Freedom of the press once again faced tricky problems in 2001. More journalists were killed in the US border area, where crime is common, but the motives remained unclear. In the case of Saúl Martínez, who was murdered on 24 March, some thought he was paying for having blackmailed police officials.
But throughout the country, it was mostly officials and politicians who intimidated journalists because they disliked press criticism of the authorities. Fourteen cases of threats and attacks were recorded, along with five instances of pressure and obstruction. The methods used sometimes resembled those of dictatorships. In early December, the offices of the magazine Forum were ransacked and data on human rights violations by the army was stolen. Three months earlier, supporters of the governor of Guerrero state bought up all the copies of one issue of the magazine Sur Proceso which reported that the governor’s popularity was falling. In another southern state, a judge tried to force a journalist to reveal his sources.
So the press freedom situation did not change much after President Vicente Fox came to power and his relations with the media deteriorated in the course of the year. After publicly promising in February that he would ensure "broad press freedom without any kind of regulation," the president expressed irritation in early November at the media’s coverage of his government and accused it of "many distortions." The atmosphere has already been poisoned two months earlier when journalist Raymundo Rivapalacio charged that the president’s wife, Martha Sahagún, had tried to get him dismissed from the management of the daily Milenio.
However, as in the last years of Fox’s predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo (of the Institutional Revolutionary Party - PRI), press freedom slowly expanded. Two trials of people who had killed journalists marked a reduction of impunity and the PRI’s system of press control during its 70 years in power (1929-2000) began to be criticised. In Tabasco state, a member of the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) said he would sue the state’s PRI governor who, he said, had embezzled 500,000 pesos to pay journalists and the media to back his election campaign.
Two journalists were killed in 2001 but it was not possible, at year-end, to say whether the killings were connected with their work as journalists.
José Luis Ortega Mata, managing editor of the weekly Semanario de Ojinaga, was shot and killed by two bullets in the head on 19 February but his wallet and camera were not stolen. The paper, published in Ojinaga, in the northern state of Chihuahua, circulates in the northern part of the state and over the border in the US towns of Odessa and Midland, in Texas. It had published a story on 15 February about drug-trafficking in the region and was preparing another on how drug-lords funded the election campaigns of local politicians. Investigators did not rule out the murder being a crime of passion. Identikit portraits of the two killers were made. Ortega Mata, a journalist for 15 years, had also been managing editor of the weekly Prensa Libre, and had recently been elected president of the Ojinaga Photographers’and Cameramen’s Association. On 29 April, Jésus Manuel Herrera Olivas, a businessman in Presidio, Texas, was arrested and jailed after a witness, Arturo Molinar Aguirre, identified him as one of the killers. The prosecutor was unable to give a motive for the murder and Molinar Aguirre was reportedly in prison the day Ortega Mata was killed. Herrera Olivas was released on 13 July for "lack of evidence."
The body of Saúl Martínez, deputy managing editor of the daily El Imparcial, published in Matamoros, in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, was found by police in his car with four bullets in his head, on the border with the United States on 24 March. He had been dead for about 12 hours and had vanished the evening before. He is thought to have been kidnapped on his way to Matamora airport to pick up a colleague. The paper regularly published reports about rackets involving drugs and people-smuggling to the US, crime and corrupt officials, and the editorial staff regularly received threats. However, sources which asked not to be named said Martínez had blackmailed police officials, threatening to attack them in the paper if they did not give him money.
New information on journalists killed before 2001
Sixto Anza González and Eleocadio Navarrete Cantú were sentenced to 33 years in prison and fined 16,400 pesos (2,084 euros) on 17 April 2001 for the 1997 murder of Jesús Abel Bueno León, managing editor of the weekly Siete Días, published in the southwestern state of Guerrero. They had been held since two days after the killing. The judge noted that two other people were still being prosecuted for the murder, thought to have been planned by a foreigner known as "Sherly," who reportedly paid the killers 200,000 pesos (25,000 euros). The judge said former state governor Angel Aguirre Rivero and Rubén Robles Acatlan, former secretary of state of Guerrero, were not involved in the murder, contrary to what Bueno León had implied in a letter published after he was killed on 20 May 1997 near the town of Chilpancingo (Guerrero state).
