The entrance to the Mexican city Iguala as pictured on September 9, 2015. Journalists in the city have been under threat, allegedly by organized crime groups, since the murder of one of their colleagues in August 2020. (AFP/Alfredo Estrella)

In Iguala, Mexico, murder and threats by organized crime shut down the news

Just before 1:00 a.m. on August 2, Pablo Morrugares, a journalist and restaurateur, opened the Facebook page for his news site and began a live broadcast from the café he owned in Iguala, in Mexico’s southwestern Guerrero state. A well-known local reporter, Morrugares covered crime and gangs, a beat so dangerous that Mexican authorities had placed him under the protection of a police officer, who sat by his side at the café.

That night’s broadcast for the outlet he founded, PM Noticias, was typical fare for the journalist: he recounted the day’s research trip to nearby Huitzuco, where locals were “super angry” about the alleged killing of a taxi driver, according to a report in Proceso newsmagazine. Morrugares suggested that a local gang, the Tlacos were behind the incident, and that they had pressured police and taxi drivers in the city. The town, he said, was “super hot” – extremely violent.  

Minutes after Morrugares ended the broadcast, unidentified gunmen entered the restaurant and opened fire on the journalist and his bodyguard. They shot more than 50 rounds before they left the café, escaping in the dark, as CPJ documented at the time. Morrugares and the policeman, Robert Hernández, died on the spot. Six days later, the state prosecutor’s office announced that it arrested eight men from a safe house, including one who was carrying a gun that may have been used in the murder, reports said. The man, who was not identified in the reports, is now a suspect in the case. CPJ was unable to determine if any charges have been brought; its calls to the state prosecutor were not returned. 

It’s unclear of Morrugares’ killing was linked to his final broadcast; CPJ’s call to the Huitzuco municipality was not returned. But it’s clear that the incident has had a profound ripple effect on the local press. According to several Iguala journalists who spoke with CPJ, Morrugares’ murder was a message: stop covering gang activity or pay the heaviest price. It was a message reinforced days after the killing, when the journalists said they were added to a WhatsApp group, where people they believed to be gang members issued a barrage of fresh threats. And it was repeated on August 4, when unknown gunmen fired shots at the offices of Iguala newspaper La Tarde, according to news reports. 

Today, five months after the killing of Morrugares, the threats have continued, according to six journalists who spoke with CPJ via phone on the condition of anonymity for security reasons. And the small community of reporters who covered organized crime in Iguala – journalists told CPJ there were at least 15 on the beat – has dwindled and gone partly quiet. At least four reporters have fled the city. (Two others left in the year before Morrugares’ death.) One journalist stopped covering crime altogether; another now uses only official sources. La Tarde has ceased publishing its print edition, though it still appears online, according to one reporter with knowledge of the city’s newspaper operations. 

“I believe we’re in a situation of maximum alarm,” said the same journalist, who fled the city. “I’ve never before seen that they attack and harass the media the way they do now.”

Located 120 miles south Mexico City, Iguala is home to more than 140,000 people, according to the latest census. A subtropical city of abundant tamarind trees, narrow streets, and dozens of busy shops, it is known nationally as the cradle of Mexican independence after a proclamation of Mexican sovereignty was drafted there in 1821. But Iguala has earned a more sinister reputation in recent years.

On September 26, 2014, 43 students of a rural teaching college were abducted from Iguala and murdered by local gang Guerreros Unidos, according to the previous government’s initial probe, cited in news reports. Dozens of policemen and alleged gang members were arrested, but many were later released in what international observers have called a botched investigation, reports said. Iguala’s former mayor and his wife are in custody. In 2018, the then-new Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that he would reopen the investigation. So far, no one has been convicted. 

In the years since the 2014 mass abduction, violence has not subsided; bloody warfare between rival gangs has made Iguala one of the deadliest cities in Guerrero, a state in which at least 742 people were murdered in the first six months of this year, according to the most recent data from the federal secretariat of security and citizen protection, cited in news reports. 

According to an October report in news website Animal Político, the recent uptick in violence in Iguala is partly due to a split in the gang the government blamed for the 2014 kidnapping, Guerreros Unidos. Another Iguala journalist, the one who has taken the precaution of only relying on official sources in his work, confirmed this report with CPJ. He described a turf war that started between factions when alleged Guerreros Unidos members who had been released from prison began to vie for dominance with other members in the city. Other gangs have also been involved. 

“Violence has increased significantly due to the clash between organized crime groups,” that journalist told CPJ. “It didn’t use to affect us as much as it does now.” 

To be sure, violence against journalists in Iguala, and in Mexico more broadly, is not a new phenomenon, as CPJ has documented. Morrugares himself survived a 2016 attempt on his life when unknown gunmen shot at his car as he was driving with his wife, according to news reports. After that incident, the journalist fled Iguala for Mexico City. He received his bodyguard through the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, a national program which provides protection measures like panic buttons, police accompaniment, and monitoring to reporters and human rights workers. According to news reports, Morrugares had returned to Iguala under police protection just one month before his death. 

Omar Bello Pineda, a journalist from Guerrero and spokesman for the Mexican Association of Displaced and Attacked Journalists, told CPJ via phone that Morrugares had been threatened two months before his death in a Facebook video allegedly posted by a criminal gang; his association tweeted on August 2 that Morrugares was named on a so-called “narcomanta,” a banner criminal gangs use to send messages to the public, rivals, and authorities. CPJ has been unable to determine what, if any, of Morrugares’ reporting may have drawn the attention of his assailants. But his death appears to have been the opening salvo in a new wave of violence and threats, local journalists told CPJ.

“After Pablo’s murder, they started threatening us. The gangs here are angry. They don’t want us to report on the things that are happening here,” said the journalist who now only uses official sources.  

“The truth is that we feel very unsafe here,” he added. “I fear that they will kill another reporter.”

On October 13, Iguala journalists published a letter in their news outlets addressed to Mexico’s president, federal attorney general, the governor of Guerrero, other authorities, and human rights groups – including CPJ – and the “Mexican people.” In it, they denounced the threats in detail and demanded protection. “Above everything, we urgently ask the security and justice authorities that they guarantee the exercise of journalism and prevent another reporter from being killed,” the letter said.

Mexican federal authorities responded to the crisis by incorporating at least four reporters in the federal mechanism, according to an official with the program who asked to remain anonymous as he was not authorized to publicly comment on the matter. All four have been relocated, he said, in addition to other protective measures. 

On November 3, federal, Guerrero state, and Iguala municipal authorities met with several dozen Iguala journalists at the municipal headquarters. During the meeting, in which CPJ participated, authorities committed to opening a permanent dialogue with local reporters and implementing protocols to guarantee the safety of reporters, such as a local office to field complaints of threats to press freedom. 

CPJ made several phone calls to Guerrero state and Iguala municipal authorities for comment, but no one picked up.  

Among the threats, a third anonymous reporter told CPJ, were messages asking if the journalists truly believed the authorities would keep them safe. 

“We don’t trust the municipal authorities at all,” said that reporter, who has also fled the city. “Municipal police have often been very aggressive with journalists in Iguala. They have accused us of spying for the gangs, pointed guns at us. We’ve heard from the state authorities that they would help us before, but they then disappear and do nothing.”