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A Mexican Journalist Shot Dead a Day after Publishing a Story

Heber Lopez Vasquez was one of 13 Mexican journalists who were killed in 2022

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Sadaf Hasan
Sadaf Hasan
Aspiring reporter covering trending topics

MEXICO: On February 10, shortly after dusk, two men drove up to Heber Lopez Vasquez’s tiny radio station in southern Mexico in a white Dodge Ram pickup. 

One of the men got out, went inside the station, and shot the 42-year-old journalist. According to Lopez’s brother, the only other person with him was his 12-year-old son Oscar, who hid.

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Lopez was one of 13 Mexican journalists who were killed in 2022, as per the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based rights organisation. 

It was the bloodiest year on record for journalists in Mexico, which is currently the most dangerous nation in the world for journalists outside the crisis in Ukraine, where CPJ reports 15 journalists were slain last year.

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A day earlier, Lopez—who ran two online news outlets in the southern state of Oaxaca—had posted a Facebook article accusing local lawmaker Arminda Espinosa Cartas of engaging in corruption in connection with her bid for reelection.

He lay dead when a nearby police car responded to an emergency call, stopped the pickup, and arrested the two men. One of them turned out to be Espinosa, the politician in Lopez’s account.

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Espinosa has not been put on trial in relation to the murder of Lopez. She declined to comment, and we were unable to discover any prior statements she had made about her involvement in corruption or Lopez’s account.

Both the other man and her brother are still in custody but have not yet been put on trial.

Hiram Moreno, a senior Oaxacan journalist who was shot three times in 2019, suffering injuries to his knee and back after writing about drug sales by local criminal organisations, said, “I already quit covering drug trafficking and corruption, and Heber’s death still scares me.”

His attacker was never identified. “You cannot count on the government.” “Self-censorship is the only thing that will keep you safe,” Moreno said.

Mexico’s pattern of fear

There is a pattern of fear and intimidation playing out throughout Mexico as a result of years of violence and impunity, generating what academics refer to as “silent zones” where corruption and murder go unchecked and undocumented.

Jan-Albert Hootsen, a representative of CPJ in Mexico, stated that people in “silent zones” lack access to the fundamental information needed to live their lives. 

“They don’t know who to vote for because there are no corruption investigations.” “They don’t know which areas are violent or what they can say and not say, so they stay silent,” said Hootsen.

When asked about attacks on the media, the spokesperson for President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador remained silent.

According to CPJ, 133 journalists have died because of causes related to their jobs since the start of Mexico’s drug war in 2006, while 13 more have died for unknown reasons. Mexico has recorded more than 360,000 homicides during that time.

Rights organisations like Reporters Without Borders and ten local journalists said that violence against journalists has increased recently in formerly less hostile areas like Oaxaca and Chiapas, posing a threat to further turn sections of Mexico into information dead zones.

Since mid-2021, Salina Cruz, an Oaxacan port on the Pacific, has seen the deaths of two journalists, including Lopez.

Salina Cruz nestles on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a narrow sliver of land that connects the Gulf of Mexico with the Pacific, and has turned into a landing place for precursor chemicals used to produce fentanyl and meth, as per three security analysts and a DEA source.

The most recent of several articles Lopez wrote on Espinosa was about the politician’s alleged efforts to persuade a business building a breakwater in the port of Salina Cruz to threaten workers with dismissal if they didn’t vote for Espinosa’s reelection.

The facility was part of the Interoceanic Corridor, one of Lopez Obrador’s flagship infrastructure development initiatives in southern Mexico.

Nine of Lopez’s fellow journalists, including Jose Ignacio Martinez, an isthmus-based crime writer, claim that since the journalist’s death, they have become more hesitant to publish reports about the corridor project, drug trafficking, and official complicity in organised crime.

Without disclosing its name for fear of reprisals, one media organisation said it has done an investigation on the corridor but did not feel safe to publish after Lopez’s passing.

Mechanism

The Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders was formed by the government in 2012.

The body, known simply as “the mechanism,” offers safeguards to journalists such as panic buttons, monitoring technology, house police watch, relocation, and armed guards. Nine mechanism-protected journalists have been killed since 2017, CPJ reports.

Activists and journalists can request protection from the Mechanism, which reviews their case alongside a group of human rights defenders, journalists, and nonprofit organizations, as well as representatives from other government institutions. According to the analysis, hardly everyone who requests protection actually receives it.

500 journalists are among the 1,600 participants who are now registered in the mechanism.

Gustavo Sanchez, a journalist who was one of those assassinated, was shot at close range by two hitmen on motorcycles in June 2021. 

After escaping an attempted murder in 2020, Sanchez—who had written critical pieces about criminal organisations and politicians—entered the mechanism for a third time. Protection never showed up.

Sanchez’s murder prompted a 100-page report exposing the shortcomings of the authorities from Mexico’s human rights commission. 

The report stated that the evidence “revealed omissions, delays, negligence, and breaches of duties by at least 15 public servants.”

A 2021 report from the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the Mechanism, revealed that 89% of murders of journalists still go unpunished. 

Prior to organised crime, the survey indicated that local public employees were the main perpetrators of violence against journalists.

“What type of life is this?” said journalist Rodolfo Montes, watching security footage of his home, where the mechanism, in which he initially registered in 2017, had installed cameras with eyes on the street, garage, and doorway.

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