Mexico is mourning the loss of a photojournalist who was among five people found bound, tortured and shot execution-style in a middle class neighborhood in Mexico City.
Ruben Espinosa, a Veracruz-based journalist who recently relocated to Mexico City to escape death threats, was found murdered inside an apartment on Saturday, along with four female victims who have not been officially identified, but who police say showed signs of being sexually tortured before being killed. Extra-officially, the women have been identified as human-rights activist Nadia Vera, 18-year-old Yesenia Quiroz Alfaro, and two unnamed victims — a young Colombian woman, and a Mexican housekeeper.
Espinosa becomes the 42nd journalist murdered in Mexico since 2010 for reasons related to work, according to free-speech watchdog Artículo 19. His murder is sending shockwaves through a community that has long considered the capital a safe haven for journalists displaced by violence in other parts of the country.
Thousands of people joined Espinosa's colleagues in Mexico City on Sunday afternoon to protest violence against the media and rampant impunity in the murder of journalists. On social media the hashtag #JusticiaParaRuben or “Justice for Ruben” became the top trending topic in Mexico.
Authorities, however, are downplaying the nature of the crime. “It cannot be considered an attack against freedom of expression, because he didn’t die while working as a journalist,” Mexico City prosecutor Rodolfo Ríos told Espinosa's former employers, Proceso Magazine and photo agency Cuartoscuro. The prosecutor noted that the apartment was burglarized.
Many journalists aren't buying how prosecutors are initially framing the crime, considering Espinosa had reported he feared for his safety in weeks leading up to his death. “I was forced to leave because I was being threatened,” the freelance correspondent said in what would be his final interview, which aired on TV on July 9.
Proceso journalist Homero Campa told Fusion his magazine is asking prosecutors to not rule out the possibility that Espinosa was killed because of his line of work. "He had been previously threatened and Veracruz state has many precedents of murders and aggressions against journalists," Campa said.
Family and friends of the victims are fearful to speak out. Those who spoke to Fusion asked not to be identified.
“Following the events surrounding the death of journalist Ruben Espinosa, his family and friends have not — and are unable to — comment or grant interviews due to safety concerns,” reads a statement released by Espinosa’s family over the weekend.
Other colleagues were vocal about their disappointment in the Mexican government, and its unwillingness to protect the media. Federico Mastrogiovanni, a journalist and author who has written extensively on forced disappearances in Mexico, pointed out that no government officials participated in Sunday's march.
“The response to the recent attacks against journalists is a message from the government that says: 'You are fundamentally alone; you have been abandoned, and are under constant threat'," Mastrogiovanni said. "It’s a confirmation of the fact that practicing this profession in Mexico is becoming increasingly difficult. We put ourselves and our families at risk, sacrifice our own mental well-being, and we are left completely unprotected. Sometimes we wonder: Why the fuck do we even do this?”
In statement released Sunday, Veracruz Governor Javier Duarte called the murders “aberrant” and said he trusted Mexico City prosecutors to solve the cases. But there's reason to doubt Mexico's ability to solve all those crimes; the Committee to Protect Journalists found that Mexico has failed to resolve more than 90 percent of cases of slain journalists.
While the government has been slow to release the identities of the other four victims, family and friends are starting to come forward.
“I found out today that it was Nadia, and it made me feel so angry and impotent,” a friend of Nadia Vera told Fusion, under condition of anonymity. “That girl had balls. She had been fighting for so long. It makes me feel so hopeless that people aren’t doing anything to fix this… like they are asleep.”
She identified her friend as a human-rights activist, a member of the yosoy132 student protest movement, and a fierce critic of Veracruz's Governor Javier Duarte.
“Give an ignorant man a little bit of power and see what happens,” Nadia Vera said in a TV segment criticizing governor Duarte, weeks before her death. “How many journalists have been murdered, and what has come of it? How many students, activists, and human rights defenders have been killed, picked up, or disappeared? We have an unbelievable number of missing persons in Mexico, and it has everything to do with the person who is governing the state.”
Fusion reached out to Governor Duarte's office for comment but didn't receive a response.
Andrea Noel is a freelance journalist based in Mexico
Rafa Fernandez De Castro is a Fusion consultant for Mexico and Latin America. He covers Mexican youth, politics, culture, narcos and funny stuff once in a while.