No Excuse

Marcos Hernández Bautista: the rebel reporter

Marcos Hernández Bautista usually brushed off death threats. But in January 2016, the reporter who regularly covered government corruption in towns near the Pacific coast of Oaxaca state in southern Mexico, received several menacing phone calls that seemed more serious and left him fearing for his life, said his editor, María de los Ángeles Velasco.

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“I told him to get out of there immediately,” Velasco, chief of correspondents at Noticias, Voz e Imagen de Oaxaca, a daily in the city of Oaxaca, told CPJ. “I said, ‘Come here to Oaxaca and we will hide you. We will help you.’”

It is unclear if Hernández, who was also a left-wing activist and culture secretary in his hometown of Santiago Jamiltepec, considered fleeing. On January 21, 2016, two days after speaking with Velasco, the 38-year-old reporter was fatally shot in the head.

A former police chief of Santiago Jamiltepec was convicted and sentenced in March 2017 to 30 years in prison for the shooting. But, like most homicides involving journalists in Mexico, whoever ordered the killing has not been detained and more than a year later the Hernández case has yet to be fully solved.

The autodidact

Hernández was a self-taught journalist—and proud of it. That’s according to a close friend who, like numerous colleagues and acquaintances of the reporter interviewed by CPJ during a January trip to Oaxaca, asked to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisal.

One of four sons of Mixtec Indians, Hernández was born in Santiago Jamiltepec, a town that’s home to around 15,000 people and dominated by a Roman Catholic cathedral in the central square. Hernández was expected to become a tenant farmer like his father, who grew jicama, a tuber with a bark-like skin. His mother sold fruit and vegetables in the town market and the family never had much money. To help pay for high school, the friend said, Hernández enrolled in a government program that provided scholarships to students who helped teach impoverished Mixtec Indians how to read.

Marcos Hernández Bautista, a reporter for Noticias, was shot dead in January 2016. (Noticias)

Hernández wanted to go to university but couldn’t afford it. So he volunteered at a local radio station which inspired him to take up journalism. Well-read and fascinated by politics, Hernández was soon hired to host a morning news program on La Ke Buena, a commercial station in the nearby town of Pinotepa Nacional.

“He loved to be on the air,” the friend said. “He loved to interact with the public. He won the respect of the people and politicians of all stripes.”

Hernández was also involved in promoting his Mixtec culture. Santiago Jamiltepec and outlying regions have a history of land disputes and conflicts between indigenous group and mixed-race mestizos. Even the town cemetery is segregated, with Indians buried on one side and mestizos on the other. But Hernández tried to build bridges. At the time of his death, he was serving as culture secretary in the Santiago Jamiltepec town government, in which he promoted cultural events and organized groups to perform Mixtec dances at festivals. Town legal adviser Miguel Calderón told CPJ that Hernández often wore typical Mixtec clothing—loose fitting white outfits—to work.

“Marcos was 100 percent Indian,” his close friend said. “He would let you know if you mispronounced a Mixtec word.”

But journalism was his first love. In 2008, Hernández began collaborating with Noticias, Voz e Imagen de Oaxaca—referred to as simply Noticias—one of the biggest newspapers in the state. “Marcos had an itch to be a journalist. He told me, ‘I want to report for Noticias.’ So I told him to send me something to see how he could write,” Velasco said.

Hernández was hired as a stringer and photographer. He earned a typical salary for rural journalists, of between US$5 and US$10 per story, plus about US$3 per photo. He filed stories almost every day and even distributed the paper along the coast. Joking about his paltry earnings, Hernández once suggested that his close friend commit suicide by jumping off a balcony so he could snap the picture and sell it to Noticias. But, the friend said, money was never all that important to Hernández. He lived with his brother, Fortino, and his biggest luxury was a white Volkswagen Jetta, a kind of mobile office from which he often wrote and filed his stories.

Velasco said she was impressed by Hernández’s understanding of local politics, his lucid writing, and his ethics. She said that many part-time reporters in the provinces accept gifts from politicians to write positive stories about them. Others work out a more formal arrangement of monthly payments from politicians in exchange for good coverage. But, Velasco said, Hernández steered clear of corrupt practices. She said she once saw him turn down a bottle of liquor from a politician from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Delfina Elizabeth Guzmán Díaz, a former federal congresswoman and a former mayor of Santiago Jamiltepec who was close to Hernández, echoed Velasco’s view that he was an ethical reporter. “Journalists will approach you and say, ‘I will write good things about you if you pay me 4,000 pesos per month.’ But Marcos never did that. He was valiant. He told the truth.”

