Three Killings, No Justice

Versión en español
Posted June 7, 2008
Mexico is not at war. It is a democracy. And yet it is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the press. Twenty-one journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000, seven of them in direct reprisal for their work. Since 2005, seven others have gone missing. Mexico ranks 10th on CPJ’s impunity index, along with such war-ravaged countries as Iraq, Somalia, and Sierra Leone.   

The impact of this unchecked record of violence is well known and well documented. Fear permeates newsrooms and broad self-censorship is the result. In border cities, where the drug cartels hold sway, gunbattles in the middle of downtown go unreported. There is little doubt that organized crime associated with the drug trade is responsible for much of the violence against the press. But the failure of the Mexican government to fully investigate these crimes and bring the perpetrators to justice has created a culture of impunity that perpetuates the cycle of violence.

CPJ commissioned this report because we wanted to take a close look at the factors that prevent these cases from being solved. CPJ Mexico representative Monica Campbell has assembled dossiers on three emblematic cases–the killings of journalists Francisco Ortiz Franco in Tijuana, Bradley Will in Oaxaca, and Amado Ramírez Dillanes in Acapulco.

The circumstances of these killings were very different, as were the initial investigations. But all three shared certain characteristics. In Mexico, murder is a state crime and state prosecutors handled the initial investigations in all three cases. Because of shoddy police work, fear, or political pressure, the investigations failed to move forward. Federal authorities eventually stepped in and took over the Ortiz Franco and Will investigations but made little additional progress.

There has been much talk in Mexico of “federalizing” crimes against journalists by making it a federal offense to inhibit the exercise of freedom of expression or of the press. CPJ supports this proposal, first, because it would clarify the line of authority, ensuring that one agency has responsibility from start to finish. It would also create political accountability, with the federal government broadly responsible for protecting freedom of expression.

Would federalization of crimes against journalists ensure successful prosecutions? No. As these cases make clear, the problems are myriad, from the power of the drug cartels, to the dysfunctional judicial system, to crippling political rivalries.

Nevertheless, the current system is not working. Mexico confronts many problems, from the entrenched power of the drug cartels to the slow pace of economic growth. But there is no reason Mexico should remain one of the most murderous countries for the press. The federal government must take responsibility for addressing this problem, and it must devote political will and financial resources to ensure that the killers of journalists are brought to justice.

Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco, Zeta
June 22, 2004, Tijuana, Baja California

Francisco Ortiz Franco was shot in front of his children on an early summer morning on a downtown Tijuana street. Ortiz Franco, 50, was co-editor of the Tijuana newsweekly Zeta, one of the few publications that consistently cover corruption and drug trafficking in Mexico’s northern states.

After leaving a medical clinic on the morning of June 22, Ortiz Franco buckled 11-year-old son Héctor Daniel and 9-year-old daughter Andrea into the backseat of his Mazda Comfort, walked around the car, and got in the driver’s seat, according to a 2004 CPJ investigation. Before he could start the engine, a black Jeep Grand Cherokee pulled alongside, and a man wearing a black wool ski mask jumped out. The gunman fired four times from a .380-caliber handgun through the driver’s side window, hitting Ortiz Franco in the chest, head, and neck and killing him instantly, according to the editor’s widow, who has reviewed the case files. The killer climbed back into the Jeep Cherokee, which then sped away.

Violent crime is part of daily life in Tijuana, where some of the world’s most powerful drug traffickers battle over lucrative smuggling routes. Brazen daily shootings are common; thorough investigations and timely arrests are not. A recent Mexican congressional study found that federal crimes, including homicide and kidnapping, rose 25 percent in the first half of 2007 as compared to the same period a year earlier. The rate of execution-style murders rose 155 percent between 2001 and 2007, according to the same study.

While the level of violence can outstrip law enforcement resources, widespread collusion between police and drug traffickers undermines the integrity of the investigations. In October of last year, 25 federal police officers were arrested on suspicion of protecting the Gulf drug cartel. Three months later, four municipal police officers in the border city of Nuevo Laredo were accused of working directly for the cartel. A number of news reporters and academic researchers have documented links between the infamous Arellano Félix drug cartel and police officers past and present. Drug traffickers have also cultivated financial and personal ties to government officials. In 2000, researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico detailed relationships between organized crime leaders and high-ranking politicians. The researchers cited evidence that some politicians began accepting campaign donations from drug traffickers in the early 1990s.

In a November 2004 special report, “Free-Fire Zone,” CPJ said the Arellano Félix drug cartel was probably behind the Ortiz Franco slaying. Shortly before the murder, CPJ found, Ortiz Franco did extensive reporting for a story alleging that Arellano Félix lieutenant Arturo “El Nalgón” Villarreal had directed the January 21, 2004, assassination of former Assistant State Attorney General Rogelio Delgado Neri. The story was written by Jesús Blancornelas, the now-deceased editor of Zeta, and published under Blancornelas’ byline.

