One late summer night in Xalapa, the resplendent capital of the Mexican state of Veracruz, I was walking with a local media worker through a chilly evening drizzle in search of pozole, the delicious, spicy soup that is something of a local specialty. I was researching a book on the country’s oldest drug-trafficking organization, the Gulf Cartel, based in the state of Tamaulipas directly to the north, and their erstwhile comrades-turned-deadly enemies, Los Zetas, many of whose members hailed from Veracruz.
Gazing out at us from the walls of the city were dozens of handmade flyers, most of them asking for information about women who had disappeared, but some asking for help locating missing children as well. As we walked through a beautiful old square that still holds the cisterns to what had been a colonial laundry, my contact mused on the difficulty of working in such a milieu.
“Here journalism exists in the shadow of the government,” he told me.
Despite Mexico’s supposed democratic breakthrough 15 years ago, brought on by the defeat of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for the first time in over 70 years, democracy, such as it exists here, has always settled rather lightly in states like Veracruz, a place where, as in Tamaulipas, the PRI’s grip has never loosened. Despite a seductive landscape of mist-covered mountains slouching through deep valleys toward the coast, and a dramatic history that includes occupations by both France and the United States and the first independent community of African slaves in the Americas (founded by Gaspar Yanga in the 1570s), for more than a decade the atmosphere in Veracruz has been one of cyclical terror, with much of the violence directed at journalists and other critics of the government.
During the back-to-back administrations of the PRI’s Fidel Herrera Beltrán, who served as Veracruz's governor from 2004 to 2010, and now Javier Duarte de Ochoa, another PRI politician, the influence of drug traffickers on the levers of power in the state and the overlap between their cadres and local law enforcement has become so blurred as to be nearly indistinguishable. In 2013 an accountant for the Gulf Cartel told a federal court in the United States that he had funneled $12 million in cartel money to Herrera Beltrán's electoral campaign between 2004 and 2005, in exchange for the cartel moving narcotics freely through the state.
Over the past decade, at least nine journalists have been killed in Veracruz. Some organizations put that number considerably higher. Some of the journalists were ambushed in their homes, such as Proceso reporter Regina Martínez Pérez, while others were found putrefying in sewage canals, including Veracruz News photographer Guillermo Luna Varela, Luna’s girlfriend Irasema Becerra, freelance photographer Gabriel Huge Córdova, and former cameraman Esteban Rodríguez. Without exception, the investigations into their killings went nowhere fast, often tossing up insignificant petty criminals as the culprits who, the public was told, thought up and committed such crimes entirely on their own.
When Rubén Espinosa, a Xalapa-based photographer for Proceso, was found dead this past weekend along with four others in the Mexico City neighborhood of Narvarte, where he had fled for safety after repeated threats to his life, it represented the violence of the state finally reaching into the heart of the nation’s cosmopolitan capital, which to a great degree has thus far been spared many of the horrors of the drug war. Hours after Espinosa’s killing, the Veracruz office of the newspaper Diario Presente was strafed by gunfire.
Espinosa had been a vocal critic of the impunity that had surrounded the murders of his colleagues in Veracruz. During a November 2012 demonstration to protest the results of the election that brought current president Enrique Peña Nieto to power, he was assaulted by police ostensibly under Duarte’s command as he tried to photograph them beating student protesters. Some of the students were part of #YoSoy132, a movement that emerged after Peña Nieto’s disastrous May 2012 visit to the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, during which he was heckled, cursed and eventually forced to hide in a bathroom.
One of those found dead alongside Espinosa this past weekend was #YoSoy132 activist Nadia Vera Pérez, who had been among the students attacked in November 2012. In an interview recorded eight months ago with Rompeviento TV, Vera charged that, should anything happen to her, Duarte would be responsible.
For years Veracruz has been the sight of spectacular violence. When one of Los Zetas’ founders, Efraín “Z-14” Teodoro Torres, met his bloody end in 2007, a group of armed commandos surrounded the cemetery where he had been buried, exhumed the corpse, and carted it away in a typical example of Los Zetas’ ritualistic esprit de corps. In 2009, the dismembered body of a local police commander, his torso and limbs in one pile and his head nearby, was found in the town of Soledad de Doblado, with a message that read Esto es por faltarle a la letra Z (This is for disappointing the letter Z). In September 2011, the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), a spinoff of the Sinaloa Cartel that had been percolating for sometime (and who earlier this year shot down a military helicopter), had a spectacular public coming out i when it blocked rush hour traffic and dumped 35 corpses — many of them daubed with a “Z”— into the street while unfurling banners that read “This will happen to all the Zetas that stay in Veracruz.”
Such is the atmosphere in which the journalists in Veracruz and other states in Mexico are forced to work, and such is the climate that Rubén Espinosa and Nadia Vera Pérez were fleeing.
During that same summer in Veracruz, I found myself one day sitting with two local journalists on the veranda of a fashionable hotel in Veracruz’s eponymous main port city. On a leafy square just off the zócalo, in the shadow of the city’s gleaming white cathedral whose Moorish tiled dome gives it a markedly Islamic feel, our conversation was largely drowned out by the roar of passing taxis and near-empty tour buses. As we spoke, convoys of masked, heavily armed navy commandos rolled by.
“This is a war,” one of my companions told me. ““But in this war, your enemy is not a visible enemy.”
And so the world has again learned as Veracruz —and Mexico — buries more of its courageous children.
Michael Deibert is the author of several books, most recently In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico (Lyons Press, 2014). His blogs at michaeldeibert.blogspot.com