence of which they could become the object.

For Proceso, the murder of Regina Martínez has obliged us to reduce coverage of organised crime, above all in Veracruz. In the face of a killing, threats, and other negative experiences in other states in the country, the logical decision has been to protect the lives of its journalists.

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