Unidentified attackers on the morning of May 15, 2018, shot dead Juan Carlos Huerta near his home in Villahermosa, the capital of the southern Mexican state of Tabasco, according to news reports and Tabasco state authorities.
The state’s attorney general, Fernando Valenzuela Pernas, said in a statement given to local media on May 15 that unidentified men in a gray SUV blocked Huerta’s car with their vehicle, forcing the journalist to stop, and then shot him. Huerta was hit by bullets at least four times and died instantly, according to the same statement, which cited unidentified witnesses.
The same day, Tabasco Governor Arturo Nuñez said in an interview with the news website La Jornada Maya that the assailants had targeted Huerta. He discarded robbery as a motive.
Huerta, 47, owned the radio station Sin Reservas (Without Reservations), which he founded in January 2018, according to the news reports. He also presented a television news show, "Notinueve" (News on Nine), that was broadcast on the local Channel 9 station.
The journalist covered regional and national politics as well as international affairs for both of these programs. The broadcasts on Sin Reservas and “Notinueve” in the week before Huerta’s killing were mostly about the Mexican presidential elections and the Tabasco gubernatorial elections, both scheduled for July 1, 2018, according to reports.
Gerardo Priego Tapia, a former federal senator from Tabasco who knew the journalist and had been interviewed by him numerous times in recent years, told CPJ in a telephone conversation on May 22, 2018, that Huerta “was not very confrontational,” in his approach to political coverage, and that he was not aware of any conflicts between the journalist and politicians.
Priego, who is also the former head of the federal Senate Committee for press freedom issues, said that Huerta’s shows, particularly on Sin Reservas, were widely watched in Tabasco.
On May 21, 2018, Valenzuela said in a statement that local authorities discarded journalism as a motive after looking at video footage, interviews, and analyzing electronic devices, though he did not specify which devices. In the same statement Valenzuela said that Huerta’s killing was premeditated and that his office was investigating two possible motives though he did not provide more details.
Ricardo Sánchez Pérez del Pozo, who heads the office of the Federal Special Prosecutor for Crimes Committed against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE), told CPJ on May 18, 2018, that his office had opened an investigation the day of the killing. Pérez confirmed to CPJ on May 21, the same day the Tabasco state authorities publicly discarded Huerta’s journalism as a motive, that his office was continuing to investigate Huerta’s work as a journalist as a possible motive in his killing.
On May 22, 2018, a source close to Huerta who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons told CPJ that Huerta said he had received threats several months before he was shot, though the source did not elaborate on the nature of the threats or when they were made.
On September 20, 2018, Valenzuela told a press conference that a suspect, Juan Miguel “N,” had been apprehended. According to Valenzuela, the attacker had been ordered to kill the journalist over a “personal conflict,” without elaborating on its nature or on the suspected identity of the person ordering the killing. Valenzuela said in the press conference that the suspect has been linked to a series of robberies in Villahermosa.
“Until this moment, there are no indications that organized crime was involved in the crime of Juan Carlos Huerta, nor that that it is linked to his work as a journalist,” Valenzuela said. “There are indications that the motive has to do with his private life.”
The state attorney general added that two other men are also suspected to have been involved in the murder. As of early December 2018, no information about their identities has been revealed.
In a September 26, 2018, press conference, Lorena Martínez identified herself as the woman who was in the car with Huerta when the murder occurred. She rejected the state attorney general’s version of events and insisted that there had been threats against the reporter’s life over “information he had revealed” in his radio broadcasts.
Attempts by CPJ to reach the state attorney general’s office for comment by telephone in early December 2018 remain unanswered. CPJ was unable to locate contact information for Lorena Martínez to ask for further comment.