Gregorio Jiménez de la Cruz: A barbaric silencing
Gregorio Jiménez de la Cruz was not a journalist who went looking for danger. But living and working in a small town in Veracruz state—mired by gang warfare, human trafficking, and a lucrative trade in kidnap for ransom—meant he covered stories that could put in him danger.
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Being the sole reporter in Villa Allende, near the city of Coatzacoalcos, also left few places to hide, even when Jiménez used a fake byline to distance himself from his most critical reporting.
Police have not definitively established a motive for his abduction on February 5, 2014 and subsequent murder, but the brutal treatment of his body, which was found decapitated and with the tongue cut out, left little doubt among his colleagues and friends that it was a direct attempt to silence a reporter.
Even though the case has led to arrests of five suspected hitmen and the alleged mastermind—a rarity for cases of journalist murders in Mexico—the investigation has been far from perfect and no convictions have been achieved. CPJ has not been granted access to the case files, but a fact-finding mission made up of journalists and press freedom organizations found that other leads and potential suspects were not fully investigated, and that authorities have tried to distance the murder from the victim’s work as a journalist.
The journalist’s family lives with a permanent police guard and say they have been warned that the alleged mastermind says she plans to take revenge.
Crime beat by necessity not choice
Even in winter, the humid climate in Coatzacoalcos can be punishing to those used to the temperate weather of Mexico City and the state capital, Xalapa. It took CPJ four hours to reach Veracruz state’s second most important port city, traveling through tropical lowlands and passing vast stretches of plantations and farmland.
Coatzacoalcos lies at the mouth of the river with the same name. The city is rugged, crowded and noisy, and has few sights to offer. Its broad, deep waterway is home to one of Mexico’s busiest ports and the surrounding area hosts enormous petrochemical plants and is a major hub for the country’s oil industry.
The Jiménez family home in Villa Allende lies across the river, in a working-class neighborhood that was never formally incorporated into the city.
“It’s one of the reasons we didn’t have security cameras installed after Goyo was gone,” Carmela Hernández, the journalist’s 37-year-old widow, said, referring to Jiménez by his nickname. “The authorities told us we needed to have an electricity meter, but we don’t have one. We just get power intermittently through a cable connected a few blocks from here.”
Carmela Hernández lives in the home with three of the couple’s four children, a daughter-in-law, a son-in-law who’s also a journalist, and an armed state policeman who permanently guards the residence. A portrait of her husband still hangs above the door of the bedroom she shares with her daughters. Another portrait, of her and Jiménez as a young couple, lay on one of the beds.
“This home was Goyo’s life’s work, you know,” she added, gesturing at the living room. “When he wasn’t out there chasing news, he was working here, either with his children’s schoolwork or on the house. He loved working, he hardly ever took a day off.”
But Jiménez, who also had three children from a previous relationship, will never see what has become of his residence. The fresh layer of paint on the walls and the corrugated sheets covering a spacious living room built on what was a patio, were added after the 43-year-old reporter was abducted from the house.
The additions were a gesture from Coatzacoalcos mayor Joaquín Caballero Rosiñol after Jiménez’s murder led to statewide indignation among reporters over what has become one of the most notorious killings of journalists in Veracruz state in recent memory. Anger over what many said they perceived as a faulty investigation led a group of 16 journalists and several members of press freedom organizations to travel to the region in February 2014 to investigate the murder. The group, known as Observation Mission, published a critical report based on its findings on March 19, 2014.
The official investigation has been criticized for being unclear, but the details of Jiménez’s abduction and brutal killing are widely known. At approximately 7 a.m. on February 5, 2014, Jiménez returned home from dropping off children at school. After Jiménez entered the house with his two other daughters, a gray SUV pulled up to the house and five masked men, armed with pistols and knives, forced their way inside, pointed their guns at Jiménez’s daughters and pulled a knife and gun on Jiménez.
One of the journalist’s daughters, Flor, who witnessed the abduction, told CPJ that the kidnappers took her father’s radio telephone and tried to take his camera, but Jiménez managed to throw it away. He was then dragged out of the house, pushed into the SUV, and driven away, she said.
Six days later, on February 11, authorities found Jiménez’s body near Las Choapas, a town about 55 kilometers southeast of Villa Allende. He was buried in a shallow grave alongside two other bodies: those of Ernesto Ruiz Guillén, a local union leader whose kidnapping Jiménez reported on the month before, when he criticized the police investigation, and a taxi driver whose identity was not given in reports. Jiménez had been beheaded, according to statements by then-Attorney General Luis Ángel Bravo. News reports added that his tongue was cut out.
“The fact that they cut out his tongue was significant, it was symbolic,” said Sayda Chiñas, who was Jiménez’s editor at Notisur. “It was a way of showing that they silenced him.”