Truth-telling can be risky in Oaxaca. Aside from indigenous conflicts, the state is home to left-wing rebels and a thriving and widely reported drug-trafficking business in which smugglers pick up Colombian cocaine delivered via submarines and aircraft and re-route the drugs to the U.S. Drug money, in turn, has worked its way into local campaigns as smugglers attempt to ensure that politicians and law enforcement officials look the other way, Nestor Ruíz Hernández, who runs an independent human rights organization Comisión Regional de Derechos Humanos de la Costa (Coastal Regional Commission of Human Rights) in the town of Pinotepa Nacional, said. He said murders have become a common occurrence. The night before Ruíz spoke with CPJ, three people were killed in a shootout on the main highway running through Pinotepa Nacional, he said.

Images of victims from drug cartels and gangs in Oaxaca are held up at a rally in 2011. The state is home to a thriving drug trafficking operation that has driven up the murder rate. (AP/Eduardo Verdugo)

In addition, many of these towns are controlled by powerful political families with strong ties to the ruling PRI, said Guzmán, a member of the left-leaning opposition party National Regeneration Movement, also known as Morena. Leaders of these political clans are known as “cacicazgos”—from an indigenous word meaning “chieftain”—and they often display little tolerance for critical reporting, said Razhy González, an investigator for the Oaxaca state government’s Human Rights Defense Office. He said that in addition to Hernández’s case, he was aware of five other journalists killed in Oaxaca in 2016, although he said it remains unclear whether they were targeted for their reporting. CPJ’s research, which counts only cases of journalists killed in direct relation to their work, lists two murders in the state for that year.

“The cacicazgos are the ones who have power in these towns. They are the ones who decide who will live and who will die. And they have a network of hired killers to carry out their orders,” an Oaxaca government human rights investigator, who is familiar with the coastal region and who requested anonymity, told CPJ.

That pervasive danger prompted several sources to advise CPJ during a visit to the region to avoid staying overnight in several of the coastal towns known to be especially violent, and to avoid speaking to the police or local cacicazgos.

Another factor discouraging aggressive reporting is the cozy relationship between news outlets and local politicians. One editor, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, told CPJ that newspapers and radio stations sometimes accept payments from politicians to run positive stories about them that appear as legitimate news items.

Another journalist, Pedro Matías, the Oaxaca correspondent for the Mexico City-based Proceso magazine, said that many newspapers, and TV and radio stations in Oaxaca depend on government advertising which can be parceled out or withdrawn depending on the tone of the coverage. [Editor’s note: Matías contributed research for this report.]

Matías said reporters who deviate from this position are known as revoltosos, or rebels, and are the most likely targets of threats and attacks. “Doing good journalism in Oaxaca is nearly impossible,” Matías said. “It’s a very frustrating situation.”

Principled reporter

Despite these risks, friends and colleagues say Hernández was something of a revoltoso who often cast a critical eye on local officials. He wrote about resistance to a government plan to build a hydroelectric dam, a project that large landowners favor but opponents claim will have a negative impact on the environment. He denounced officials for land theft, for taking bribes, for pilfering public funds, and for failing to confiscate drugs in a major smuggling corridor, Velasco said. Hernández used a 2014 obituary of Gabriel Iglesias Meza, a former Jamiltepec mayor, cacicazgo, and PRI stalwart, to criticize him for failing to carry out public works projects. Velasco said that to minimize the risk of being targeted for his reporting, Hernández sometimes asked for his byline to be removed.

Alongside his journalistic work, Hernández was a part-time activist with the opposition Morena party. Guzmán said she thinks he harbored ambitions to run for public office but may have demurred for lack of money. Just days before he was killed Hernández agreed to join Guzmán’s campaign team as she geared up to recapture her old job as mayor of Santiago Jamiltepec in the June 2016 election. It was a long-shot bid and somewhat risky. The Oaxaca coastal region is a PRI stronghold and several Morena activists have been killed, according to Ruíz, who runs the independent human rights commission in Pinotepa Nacional.

Hernández’s brother, Fortino, said that friends and family warned the journalist that his nonconformist politics and journalism could make him a target. Fortino said that their mother was especially concerned and said she feared something might happen to Hernández. But, he told CPJ, “Marcos was very reserved. He didn’t like us asking what he was writing about. He did things his own way.”

