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Silence or Death in Mexico's Press

3. Murder in Durango

Crime reporter Bladimir Antuna García knew all the cops and crooks in Durango. When he received death threats, state investigators ignored them. When he was murdered, they ignored that as well.


Juan López Ramírez, a friendly man in a light gray suit and blue tie, looked over his large, orderly desk toward the full wall of windows in his office high in the Durango state attorney general’s building. López is the state of Durango’s top prosecutor for crimes against journalists. His most recent case is the abduction and murder of Bladimir Antuna García, by reputation the city of Durango’s top crime reporter, the one who always seemed best informed about cops and crooks and where they came together.

López gave a CPJ representative this March day a step-by-step briefing on the investigation. “We talked to the witnesses to the abduction. I think there were two or three. But they had so little information—only that the men used an SUV, maybe a gray one.” And Antuna’s widow? 

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“She spoke to investigators twice, once when she reported her husband missing and the next day when she identified his body.” But, he was asked, “Were these investigative interviews?”

“Well, a short interview when she made the identification.” Since then?

“Since then, no, I don’t think we have spoken to her. I doubt it.” It seemed astonishing. How could authorities not thoroughly interview the person closest to the victim? The visitor from CPJ persisted: “Who was questioned next?”

“No one,” he said. “We have not spoken to anyone else.” It had been four and a half months since the murder, and the special prosecutor of crimes against journalists had not had his investigators speak to anyone since the day after the crime. Although López noted the case had temporarily been in the hands of federal authorities, for about three weeks, he acknowledged that state investigators had done virtually no detective work.

López seemed to be admitting the unpardonable. His staff, he said, was a victim of a “grand chaos” that was not its fault, and certainly not his. The state, like many in Mexico, is changing from a trial process in which testimony is largely written and is handled by attorneys and judges without witnesses in court. The new system will be similar to the U.S. trial system. When it was pointed out that the change had been planned for two years and had little to do with the work of investigators in the Antuna case, López smiled courteously. There was, he repeated, much chaos.

Because no one knows who killed Antuna on November 2, 2009, or why, journalists in the city say the investigation of crime stories has essentially stopped. What reporter would take the chance of unwittingly looking into the same story that caused a group of armed men to rip Antuna out of his old SUV, torture him for hours, and strangle him? 

But it’s gone further than that. Reporters told CPJ that they won’t look into reports of political corruption, or anything that leads to what they believe are ties between authorities, police, and the drug cartels that have so much power in the state. Their fear, they say, comes from a certainty they can’t prove—that somehow there’s a connection between the people who killed Antuna and a nexus of powers that run the state, powers that wrap together drug cartels, some police, and some politicians. So until journalists are sure the Antuna case is solved, they say they don’t know whom to trust. Not with their lives.

Víctor Garza Ayala, owner of El Tiempo de Durango, Antuna’s principal employer, said the people who run the state don’t want prosecutor López to do anything. “They know perfectly well who killed him. They don’t need an investigation,” he said. “They are either afraid of who did it or they are in business with them.” Neither López nor State Attorney General Daniel García Leal responded to CPJ’s request for comment on the assertion.

 

Antuna, 39, first appeared in Durango journalism in the late 1980s, his friends said, and he went from paper to paper to radio stations. His reputation as a reliable investigator with good sources eventually pushed him highest on the police beat. Then several years ago he descended into alcohol and drug use and nearly slipped away. He came back about three years before his death, slowly emerging after rehab, working low-level jobs, getting steadier, and trying to get back into journalism. Still, editors weren’t interested in hearing how he’d cleaned up.

But Garza, an elegant man who can talk about history for hours, had a new paper, El Tiempo. He wrote a daily political column, and when he started the paper in 2006, his reporters said, that’s what he cared about the most. But then there were sliding newsstand sales, and reporters saw him pace the office in worry.

In May 2008, Antuna asked Garza for a job, one of the journeyman reporter’s last prospects, his friends said. Garza thought that crime stories would work for him. Not on his dignified front page, but in the back section, the crime section, with the best of the worst crime pictures on the back page. So Garza told Antuna, yes. Then, the news hawkers sold the paper by showing the back page instead of the front. Circulation turned around, according to staffers.

Antuna was the key, they said. He pushed out eight to 12 crime stories a day, mostly short ones. A lot of them were tabloid fodder, stories covered for the headline they’d produce (“A Shootout in the Cemetery,” for example), according to a review of several hundred of his stories. But sometimes there were exclusives, and sometimes there were stories that showed he had very good sources in the army and the police. A close friend said Antuna used to talk about giving the army general in charge of the Durango area tips on where to find large marijuana fields, which suggests he also had good sources in the remote mountainous areas controlled by drug gangs, areas where marijuana and opium poppies are grown. (Giving information to authorities in this way is not considered unethical in Mexico as it would be in the United States.)

Antuna was coming back, and he was lifting El Tiempo with him. He was open with people in the newsroom about his alcoholism and his drug addiction, and he took time off from his shift to go to support group meetings. Antuna reconnected with his older son, the one he told friends he’d failed, and took a second newspaper job to help pay for the son’s university studies in Mexico City. He was working 14 hours a day. It was his reputation and his connections that made him valuable to his second employer, La Voz de Durango, according to its editor, Juan Nava. Antuna’s best crime coverage was going to El Tiempo, Nava knew, but even the leftovers were good. 

 

In late October or early November of 2008, the first call came on Antuna’s cell phone. He was in bed with his wife. He tried to shield the threatening voice, but she heard it. The caller said, “Knock it off,” but in much cruder words. There were more calls, coming over many months. There were threats to stop what he was doing, but never anything specific. Just to stop it or they’d get him. Maybe, he said, it was coming directly from a drug cartel. But then he said the police protect the cartels, so maybe it was from them. He recounted the calls in a series of e-mail interviews with the Mexico City magazine Buzos in July 2009 for an article published that month.

