Mexican journalist said things ‘very hard’ just before murder

Over the weekend I spent several hours with two prominent journalists in Chilpancingo, Mexico, wondering who murdered their colleague Jorge Ochoa Martínez on January 29, and hearing about some of the seemingly unbearable pressures on Mexican journalists. Ochoa was shot in the face as he was leaving a birthday party for a local politician in the town of Ayutla de los Libres.

First, though, I heard the dreadful regrets that Juan García Castro has about his last conversation with Ochoa, a few days before the killing. García is the president of the state association of weekly newspapers. The state is Guerrero, Chilpancingo is the state capital. García was rushing that morning to get his young son to school, so when Ochoa said, “I’ve got something urgent to tell you.” he didn’t stop long enough to listen to it all. They were in the association’s offices, where Ochoa rented space. Then, Ochoa told García that things had suddenly gotten very hard in Ayutla, the little town about 100 miles (160 kilometers) away where he owned and ran a small newspaper called El Sol de la Costa. “Very hard,” Ochoa had repeated.

“What did he mean?” asked García, looking closely at the tabletop in the café where we were sitting. “If I had asked then would we know now who killed him?” They had been friends for about 20 years.

There are several things he could have meant, thought García and Salomón Cruz Gallardo, the general secretary of the local unit of the national journalist union Sindicato Nacional de Redactores de la Prensa. Ochoa’s business was doing well, so it wasn’t financial problems, García said. It’s going to be, they thought, the same forces that threaten many journalists in Mexico: Drug cartels or local political bosses, or the police. Sometimes they are all the same thing. Or, possibly a personal quarrel that became deadly. That, too, happens here.

One of the things that make journalism in Mexico so dangerous is that it is very unlikely the case will be solved. At least, that’s the precedent. Which means two things: No one will ever know why Ochoa was killed. And since his murder will go unpunished it’s more inducement to kill the next journalist. Why not? They are easy to kill and there’s no downside.

A delegation of journalists met with the state prosecutor last week to ask that this time, for this journalist, the investigators finally find the guilty parties. According to CPJ research at least six journalists have murdered in Guerrero since 1992. There are only a couple of cases in which authorities have alleged they have made any headway. But these have left many journalists believing the state government railroaded innocent defendants in order to protect the guilty. In the 2007 murder investigation of Amado Ramírez Dillanes in Acapulco, the National Human Rights Commission said it found a long series of police and prosecutorial improprieties, including torture of the defendant and fabrication of testimony and evidence against him. In the February 2009 killing of photographer Jean Paul Ibarra, the state human rights commission told CPJ it had strong doubts that the right man is in custody.

“We just want this investigated to the end, no matter what that end is. I think they killed him because of something he wrote. But, maybe it will be a personal matter. We can accept that. But we want an honest investigation,” García said.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen one of those for a journalist,” added Cruz, the union representative.

But it’s hard to be optimistic if you’re a journalist in Guerrero. First, the likelihood is you’re working several jobs, because jobs in journalism don’t pay enough. “Most of us earn, say, 500 pesos (about U$39.) Every two weeks from this job, and 400 from the next, and so on. We just add them all up so that we can survive. Honestly, I don’t know how we do it. Especially the ones with families,” Cruz said.

And, he said, most have no benefits. Not even life insurance. And they don’t expect protection from government or employers if they are threatened. “It’s not logical to be a journalist here,” Cruz said. “I do it because I love it, that’s the only reason I have. If I were smart I’d do something else.”

Many local news organizations, they said, depend on advertising from the state and municipal governments, which gives officials power over how they are covered. The two journalists said that is disheartening for real journalists, but they have to accept it.

The low wages also open the door for payoffs to a few journalists to slant their coverage, they said. Or, there have been times editors or reporters extorted money in return for not publishing false defamatory stories. Jorge Ochoa, they said, was not like that. He wasn’t shot because he was extorting someone, according to García. “Among us, the journalists, we know who is doing what,” he said. Cruz nodded to that.

What Ochoa printed was the focus of our conversation because of the assumption that he was likely killed for it. Even though Jaime Miranda, one of the newspaper’s three-person staff, including Ochoa, told me just after Ochoa was murdered that they covered nothing controversial. He said they are so afraid of angering advertisers—for the most part, local governments—or sources, usually the police, and so scared to death of the drug cartels, that they don’t touch anything risky. All the news in his paper, he said, comes from city hall or police press handouts that are lightly rewritten. 

“Well, it’s true, he wasn’t a critic of what the mayors did,” García said. “And we all know we can’t say anything important about the cartels.” Still, he insisted, there is something Ochoa published that brought his murder. He said he’s going to the paper’s offices to read back issues until he finds a clue because he doesn’t trust state investigators to do that job, despite the prosecutor’s promises.

They took me to the offices of the state association of weekly newspapers, where García and Ochoa had their last conversation. It’s also where Ochoa’s friends and family came together around his casket just before he was buried. We went as well to the union hall where Cruz’s 70 members meet, hoping they can find a way to get a slightly better than pitiful salary, or maybe life insurance. To tell the truth, neither building is glamorous. Life is harsh for people in Guerrero, though it’s the state with the tourist city of Acapulco.

At a scruffy place called Freedom of Expression Plaza, with monuments to journalists and journalists’ union leaders of the past, Cruz began to talk quickly. It seemed to me he wasn’t seeing the harsh or the scruffy. He was talking about the responsibility to the public that reporters have, and editors, and the owners of news organizations. Strange talk, considering the bleakness of our conversation so far.  But it must be these things that keep the two men going, when common sense would not.