Luis Enrique Rincón Muro, Jorge Pacheco Reyes and Vidal Zamora Lara were jailed for 25 years on 2 May for their part in the 1997 murder of Benjamin Flores González, founder of the daily La Prensa, in San Luis Río Colorado, in the northwestern state of Sonora. A fourth suspect, Miguel Ángel Zamora Lara, was acquitted for "lack of evidence." The prosecution had called for the maximum sentence of between 40 and 50 years in prison. Flores González, who was killed on 15 July 1997, had published investigations into drug-trafficking and the comfortable prison conditions enjoyed by drug-lord Jaime González Gutiérrez, whose brother Gabriel, according to prosecutor Miguel Angel Cortés, had ordered the killing and had been arrested in the US for drug-dealing on 24 February 2000.
A court ordered the release on 3 August of Juan Chivarras and Miguel Hernández, two Huichol Indians suspected of having killed US journalist Philip True, correspondent of the San Antonio Express-News, who had been found dead on 16 December 1998 while reporting on the Huichol community in the western state of Jalisco. The prosecutor’s office said the death was an accident. True’s widow Martha said she was "very disappointed by Mexican justice" and had not been told in advance about the freeing of the suspects. The staff of the San Antonio Express-News said they were "dismayed" by the release of the two men. True’s relatives said the first autopsy showed he had been strangled and noted that the two Indians had confessed to the murder and that some of True’s possessions had been found in their homes. They said the theory that it was an accident rested on an assertion that True was drunk, when in fact his family said he did not drink. But the families of the two Indians said the confessions had been obtained by torture and that two subsequent autopsies concluded that the journalist’s death was an accident. Sources that did not want to be named told Reporters Without Borders that the community True was reporting on was involved in drug trafficking and that after his body was found, two members of the community had been picked out to serve as the culprits so the army would stop searching the region.
Six journalists attacked
José Antonio Lara Cahuich, secretary-general of a peasant association, struck Henry Gamalier Huchin, correspondent of the daily Tribuna in the southeastern state of Campeche, on 18 June 2001 and threatened to kill him. The journalist had written articles describing how quickly Lara Cahuich got rich when he was mayor of the town of Hopelchen (1997-2000).
Fabián Antonio Santiago Hernández, of the daily El Liberal del Sur (Vera Cruz state), was attacked in Coatzacoalcos on
1 November by a town councillor, Luis René Morales Romero, who the journalist wanted to ask about allegations that he had stolen public funds. Aides of the councillor, who was armed with a knife, intervened and Santiago Hernández was able to escape.
Police detectives hit and threatened two journalists, William Casanova Vázquez and Fernando Acosta, from the daily Diario de Yucatan, in the southeastern state of Yucatán, on 5 November as they were investigating a road accident.
Felipe Cobián, of the weekly Proceso, was hit by a prosecutor’s security guards on 7 December and his tape-recorder seized while covering a demonstration organised by the prosecutor’s office for which he was duly accredited.
José Luis García, of Radio Net, was hit by police on 18 December while covering a demonstration violently broken up by police in Ecatepec (Mexico state). Garcia was speaking to a protester who had been attacked by police, who then hit the journalist and confiscated his tape-recorder.
Seven journalists threatened
Margil Guerra and Ciro Rodríguez, of the TV station Televisa, were threatened by soldiers on 31 March 2001 as they were on their way to Guardados de Abajo, in Tamaulipas state, near the Texas border, to cover an army operation against drug traffickers in which 20 people were arrested. A local human rights organisation said the journalists had been intimidated and threatened by the soldiers who had pointed guns at them.