Hernández’s close friend said he also tried to get the journalist to be careful in his work. He recalled their conversation after Hernández wrote a 2009 story that criticized a town official in Santiago Jamiltepec for allegedly using government vehicles for his own business. “I told Marcos, ‘You better tone down your stories or this man will come after you,’” the friend said. “But Marcos said, ‘What do you want me to do? Resign and become a hermit?’ That’s the way he was. Marcos did what he thought was right.”

Hernández didn’t report receiving threats for that article, but he was threatened several times over the years for other reporting, Velasco and another editor said.

Ironically, the article that may have provoked his murder was a story Hernández did not write, Velasco said.

On January 18, 2016, three days before the journalist was gunned down, an item appeared on Facebook that was designed to look like a news article from Noticias, but was not. It accused Braulio Hernández Ocampo, who at the time was Santiago Jamiltepec’s mayor, and Cecilia Rivas, the widow of former mayor and PRI strongman Iglesias, of stealing more than 50 acres of public land from the government’s National Indigenous Institute.

The bar in San Andrés Huaxpaltepec belonging to Hernández. Before the journalist was shot dead outside it, he received several threats. (CPJ/John Otis)

The story carried no byline but Hernández told a friend he was worried people would think he wrote it. “Marcos was a very visible person and he denounced things,” said his close friend.

Another of the journalist’s friends in Santiago Jamiltepec, who asked to remain anonymous due to fears of reprisal, said that Rivas was extremely angry about the fake news story. CPJ attempted to reach Rivas for comment via telephone but its calls went unanswered.

The day after the fake report appeared, Hernández told colleagues he had received threatening phone calls. He did not specify who made the calls, his colleagues told CPJ. “Marcos was very scared. He said, ‘They threatened me. They are going to kill me,’” Velasco said.

Speaking with him by phone, Velasco said she told Hernández to write a story distancing himself and Noticias from the Facebook story and assured him that the newspaper would immediately publish the clarification. But, she said, Hernández never filed the article.

Guzmán, the politician, said she learned about the fake news story on January 21. She and Hernández spent much of that day together driving to nearby villages to try to convince people to join the Morena party. During the trip, Guzmán said she urged the journalist to publicly distance himself from the article. Hernández said that he would.

At about 6 p.m., the reporter dropped Guzmán off at her house in Santiago Jamiltepec. Hernández then drove about 20 miles to the town of San Andrés Huaxpaltepec where he had recently opened a nightclub. Called Los Abuelos (the grandparents), the bar was a way for Hernández to make some extra cash while promoting local music and dance groups that performed there, his close friend said.

According to a statement from the Oaxaca Attorney General’s Office, later that evening Hernández left the bar to retrieve his cell phone charger from his car. At about 9:30 p.m., the statement said, he was shot several times with a 9mm pistol while getting into his car which was parked across the street from the bar. Police found his lifeless body sprawled next to his Jetta, with the door open.

Scared into silence

The murder of Hernández made the front page of his own newspaper but otherwise caused little stir in Oaxaca—even among journalists. Of the state’s seven major newspapers, numerous TV and radio stations and 400 news websites and blogs, not one sent a reporter to the crime scene, said Matías, who added that his own editors at Proceso showed scant interest. Matías said that he and about two dozen other reporters held a protest march in the state capital, Oaxaca, but after that, the murder was largely forgotten.

One problem was that Hernández was relatively unknown: a part-time journalist covering small towns far from the state capital, Matías said. For another, he said there have been so many reporters killed in Mexico and in Oaxaca in recent years—40 confirmed cases in the country since 1992, according to CPJ statistics—that the homicides are starting to seem almost normal. There was also a fear factor. Velasco said she planned to dispatch a Noticias reporter and photographer to investigate but the journalists begged off the story. Velasco did not insist.

Friends and family gather for Hernández’s funeral. A former police chief is convicted of the journalist’s murder in March 2017, but police have not identified the mastermind. (Noticias)

“I am from that region of the country,” Velasco said. “If people don’t like what you are investigating they will kill you. They don’t care what organization you represent. They will just grab you and kill you. I am not going to send my reporters into a slaughterhouse.”

