Killings spark questions about journalists' ties to Mexican gangs

 

McClatchy Newspapers

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.

"Readers like how they stick it to those in power," said Jose Pablo Robles Martinez, the founder and publisher of a competing newspaper, Imagen de Veracruz.

Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco joined Notiver more than two decades ago, writing under the pen name Milo Vela, taken from the first letters of his complete name. Nervous but persistent and gifted at putting a bite in stories, Lopez was promoted after years on the crime beat to columnist on security matters and deputy editor in charge of crime reporters.

He operated in an environment in which corruption pervaded politics, law enforcement and even newsrooms. The previous governor of Veracruz state, Fidel Herrera, plied newspapers with generous advertising contracts to win favorable treatment. Even low-level journalists felt the governor's largesse.

"He'd give them computers, cars, trips and scholarships," said Hermann Ortega, the former Veracruz state chief of the center-right National Action Party.

Many journalists readily accepted. Everybody else had an angle, and their consistently poor working conditions gave them an easy justification.

"They are badly paid. They don't have life insurance. They aren't provided equipment. Photographers aren't even given cameras," Article 19's Gonzalez said.

In Veracruz, as in other parts of provincial Mexico, police reporters often hang together, trusting colleagues on the beat more than their own editors. In Veracruz, they'd even set up their own independent office.

As an editor and columnist, Lopez remained a trusted ear for police and military officers.

"He was a reserved man but affable and courteous, and unquestionably a good journalist," said Gerardo Perdomo, a former prosecutor who headed the state-financed Veracruz Commission to Defend Journalists until its dissolution in June.

The cruelty of the execution-style slaying of Lopez, his wife and their son minutes before dawn on June 20 sent ripples of concern through newsrooms across Mexico.

But anxiety wouldn't really spike until July 26, when the body of Yolanda Ordaz, a top crime reporter who worked for Lopez, was found dumped behind the offices of a competing newspaper. Ordaz, a single mother in her early 40s who'd moved to Veracruz from Oaxaca state, had been beheaded.

Within hours, the state prosecutor said Ordaz's decapitation was a settling of scores between crime gangs, an assessment shocking both for its conclusion and its speed from an office with a poor track record of solving crimes.

The prosecutor suggested that other crime reporters also might have links to criminal gangs, a statement that sent panic through the reporters' ranks, prompting several to flee the city.

"They just took off on their own," said Balbina Flores, the Mexico delegate of the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders. "The media owners didn't defend their reporters. It's sad. If there had been more solidarity, the authorities wouldn't get away with this suggestion that some reporters are criminals."

But questions lingered over a number of curious circumstances, including accusatory videos posted on YouTube, further leaks from the prosecutor's office and a sign found near Ordaz's body.

It read: "Friends also betray. Sincerely, Carranza."

Authorities say it was from the suspected killer, former transit police officer Juan Carlos Carranza, a fugitive criminal linked to Los Zetas.

One video posted to YouTube in mid-June contained what was said to be an audio recording of a conversation between Ordaz and an unnamed crime figure, arranging to publicize criticism of alleged army abuses. Another video affirmed that Los Zetas referred to the Notiver newsroom as "Base 40."

A fellow journalist, Cesar Augusto Vazquez Chavez, published a column that accused Ordaz of acting as media coordinator for Los Zetas in Veracruz. It described a meeting between a group of police reporters and a Zetas boss, Rolando Veytia, in a restaurant. The column said Ordaz was the go-between.

Ordaz was "the one who gave them the line on what to publish and what not to publish," the column said, and offered each one a salary of the equivalent of between $665 and $1,250 a month.

"This version that circulates about Yolanda — and it is totally unprovable — that she operated like a press person for a criminal group, horrifies me," said Cerdan Diaz, the university professor. "I knew her as a student, and she didn't have any sign of criminality."

The accusations have been met with tense silence. Notiver's founder and publisher, Alfonso Salces, didn't respond to requests for comment. The columnist who made the accusations didn't answer emails seeking an interview.

Lopez's surviving elder son, who bears the same name, posted several messages on his Facebook page, calling the columnist a "drooler" and a liar. He added a lament for his profession: "Media owners are leaving us adrift. . . . We are passing through a very difficult and dark moment in journalism in our state."

Press freedom advocates acknowledge that while many Mexican journalists ply their trade with integrity, some are on the take from crime bosses.

"I've seen reporters in Sinaloa who drive Hummers on a salary of 5,000 pesos ($420) a month," said Gonzalez of Article 19.

He said gangsters sometimes pressured reporters directly, calling them on their cell phones or intercepting them on the street. In some newsrooms, powerful crime groups maintain designated envoys among the journalists to give a last-minute thumbs up or down on news reports, he added.

Journalists who ignore cartel edicts face real threats in Mexico, the deadliest place in the Western Hemisphere to work as a journalist. Mexico's National Human Rights Commission says 68 journalists were murdered in Mexico from the year 2000 to March of this year.

Colleagues who spoke only on the condition of anonymity offered up other theories of the murders, saying that Lopez and Ordaz may have been passing information to military intelligence and were killed by crime gangs in vengeance.

Cerdan Diaz, who's taught university journalism classes to hundreds of students in Veracruz over the years, said that only one conclusion was beyond a doubt.

"These executions and the decapitation of Yolanda are unequivocal signs of cruelty and malice to send a message that someone is in charge," he said.

Whoever that may be lingers murkily in the air.

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

Crime reporter believed probing boss's death killed in Mexico

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Killings of journalists lead to news blackouts in Mexico

Check out this McClatchy blog: Mexico Unmasked

McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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