On Mexico’s Caribbean Coast, A Tropical Despot, A Murdered Journalist

When photojournalist Ruben Espinosa was tortured to death in a Mexico City apartment last week, along with four women who happened to be in the home where he was staying, he became the seventh Mexican journalist killed this year. From Sin Embargo, the last interview with Espinosa, recorded after he fled the coastal city of Veracuz (where more than a dozen journalists have been murdered during the term of the local governor) for the false protection of anonymity in the capitol.

For almost a month, photojournalist Ruben Espinosa Becerril has been living in Mexico City, the victim of threats that obligated him into self-exile. The young contributor to the magazine Proceso, Cuartoscuro and the news agency AVC fled on June 9 after several episodes of harassment.

The photographer is a native of Mexico City, but has been living in Veracruz for the past eight years. There he left his job, his contacts, his friends, his house and even his dog out of fear that he would be killed like the 12 other (journalists) executed during the administration of PRI party governor Javier Duarte de Ochoa.

In an interview with Sin Embargo, Ruben talked about the state of the media and freedom of expression in Veracruz, the modus operandi of the Duarte de Ochoa administration as it controls the local media, and the life that reporters and photographers must lead if they do not want to take money in exchange for silence.

The anarchy is such that, he said, it is getting worse for everyone but the corrupt, in a Veracruz where death chose to live in the arms of a governor who admires the former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

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What triggered your exit from Veracruz? What day did you leave the state?

I left on June 9 because of harassment from unidentified individuals. I left for work at 9am Tuesday morning, June 7, and a person was watching me. I didn’t pay much attention to it. From there I went to cover a story. I returned home and a friend told me, via Facebook, that students were having a roundtable with authorities from Veracruz University. I left at 3pm and right on the corner next to my house there were three people in a taxi with the motor running. I didn’t want to look at them because I noticed they had a very persistent presence. I recognized one of them. I took out my phone to write down a description of him, and when I hailed a taxi I turned around to look at him, he took a picture of me. I got in the taxi, and the guys were evil looking. They weren’t from there, from Xalapa. They looked like they were from the city of Veracruz. That’s when I realized that he was the same one I had seen in the morning. That evening, I was going home and saw two guys come towards me with an aggressive attitude. They kept coming and didn’t get out of the way. I leaned up against the wall and one of them passed close to me; I could feel his breath. I got out of the way. I didn’t look at them. I kept going. I turned around and they were looking at me. They were dressed in black. I came to Mexico City on Thursday the ninth.

What did you cover in Veracruz? What do you think triggered this harassment?

I specialize in the social movements. I took the cover shot for the [Feb 2014 edition of the] magazine Proceso of the governor. That cover hurt him a lot, in fact it sold in bunches….

Which picture is it?

It’s a picture where the governor is wearing a police hat and is walking, a profile shot. Here in Xalapa we have always protested when they kill a colleague. I was beaten in 2013 when they threw the teachers out of Plaza Lerdo, along with other colleagues, and we had to demonstrate after that. We made Congress form the Commission for Attention and Protection of Journalists, which doesn’t do any good. I was there at the dedication of the plaque in Plaza Lerdo, where we put Regina Martinez, another journalist who was killed. I’ve given classes on safety for photographers and they have let me know that I make the state government uncomfortable.

javier-duarte-photo-espinosa-proceso221

Javier Duarte, governor of Veracruz, Mexico. Photo: Ruben Espinosa/Proceso.

How do they let you know that?

They don’t let me into official events. On one occasion, when they found the 35 bodies at Papantla’s volador monument in Boca del Rio, the then-attorney general Reynaldo Escobar Perez gave a news conference. The person who was in charge of the media — Edwin, I can’t remember his last name — asked me what I was doing there, said I had no business there and that I was getting in the way. That’s when they started to take pictures of me on behalf of the state government.

Did they harass just you?

Me and the group of journalists I’m involved with.

This harassment that triggered your exit from the state closely followed the attack on the students from the Universidad Veracruzana. Did you cover that? Did you take pictures of the scene?

Of everything. What I do is follow these cases. I don’t just take pictures of what happened to the students and move on. (I cover) all the protests by the students. I covered the November 20 event the year they killed Regina (Martinez). Javier Duarte was at the rally and we couldn’t stand in front of the podium. The photographers and camera people were confined to the sides. I asked them to let me take some pictures and right when I got close, I saw them unfold a banner that said: ‘Javier Duarte, the people are watching you. We won’t forgive or forget.’ That’s when a student came up to me and told me they were beating some of his friends. I went with him and when I took a picture of them arresting the students, a person from the state military grabbed me by the neck and said: ‘Stop taking pictures unless you want to end up like Regina.’ That’s what this person from the government said to me. They are police officers in civilian clothes. The person who orchestrated the operation against those students is in the Secretariat of Public Safety. There was a woman who had just bought groceries and she told them to stop hitting the students and this guy showed up. He grabbed the woman by her hair, scattered her groceries and drug her away. We are talking about widespread anarchy. You can’t say or do anything. There were snipers on the roof of the hotel during the rally.

A few days ago the young people who were attacked with machetes in Veracruz came, and they said there was a black list of people who are uncomfortable for the government. Are you on the list?