Journalists with whom CPJ spoke said that Jiménez was known in Coatzacoalcos as being the only reporter based on “the other side,” a term reporters in the city commonly use to refer to Villa Allende. Before Jiménez became a reporter, he and his wife were professional photographers who covered social events and schools.
Jiménez had to work hard because he made little money as a journalist. He began work as a reporter two years before his death, freelancing for the local newspapers Liberal del Sur, La Red, and Notisur, the latter being the most widely read newspaper in Villa Allende.
“The newspaper paid him very little money. He made 20 pesos (US$1) per story, if that story was published,” Chiñas said. His work as a journalist wasn’t nearly enough to support his family so he and Carmela Hernández continued their photography business. While Jiménez roamed the streets for stories, his wife took photos of weddings and other events, she said.
Jiménez wasn’t prone to taking risks as a journalist, said Chiñas, who described him as “fearful.” His widow confirmed that, saying, “He never went out looking for trouble, and he never sought problems with anyone. He was very good-natured.”
But for a journalist covering a region where violent and organized crime is rife, and with his unique position as the only reporter based in Villa de Allende, he had little choice but to cover these issues, Chiñas and Carmela Hernández said. Villa Allende is a small community and, in the years before his murder, violence was on the rise and organized crime was omnipresent, according to news reports, his family and local journalists interviewed by CPJ.
“There were a lot of kidnappings and a lot of shootouts here,” Carmela Hernández said. “He would go out and cover them. I never asked him what he was working on because, frankly, it scared me.”
Aside from the long-standing drug wars as rival cartels fight for supremacy in the Coatzacoalcos region, the area is a target for human traffickers who prey on the undocumented migrants using the railroad that cuts across the state to try to reach the U.S., according to news reports.
In southern Veracruz, Los Zetas began dominating lucrative drug and people-smuggling routes and specialized in extortion of businesses and abductions. Coatzacoalcos’ petrochemical industry provides a steady stream of income for kidnappers. “It’s easy for gang members to kidnap employees of those factories,” Chiñas said. “Employees of Pemex are often the target. The gangs kidnap them for a short period of time, the families pay them a ransom and they’re let go.” In the first two months of 2017 alone, three Pemex employees were kidnapped, according to news reports.
Jiménez covered those crimes, although relatives and colleagues acknowledged that he often said he was scared of the consequences. When a story was particularly “hot,” the byline would simply be “editorial staff.” He sometimes used the byline El Pantera (The Panther) as an alias to protect himself, according to news reports. Despite his attempts to mitigate the risks of particularly dangerous stories, being the only journalist based in Villa Allende meant anyone generally knew if Jiménez was the author, Chiñas said.
That was the case on October 23, 2013, when Liberal del Sur and Notisur published an article by Jiménez about a stabbing not far from El Palmar, a bar owned by a woman called Teresa de Jesús Hernández (no relation to Jiménez’s wife.) The byline read “editorial staff,” but according to Chiñas and the journalist’s family, Teresa Hernández knew immediately that Jiménez was the author.
The article is no longer available on the websites of either paper, but it contained little more than the description of a fight near the bar. Both Chiñas and Jiménez’s widow said that Teresa Hernández was upset over the article because newspaper vendors exaggerated the headline and described the fight as having taken place in a “bar de la mala muerte” (bar of bad death), a colloquialism for a place where organized crime and criminal violence is prevalent. “It was known by locals to be a place where members of organized crime would meet and talk about business,” Chiñas said.
When CPJ visited Villa Allende in January 2017, the bar was closed and CPJ was unable to locate anyone connected to the bar to ask for comment.
“If you read the article, there really wasn’t anything special in it. Goyo just described what happened,” Jiménez’s widow said. “But the newspaper vendors need to sell papers, so they said things that weren’t necessarily accurate.”
She said that the owner of the bar showed up angry and intoxicated at her house shortly after the article appeared, and threatened the journalist, who was at home with one of his daughters. According to news reports, Teresa Hernández said to him, “You, you, you owe me, remember the story you wrote about me?” the daughter said. One report cited Jiménez’s daughter, Cindy, as having told authorities that Teresa Hernández told Jiménez that “she knew Los Zetas” and threatened to have him killed by the gang. The threat was confirmed to CPJ by Jiménez’s family. They also said that relations between the journalist and Hernández were already tense due to a personal rift between the families.
While the Observation Mission report says authorities arrested the right people over the murder, it criticized them for not investigating the family’s reports of other threats more thoroughly.
Police arrested Teresa Hernández and five suspects allegedly linked to Los Zetas, for Jiménez’s murder, between February 6 and 12. One of the suspects, José Luis Márquez Hernández—“El Pony”— (no known relation to either the victim’s wife or the bar owner) confessed to helping abduct the journalist and said he killed the victim in exchange for a 20,000 pesos ($1,000) payment by Teresa Hernández, according to the 2014 Observation Mission report, which cites the case file. All deny the accusations against them.
