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Mexican press fails to question Martínez murder case

Two men, one wearing a mask depicting President Enrique Peña Nieto, protest to demand justice in the Regina Martínez case a year after her murder on April 28. (AP/Felix Marquez)

He certainly looked guilty of something, and as if he'd finally been caught. With either his head down or with a kind of scared, dead-eyed stare, in a white jumpsuit, in front of the four Veracruz state police officers crowded behind him. They were all in black uniforms, with a strip of face and eyes showing through black masks, with four matte black assault rifles menacingly at the ready to guard a slim man in handcuffs. (Actually, had there been any gunfire, the police were so over-armed and so close together that it's likely one of them would have been the first victim.) Still, it all looked good for the cameras and reporters summoned to hear about the man's arrest and the end of a most doggedly troublesome case for state officials: the murder of Regina Martínez Pérez on April 28 last year.

It was Regina Martínez who was a doggedly troublesome reporter for state officials. She was the local correspondent for Proceso, Mexico's leading national news magazine. It verges to the left politically but toward the throats of politicians around the country. In the capital city of Veracruz, Xalapa, Martínez was known among her colleagues as not only the most irksome reporter for officials but as the mentor of a group of about half a dozen younger reporters who were learning to be a bother and get away with it--not easy in a state where journalists claim a call from a senior state official will get a reporter fired. (The state spokeswoman denies this emphatically in press interviews, though she has not spoken with CPJ.) Even reporters not in Martínez´s cadre kept an eye on what she did, some of them told CPJ. It was an example.

So, the instant the word blazed around journalist circles in Veracruz that Martínez had been killed, people thought two things: One, people in the government did it. Two, there would be a scapegoat.

But now that the man in the white jumpsuit has been convicted and sentenced under questionable circumstances, the press in Veracruz and in Mexico and even the international press do not acknowledge the details that raise the obvious questions. Just one, for instance: Why is it that the federal government still has an active case investigating who killed Martínez, while the state has a man doing time for the murder. Why does the press only report that the crime is solved? The federal investigation is not secret. Any reporter with a telephone can find out about it.

Just before Jorge Hernández Silva, the man with the dead-eyed stare, was presented to the press on October 30, the state said he voluntarily confessed to the murder and named an accomplice. In the confession, Hernández allegedly said they accidentally killed Martínez while trying to rob her at her home. But the next day, in open court, he retracted the confession--the key evidence. He told the judge that police for days beat and tortured him, with electric shocks to the genitals, until he confessed. Torture and fear could explain his demeanor in front of the cameras the day before. His testimony was not reported by the local press. Reporters told CPJ it would have gotten them into too much trouble with the state to even go to the courtroom to hear the defendant's testimony. CPJ published Hernández's version. Two days later Proceso published it. But that seems to be as far as the story went. The state's version stands because the Mexican press, as a whole, did not report that there was another side, so the Mexican people don't know the other side.

On April 9, the judge sentenced Hernández to 38 years in prison. Since almost no one knew he said his confession came from torture or that there seemed to be serious questions about the state´s investigation, most in the public may have thought him guilty. So did almost all of the press, including the international press. The BBC had a triumphant headline saying, "Mexican Reporter Regina Martinez´s murderer sentenced." Though the Spanish city of Oviedo had put up a stone monument to Martínez's memory, the Spanish government's international news agency EFE played the story like the Mexican press by saying Hernández had been sentenced and the judge said all the evidence pointed to him. There was none of the news that would lead a reader to wonder if there were more to the story.

Five days later, Proceso published a piece that seemed to dismantle the state's investigation. The reporter, Jorge Carrasco, had been promised complete access to the police files from the very beginning--as a way, the state said, to show it was hiding nothing. Carrasco told CPJ that officials concealed a lot from him. But in the story, he wrote that what he could see showed him clearly that from the outset investigators never looked at the possibility that state officials might be responsible for the murder. He said that investigators didn't even look into whether any story Martínez had published or was working on could have been a motive for her murder.

Then Carrasco looked at the case against Hernández. Some examples: In the confession that Hernández says was tortured out of him, he claimed that he, his partner--who is still being sought--and Regina Martínez drank beer together before they killed her. But the autopsy found no alcohol in her blood. Neither man´s fingerprints were found at the murder scene. Unidentified blood and DNA samples found there do not match theirs. These points were confirmed to CPJ by two federal investigators still working on the case. The investigators said they doubt Hernández is guilty.

Once again the Proceso story was barely touched by the rest of the press. However, the magazine says it learned that the day the story ran, current and former officials in Veracruz began meeting to plot ways to kill Carrasco, the reporter. He went into hiding, with federal government protection. The state Attorney General denied the Proceso report. That story, too, was hardly covered by others.

This is about more than the Mexican press doing badly on a story about the murder of a Mexican reporter. The Mexican press has a lot of problems, from doing badly on simple stories to having its reporters murdered on the orders of organized crime capos. But one of the serious problems is that as a national institution, it often doesn't seem to care about its own people. Stories about murdered reporters are ignored or bungled. The problem becomes even more important now that a bill to give the federal government jurisdiction in crimes against journalists was passed Thursday by the lower house of congress. It passed the Senate the week before and President Peña Nieto's approval is considered nearly certain. The bill should begin to take care of the near complete impunity that's come from the failure of state prosecutors in crimes against journalists.

The bill got little coverage, making it seem as if editors are not interested in the issue. If the federal government gets the jurisdiction, then it may be up to press support groups, like CPJ and the many Mexican groups, to pressure the federal government to do a good job with the cases. It would be helpful to have the leaders of the Mexican press in the effort as well. 

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