No. In fact, I thought I was going to be on the list, but I’m not.

Are there colleagues of yours — photographers, journalists — on the list?

No, it’s all activists, advisers for the National Electoral Institute (INE) and people from the Workers Party (PT). My own colleagues in photography call me an ‘anarchist’ because I’ve covered these kinds of events.

Are you talking about the media itself? They call you an anarchist photographer?

In fact, they have called the group we have guerrillas. They have called me a guerrilla, because I’ve given classes on safety and training for colleagues. It seems ridiculous to me.

And what weapon do you carry to be labelled a terrorist?

None. My camera and my ethics, above all. I’ve never taken a single peso. I’m not going to do it. Every time a student comes along and joins the profession I try to grab them and tell them: ‘Hey, don’t take bribes.’ It’s not like that.

Is there a lot of bribery in Veracruz?

I think it is 98 percent of the media.

Are we talking about editors down to reporters?

Yes, of course. In fact, I have colleagues that they have covering nothing but entertainment, so they don’t do anything, don’t do any investigative reporting. What you don’t want to do in Veracruz anymore is investigative journalism. It’s not allowed. Everyone has to play by the book. We are talking about 12 colleagues killed, four disappeared and since 2000 until now, 17 in exile. And every time an elected representative or the governor himself have one of their ‘Breakfasts for Freedom of Expression’, it fills up, because unfortunately the media in Veracruz is at the service of those who feed them.

What do they give them at these breakfasts of freedom of expression?

Look, just recently a colleague won a car…

They raffle automobiles?

Yes, cars, televisions, telephones, iPads. In the case of Victor Baez, an assassinated journalist who was head of the Crime Reporters, he went to one of those breakfasts, won a car and a week later they dumped him, hacked to pieces, in front of the Diario de Xalapa newspaper. His car lasted him a week. I’m very much against having to give money to the media. I doesn’t have to happen. I understand that the salaries are low, but if we demand benefits, united as a union, it’s possible we’ll get them, but it’s easier to take money. Representative Renato Tronco, who wants to be governor, put on a breakfast for freedom of expression and even colleagues who have been participating in the marches see it as normal and they win the cars, the televisions; they don’t realize that later there will be bad consequences: ‘I gave you something, and now you have to serve me.’ That’s the reality in Veracruz. That’s how politics, journalism are run. That’s how society is run. The media is under a ridiculous assault from the government. You can see it from the front pages following the official script. They don’t even change the faces. It’s the same pictures and faces on all the front pages. When they burned the local chapter of the National Electoral Institute, in Ruiz Cortines, the media got there, and behind us were construction workers, so the police arrested them and we took pictures. The most serious problem here is not the arrests without probable cause, but the one who ordered the arrests was a journalist. She’s the one who told the police: ‘Smell their hands, open their backpacks, search them’, and she’s a journalist who carries guns and whose daughter is working for the Public Prosecutor.

Ruben, who did you tell and where did you ask for help with the threats to make it to Mexico City?

I’ve spoken with Article 19, with the Commission for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), with the media outlets I work for, Proceso, Cuarto Obscuro and AVC. They know about it. I’m looking for Periodistas de Pie (Journalists Standing Up), because in Veracruz we don’t have that guarantee. The Commission for Attention and Protection of Journalists isn’t good for anything. The day of the beatings on September 14, they tased a colleague in the heart and the Commission itself told him: ‘You should take money. Don’t make a scene. It’s already over. They already bought you.’ I came here and they ask me if I had approached the Commission. I don’t trust any government institution. I don’t trust the government. I fear for my colleagues. I fear for myself. It’s not just Ruben. It’s family, friends. I don’t want to get anyone else hurt.

Does repression reign in Veracruz?

A much more severe repression is on the way than the one we have today, and let’s remember that Javier Duarte, at the beginning of his term, said he was an admirer of Franco. It was a reference that people didn’t pay much attention to and now Veracruz is living it. I only ask people, society and journalists, to turn around and take a look at Veracruz, because they are killing all freedom of expression.

How has your life changed after coming to Mexico City?

It bothers me a lot that another person decide the course of my life. That because of a whim, some nonsense, a glaring lack of maturity, I have to leave the state I love very much.

How many years did you spend there?

Eight years, my house, my job, my correspondents, the people I love, and to get here… I just makes me really sad.

Are you starting from zero here?

Not from zero, but it feels that way. They have supported me here, but I’m sad and angry that this is happening and no one is doing anything, that the media is putting out stories saying it’s just to attract attention, when they turn around and see that 12 people have been killed. That these same colleagues say that getting beaten in demonstrations is natural, an occupational hazard. I don’t get it. I’m worried for my colleagues, because they’re closing down the lines of communication. It’s hard work for me to start over here. I’m not used to the size of the city anymore. It’s complicated, because the money I brought with me is starting to run out. Transportation here is expensive. Food is more expensive. Rent is expensive. It has of course been a lot of work and I intend to go back when the government provides conditions for work. I don’t want there to be a number 13 and 14. It’s sad to think about Veracruz. There are no words for how bad things are in the state, the government, the media, and how well corruption is doing. Death chose Veracruz. Death decided to live there.

Shaila Rosagel Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard