Philip True

Beats Covered:
Local or Foreign:

True, 50, was a Mexico City correspondent for the San Antonio Express-News. On November 28, 1998, he embarked on a 10-day trip to report on the Huichol Indians, an indigenous population that lives in a mountainous area stretching across Nayarit, Jalisco, and Durango states.

The journalist was last seen alive on December 4 in the village of Salmotita. On December 16, after an intensive search by the Mexican military, True’s body was found in a shallow grave partially covered with rocks at the bottom of a ravine. Neither his wedding ring nor his watch had been taken, suggesting that robbery was not a motive.

On December 26, 1998, authorities arrested Juan Chivarra de la Cruz and his brother-in-law Miguel Hern·ndez de la Cruz, both Huichol Indians, and charged them with True’s murder. Under questioning, Chivarra and Hernández confessed to murdering True because he had taken photographs without their permission. The journalist’s belongings, including his camera, binoculars, and backpack, were found at the suspects’ homes.

When the two men were brought into court, however, they acknowledged killing True but claimed they had acted in self-defense. They also claimed that their confession had been extracted under torture. Jalisco State Attorney General Gerardo Octavio Solís Gómez has repeatedly denied these claims.

Additional evidence points to the suspects’ culpability. In 1999, a Newsweek reporter found a notebook belonging to True in a warehouse where case evidence was stored. In one entry, True described an encounter with a Huichol man named Juan, possibly a reference to Chivarra.

Both suspects have repeatedly given contradictory statements in interviews with the San Antonio Express-News. While they initially contended that they had never seen True, they later admitted to meeting him. Then in an interview published on August 8, 2001, both men claimed they had seen the journalist but never talked to him.

Mexican authorities have issued three separate forensic reports since True’s body was found. The first, based on an autopsy by Jalisco State medical examiners, found that True had been strangled with his own bandana and sustained a head injury that was not attributable to a fall.

The second report, based on an autopsy by the Federal Attorney General’s Office, concluded that True died from blows to his head and body and from edema (accumulation of fluid in the lungs), most likely after suffering an accidental fall caused by heavy drinking. Both autopsies found a high concentration of alcohol in True’s blood, a finding consistent with advanced decomposition, according to forensic experts consulted by the Express-News.

It remains unclear why federal authorities ordered a second autopsy. True’s already decomposed body was essentially dismembered during the first autopsy, making the possibility of drawing accurate conclusions from a second autopsy difficult at best.

In March 2000, the third forensic report, which is required under Mexican law when two autopsies yield different results, found that True’s death was caused by a pulmonary edema resulting from a head injury. This conclusion was based solely on the examiner’s analysis of the first two autopsy reports.

On August 3, 2001, Mexican Judge José Luis Reyes Contreras acquitted Chivarra and Hernández and ordered their release. On August 7, Jalisco Attorney General Solís Gómez said there was enough evidence to convict the two men and added that he would appeal the verdict.

Judge Reyes Contreras has been quoted as saying that his decision to release the men was based on the second autopsy report, which concluded that True’s death was accidental. The judge’s ruling did not account for the fact that True’s belongings were found in the two suspects’ homes or that his body was hidden in a grave near the death site.

The Jalisco State Attorney General’s Office appealed the acquittals in a September 25, 2001, hearing before a panel of three magistrates from the State Supreme Court of Justice. On May 30, 2002, a three-judge appeals panel sentenced Chivarra and Hernández to 13-year prison terms for True’s murder. The unanimous ruling overturned an August 2001 verdict that had acquitted the two men.

In February 2003, a federal court overturned the 13-year sentences on procedural grounds. In November 2003, both the private investigator who worked to win the release of the men and the U.S. citizen who funded portions of their defense said Chivarra and Hernández had privately confessed to killing True and should be brought to justice.

On April 27, 2004, a three-judge panel of the Jalisco State Supreme Court convicted the men, sentenced them to 20 years in prison each, and ordered each to pay 117,315 Mexican pesos (U$10,000) in damages, Jorge Ochoa, the lawyer of True’s widow, Martha True, told CPJ.

The ruling, issued by judges Celso Rodríguez González, Gustavo Flores Martínez, and Guillermo Valdez Angulo, also ordered the capture of the two men, who are now free on bond and are believed to be living in the area of Sierra Madre.

Chivarra and Herná ndez can file an appeal (recurso de amparo), but Ochoa told CPJ he doubts they will.