Preserving the Memory of Murdered Journalists in Mexico

Preserving the Memory of Murdered Journalists in Mexico

Preserving the Memory of Murdered Journalists in Mexico

Family members of assassinated media workers in Veracruz have formed a network to honor their relatives’ work and to care for one another.


El Tejar, Medellín de Bravo, Veracruz, Mexico—In late May, a baby slept in a hammock as his family tended to customers at the storefront on the ground floor of their home. A wheelbarrow full of mangos sat to one side. This is where Jorge Sánchez Ordóñez, 36, does most of his journalism. It’s also the house from which his father was kidnapped seven years ago. The home looks more imposing now than it did then. After the abduction, workers for the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Workers and Journalists installed security cameras and a metal fence crowned with barbed wire.

When Jorge Sánchez leaves the property, he wears a plain black T-shirt and jeans; he wants to look nondescript, especially as he delivers the tamales and chiles rellenos that his family sells to fund his work. But when he arrives at a scene to report, he pulls out his single-lens reflex camera, hangs a press pass from the rearview mirror of his car, and puts on a navy-blue vest with his father’s name embroidered under the slogan, “To live with fear is not an option.”

Jorge Sánchez is one of a handful of volunteer journalists at La Unión, the publication that his father, Moisés Sánchez Cerezo, founded. The paper has grown from its early days in the 1980s when it was a flyer handed out around town. Now it’s a digital outlet with more than 17,000 Facebook followers and an occasional print edition. It remains free, ensuring that everyone in the community can read it.

La Unión’s focus is denuncia social, or social criticism—essentially local accountability reporting. It’s an emphasis that has proved deadly for journalists in Mexico, including Moisés Sánchez, whose body was found weeks after his kidnapping with signs of torture.

Outside of active war zones, Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world for media workers. Since 2005, more than 30 reporters have been killed in the state of Veracruz alone. On September 19 at The Hague, the People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists, which was organized by a group of media freedom organizations, declared Mexico (along with Sri Lanka and Syria) “guilty of all the human rights violations brought against them.” The unofficial court has no legal authority, but Miguel Ángel López Solana, the son of assassinated journalist Miguel Ángel López Velasco, read aloud part of the verdict at a public event in Veracruz.

It’s not only international groups trying to raise awareness about the attacks against reporters. The Network in Memory and Struggle for Assassinated or Disappeared Journalists, which was founded earlier this year, includes representatives from 14 families with relatives of murdered media workers. While it is the first collective in Mexico to unite around victims who were journalists, it is part of a long history of memory work in Latin America.

“Mexico is a country with no memory,” said Patricia Espinosa, a preschool teacher in Mexico City whose brother Rubén Espinosa, a photojournalist, was killed in 2015. “Something happens today, and right now it’s news, and right now it’s important, but after a few months it’s no longer material.… We’ve gotten used to living with this quantity of cases.”

According to Artículo 19, an NGO dedicated to press freedom in Mexico and Central America, the majority of documented aggressions against Mexican journalists are committed by government officials. The founders of the Network say the government has conducted smear campaigns against their deceased family members, bungled forensic processes, and mishandled their cases. Yet the group’s mission is not just to demand justice within the judicial system; with 98 percent of journalist murders in the country going unpunished, members told me that this goal often seems out of reach. The organization also commemorates murdered reporters and photographers, honors their work, and publicly and accurately discusses their assassinations to raise the political cost of future killings.

The Argentinian sociologist Elizabeth Jelin describes this type of memory work as part of a broader movement to confront large-scale impunity. In her book State Repression and the Labors of Memory, she writes, “Memory, truth, and justice blend into each other, because the meaning of the past that is being fought about is, in fact, part and parcel of the demand for justice in the present.”

This year, 15 media workers have been murdered in Mexico in possible retaliation for their reporting. After years of running into one another at protests and memorials for their dead relatives, the members of what would become the Network began to organize this spring as three more journalists from Veracruz were killed: José Luis Gamboa, Yesenia Mollinedo Falconi, and Sheila Johana García Olivera.

Yazmín López Solana, a nurse, and Isabel Luna Varela, an office worker, have been friendly for years, because their relatives worked together at a newspaper before they were killed in separate attacks. Yazmín López told me that when heard about this year’s murders she felt like the 11 years since the assassination of her family members had frozen, “and I was sitting here once again.”

Isabel Luna added, “It feels really ugly to think that another family is going through the same thing.”

Jorge Sánchez, the Network’s spokesperson, has been demanding that the government hold the killers of journalists accountable. He has received threats related to both his reporting and his activism. Such threats are part of why he said it made sense for surviving family members to form a collective. “Imagine that they’ve just assassinated your relative,” he explained to me. “You have to travel. You have to look for lawyers.… On top of that, the fear of what you’re going to do, will you flee? You have to take care of yourself. They call you. They threaten you. You don’t sleep.” Helping others out with this combination of circumstances, he said, is a major reason the organization is so necessary.

As the Network grows, Jorge Sánchez said he hopes it can expand to support members in other states, but for now it’s a challenge just to coordinate the group in Veracruz, which covers nearly 30,000 square miles. The Network is fundraising for its members’ travel expenses so it can host more in-person events—whether those are talks with organizations dedicated to journalist safety, protests following a journalist’s death, or a chance to meet with the government about their cases. In August, they met with nine federal and state organizations to insist that “their petitions and agreements don’t stay in the realm of ‘goodwill’ or ‘empty words,’ rather that there be a real commitment on the part of the government bodies to follow up on the cases and make positive progress.”

