On January 17, 2022, freelance photographer Alfonso Margarito Martínez Esquivel was shot and killed at his residence in Tijuana, in the northern Mexican border state of Baja California by unknown assailants, according to news reports.
According to a statement published on its Facebook page by the Baja California state prosecutor’s office (FGE), Martínez was ambushed just after noon at his residence in Tijuana, a coastal city just across the border from San Diego in California. An unidentified gunman shot the reporter multiple times and fled the scene; Martínez died before he could be rushed to a hospital.
According to a colleague and close friend of Martínez, who spoke with CPJ by phone, the photographer had returned briefly to his home from an assignment earlier that day and was about to head out again to take more photos from another area when he was ambushed. The colleague told CPJ that he did not know what Martínez had been photographing. The colleague requested anonymity out of concern for his safety.
Martínez, 49, was a veteran photographer with over two decades of experience as a reporter in Tijuana, a city that, according to news reports, in recent years has become one of the most violent in Mexico. A freelancer specializing in photographing crime scenes, he worked for both Mexican and foreign news outlets. His photos appeared, among other media, in local news weekly Zeta Tijuana, newspaper La Jornada de Baja California and on news website Cadena Noticias.
CPJ called La Jornada de Baja California and Cadena Noticias for comment but no one answered.
According to Martinez’ friend and another colleague, who also asked to remain anonymous as her newspaper does not allow her to give interviews, Martínez had reported threats on several occasions over the past few years and had reached out to state and federal authorities in December after an altercation with the publisher of a Facebook page known for publishing images of violent incidents. The altercation was filmed and posted on the Facebook page, which has more than 120,000 followers.
According to his colleagues, Martínez felt threatened and intimidated by the publication of the video and had reported the incident to the Baja California state institution for the protection of journalists, which in turn referred him to the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, which operates under the auspices of the federal government.
An official with the mechanism confirmed to CPJ that his agency had been in touch with Martínez on several occasions since December and that it had sent him several forms to enable his inclusion in a protection program, but that Martínez had stopped responding. The official asked to remain anonymous, as he was not authorized to speak on the matter.
On March 7, 2022, federal Undersecretary for Public Security Ricardo Mejía said during a press conference in Mexico City that three men, identified only by their first names and aliases as Cristian Adán “N,” alias “El Cabo 16” and “El Jaguar”; José “N,” alias “El Huesos”; and Adrián “N,” alias “El Uber”; had been arrested for their alleged participation in the murder of Martínez. He did not provide further information about the motive or the identities of the men.
Further details were provided to local and national Mexican media by Baja California state prosecutor Iván Ricardo Carpio on March 8. Carpio said Cristián Adán, a member of a local criminal gang in Tijuana, had paid the other two suspects 40,000 pesos (US$2,000) to carry out the killing.
According to the prosecutor, “El Cabo 16” is the leader of a criminal gang that operates in Tijuana, specifically in the Sánchez Taboada neighborhood where Martínez lived, and had erroneously identified Martínez as a contributor to several news stories that detailed operations of his gang. The prosecutor did not provide additional information about which stories he referred to, or the news outlet in which the stories had appeared.
Adela Navarro, the editor of Zeta Tijuana, told CPJ on April 26 that Martínez was working for the magazine at the time of his death, adding that she had been in continuous contact with the Baja California state authorities about the investigation. According to Navarro, the authorities’ version about the motive appears to be credible, but that she is still waiting for more details.
On August 24, 2022, Zeta Tijuana reported that David López Jiménez, known as “El Cabo 20,” had been arrested in Monterrey, the capital of the northern Mexican state of Nuevo León. Baja California state prosecutor Ricardo Iván Carpio told the magazine that López Jiménez, whom he named as one of the state’s most powerful criminals, had ordered the murder of Martínez and was allegedly responsible for more than 2,000 other killings in the state.
On December 12, 2022, José “N” and Adrián “N,” now identified in news reports as José Heriberto Ochoa and Adrián Nicolás Ramos, were sentenced to 25 years in prison by a judge in Tijuana for carrying out Martínez’ murder. According to the reports, the verdict was the result of a so-called abbreviated trial, similar to a plea bargain.
The reports, citing the evidence presented by the Baja California public prosecutor’s office (FGE) and the reading of the sentence by the judge, said Ochoa and Ramos planned and executed the murder, allegedly after receiving the order from “El Cabo 16,” now identified as Christian Adán Velázquez José. The latter has been identified by state authorities as the leader of a criminal gang with ties to the Arellano Félix drug trafficking cartel, the reports added.
The reports, citing evidence presented by the FGE, stated that Velázquez José believed that Martínez was responsible for publishing a number of photos on an unspecified Facebook page that detailed the structure of the Velázquez José’s criminal gang. The FGE also said that it had reviewed messages via the WhatsApp messaging app in which Velázquez José ordered the murder, thus linking the attack directly to the reporter’s work. The FGE added that Martínez was, in fact, not responsible for the photos. CPJ was unable to find contact information for Velázquez José’s legal counsel.
Velázquez José himself pleaded not guilty; his trial is set to start in April 2023, according to the reports. López Jiménez, who was arrested in Monterrey on August 24, 2022, on separate murder charges has not been charged in Martínez’s murder, according to news reports.
Carpio did not provide further details about López Jiménez’s alleged role in Martínez’s murder, or his relationship with the other suspects, citing the ongoing investigation.
CPJ repeatedly called the Baja California state prosecutor’s office for comment but no one answered.