Ortiz Franco reported a second story on drug trafficking just weeks later, this one under his own byline. The story recounted a May 4, 2004, FBI press conference in San Diego in which the bureau released photographs of fake police credentials used by Arellano Félix cartel members. The story didn’t break much news, CPJ sources said, but Ortiz Franco angered traffickers by publishing the photographs along with his piece. As one source noted: “These guys lived double lives. Now, all of a sudden, their kids know daddy is not really a policeman.”

Zeta conducted its own investigation into the slaying, alleging in a July 22, 2004, story that three men were possible masterminds. They included Villarreal and Jorge Eduardo Ronquillo, high-ranking members of the Arellano Félix cartel, and Jorge Hank Rhon, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate who was elected mayor of Tijuana in August 2004. Zeta cited Ortiz Franco’s investigation into allegations that Hank’s bodyguards were involved in the unsolved 1988 killing of Héctor Félix Miranda, a co-founder of Zeta. Hank has denied any involvement in either the Félix or Ortiz Franco slaying.

Because murder is a state crime in Mexico, the initial investigation into the Ortiz Franco case was led by state officials. Zeta staff members told CPJ that this was a crucial misstep because some of the same officers responsible for investigating the murder had been named in Ortiz Franco’s articles. Investigators did not search Ortiz Franco’s office computer or his files, according to colleagues. Reporter notebooks were left unexamined in his car after the slaying, his wife told CPJ. Several friends, coworkers, and relatives told CPJ that police conducted only cursory interviews with them.

Little investigative progress was made in the crucial period immediately after the murder–a pattern repeated in other Mexican journalist slayings. Ortiz Franco’s family told CPJ that they blame the lack of progress on a breakdown at the local level. Zeta staff members said they support legislation making violent crime against the press a federal offense.

In August 2004, nearly two months after the shooting, the Ortiz Franco case was finally handed over to federal authorities. José Luis Vasconcelos, then head of the organized crime division of the federal attorney general’s office, took control of the case after determining that it was linked to drug trafficking, a federal offense. Vasconcelos told CPJ that a suspected participant in the slaying, Jorge Eduardo Ronquillo Delgado, also known as “El Niño,” was executed by fellow members of the Arellano Félix cartel in October 2004.

Villarreal, a U.S. citizen, was arrested in August 2006 in waters off the coast of Baja California and charged in San Diego with drug smuggling. He faces a 30-year U.S. prison sentence. Federal officials in Mexico have told local reporters that there is insufficient evidence to link Villarreal to Ortiz Franco’s murder. Extradition to Mexico, where Villarreal faces drug trafficking charges, remains in the preliminary stages. Those proceedings, for now, do not involve the Ortiz Franco murder.

Bradley Will, freelance
October 27, 2006, Santa Lucía del Camino, Oaxaca

Bradley Roland Will, 36, an independent documentary filmmaker and a reporter for the New York-based Web site Indymedia, was videotaping antigovernment protesters in Santa Lucía del Camino, a municipality outside the state capital, Oaxaca, when a street battle erupted between demonstrators and plainclothes men believed to be working for the embattled governor.

Will, stationed among the protesters, let his camera roll. His final video, available on CPJ’s Web site, shows protesters hurling rocks and captures the sounds of gunshots and a shout: “Stop taking photos!” A shot is heard whizzing toward Will. The journalist’s own video records him screaming, falling, and uttering “Help me” in Spanish. He was struck twice, once in the abdomen and once in the right side.

Six photographers and a television camera operator were working alongside Will that day, according to a 2007 CPJ investigation. These journalists photographed four plainclothes men who fired into the crowd of protesters. Within days, state authorities took two men into custody: local town councilor Abel Santiago Zárate and his security chief, Orlando Manuel Aguilar Coello. The men were released on December 1, 2007, after a state judge ruled that they were not close enough to have shot Will.

Will–known for his coverage of social movements in Brazil, Bolivia, and Mexico–had spent four weeks documenting the unrest in Oaxaca. The conflict had started in May, when a routine teachers’ strike snowballed into a catchall antigovernment movement. The simmering unrest boiled over in June when Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), ordered police to break up protest camps. The dislodging of protesters turned violent and strengthened the protest movement, which was eventually led by a leftist umbrella group called the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca. The protesters left their own trail of aggression, essentially taking over the capital, clashing with pro-government groups, and seizing a dozen private radio stations. In all, some 20 people died during the unrest, most of them protesters.

In statements to investigators, confidential witnesses alleged that Ruiz hired current and former police officers to act as plainclothes agents who would confront the protesters, according to news reports. Ruiz has denied that allegation. But local and international human rights groups, including the federal government’s human rights ombudsman, have said that paramilitaries may have been responsible for the deaths of several protesters during the conflict. In May 2007, the ombudsman urged that the paramilitaries be investigated to determine who makes up their ranks.

Oaxaca state law enforcement officials conducted the initial investigation into Will’s killing, a probe that came during the height of the political tension. Will’s family members have questioned the independence of that investigation. Oaxaca State Attorney General Lizbeth Caña, a Ruiz appointee who labeled the demonstrators “terrorists,” told local reporters soon after the killing that a protester may have fired one of the shots at point-blank range. She did not present evidence to back her theory–which was rejected by the state coroner and eyewitnesses. The government’s ombudsman, in addition to seeking an investigation into paramilitary groups, also recommended that Caña’s performance be investigated.

