Slain Mexican Journalist had Felt Unsafe Even in Capital

August 6, 2015

Although the campaign hasn’t officially started yet, the government sent a clear signal last month about the nature of the race when it declared five opposition candidates weren’t eligible to run.

The move brought howls of protests but also sidelined some of the biggest names in the opposition ranks, including María Corina Machado, who was the nation’s largest vote-getter during the 2010 congressional race.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of State asked Venezuela to reconsider the ban and allow international observation of the race — something the administration has yet to agree to.

“We encourage the appropriate institutions to ensure that Venezuelans can exercise their right to participate in the upcoming elections, as candidates and voters, in keeping with Venezuela’s democratic traditions and in accordance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter,” the agency said.
MEXICO CITY — Exiled from the coastal state where he felt threatened for his work, photojournalist Ruben Espinosa still was on edge in Mexico City.

Even in the vast metropolis, he sensed he was being watched. A man approached him in a restaurant to ask if he was the photographer who fled Veracruz, then another stranger did the same at a party, according to friends in whom he confided.

The encounters fueled the fear that had prompted Espinosa to make a pact with a friend after moving to Mexico City in June: They would regularly check in with each other via calls and texts to let the other know everything was OK.

As of 2:13 p.m. Friday, everything was. That was the last time anyone heard from Espinosa.

Just 50 minutes later, a security camera recorded three men leaving the apartment building where Espinosa had stayed. Hours later, a woman entered the apartment and found the bloody remains of a massacre.

Espinosa was shot in the head, his body bound and tortured. The attackers also killed his friend, Nadia Vera, two of her roommates — a 19-year-old aspiring makeup artist and a woman believed to be from Colombia — as well as their 40-year-old housekeeper.

Vera was from Veracruz and had been active in organizing protests for various causes there. Late last year, she had posted a video warning that if anything happened to her, it would be the fault of Gov. Javier Duarte.

Mexican investigators have suggested the five may have been killed for any number of reasons, including robbery.

But friends say it’s hard to believe Espinosa and Vera, who both feared their lives were threatened because of their links to Veracruz, would be tortured and killed because they simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Espinosa, 31, grew up in Mexico City but had spent eight years working in Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz. He photographed political figures and university protests for the influential investigative magazine Proceso, and freelanced for other agencies. Friends say his work angered powerful people in Veracruz.

The Gulf Coast state, rich in coffee and oil, is an important route for migrants heading to the U.S., and cartels who use the port at Veracruz city to move drugs and other contraband. The government is known to be filled with strong-armed officials who have been accused of colluding with crime bosses.

It is a dangerous place to be a journalist. Since Duarte took office in 2010, 13 journalists from Veracruz have been killed and three more are missing, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S.-based advocacy group.

Though no one has proved the governor is linked to the violence, many have expressed such suspicions, including Espinosa and Vera. Duarte also has been criticized for creating an atmosphere hostile to the media. He has accused reporters of being involved in organized crime. His administration jailed two bloggers and threatened to jail a photographer for exposing groups of vigilantes in the state.

Duarte’s administration also has been quick to blame any death of a journalist on personal motives. In three of the most high-profile killings of reporters who wrote about corruption, state officials said one was killed in a robbery and another due to a personal vendetta. In the third case, they disputed the victim was even a journalist, calling him a taxi driver.

Around the time Espinosa fled the state, authorities reported that another dead journalist, Juan Mendoza Delgado, had been hit by car even though he was missing for several days and was found with a bandage on his head.

Espinosa didn’t cover drug traffickers or crime, the most dangerous beats for Mexican journalists. His focus was social movements, but he found photographing government crackdowns on protesters proved to be no less dangerous.

On June 5, he photographed masked men attacking university students with machetes and baseball bats. A few days later he noticed strange men in front of his house. They took pictures, and one pushed him aggressively. Close friends urged him to leave.

When he arrived in Mexico City, he sought support from Article 19, a Mexican group that presses for journalistic freedom. He and a friend, a fellow photographer who has asked not to be named, created the informal check-in system for his safety. Lacking trust in authorities after his time in Veracruz, he didn’t go to a federal agency set up in Mexico City to help journalists under threat.

He saw a psychologist to help control his fear and anxiety.

After only about a week in Mexico City, Espinosa already missed Xalapa and talked of going back. He loved his life there, the coffee, walking the steep streets from which he could, at times, view Mexico’s highest peak, the Pico de Orizaba. He missed his cocker spaniel, Cosmos.

But another friend and fellow photographer stopped in Mexico City for a visit and urged Espinosa not to return. He pointed to Mendoza’s death and to a series of homicides that left 11 people dead in just one weekend.

Espinosa mainly stayed with his family, who live on the outskirts of Mexico City where he felt unsafe carrying his camera at night, so he often slept at the homes of friends who lived closer to the heart of the city.

Vera rented an apartment in the middle-class neighborhood of Narvarte. She had moved from Xalapa to Mexico City last year to work as a cultural promoter. She had worked with Espinosa organizing rallies protesting attacks on journalists.

About 2 a.m. Friday, Espinosa, Vera and another friend ended up at the apartment, where they stayed up with two roommates drinking and talking nearly until dawn. At some point, Espinosa’s friend decided to leave. As morning came, the housekeeper arrived and one roommate left for work. Espinosa slept in, waking up about 1 p.m.

Espinosa’s friend making the security checks had not talked to him since Wednesday, so he sent him a text message at 1:58 p.m.

Espinosa answered a minute later, saying he stayed at Vera’s apartment.

“I was up until 6 a.m.,” the friend wrote back.

“Me, too. Now I have to go to work at AVC,” Espinosa responded, referring to a Veracruz photo agency.

“I’m heading to the street right now.” The message sent at 2:13 p.m. was his last.

Slain Mexican Journalist Had Felt Unsafe Even in Capital