Strangers in two cars stopped Carlos López Merigo, the son of Eduardo López Betancourt, a university teacher and contributor to the daily papers Excelsior and México Hoy and the magazine La Crísis, on 29 May and warned him that if his father did not leave the country, "we’ll kill you." Soon afterwards, López Betancourt temporarily went abroad. He had received threats since May 2000, when the federal secretary of public security, Alejandro Gertz Manero, sued him for libel. López Betancourt said he had given tape recordings of the threats to the authorities and deplored the fact he had not been told the result of enquiries into them. He noted that the incident involving his son came at a time when several academics had voiced support for him in the press. He said he had been legally harassed despite the public prosecutor’s written recommendation in January that proceedings against him should be dropped for lack of evidence.
Ernesto Villanueva, an academic expert in information law and contributor to the weekly Proceso, was followed by strangers as he made his way home on 23 October. Soon afterwards, he got a phone call threatening him and his family. Villanueva had taken a stand in the press against a proposed law on public access to information.
On 9 November, it was reported that the home of Francisco Guerrero, editor of the Morelos state edition of the daily La Jornada, had been under surveillance by strangers for several weeks. At the beginning of the month, servants working at Guerrero’s house had been stopped in the street and threatened with death if they did not hand over documents in the house. In early September, the paper’s administrator had been attacked. The local edition of La Jornada had accused a justice ministry official of being involved in a murder and had claimed that the Morelos state government had set up a special unit to monitor opposition politicians and members of NGOs.
Francisco Castellanos, correspondent of the weekly Proceso in the western state of Michoacán, was threatened on 7 December by Gabriel Herrera Trujillo, chief of police investigations in the state. Castellanos had written in an article on 4 November in the newspaper El Mañana, in Laredo (in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas), accusing a former Michoacán prosecutor and police officials in Michoacán of embezzlement and racketeering.
A municipal official in Tultitlán warned Humberto Padgett, of the daily paper Reforma, on 21 December that he risked being attacked if he went to the city. The previous day, an article by Padgett had appeared about the financial affairs of the city government, saying that on 14 December aides of Mayor José Antonio Ríos Granados had offered him money to be silent, following an earlier offer on 15 July of a job with the city as well as cash if he would stop criticising the mayor.
Pressure and obstruction
Former Mexico City mayor Rosario Robles Berlangua, sued Alejandro Junco de la Vega (managing editor) and Carolina Pavón (a journalist) on the daily paper Reforma for libel on 16 April 2001. In an article published on 12 April, Pavón had reported the conclusions of an internal report that said nearly 10 per cent of the city’s budget could not be accounted for. On 26 April, the two journalists appeared before a judge. They risk up to two years in prison.
Officials in the southwestern state of Guerrero bought up all copies of issue no. 40 of the fortnightly magazine Sur Proceso on 30 and 31 August in Acapulco and in about 20 other towns where it was distributed. The issue reported that state governor René Juarez Cisneros’ popularity was slipping and that he had a stake in the building of a luxury hotel. A second buy-up operation was carried out on 3 September of the daily newspaper Proceso, which attacked the governor’s buy-up of the magazine. Juarez Cisneros denied any involvement of his administration in the operation.
Fredy López Arévalo, managing editor of the Maya Press news agency, based in the southern state of Chiapas, was summoned by the prosecutor’s office on 5 October and questioned about where he had obtained a copy of the Chiapas state auditing body’s report on alleged fraud by Francisco Rojas Toledo, mayor of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. The content of the report had been published by the agency on 1 October. The journalist was told the mayor was suing him for libel and that he had to appear in court within 24 hours or else would get an official summons. He said the suit had no merit because the published material was taken from an official document. He added that while he was being questioned, the judge received a number of phone calls from someone who seemed to want to know who the news agency’s source was.
The Mexico City offices of the magazine Forum were burgled on 4 December and its computers and backup diskettes stolen. The magazine is known for its outspokenness and investigations into human rights violations and abuses by the security forces. It had also printed articles by Gen. Francisco Gallardo, who called for the appointment of an ombudsman in the army and was subsequently jailed for his stand.
Two men tried to set fire to the offices of the daily Despertar de la Costa, in the town of San Jeronimito (Guerrero state), on 31 December, by throwing burning objects into the building which only caused minor damage. The paper had recently published articles about alleged abuses by the army, the reported involvement of the police in drug-trafficking and investigations into the murder in October of a human rights campaigner, Digna Ochoa.