Survivors told me repeatedly that being related to an assassinated journalist comes with challenges. In 2012, after her brother Guillermo Luna Varela, a photojournalist for Veracruz News, and uncle Gabriel Huge, a former reporter for NOTIVER, were murdered alongside Irasema Becerra, her colleague at El Dictamen, Isabel Luna was fired from her job selling ads. “I think maybe they didn’t want to deal with another death,” she said.

Fears of relatives’ being killed are not unfounded. When gunmen shot dead Yazmín López’s father, Miguel Ángel López Velasco, then the director of crime reporting at NOTIVER, they also murdered her mother, Agustina Solana, an employee of the Mexican Institute of Social Security, and her brother Misael López Solana, a budding photojournalist.

Shortly afterward, Yazmín López said she was driving in Veracruz when “a ton of people armed with long guns” blocked her path, forced her from her truck, and stole the vehicle. It wasn’t clear whether the robbery was related to the assassination, but she worried that it might be and spent years afraid to speak out.

Yazmín López told me anomalies have also plagued many of the investigations. “We ourselves, the family, mopped up the blood from how they left the bodies,” she said. “They left the blood, and they never came back to pick up the bullets. We found the bullets. We found the casings. We found pieces of teeth.… The police never did a good job collecting evidence.”

Partly because of the mismanagement of the crime scene, Yazmín López believes that her family’s murderers will never be brought to justice. This summer, in a ceremony attended by the Network, Yazmín López’s surviving brother, with the support of Reporters Without Borders, mounted a plaque in their honor in Veracruz. Having a place to mourn has meant a lot to Yazmín López. “There are people that don’t have a place to go to cry over their family,” she said. “There are people who still haven’t found their family members.… I want them to feel what I’m feeling in this moment.”

There’s a pattern in Veracruz, Jorge Sánchez told me, in which the government officials charged with finding the killers blame the victim by tying the person to other forms of crime. This tars the journalist, their surviving family, and their colleagues as undeserving of justice and creates room for the government to close the case without investigating itself.

Just days before his disappearance, Jorge’s father, Moisés Sánchez, told his family that he’d heard that the mayor, Omar Cruz Reyes, had threatened him in a private meeting. It took months before the state congress authorized an investigation into Cruz, and in the interim, he fled the state. Seven years later, he remains at large.

After Moisés Sánchez’s disappearance, federal police showed up at the family home with surprising news: They had found explosives in the trunk of the taxi he drove to support his work with La Unión. But the Sánchez family had taken photos of the car, including inside the trunk, when Moisés Sánchez was kidnapped, and no explosives were present.

“So then, because they could see that we had proof that their accusation was false, they had to desist, and they didn’t continue with that angle,” Jorge Sánchez said.

Jorge Sánchez isn’t exactly sure what the police were trying to achieve by planting explosives in his father’s taxi. Perhaps, he said, they were trying to imply that he “worked for a terrorist cell, or something like that.” But the family has been vigilant in protecting Moisés Sánchez’s legacy—including pushing back against the government’s attempts to minimize his journalism. After Moisés Sánchez was kidnapped, the governor of Veracruz himself referred to him, dismissively, as a “taxi driver and neighborhood activist.”

Later in 2015, when unknown assailants assassinated Rubén Espinosa alongside Nadia Vera, Yesenia Quiroz, Mile Virginia Martín, and Alejandra Negrete in Mexico City, the local attorney general’s office published toxicology reports indicating that Espinosa and Vera had consumed drugs. The government also investigated rumors that Martín, a Colombian model, was a sex worker, based mainly on her nationality and profession.

For Patricia Espinosa, Rubén Espinosa’s sister, those speculations are beside the point. “It’s a method that the authorities and their allies in the media use to stain the image of the people [involved], so that society will say ‘Ah, well… That’s why they were assassinated,’” she told me. “The authorities, instead of looking at the perpetrators, turn their gaze on the victims.”

On the anniversary of the assassinations in Mexico City, activists and family members hold a festival called “Arte Para No Olvidarte,” or “Art So I Won’t Forget You.” Outside the apartment where the five were shot, the group conducts a ceremony to “resignify the space,” followed by performances and the testimonies of family members. This year, there was a demonstration in the Veracruz state capital as well.

Itzamná Ponce and Daniela Guillén, who help organize Arte Para No Olvidarte every year, told me that in the face of actions intended to provoke terror, joy is an important form of resistance. “Smiles, dancing, partying…art, music, laughter, hugs, tenderness, for us have been those spaces of searching and demanding justice and struggling,” Ponce said. “From that place, what we’ve tried to do is this: to generate a space of resistance out of our smiles. Because that’s something they’re trying to take away from us.”

On a humid summer evening, many of the neighbors in Fraccionamiento Arboledas San Miguel, a neighborhood in Medellín de Bravo, were outside searching for a breeze. There was a soccer game in progress, and near the pitch, a handful of people had gathered around an exposed electrical cable. Jorge Sánchez stood with them, camera in hand, as they explained how the neighborhood’s developer was refusing to reroute the cables underground. They told him that the exposed cable posed a fire risk to the neighborhood, that there was no street lighting at night, and that uncovered manholes lined the roads. A teen had even fallen into a manhole and injured his hand.

The next morning, Jorge Sánchez wrote up the article. “Those affected said that since VIVEICA, the developer which built the neighborhood, declared bankruptcy, no one has taken an interest in or attended to the neighborhood’s problems, evidenced by the fact that they now have been living for more than a month without adequate electrical service,” he reported in the piece.

This might seem like straightforward journalism, but for Jorge Sánchez, it’s a rejection of fear. When he goes out to report, people remember him as a boy accompanying his father. They still call him “Moi”—short for Moisés. And as his father used to say, to live with fear is not an option. “If we’re afraid, we’ll never do anything. And things are going to stay the same,” Sánchez said. “We have to do something.”

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