A Noticias correspondent in Pinotepa Nacional, a town just down the road from San Andrés Huaxpaltepec where Hernández was killed, attended the funeral. But Velasco said he refused to write about the homicide. The reporter was so spooked that for the next year he would not even pick up the telephone when Velasco called to request stories, she said. Several of Hernández’s relatives also spoke with Velasco and the paper’s top editor. They were scared and suggested that any further probing by the newspaper could cause problems for them, Velasco said. Hernández’s brother, Fortino, confirmed to CPJ that the family is scared.

In the 15 months since the Hernández killing, Noticias has published about 10 follow-up stories but most have been short dispatches about the official investigation rather than enterprise reporting. In that part of Oaxaca, Velasco said, “Our journalists will cover issues like immigration, culture, tourism, and the work of local artisans. But when it comes to the investigation of a crime that may involve cacicazgos, you have to be very careful.”

Parallel to the main investigation by the state prosecutor’s office, the state human rights office is examining the Hernández murder. But the unit that specializes in crimes against reporters has just six officials working on about 250 cases. It has not sent anyone to the crime scene and is conducting interviews by telephone, said González, who heads the unit.

A break in the case came on February 25, 2016 when Jorge Armando Santiago Martínez, the police commander of Santiago Jamiltepec, was arrested for shooting Hernández. Over a year later, on March 3, 2017, a regional court in the coastal town of Puerto Escondido convicted Santiago of murder and sentenced him to 30 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay 178,000 pesos in damages to Hernández’s family, according to a statement from the Oaxaca Attorney General’s Office.

Despite a conviction, there has been little progress in identifying those responsible for ordering the murder. In a story published on the one-year anniversary of Hernández’s death, Noticias alleged that the killing may have been carried out by the police chief and a group of hit men working for the ruling PRI party. But the story offered no evidence.

The head of PRI, in Oaxaca state, did not return CPJ’s calls requesting comment.

Masterminds of killings—journalists or otherwise—in Oaxaca are rarely identified and prosecuted, according to González. He knows firsthand about impunity. A former journalist and newspaper editor in Oaxaca, González was kidnapped and threatened with death in 1996. CPJ documented at the time how he was mentally and physically tortured then released after 44 hours. No one has been prosecuted for the crime.

Juan Rodríguez, González’s boss who heads the state human rights office, said that although the state prosecutor’s office is supposed to be independent, in practice, it continues to be influenced by the executive branch. And because the state house is currently controlled by the PRI, he said prosecutors can come under pressure to scale back investigations that may involve wrongdoing by political clans connected to the party.

“When there is a crime involving important political families it may be that this crime is not fully investigated or that the investigation ends once the gunman is captured,” Rodríguez said.

He added that rather than solving crimes against journalists, he thinks the state government seems more focused on protecting the reputation of the PRI. Instead of arresting the criminal masterminds, which would help deter crimes against reporters, he said the state government’s focus has been on providing threatened journalists with bodyguards.

In a brief telephone interview with CPJ, Héctor Joaquín Carrillo Ruíz, the chief government prosecutor in Oaxaca, denied that he faces political pressure to hold back on sensitive investigations or to protect ruling party politicians. “I have full autonomy,” he said.

Carillo told CPJ the department is actively looking for the mastermind.

Alfonso Martínez, a spokesman for Alejandro Murat Hinojosa, the Oaxaca governor and a member of the PRI, also denied that state prosecutors come under pressure to protect ruling party members. He told CPJ that the state government would use all its powers to track down and arrest those responsible for attacking journalists “no matter what political party they belong to.”

Carillo said there have been delays identifying the mastermind of the Hernández killing because potential witnesses are too scared of retaliation to collaborate with his office. But, he said, his office is investigating at least one PRI politician in Santiago Jamiltepec as a possible mastermind of the crime.

“If important political players are behind this murder then we will have to take them on,” said Carrillo, who declined to name the politician under investigation.

In the aftermath of the Hernández killing, journalists in Oaxaca are exploring ways to better protect themselves. Matías said that reporters in the state capital are exchanging contacts with their colleagues in outlying towns in Oaxaca with the idea of creating a rapid-response network among reporters when they come under threat.

Hernández’s editor remains in a state of anguish. “Today, I think I should have been more insistent that Marcos leave town. I am stuck with these feelings that I should have done something more,” said Velasco, dabbing tears from her eyes as she sat in the lobby of the Noticias office. “Why did this have to happen?”

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