Jorge Carrasco, a reporter for Proceso magazine, spent a year investigating the murder of his colleague Regina Martínez, who was found strangled in her bathroom last April, her computer and both her cell phones missing. Martínez had been the magazine's correspondent in Veracruz, a long, thin state that hugs Mexico's eastern shore. She covered political corruption and government malfeasance, and she covered it scrupulously; among her coworkers and other journalists in Xalapa, Veracruz's capital city, Martínez is remembered for being dogged, if not obsessive, about her work.
"Her life was totally dedicated to journalism," Carrasco says. "She had very little social life. She was very reclusive."
After meeting her deadline on Friday evening, Martínez would go home and stay there all weekend, as if on lockdown, emerging on Monday morning ready to unearth the latest political scandal. It was a dangerous beat for any reporter in Mexico, widely considered the deadliest country in the Americas for journalists, but especially so in Veracruz, where nine journalists have been killed since 2011.
"Veracruz reporters are among the most scared reporters in Mexico," says Mike O'Connor, the Mexico representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "You just don't know who the bad guys are there; it's like you're walking down a foggy field." According to the newspaper Milenio, Veracruz authorities have buried more than 5,000 unidentified corpses in common graves over the last six years — more than any state in the country.
In October, six months after Martínez's death, Veracruz authorities announced that they had arrested her murderer — Jorge Antonio Hernández Silva, who had been making a living as a thief and confessed to accidentally killing Martínez as he robbed her house. Silva was illiterate and HIV-positive; his accomplice appeared to have fled the state.
Silva's arrest was applauded by members of the journalism community, accustomed to seeing reporters' deaths go uninvestigated — the BBC carried the triumphant headline "Mexico Probes Journalist Regina Martínez's Death." According to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, 41 Mexican journalists "have been murdered with almost total impunity" since December 2006, when former Mexican president Felipé Calderón launched a massive crackdown on drug trafficking organizations. But Martínez's editors at Proceso were unsatisfied with the state's investigation — Silva's arrest seemed too convenient — and decided to look into her case themselves. Carrasco, who covers crime and national security from Mexico City, was given the assignment.
Veracruz authorities promised Carrasco all of the public records surrounding Martínez's death. In reality, he says, state officials concealed important leads and lied to him and his editors repeatedly. He was able to access police records, which showed that Silva's fingerprints did not match those at the crime scene. He also found a number of inconsistencies in Silva's testimony: Silva had said that he shared a beer with Martínez just before killing her, but an autopsy found no alcohol in her blood.
Carrasco published a multi-part series about Martínez's murder, describing these inconsistencies and others. "Rather than solve the murder of journalist Regina Martínez," Carrasco wrote, the state prosecutor's office "set out to frame an individual who did not have resources to defend himself." In April, shortly after one of his pieces was published, he started getting menacing phone calls. "I had been harassed before," Carrasco says. "But never threatened like this." Then, one of Carrasco's most reliable sources attended a meeting of Veracruz state officials. "They were talking about me — my personal information, where they could find me."
Carrasco went into hiding. Under the Mechanism for Protection, a federal statute passed in 2012 to protect journalists and human rights advocates, Carrasco was housed in a safe, secret location and protected by federal guards. Over the last year, there have been 64 requests for help, but only 19 have been granted. In June, 17 human rights organizations addressed a letter to Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, the interior minister, arguing that the mechanism was not effective. "The Mechanism has so far lacked the political and institutional support required for its full implementation at federal, state and municipal levels," they wrote. "It's a fraud; it has not provided effective protection for almost anyone," says O'Connor, of the Committee to Protect Journalists. But Carrasco, who was able to speak from his safe house by Skype, said that the federal government had been attentive and helpful.
Carrasco prompted an unusual rift between federal and local authorities, with federal guards employed to protect Carrasco from potential threats from the Veracruz government and the federal attorney general’s office skeptical of the state’s case against Silva.
"We can't even put El Silva at the crime scene," said Laura Borbolla, who works at the federal attorney general’s office, where she oversees a department dedicated to crimes against journalists. Mexico is currently in the process of reforming its judicial system to require public trials and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, but the transition will not be completed until 2016.
During Silva's court hearing, he recanted his initial confession, claiming that he only admitted to the murder because police guards had tortured and sexually assaulted him. The trial was hardly covered by the Mexican press — the risk of carrying the story was too high. Most journalists were too fearful to show their face at the courthouse that day; some sent proxies in their place to report back on what happened. Silva was sentenced to 38 years in prison.
Martínez's death has made other Veracruz journalists more anxious about their ability to report safely. At least four reporters from Xalapa left the city in the months after her murder — to Mexico City, to France. (Recently two Mexican reporters, one from Veracruz, were offered political asylum in the U.S, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.) Martínez, they say, seemed to have the best relationship with local officials of any reporter in town; if they went after her, no one was safe. "She was the parameter. She was the limit," said a former colleague.
Earlier this month, an appeals court overturned Silva's sentence. The Veracruz prosecutor's office, which did not respond to requests for comment, has said in a statement that it does not agree with the higher court’s decision and is asking the federal attorney general's office to take on the case.
"It doesn't change anything," says one of Martínez's colleagues from Xalapa who fled the state following her murder and seems to have no intention of returning. "They're obliged to investigate, but it's been more than a year and there's nothing." Proceso maintains a ticker on its website, counting the number of days that Martínez's murderer has remained at large (482 at the time of publication).
With many journalists dead or in exile or in hiding, and those still working too fearful to report the news, Veracruz has become what many have called "an information vacuum." "It's very difficult to get coverage of Veracruz," Carrasco says. He’s back to reporting — he's been writing for Proceso about the Mexican military and organized crime. "I'll keep going," he said.