The theory that Teresa Hernández was linked to organized crime was bolstered in March 2015, a year after her arrest, when news outlets reported on the murder of her son-in-law Sergio Montalvo López. Reports said the police officer, who was found beaten to death near the city of Córdoba in March 2015, was part of a criminal group and that he protected Teresa Hernández who used the bar to run illicit businesses.
According to the Observation Mission report, it is unclear what led police to the journalist’s body. Case files viewed by the mission did not specify whether questioning of one of the suspects led authorities to the grave.
Investigation under scrutiny
In a country where impunity is endemic and masterminds rarely identified, transparent and thorough investigations are a necessity. Yet, despite the quick arrests of the alleged killers and mastermind, the investigation was deficient, the Observation Mission found.
Some journalists and the Observation Mission said that police did not sufficiently explore Carmela Hernández’s statement about a threat made to her husband. The possibility that Jiménez’s general reporting on organized crime may have been a motive was also not sufficiently investigated.
The authorities’ reaction to the murder was criticized by journalists across the state, especially in Coatzacoalcos. Many journalists said they were appalled when Erick Lagos, then-state secretary of the interior, told the daily, Milenio, on February 11, 2014 that Jiménez was murdered because of a personal conflict with Teresa Hernández. Gina Domínguez, spokeswomen for then-Governor Duarte, backtracked on that statement the next day, telling media the victim’s work as a journalist had not been discarded as a possible motive.
The family, local journalists with whom CPJ spoke, and Laura Borbolla, then head of the federal Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE), all said that Jiménez was murdered “without a doubt” because of his journalism.
State Attorney General Amadeo Flores Espinosa and Domínguez resigned on February 19 and 20, 2014 respectively. State officials said in news reports the resignations are unrelated to the controversy over their unwillingness to link the murder to Jiménez’s profession.
Ultimately, the Observation Mission accepts that police identified the correct suspects who carried out the murder, but the report’s findings said it was unclear how authorities discovered the identities of Jiménez’s kidnappers. It questioned the speed at which the suspects apparently confessed. One of them told a judge they had been tortured to make them confess to the murder, according to news reports.
CPJ contacted the state attorney general’s office for comment, but has not received a reply.
Chiñas said she shares some of the doubts raised by the Observation Mission. She left Notisur in 2015 and was appointed a commissioner in Coatzalcoalcos for the State Commission for Attention and Protection of Journalists (CEAPP) in December 2016. According to her, the investigation needs a “do-over.” “Several lines of investigations should be explored further,” she said.
The victim’s family said that despite the alleged culprits being in jail they don’t feel safe. After the murder, the family relocated to a safe house in Xalapa, but returned shortly afterwards. They still live down the road from Teresa Hernández’s family and the bar that may have led to Jiménez’s kidnapping, torture and murder.
Three years after the murder, an armed state policeman offers permanent surveillance of the residence. It’s hardly a redundant safety measure: Jiménez’s widow said she has been told that Teresa Hernández will seek revenge after leaving prison. The widow did not name the person Hernández allegedly said this to. Teresa Hernández is charged with masterminding the abduction and killing and, if convicted, could be jailed for up to 30 years. Neither she nor the others in custody on kidnap and homicide charges have been convicted. A judge rejected an appeal to excuse them from federal prosecution in September 2015.
Lost in bureaucracy
On February 15, 2014, then-state Attorney General Amadeo Flores told human rights and press freedom organizations, including CPJ, that they would be given access to the case file. CPJ never did get to see the case files and the position of state attorney has been affected by a series of resignations, and authorities cited changes in administration as reason to not speak with CPJ.
Amadeo Flores’ successor, Bravo, resigned in November 2016 and was replaced by Jorge Winckler Ortiz, who did not respond to a request for comment. Jaime Cisneros, the state special prosecutor for issues of freedom of expression, initially granted CPJ an interview, but later refused, citing rules by the new administration led by governor Miguel Ángel Yunes Linares that allow only the social communications secretary to comment. CPJ made several attempts to reach the attorney general’s office via telephone for comment, but its calls went unanswered.
FEADLE told CPJ it has run a parallel investigation into the murder, but the case ultimately remains under the auspices of the Veracruz state authorities. Ricardo Nájera Herrera, who heads FEADLE, said in February that he does not contest the results of the Veracruz state authorities’ investigation.
Jiménez’s widow and daughters said they are convinced that Teresa Hernández masterminded the murder and that the others in custody are responsible for carrying it out. Carmela Hernández said her main hope now is that they are convicted.
“I was told several weeks ago that I was to go to court again to testify,” she said in January. “But I haven’t heard anything since. Frankly, I just want it to be over.”
Her priority is to survive without her late husband’s income. Carmela Hernández still works as a photographer, but said she doesn’t make enough money to pay the bills and receives no financial support from the government.
“Goyo’s death has been a great blow to the family because we don’t really know how to get by,” she said. “We’ll have to find a way to survive.”