VERACRUZ, Mexico — After decades of poking around crime scenes, digging into conspiracies and hanging out with cops and politicians, columnist Miguel Angel Lopez had earned his stripes as journalistic alpha dog of the crime and corruption beat in this steamy port on the Gulf of Mexico.
But even Lopez hardly could have imagined the speed with which hit men would take his life and those of his wife and 21-year-old son.
It was 6 a.m. on a June day when two vehicles arrived at the journalist's custard-yellow two-story home. Hit men with assault weapons poured out. One punched through the lock on the front door. The squad rushed in and opened fire on the veteran columnist — who was descending the stairs in his nightclothes — then climbed to the second floor to kill the others. Each victim was given a coup de grace in the forehead.
In a nation where attacks on journalists are rampant, the killings were unprecedented. Gangsters in modern times had never targeted a reporter's family. And the killing wasn't over. Five weeks later, another appalling act occurred: They kidnapped and decapitated a co-worker of Lopez's, also a veteran crime reporter.
Every journalist in Veracruz felt the one-two punch. Within a day or so, nine fellow reporters had fled the city in terror.
The chill that such killings put on reporting about the crime syndicates is familiar throughout much of Mexico, where many newspapers no longer try to investigate the rampant violence that's killed as many as 40,000 people in the past five years.
But scratch below the surface, and the narrative about journalists struggling to inform their readers while under siege from gangsters morphs into a different story, one in which the lines between journalists, police, politicians and crime bosses grow blurry. Many seem to be for sale. Few are held in high esteem.
If nothing else, the killings of the two journalists here shed light on the underside of Mexican journalism, where publishers pay reporters too little, corrupt police and politicians routinely buy better news coverage and gangsters tell reporters what to cover and what to delete from their stories.
Mexico's largest and oldest port, Veracruz is a metropolis of more than half a million people that lies in a state of the same name that's a key corridor for drug and migrant smugglers.
For the better part of a decade, drug gangs, particularly the brutal transnational syndicate known as Los Zetas, have been active here, gaining an ever-larger hold. Even so, Veracruz has largely stayed out of the headlines.
"It's kind of like the Hamptons for the narcos; enormous ranches and rest areas," said Ricardo Gonzalez of the Mexico chapter of Article 19, a London-based group that advocates for freedom of information.
Residents of Veracruz can select from a handful of newspapers. The best selling is Notiver, distinctive for its picaresque tone, its columns on political gossip, its focus on crime and its dismal production values.
"Notiver is a textbook example of how not to do journalism," said Jose Luis Cerdan Diaz, a communications professor at the University of Veracruz, "but without Notiver you wouldn't know what was going on in Veracruz."
Among the newspaper's peculiarities is that it depends entirely on sales from street vendors for its income. It also has no set press time. If a hot story breaks, the newspaper comes out late. Rumor and news mix easily in its pages. About half the headlines end with exclamation points.