There are no victims in this town
A story about being a journalist in the second
most dangerous place in the world: Veracruz, Mexico.
From one valley to another
Volda is a small town surrounded by extravagant nature nestled in the mountains of the east coast of Norway, in Voldsfjord. It is here where I'm studying documentary and journalism, at Volda University College. Soon I'll become a journalist.
The place reminds me of Orizaba, my home town in Mexico, at the state of Veracruz. At times it seems to me that I see the Ixtaccihualt (Hill of the Star or Pico de Orizaba) peeking between the Alps of Sunnmøre.
I'm planning my next trip to my home country. I've decided to go because I can't help to think what I've read in the Mexican news recently: yet another journalist was assassinated in the State of Veracruz.
I'm concerned about my future as journalist and the more I try the less I can understand why or how this is happening. That's why I am going there. I want to meet the victims and the ones somehow involved in the situation. I want to know how is journalism made in Veracruz and why are the journalists been chased and killed there. Is it some particular situation or is it just random?
It's at the Port and City of Veracruz where I've agreed to meet Jorge, the son of Moisés Sánchez who was assassinated less than a year ago, presumably for having published articles in La Unión de Medellín, a daily which he modestly published. These articles were critical of the president of the municipality of Medellín, Omar Cruz.
I'm nervous, afraid. Jorge had suggested that we meet at the entrance to the Cathedral. I arrive an hour early and I take a seat at the restaurant in front to grab a bite. As the clock ticks I get more nervous. Ten minutes before it's time, I ask for the check, pay, and leave. I wait. Fifteen minutes later I start to worry that Jorge won't call. I think about plan B, but there is no plan B. I have to find him no matter what. My phone rings: "It's Jorge, where are you?" We finally meet and he suggests that we go to a café a few blocks from the cathedral.
I explain my plan. To my surprise, and without asking many questions, he agrees to tell me his story. Not only that, but he also invites me to the launch event of the next issue of La Unión de Medellín, on January 2, one year to the day since his father's disappearance. I'm happy to have made a first contact, but, to my surprise, I'm still afraid. Is this how all journalists work, or just those from Veracruz?
Snitching on you
I travel to Xalapa to make more contacts.
I get together with Yadira, a friend from university who studied journalism but who hasn't worked as a reporter for several years.
"I got tired of asking for handouts all the time, but especially of some of my coworkers' attitudes, you know?"
She tells me how it's a poorly-paid and yet demanding profession. To survive you need to accede to editors' and politicians' demands: write about this and you'll be published, don't write that and I'll pay you extra for your next piece, write about the governor's publicity events but not about protests, and so on.
Yadira works now as Director of the Women's affairs office in Xalapa local government.
"But that was when things were calmer, when the worst that could happen was that you wouldn't be published or paid. Now they threaten and even kill you. The worst is when your colleagues not only don't stick up for you but even work against you. 'Te ponen' is what they call it when they snitch on you for covering a topic or looking into an event they don't want you to."
Yadira gives me names of possible contacts, both journalists and civil servants. In particular, she says that I should talk to Jorge Morales, from the Comisión Estatal de Atención a Periodistas del Estado de Veracruz, an advocacy and mutual aid organization for journalists in the state of Veracruz.
"He works for the government but is truly dedicated, and has his own opinions," she says.
When I meet Jorge Morales and I see him arrive with his motorcycle helmet under an arm and right away the image of a scrappy reporter comes to mind. A motorcycle is the ideal vehicle for him; he can get around quickly and cheaply.
"I'm first and foremost a reporter and a functionary second," he tells me confidently.
He also explains how he came to the Comisión. I realize that he's a critic of the system and that he understands that, even if it isn't much, some good can be done from within it.
I tell him about my project and ask for an interview. We finish breakfast and he hurries back to his office. As I make a few notes and finish my coffee, I hear his motorcycle zoom off. I imagine him weaving through traffic.
He's given me names and numbers of victims whom he has known through the Comisión. He's also given me permission to use his name in order to get more interviews.
He also tells me about the working conditions for journalists. "I've heard of cases where a reporter gets between 30 or 50 pesos per note (1.5 or 2.5 USD), if the note gets published", Jorge says and ads "to make a living, a journalist needs to publish at least ten notes a day! Without health or life insurance, pension or payed holidays, journalists have it really difficult, especially in rural areas".
We had settled the interview for tomorrow. From this point forward, Gerardo is joining me as DoP in Veracruz.
Later on, the good impression I got about Morales changed little by little after I interwiewed other journalists, includying the ones he mentioned to me.