Under pressure from Will’s family and U.S. officials, federal authorities took over the case in March 2007. The federal government cited the possibility that assault weapons were used in the altercation that day, which could constitute a federal offense. By that time, though, basic investigative and forensic duties had been neglected or mishandled. State investigators did not gather or test the guns carried by the men who were photographed shooting in the direction of protesters, according to members of Will’s family, who have reviewed police files in the case. Neither did investigators interrogate all of the armed men shown in the photographs or collect shell casings from the scene, according to Will’s family. And state investigators misidentified the bullets found in Will’s body as 9mm; federal testing later showed they were .38 caliber.

Even now, some witness statements have not been gathered, including testimony from Raúl Estrella, the photographer for the daily El Universal, who took several photographs of armed men firing at protesters that day. (Two of Estrella’s photos appear in the graphic headline of this report.) Oswaldo Ramírez, a reporter for the Mexican daily Milenio who was shot in the leg during the street battle, has not been questioned. Will’s final video, which has been publicly available, has not been taken into evidence by authorities, according to his family. Coello, one of the two men initially detained in the case, has since gone missing or into hiding, according to news reports.

In February 2008, members of the Will family returned to Mexico to express their dissatisfaction with the investigation. In a small breakthrough, officials from the federal attorney general’s office agreed to allow four independent experts from the International Forensic Program at Physicians for Human Rights, a Boston-based nonprofit, to review evidence of the case, including the autopsy report, photographs, video, and ballistics evidence.

Amado Ramírez Dillanes, Televisa and Radiorama
April 6, 2007, Acapulco, Guerrero

Amado Ramírez Dillanes, 50, a correspondent for Televisa, Mexico’s largest television broadcaster, and a reporter for the Radiorama radio network, was shot by a gunman as he left work in the resort city of Acapulco, in Guerrero state. Ramírez had just finished his daily news show, “Al Tanto,” at Radiorama studios.

Ramírez got into his parked car at 7:30 p.m. when an unidentified assailant shot him twice from outside the driver’s window, according to a colleague who spoke on condition of anonymity. Wounded in his left leg and chest, the reporter ran into the lobby of a nearby hotel. The attacker followed and shot Ramírez in the back, according to local press reports.

Two days later, state law enforcement authorities detained two men, Leonel Bustos Muñoz and Genaro Vázquez Durán, on suspicion of having illegal weapons. Federal police, who stopped the men during a routine highway patrol, noticed that Vázquez resembled a police sketch that purported to show the suspect. Police said the officers also found a .38-caliber gun, the type used in the murder. The swift detentions generated considerable press coverage, but progress proved illusory.

With no evidence tying him to the murder, Bustos was released on June 2, 2007. Vázquez remains in state detention in Acapulco on an illegal weapons charge, but not for any ties to Ramírez’s murder. No other arrests have been made. Officials and reporters following the Ramírez case point to several troubling aspects of the investigation. In particular, state investigators have focused on one motive–that a lover’s quarrel triggered the killing–and have done little to determine whether Ramírez could have been targeted for his reporting.

Just a month before the slaying, Ramírez aired an investigative report on Televisa that linked local drug traffickers to the murders of police officers. Ramírez told colleagues at Radiorama that he had received several death threats on his cell phone after that report aired, threats he reported to the police.

Colleagues told CPJ that state authorities have not focused on the Televisa report or other reports by Ramírez that dealt with organized criminal groups in Guerrero. These colleagues also said that investigators did not search the reporter’s notes, e-mail, or office files–all of which could provide possible clues as to why he was killed. A report by the federal government’s human rights ombudsman issued in January 2008 criticized state and federal investigators for not examining Ramírez’s office or computer for possible leads.

Doubts also persist about the veracity of three supposed witnesses, according to the government’s human rights ombudsman. The witnesses, who presented themselves days after the murder and upon whose testimony the sketch that implicated Vázquez was produced, said they lived near the crime scene. But the three do not have registered addresses in the area, and they were unknown to people living in the neighborhood, according to the ombudsman. One supposed witness, Salvador Cabrera, told a court in Acapulco in November 2007 that he was coerced into identifying Vázquez during a police line-up. Vázquez and Bustos complained to human rights officials that they were tortured during the police interrogation process and were denied their right to immediate legal representation.

The Ramírez killing occurred amid rising violence in Guerrero. In early 2007, an uptick in cartel-related, execution-style killings in Acapulco was in the national spotlight. In a bold attack in February 2007, assassins dressed as soldiers burst into two local police stations, demanded guns, and opened fire. Seven people, including police investigators, were killed. A culture of fear spread throughout Acapulco as concern rose about drug traffickers and their increasingly visible presence in the region.

As in other parts of Mexico where drug smugglers hold sway, attacks on police stations and possible ties between officers and drug lords have severely hindered law enforcement. Observers of the Ramírez case say that fear of retaliation from organized criminal groups could explain why a rigorous police investigation has yet to occur.

Joel Simon is the executive director of CPJ. Monica Campbell is a Mexico City-based consultant for CPJ.