He also told the magazine that on April 28, 2009, as he was going to work, a man got out of an SUV and opened fire on him or his house, he couldn’t be sure. The bullets missed and he ran back inside. The man left. When Antuna got to work later, his cell phone rang and a voice said, “We’ve found your home. It’s over for you now.”

Right away, he said, he reported the assault to the state attorney general’s office, a normal procedure in Mexico. Two agents came by his house for a few minutes, he said, but he was not home and that’s the last he heard of an investigation. “They never came by again and I haven’t heard a thing from them. …. Absolutely nothing,” he said in the Buzos interview.

A month later, on May 27, reporter Eliseo Barrón Hernández, murdered on the other side of the state, was buried. That day, Antuna’s office received a call from a man who said, “He’s next, that son of a bitch,” Antuna told the magazine.

Antuna also told the Center for Journalism and Public Ethics, a Mexico City-based press support group, about the attack and the threats. His account to the center was consistent with his interviews with Buzos and what he was telling his colleagues at El Tiempo. He also told the center he had been working with Barrón, the reporter murdered in May, on stories about police corruption in the state of Durango and on the Zetas criminal gang. He said some of the callers making the phone threats identified themselves as members of the Zetas.

He told the magazine and the press support group that he was getting no protection from state authorities. By the fall, he was seldom leaving his home; his boss at El Tiempo had set up a computer for him there so he could avoid going to the office.

By October 2009, some of Antuna’s friends in the press corps said he seemed despondent and terrified, a man seemingly resigned to his own murder. No help was coming from the government, no investigation of the threats, no protection. A friend told CPJ that Antuna had confided his fears. “It’s one thing if they shoot me,” he told the friend. “You only feel the first one or two bullets. But I don’t want them to torture me.” The friend said Antuna wanted to be sure he had money and a will in place to take care of his wife and two sons, 19 and 16. There wasn’t much money to partition.

Then came November 2, 10:30 in the morning, when Antuna was driving his red Ford Explorer on a wide street between a large city park and a hospital. An SUV cut him off, and he swerved across two lanes to get away but another car blocked him from behind. Witnesses said it was over in seconds: Five men with assault rifles took Antuna away; his driver’s door was still hanging open when police arrived.

Twelve hours after the abduction, Antuna’s body was found behind the same hospital near where the abduction had taken place. His captors had tortured him savagely, leaving deep wounds across his upper chest, according to the coroner’s report. They strangled him with a belt or a strap. A note left beside Antuna’s body warned others not to give information to the military.

Almost immediately, authorities said there were no leads in the case.

Just as quickly, Antuna’s colleagues asked officials about the complaint Antuna had filed in April after the series of threats and the shots fired at his home. García, the state attorney general, absolved his office of any responsibility. He told reporters that Antuna might have mentioned an attack to authorities, but that he never “ratified” the report by signing a complaint. Without “ratification,” there could be no investigation. García added that Antuna had not reported the telephone death threats at all, according to journalists. In other words, the attorney general was claiming that Antuna had neglected to tell state authorities what he had been telling his fellow journalists, a news magazine, and a Mexico City press group.

But the attorney general’s claim appears to be contradicted by records on file in his own office. The records, which were reviewed by CPJ, include an official complaint signed by Antuna and dated April 28, the day of the attack on his house.

The accompanying investigative report raises other troubling contradictions. It quotes Antuna, for example, as saying that the man in the SUV did not have a gun, although the journalist told numerous people that the assailant was not only armed, but had fired his weapon. The report portrays the attorney general’s investigators as working overtime on the complaint, although Antuna said he was never directly contacted by authorities. The official follow-up report ultimately writes off Antuna as a paranoid man suffering “hallucinations.”

García did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment on the apparent contradictions.

 

The contents of the investigative file on Antuna’s murder are more elusive. In a phone conversation with CPJ in early March, special prosecutor López said he would make the file available for review. When CPJ arrived for a scheduled appointment at his office on March 11, however, López said the case file had been transferred to an unspecified department in the federal attorney general’s office. Calls made to federal authorities did not turn up the location of the file.

But judging by prosecutor López’s description, authorities failed to take even the simplest steps to solve the crime. Investigators did not interview any friends, enemies, sources, or colleagues. They did not examine the close ties Antuna had with police, or the gangs that control the drug business in the state’s mountains. Investigators did not read news stories that Antuna had written to see whom he could have angered or check into his pending investigation into police corruption. They never bothered to check Antuna’s statement that phone threats had been made by members of the Zetas criminal gang, as he told the Center for Journalism and Public Ethics. State investigators never contacted the center or retrieved telephone records that could have traced the calls.

Nor did they investigate Antuna’s reported associations with an army general in charge of military operations in the state. López told CPJ that his office concluded there was no link between the murder and Antuna’s military sources because the military had assured him there was none.

Opportunity after opportunity was wasted or ignored. Any one of the leads might have helped identify suspects and bring results. And while investigators failed in their jobs, the people who threatened and presumably murdered Antuna were still at work, still intimidating the journalist’s family.

Antuna’s friends say his widow is so terrified she has essentially gone into hiding. They say she’s so afraid she won’t take phone calls from assistance groups that want to offer her aid. She wouldn’t speak with CPJ for this report.

Antuna’s eldest son was no longer able to study in the university in Mexico City without his father’s financial help. He returned to Durango and took a job in a newspaper. Friends of his family told CPJ that shortly after the killing, as the son was about to enter the newspaper building, he was nearly abducted. Soon after, he was accosted on the street by men who told him to quit his newspaper job. He did.

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