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Few convictions for Mexico’s special prosecutor for crimes against journalists

Complacent. Ineffective. Bungling. Inept.

The adjectives pile up as top editors, writers and free press advocates level their aim at the division of the Attorney General’s Office in Mexico responsible for prosecuting crimes against journalists.

Reporters and photographers keep getting killed. By one count, 84 have been slain since the year 2000. More than a dozen others have disappeared. Threats against journalists are so frequent that large swaths of the country simply are without media coverage of crime and corruption. Yet top federal investigators can barely make a single prosecution stick.

“The message from authorities is clear. In Mexico . . . it is all right to kill or to attack journalists. It is all right because you can, and there are no consequences,” said Ignacio Rodriguez Reyna, editor of the weekly magazine emeequis — whose name is the way Mexicans pronounce the letters “mx.”

Such verbal darts are usually aimed broadly at the federal government, but when personalized, the target is often a 35-year-old lawyer, Laura Borbolla Moreno. Her title is special prosecutor for crimes committed against freedom of expression.

Borbolla has been in her job for 15 months. Three previous prosecutors have held the post since 2006.

Borbolla acknowledges that it has been “extremely frustrating” that public opinion fails to grasp that Mexican law endows her office with only “the most feeble” tools to prosecute those who attack the Fourth Estate.

“Even without sufficient tools to investigate, we’ve been able to carry out many investigations and clarify some crimes,” Borbolla said.

Lawmakers created the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Journalists in 2006 but failed to resolve jurisdictional problems that left the federal office often unable to assume control of homicide cases from state prosecutors and courts, where murder cases are normally investigated and tried.

Under mounting criticism both at home and abroad, Mexico’s Congress passed a constitutional amendment last year that empowers federal authorities to take over prosecution of crimes involving journalists. A majority of state legislatures approved the measure, and it went into effect in June 2012.

But without a secondary enabling law, the “federalization” of cases involving crimes against journalists does little good. Borbolla said courts were returning 80 percent of her division’s cases to the state level, taking them out of her hands.

A legal remedy has just arrived. On April 11, senators approved a proposed enabling law that allows federal prosecutors to take over a case at their own discretion, particularly if there is suspicion that a government official is involved in the crime or that state prosecutors are not acting with due speed. The lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, also approved the enabling law, and it went into effect May 3, World Press Freedom Day. Now, federal prosecutors can sweep aside any state prosecutor who they deem inept or corrupt, and the law orders federal judges to rule on the cases.

Borbolla and her team of nearly 20 investigators are based out of an office in Mexico City’s historic downtown. They have about 300 open investigations, 26 of them involving murders of journalists.

The probes of two of the murder cases have concluded, arrest warrants issued, and case files turned over to judges, she said. Those cases involve three deaths — those of two reporters for a community radio station in southern Mexico’s Oaxaca state in 2008 and the third of a journalist killed in Coahuila state in 2010.

Yet in Mexico’s multilayered public security apparatus, turning over a case to a judge is no guarantee that suspects will face justice.

Borbolla says her office has issued more than 30 arrest warrants for suspects in different cases, all of which linger.

“Investigations now are significantly more solid,” Borbolla said. “This is not all that we would wish,’’ said Borbolla, “but you can’t say we’ve done nothing or gotten no results because this is not true.”