Xalapa, Mexico—This pleasant colonial city in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains, the capital of Veracruz state, is deceptively calm. Despite the surface normality, Veracruz may be the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. In the past seven years, a total of 25 reporters have been murdered, and another four have disappeared, according to the journalists I’ve talked to here. (One more reporter has just been murdered in Veracruz state, on March 21. Leobardo Vázquez, who ran a news website, had apparently gotten threats from local officials.) By contrast, in the entire United States, over the past 16 years only one journalist has been murdered for doing his job.
Despite the danger, some reporters here keep on reporting, as I just learned during several days of intense conversations with some of the most courageous people I have ever met.
Murdering journalists in Veracruz is only one element in a campaign of state terror—one that, according to widespread allegations, was organized and abetted by the former governor of Veracruz and the one-time head of his statewide security force. In the decade preceding 2016, the official number of people who disappeared was only 2,750, but other estimates by victims’ organizations oscillate between 4,000 and 20,000. The fear that the 8 million people of this state have lived with is only part of a rising wave of violence and corruption that is spreading across Mexico, for which the ruling elite is mainly responsible. In spite of Mexico’s worst crisis in a century, that elite continues to count on the support of the United States.
What’s more, the US mainstream press has failed to adequately cover the heroic struggle of its colleagues who live and work just a few hours to the south. As a result, in the United States a false image of Mexico as a hopeless land of passive victims continues to persist.
Noé Zavaleta, the local correspondent of Proceso, the distinguished national weekly, is a very tall, energetic 37-year-old who inherited his post after his predecessor, Regina Martinez, was beaten to death in her home in 2012. During one six-month stretch, Zavaleta moved around with armed bodyguards, and he still cautiously directs taxicabs to drop him off down the street from his home.
Miguel Ángel Díaz, a thoughtful man of 43, had made a career as a successful mainstream TV reporter, specializing in documentaries. But he couldn’t report freely, so he and several colleagues started an impressive independent news site called Plumas Libres (“Free” or “Independent Pens”). In 2015, he had to leave Mexico for several months with his wife and small daughter. Now that the danger has eased somewhat, he is back at work here in Xalapa. “I mistrust everyone,” he said. “I’m careful what I say on my cellphone. I always make sure that at least one of my friends knows where I’m going and what I’m doing. I constantly check to see if anyone is following me. I almost never go out at night.”
Their friend, a colorful, brave 31-year-old news photographer named Rubén Espinosa, was murdered in 2015. Espinosa may have been assassinated partly because he took unflattering pictures of the state governor, Javier Duarte. Noé Zavaleta explained that in Espinosa’s photos, “Duarte regularly appeared with his cheeks puffed out, his abdomen jiggling, making constipated gestures, his eyes popping, stooped and gasping for air.”