Two men pulled up to Heber Lopez Vasquez’s small radio station in southern Mexico in a Dodge Ram pickup just after sunset. The 42-year-old journalist was shot dead by the man who got out of his Dodge Ram pickup. Lopez’s twelve-year-old son Oscar, who was the sole person present with him at that time, ran away, Lopez’s brother said to Reuters.
According to CPJ, a New York-based rights organization, Lopez was among 13 Mexican journalists who were killed in 2022. This was Mexico’s deadliest year, and Mexico is now considered the most dangerous place for journalists around the globe, other than the conflict in Ukraine. CPJ reports that 15 of those killed were from Mexico.
Lopez, who ran the two Oaxaca online news websites in southern Oaxaca had published an article on Facebook accusing Arminda Espinosa Caras, a local politician of corruption.
A nearby patrol car answered an emergency call and intercepted Espinosa’s pickup truck. The two men were then taken into custody. It was later revealed that one of the men had been Espinosa’s brother, who is the man in Lopez’s story.
Lopez was not killed by Espinosa. Multiple requests for comment were not answered by her. Reuters couldn’t find any comments she had made previously about Lopez’s corruption story or Espinosa.
Both her brother and the man with whom she is related are still in detention, but they have not been tried. Multiple requests to their lawyer for comment were not answered.
Hiram Moreno (an Oaxacan veteran journalist) said that he had stopped reporting on drug trafficking and corruption. Heber was killed in the head and leg after a report about local criminal groups. The identity of his assailant has not been released. You cannot rely on the government. You can only keep yourself safe by using self-censorship.
This is the result of years of impunity and violence that have led to “silence areas” in Mexico where murder and corruption are unchecked.
Jan-Albert Hootsen (CPJ Mexico Representative) stated that “in silence zones people don’t get access to the basic information they need to live their lives.” They don’t know which candidate to vote for, as there is no corruption investigation. They aren’t able to tell you what is possible in which parts of the country, or where violence has occurred, so they keep silent.”
The spokesperson for President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador did not respond when asked about media attacks.
CPJ found that 133 journalists were killed in Mexico for reasons related to their work since the beginning of Mexico’s Drug War. Another 13 died for unknown reasons. Mexico has recorded more than 360,000 homicides in that period.
Reporters Without Borders, a rights group representing 10 journalists from Mexico claims that the aggression against journalists has increased in Mexico to areas previously considered less hostile such as Oaxaca or Chiapas.
Lopez, who was a journalist in Oaxaca’s Pacific port of Salina Cruz since mid-2021, was killed. According to security analysts and a DEA source, it is located in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. This narrow stretch of land connects the Gulf of Mexico with the Pacific and has been a popular landing place for precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl or meth.
Lopez’s final story about Espinosa was one of many he wrote. It covered Lopez’s attempts to force workers into voting for Espinosa by getting a company to build a breakwater at Salina Cruz’s port.
This infrastructure is part of Lopez Obrador’s Interoceanic Corridor, one of Lopez Obrador’s most important development projects in southern Mexico.
Jose Ignacio Martinez (a crime reporter at the isthmus) and nine Lopez colleagues said that since Lopez’s murder, they have been more scared to publish stories about the corridor project and drug trafficking.
One source Reuters talked to said that it did an investigation into the corridor but was unable to release any information after Lopez’s passing.
Lopez Obrador’s spokesperson did not reply to my request to comment on corruption allegations related to the corridor.
The Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists was established by the Government in 2012.
The Mechanism is simply known as it. It provides protection for journalists such as panic buttons and surveillance equipment. Home police watches, armored guards, relocation, and armed guards are all part of the system. CPJ discovered that nine Mechanism-protected journalists have been killed since 2017.
Journalists or activists can request protection from The Mechanism. This group includes journalists, human rights defenders, and representatives from non-profits as well as government officials who make up the governing board. Based on the analysis, not all people who ask for protection are granted it.
The Mechanism currently has 1,600 members, 500 journalists and other staff.
Gustavo Sanchez was one of the victims. He was shot by two motorbike-riding hitmen in close quarters on June 20, 2021. After surviving an attempted assassination in 2020, Sanchez had enlisted in the Mechanism for the third time. The protection never came.
Oaxaca’s then-prosecutor stated that Sanchez’s reporting on local elections would form the basis of his investigation. The case has not been prosecuted.
Sanchez’s death prompted Mexico’s Human Rights Commission to launch a 100-page inquiry into the failures of Mexican authorities. The report stated that evidence “revealed the omissions and delays of at least fifteen public servants” as well as negligence and breaches of duty.
Enrique Irazoque is the head of the Interior Ministry’s Department for the Defense of Human Rights. He said that the Mechanism had accepted the findings but recognized the importance of local authorities in the protection lag.
Reuters was told by fifteen people from government and civil society that the Mechanism lacks the resources necessary to address the scale of the problem. Irazoque also agreed with this statement, but he pointed out that the staff of its 40 employees has increased to 70 last year. The budget for 2023 was $ 28.8 million, up from $ 20 million in 2022.
Irazoque stated that funding is a problem, and also suggested that courts, local governments, and state governments need to be more involved, but they lack political will.
In an interview with Reuters, he stated that the Mechanism was absorbing all of the problems but that the issues were not federal. They are regional.
Irazoque thinks more convictions are needed. He believes that the absence of legal consequences for public officials promotes corruption.
A 2021 report by the Interior Ministry which supervises the Mechanism showed that 89% of journalists are not being punished for their crimes. The report revealed that violence against journalists was more common in the local public sector than it is with organized crime.
Patricia Mayorga, a journalist who investigated corruption in Mexico, said that you would assume the largest enemy to be an organized crime and armed groups. It’s actually the relationships between these groups and state officials that are the problem.
Irazoque noted that many Mexican journalists were killed while working for smaller, independent digital outlets. Sometimes, they only publish on Facebook. He said their stories were deeply rooted in local politics.
Mexico’s National Association of Mayors and National Conference of Governors did not reply to inquiries about state and local government involvement in journalists killings and allegations of corruption ties to criminal groups.
Lopez Obrador often mocks the media, calling out journalists critical of him and creating a weekly segment of his daily news conference devoted to his “lies of this week.” While condemning the killings, he accuses his adversaries of bringing up violence in an effort to undermine him.
Irazoque claims he doesn’t have any evidence that the president’s verbal abuses against journalists led to violence. Lopez Obrador’s spokesperson did not respond when I asked for his opinion.
Rodolfo Monts, journalist, said that he was wondering what kind of lifestyle he is leading. He was looking at security footage inside the home, where the Mechanism had placed cameras in the garage and street.
An old cartel had rolled a gun under the door years before, and it has kept him on edge since. In the corner was a whole archive of threats that had been collected over ten years. After a threat was made to his daughter, aged 24, by a cartel, he looked down at his cell phone and said “I am alive, but you are dead.”