A fellow newspaper photographer phoned him and said he had to get right over to his parents’ home because something very bad had happened. When Miguel Angel López remembers seeing when he got there was “just blood. You can’t understand that much hatred.” He was talking about the murders of his mother, his father–a senior editor at the state’s most important newspaper–and his brother, a photographer at the paper. The killings turned out to be the beginning of a war on journalists.
That was the early morning of June 20, 2011. Since then, five additional journalists in the state of Veracruz have been murdered, though the motives are unclear. One of them was Gabriel Huge Córdova, the photographer who phoned Miguel Angel López. Basically, there are two ways Veracruz journalists try to protect themselves. One is to publish or broadcast only stories they hope won’t anger organized crime groups or anyone else with power, which many believe may include state government officials. Of course, that cuts the public out of a great deal of news. The other way to stay alive is to get another kind of job.
Journalists in Exile
• CPJ’s 2013 Exile report
Miguel Angel took a third route. He fled to the United States, and last week he was given political asylum, according to his attorney. The attorney, Carlos Spector, of El Paso, Texas, told CPJ that he was able to show López had a well-founded fear of being murdered and that the Mexican government could not protect him. Spector said that another client, Alejandro Hernández, was given asylum by the U.S. in 2012. Hernández had been a Mexican news cameraman. The owner of a website in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Jorge Luis Aguirre, got asylum in 2010. Spector said he thinks as many as 14 additional Mexican journalists have gotten asylum, but the information is anecdotal. According to Spector, Miguel Angel López will now be a legal resident of the U.S. and eventually could become a citizen. CPJ helped López financially and put him in contact with Spector. But, López had a very rough time beginning the day he found his family murdered.
From the funeral procession for his family, a top editor at the national newspaper La Jornada essentially forced López into a car, drove him to the airport, and propelled him onto a plane for Mexico City. “He was in shock. I mean completely.” Mireya Cuellar told me a few days later. “But we knew the murders meant there was something out of control in the city and we had to get him out.” López had been a stringer photographer for La Jornada. His regular job was at his father’s newspaper, Notiver, which said he was not a staff employee so it had no responsibility of any kind for him.
La Jornada and a group of NGOs for the press got López into a clandestine life in Mexico City, hiding from everyone because we didn’t know where the danger was coming from. The most reasonable assumption was the Zeta organized crime gang, because they controlled the city of Veracruz, but we couldn’t rule out other gangs or the state government. And, we didn’t all agree on what to do next. López could have gone to most European countries on a six-month tourist visa. But what would he do when that expired? He could have gone to many Latin American countries, but somehow we, the NGOs, couldn’t figure out how to get him set up in a new life for the long term. We all had answers for emergencies, for the immediate, but not the long term. López thought that the U.S. was the best place to go because he knew people there and there would be a network to help get him started. But the U.S. embassy in Mexico wouldn’t give him even a tourist visa. The press NGOs in Mexico have gotten smarter now. Without giving away secrets, we’d do a better job for someone like Miguel Angel today. But he had to pay while we learned. And there was always danger in everything he did, because no one knew how safe he was, no matter how many times he changed apartments, or as he got used to never standing close to a window.
He was joined by his fiancée, Vanessa Jiménez. Of course, she was in danger in Veracruz, as well. I kept nagging them to get married. For love, I said. But the additional reason was that if he was able to get some sort of humanitarian visa from some country, she would probably best qualify as well if they were married, since he was the obvious prime target. One day he called on a terrible cell phone line with a highly charged emotional tone to his voice. But the connection was so bad it was hard to know what he was saying. It sounded like, in colloquial Spanish, “Mike, Mike, we’re done for.” I was sure they’d been found. I’d been waiting for that: I saw the men with assault rifles running up the stairs in their apartment building. I knew they were seconds away from being killed, that his was his last conversation, and there was nothing I could do to save them. Then the connection cleared up. He repeated what he’d said, in Spanish. “Mike, Mike, we’re married.”
That was the high point; otherwise there was only waiting for visas or making plans that never panned out. It lasted about seven months. Meanwhile, Miguel and Vanessa and I kept going over every detail that could possibly explain why his family had been murdered: How the state and city governments had allowed the Zetas to take over. How some of the press had been co-opted, mostly through terror, sometimes through simple greed. We never got to anything that explained his family’s murders well enough for me. Even with more information from journalists in Veracruz, we only had theories.
The last time I saw them I had to tell them a half-way lie. We were at a restaurant near their apartment in Mexico City, eating Italian food. It was another round of the same sort of questions–but this time, I was to go to Veracruz the next day, to look into all the murders that had happened by then. I didn’t tell them I was going. If I had told them and something had happened to me then they could have been suspects, because it could have been made to look as if they had set me up. Some officials could easily try to make it look as if they were connected to all the killing that is going on in Veracruz. So it was that kind of lie.
Within a week or so of that trip, they disappeared. I have not seen them again. We only communicate by email and I told them from the beginning never to put in an email something you don’t want your enemies to know. I don’t know how they managed their escape, but the next thing I knew they were somewhere in the U.S. on legal tourist visas. The NGOs couldn’t get those visas, but they did it alone. Once they were in the States legally, they applied for asylum and then the process started that ended last week. Vanessa got asylum, too. Now, they are safe, kind of safe. As safe as you can be when you don’t know who it is who may still want to kill you.