On March 30, 2020, two unidentified men on a motorcycle shot Maria Elena Ferral Hernández at least three times while she was leaving the office of a local notary in the city of Papantla, in Veracruz state, according to news reports.
She was rushed to a local hospital, where she died while undergoing surgery, according to Ana Laura Pérez, the president of the Veracruz State Commission for Attention to and Protection of Journalists (CEAPP), which operates autonomously from the state government, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.
Ferral was a correspondent for the El Diario de Xalapa newspaper and also co-founded El Quinto Poder, a local news website, according to news reports. She also published columns on La Polaca Totonaca, a personal Facebook page.
In a statement published on Twitter that same day, the Veracruz state prosecutor’s office said it had opened an investigation into the killing.
On April 25, Veracruz state authorities told media that they had apprehended a suspect in the killing, a journalist named José Cárdenas, but did not release any further information.
Two days later, authorities announced the arrests of four additional suspects, who were found with illegal weapons at the time of their arrests. Authorities identified one of those suspects as Efraín ‘N,’ a former Papantla alderman, but did not release his last name or the names of the other three suspects.
According to authorities’ announcement, all the suspects are linked to Basilio Camerino Picazo Pérez, a local businessman who ran for the Veracruz state congress in 2016.
According to news reports, Picazo Pérez previously threatened to abduct and kill Ferral, and she reported the threat to authorities. CPJ was unable to confirm that threat, and could not find contact information for Picazo Pérez.
CPJ called the Veracruz state prosecutor’s office several times in late April 2020, but no one answered.
In an interview with news website E-Consulta Veracruz, published shortly after the reporter’s funeral on April 1, Ferral’s daughter Fernanda De Luna Ferral said that her mother’s life had been in danger because of a column she published on March 12 on La Polaca Totonaca, in which she wrote about the murders of several candidates for mayor of Gutiérrez Zamora, a nearby municipality. She did not specify the nature of the threats.
De Luna Ferral told E-Consulta Veracruz that she asked her mother to take precautions after the column was published, because of the sensitive nature of the subject of the article.
CPJ messaged De Luna Ferral on Facebook for comment but did not receive any responses.
A reporter from Poza Rica, a city near Papantla, who had worked with Ferral several times, told CPJ on April 1 that they were aware of threats against the reporter’s life, but did not know any specific details about the threats.
“Maria Elena was hermetic, she did not speak a lot about the dangers of her work,” the reporter, who asked CPJ to remain anonymous for safety reasons, added.
Ferral mostly reported on local news, politics, and crime in the Papantla area. Her most recent stories for El Diario de Xalapa reported on traffic accidents and crime.
Requests by CPJ for comment via the Facebook pages of El Diario de Xalapa and El Quinto Poder went unanswered.
Ana Laura Pérez told CPJ that Ferral had been assigned a bodyguard and a GPS device in 2016 after having reported threats.
The state Public Security Secretariat removed the bodyguard in 2017, however, without consulting with the protection committee, Laura Pérez said. She said the state government had determined that Ferral had not ‘made good use’ of the security measures, but was unable to provide further details.
CPJ called the Veracruz Public Security Secretariat on April 1 and April 2, 2020, for comment, but no one answered the phone.