In no other state is the price of truth as high as it is in Veracruz. With a record number of 16 journalists murdered since 2010, the state, which straddles the Gulf of Mexico, is turning into dangerous territory for journalists. At a national level, Mexico’s record is no less outrageous. With 23 journalists officially missing since 2003, Mexico has one of the highest numbers of disappeared journalists in the world. Unsurprisingly, Mexico also scores very low in world rankings of press freedom.
Veracruz is once again in the spotlight after the dead body of Anabel Flores, a journalist in charge of covering the local police, was found on February 9, 2016. Her body was left on a highway and showed visible signs of torture. She had gone missing two days earlier, when eight men wearing military uniforms kidnapped her from her house in the local town of Orizaba. Sadly, her case is emblematic of the ugly truth hidden beneath the image of a prosperous Veracruz. In spite of its oil-rich lands and “touristy” coastline, the state is plagued by corruption and violence.
While the state of Veracruz is investing in the image of an economically prosperous region and a prime tourist destination, things look quite different beneath the surface. The port of Veracruz has become a key entry point for drugs and a hub for their distribution. The highly profitable narcotics market has sparked a fierce battle among rival drug cartels. Meanwhile, elements of the state, including local police, army personnel, and municipal leaders, are often infiltrated by these cartels.
In keeping with basic journalistic ethics, local journalists uncover uncomfortable truths about the government, such as acts of corruption by those in power. This makes their work extremely dangerous. Regrettably, rather than tackling the multiple issues raised by the press, the state has chosen to shut down the media. The ugly truth of Veracruz is that it silences journalists with bullets.
Collusion between cartels and state authorities not only comes in the form of collaboration in the drug market, but also in the work of suppressing the media. As it is usually low-rank cartel members who carry out the dirty business, the state’s culpability is generally hard to prove. Yet, most cases of disappeared and murdered journalists in Veracruz — and in Mexico overall — follow the same pattern. First, the journalists cover themes related to corruption and security where state members and drug cartels work hand in hand. Next, the crimes are committed with near impunity, since the cases are hardly ever prosecuted. In all 23 cases of currently missing journalists, a criminal investigation is overdue.
In some cases, these crimes are committed directly by members of the state. In January 2015, the beheaded body of prominent journalist Moisés Sánchez was found. Days later, it was revealed that Medellín police officers had been responsible for the notorious murder. While the case brought a lot of media attention that ultimately led to a criminal investigation, the findings were delayed, incomplete, and failed to deliver a sense of justice to the family. According to Jorge Sánchez, Moisés’ son, his father received a threat from the mayor of the municipality, Omar Cruz Reyes, two days before his kidnapping. After he was arrested, a former police officer confessed that the order to kill the journalist had come directly from the mayor. Reyes was investigated only ten days after the crime, and while charges have been brought against him, he remains free as of February 2016.
Many in Veracruz blame the state’s governor, Javier Duarte, for the precarious situation. Not only has he been criticized for inaction, but he has also been accused of complicity in the killings of several journalists and activists. While no legal charges have been brought against him, the killings of journalists increased dramatically under his tenure. Given his notorious reputation, the Mexican Senate requested in mid-February to remove the governor’s special privileges and begin a federal investigation of the governor.
This is the second time in recent months that governor Javier Duarte has been under intense scrutiny. Last summer, the dead bodies of activist Nadia Vera and photojournalist Rubén Espinosa were found, along with those of other three women, in an apartment in Mexico City. Like many others in the state, Nadia and Ruben had fled their homes in Veracruz and moved to the capital after receiving a number of death threats. In a video published by the independent media channel Rompeviento, Nadia denounced the political violence of Veracruz and held Duarte personally responsible for anything that might happen to her. A month later, a group of men broke into her apartment. In spite of several protests in the capital calling for Duarte’s resignation, the governor was not prosecuted and remained in office.
Violence against the media is not only threatening to journalists: it affects the entire population. With the increasing threat to journalists, local politics simply are not being covered adequately. Many journalists are choosing not to report this type of news while others are simply giving up on the profession. It’s simply too much of a risk. Fear among members of the journalistic community allows for a reign of silence in Veracruz. In a state where journalism is an dangerous profession, the imposed silence spreads to civil society and limits the right to participate in the political sphere. The lack of political participation and popular pressure, in return, leaves the population exposed to further violence. So far as the state’s governor continues to punish the fourth estate, democracy in Veracruz will continue to wither. And without an active citizenship able to decry governmental abuses, the situation is unlikely to improve in the near future.
The image of a prosperous Veracruz that the state government advertises is built upon this silence, corruption, and fear. The state’s logic dictates that those opposing its views are disposable. Beneath this false image lie the bodies of 16 Mexican journalists who dared to question the state. It is only by retelling their stories that the false image of peace and prosperity may be challenged and the truth of violence be exposed.