From deathbed, Mexican journalist makes accusation

In the course of investigating the December 22 murder of newspaper owner José Alberto Velázquez López, CPJ discovered allegations of corruption that often hover over crimes against journalists in Mexico. The first thing I heard was that the authorities in the town where Velázquez worked had ordered his murder. In Mexico, officials are often seen as lethal adversaries of the press. And, sometimes they are. But then a second common feature began to emerge: Rumors that the victim was somehow sleazy, maybe even involved in illegal activities. Yes, the victim was a journalist, but with something to hide. That, also, can be the case in Mexico—as well as complicate the search for the true motive for the crime.

In the case of Velázquez, the owner of the daily newspaper Expresiones de Tulum, the local mayor is rumored to have been responsible for his murder. Shortly after Velázquez was shot by one of two men on a motorcycle, four reporters were able to interview him as a group. Two of them spoke to me. They said people sent by the mayor of Tulum shot him.

In deep fear for their lives, they asked not to be identified. I was unable to locate the other two reporters. Colleagues say they are too afraid to speak. One explained that one of the other reporters told him, “I can see what the mayor did to Velázquez. He’ll do the same to me.”

The mayor, Marciano Dzul Caamal, did not respond to repeated efforts by CPJ to reach him for a response. The day after the murder, his office issued a statement repudiating the killing and committing the mayor to helping solve it.

The reporters who I spoke with I interviewed individually by telephone. They told the same story: Velázquez received medical treatment after the shooting but was alert and seemed lucid. He took off his oxygen mask and identified himself as a journalist. Then, one of the reporters in the group asked him if he had recognized the men on the motorcycle and he said, “It was Marciano’s people.” The reporters said Velázquez left no doubt that he meant the mayor, Marciano Dzul, because in the small town of Tulum the mayor is referred to by his first name.

According to Velázquez’s coworkers, the newspaper has an editorial line that is very critical of the mayor’s administration. And, they say, there was a long-running personal feud between the two men over the paper’s coverage of the city, which is a tourist resort in southeast Mexico.

All that might make it seem a like pretty tight case. But in Mexico the truth has a thousand layers. And sure enough, the more I looked, the more the unpleasant rumors about Velázquez came up, from other journalists.  They claimed he extorted money from local businesses in return for not publishing damaging articles. This is not a rare accusation against newspapers in Mexico, in many places, but especially in towns and smaller cities.

The problem with the rumors about Velázquez’ corrupt business deals was to find proof, find someone he had extorted. After making an lot of phone calls to businesses in Tulum, I found one local company, Hidden Worlds, a tourist attraction, which the manager said Velázquez  tried to sign up for what was called an advertizing contract for the equivalent of about $1,500 a month for 18 months. The manager, Luis Argaez, said Velázquez had threatened to publish a series of negative articles unless the contract was signed. Argaez said he refused and the negative articles appeared, including one that falsely claimed the business’s owner, who is an American, was hiding from the FBI in Tulum.

Luis Gamboa, the editorial director of the newspaper, said he does not doubt that Velázquez did that sort of thing when the paper was just starting last April. But Gamboa characterized it as a desperate time, when the paper was being distributed for free and being supported almost entirely by Velázquez and a couple of others on staff. Gamboa said extortion is no longer the paper’s policy.

That’s a remarkable admission by the top editor of the newspaper. As in the other cases of murdered Mexican journalists, it clouds the investigation. Because of what may have been his dirty dealings in the past, we can’t be sure of the motives behind Velázquez’ slaying.

In Mexico, police investigations almost never find a motive or a suspect. Which means killing journalists is essentially risk-free and that’s why so many of them are so afraid for their lives. This case is different from most others because of what the victim managed to tell those four reporters. CPJ demands that the authorities look carefully at the evidence and not let this case slide out of their hands as so many others have.

Mike O’Connor is CPJ’s representative in Mexico.