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Mexico's special prosecutor hesitates over early cases

Police remove the body of Alberto López Bello, a crime reporter, from a crime scene in Oaxaca on July 17. (Reuters/Jorge Luis Plata)

Organized crime capos and corrupt politicians have been getting away with murdering journalists in Mexico for so long that there isn't a reliable count on the number of the dead or a useful way to measure the crushing effects on a democracy when a country's press is afraid to tell the truth. CPJ research shows that, of 69 journalists killed since 1994 in Mexico, 28 were clearly killed because of their work, and nearly all of those directly targeted for murder. But the killing started years before that, the numbers are not dependable, and the motives are often unknown, because the professionalism of the investigations is doubtful. Mexico's state governments have simply failed to find those responsible, and journalists working outside of the capital have for the most part decided their only protection is to not cover stories the killers don't want covered.

However, there are precise numbers to show the country's response to the problem: On June 6, 2012, Mexico's constitution was amended to give the federal government authority over crimes involving the press. Then, on May 3 this year, a law went into effect to spell out how that amendment would be implemented. The law was passed overwhelming by Congress and gave great powers to the federal attorney general in cases where journalists are victims of violence. The federal government can take any serious case it wants to away from any state. This, finally, all seemed very good. But wait a minute.

There is a new law, but is it going to mean a genuine change?

The answer is in play at this moment. Two journalists have been murdered since the law took effect and the federal attorney general's office is still deciding if it will assert jurisdiction. To some journalist organizations and civic groups that worked hard to get the law passed, the delay looks like a nasty signal that the old rules still apply. International organizations and foreign diplomats are also worried. And, let me get personal for a minute: I've been worried, as well. I know the families of the dead reporters and almost anywhere I go outside of Mexico City, I meet the terrified reporters who protect themselves by not covering the kinds of stories they think will antagonize corrupt politicians or organized crime bosses--which are quite often the most important stories. I go to the villages and towns and whole states where crime bosses decide what news the public will not get. So when the federal government didn't jump on the first two murder cases, I confess, I got a bit angry. I still don't know if that is the correct reaction.

In this situation, the federal government is represented by a woman named Laura Borbolla. She is the attorney general's special prosecutor for crimes against freedom of expression. She says the decision to act or not on the two cases is hers and she hasn't moved for good reasons. I want to believe her because there is so much at stake. I have been pushing Borbolla, sometimes more than once a day, to move, to grab these cases. She's been saying, have patience, because this is Mexico and life here is not all new laws and geometrically straight lines with perfect 90-degree angles. She says knowing how to use her new power now is critical, because the federal government can't start a series of wars with the states over jurisdiction in journalists cases. "We have the authority, but I want the states to want to give us these cases, if possible." Borbolla told CPJ. I'm skeptical, but she may be right.

Let's take a quick look at the two cases to see how difficult it is to make the right call.

The first journalist murdered after the law passed was Mario Chávez Jorge, from the state of Tamaulipas, along the Texas border. He was one of the founders of the online newspaper El Ciudadano, according to its website. It went dark about the time he disappeared on May 24. Other journalists in Ciudad Victoria, where it was based, told CPJ four people who worked with the publication went into hiding. According to federal officials and officials of the National Human Rights Commission, who have examined state police records, Chávez girlfriend told police that after he disappeared she received calls demanding a ransom, but then those calls stopped. On May 30, the police files show, Chávez´s girlfriend, Maritza López, and his brother, Carlos, reported him missing.

On June 10, the federal and human rights commission officials say, state police files show that an anonymous phone call led police to Chávez´s body on a rural road. It had been dismembered, a common practice in killings by organized crime. His body was officially identified by Lopez, his girlfriend, in the state morgue and the identity later confirmed by DNA tests, the state police records report, according to the federal officials.

But not if you ask the state attorney general's spokesman, Ruben Rios. "We have no report of the death of this person," Rios told CPJ. There is no report of Chávez even missing, Rios claimed. There is no report of his name in any recent police file, Rios insisted. And, he said, there is no information about a body being found along any rural road on June 10 or any date near June 10.

This would seem to be an excellent example of why state investigations of crimes against journalists produce such bad results--and an example of why the new law giving the federal government the power to take over is a step forward.

But a case like this one starts off badly because the crucial initial police work was done by a state which has what one might call a bad attitude toward the investigation. So, what about all the forensic work at the victim's home, where he was last seen? The state did not do that, say federal officials. Nor forensics from where the body was found, they say. What about state interviews with family members or others? Only interviews of López and the victim's brother, and those interviews were badly done, according to federal investigators. Chávez brother said he was left terrified by the state investigators.

While Laura Borbolla, the federal special prosecutor, has not officially asserted jurisdiction over the case, she has sent her agents to do a parallel investigation--or sometimes to work alongside state investigators, though this seems to have federal agents working with local investigators who are trying to cover up the murder case. I told Borbolla that the local cops are probably destroying evidence and burying witnesses. "The next time your agents go up there to look for people to talk to they'd better take shovels," I told her, "They're going to have to dig up the witnesses."  Well, maybe that was more dramatic that accurate. Borbolla says that she has found key witnesses, and that in the two months since Chávez's body was identified, local officials have become easier to work with. She says that her policy of cooperating rather than confronting in this first case will lead to cooperation in the other cases to follow in other states. It remains to be seen whether a successful precedent can be set with local authorities who claim publically that the murder victim is still alive.

But, there is also this. Most journalists are murdered in the most lawless states, where the local authorities and organized crime cartels often work together. Just to have some chance to stay alive in those states, Borbolla's people may have to be cautious about antagonizing the local cops by shoving them to one side and abruptly grabbing the journalist cases.

The second killing to occur after the law was passed came in Oaxaca, a state on the southern border. Officials there have not solved the murder of any journalist, according to CPJ research, including an American killed in 2006. On July 17 of this year, the body of Alberto López Bello was found beaten and shot outside of Oaxaca City. He worked the police beat for the newspaper El Imparcial and was a police reporter for the radio show, "Foro Político." For a time, federal officials said it seemed state investigators were doing a good job, so there was no reason for federal intervention. But then around July 23, a long email with clear details began to circulate among state investigators claiming that some of their senior officials were responsible for the murder because the reporter knew about their connections to top drug traffickers. The email said it was from state investigators disgusted by corruption, though the source is not confirmed. Local journalists tell CPJ the email seems credible.

Once again, however, it makes it difficult to be sure who the federal authorities can rely on as partners in their investigation. There are good reasons to think about local sensitivities, but there are better reasons to worry about local authorities who cover up murder or who may even be the killers.

August 7, 2013 11:21 AM ET | | Also in Español

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