My interpretation is that the system is so strong and inclined towards power, that it is capable of destroying the best intentions.
The Red Brigades
I travel to Medellín de Bravo, where Jorge Sánchez lives at Colonia El Tejar. He's going to present the most recent issue of La Unión and conduct a religious ceremony in his father's memory. His family is Pentecostal.
The taxi driver is quiet, and I can see that he doesn't want to talk much. Then, I notice what is covering the driver's seat: It's a worn-out, white T-shirt like the ones the political parties give away to the people mostly during election campaigns.
The T-shirt has red letters that read "Governor Duarte. Red Brigades for a United Veracruz." Duarte, who's been governor in the state where more journalists have been killed than any other, the very state I'm in now, talking to victims. Fear doesn't get around by donkey cart. It goes by taxi, and right now it's headed for Medellín.
During Javier Duarte's regime 19 journalists were killed in Veracruz.
The driver doesn't know Medellín too well, so we get a bit lost and before we know it we're in the sparsely-populated outskirts. I get nervous. I pull out my phone to use its GPS and with it we get back on track. I notice that he's a bit embarrassed to have gotten lost, and this is a relief to me.
At Jorge's home I'm greeted by a policeman, one of the ones permanently stationed, per orders of the state legal authority, in front of Jorge's house ever since Moisés' kidnapping. The policeman asks my name and writes it in a list. I ask if he needs to see ID. I look up and see that he looks embarrassed. "That won't be necessary, thanks. You can go in now."
Inside, which is still outside, really, since we're in a patio, there are some fifteen people, all of them journalists and photographers. I'm one of three women and the only one who doesn't know anybody else. Jorge is busy organizing the event and so doesn't have time to introduce me to anyone. People say hello to each other, some crack jokes or gossip. As a "foreigner" I understand that I'm the one who has to introduce myself. I turn right and say hello to the first person I see, a cameraman from TV Azteca Veracruz. I ask if he knows Jorge or if he's just here to cover the event. "I know him, yes," he tells me. "Everyone in the region knows him, especially once he took up his father's work." And so I meet the rest of the people there, at least those who are willing to talk. Some avoid me or become busy with their phones (or pretend to be) when I move close to them. Sometimes we Mexicans are like that.
One of the people I speak to is Félix Márquez, a photojournalist. He tells me that he lives in exile because he's been afraid ever since the assassination of Rubén Espinosa, who was a friend. I explain my project to him and of course ask for an interview, but he doesn't want to. "Take down my email address," he says, "if you write to me I'll answer and I'll think about the interview because the truth is that I'm in danger here." I ask why he is in Mexico, then, and in Veracruz of all places. "I came to cover the Pope's visit for a newspaper," he tells me. Indeed, Bergolio will come to Mexico in two weeks, although he'll only visit the north of the country and won't make his way to Veracruz.
Two days later I send Félix an e-mail. He never responds.
Eleuterio Espinosa lives in Córdoba and works as a reporter from the central region of the state. I got his number from Jorge Morales because Espinosa has received threats alluding to his journalistic work.
He tells me how it's a difficult situation for everybody, regardless of training or experience. "If you want to survive you need to do things you don't like, follow orders you'd rather not hear. Or else you can't make a living off this."
I meet Eleuterio at Fortín de las Flores, it's midday and hot. I get a text from him saying that he's coming to a café called "Relax". I go in. Nobody else is there, except from the waiter. I sit at a table in the middle of the room. The music is loud, almost like at a club, and this makes me nervous. What am I afraid of?
Eleuterio arrives sweaty. He takes a seat and orders a Coke. It's then that he explains how you survive as a journalist in central Veracruz. "If you're a journalist, you've got two jobs. One is reporting and the other is to watch your back because you never know who might be after you." He explains the phrase "poner a un compañero," to rat someone out to one's boss, the police, or a cartel. I ask why people snitch. "They snitch on you because you refuse to take a bribe, because you criticized a politician, or just because. When this happens to you you could be in real trouble; you could even get killed. He goes on to tell me that he's since started his own online news site, El Informante de Veracruz.
I ask about his own story, about the threats he has received and how he's dealt with it all. His face darkens and he doesn't say much. Instead, he talks about a friend of his: Hugo Morales Alejo. "I think you'll find Hugo's case interesting. Hugo has been kidnapped by a cartel twice and he survived both times." I'm of course interested and ask if he can put in me in contact with Morales.
Eleuterio and I part, agreeing to speak more soon but, just as I turn away from him, towards my car, I can see it in his face: he won't ever talk tome again. I get in the car and call Hugo Morales right away. We agree to see each other the next day at a café in Córdoba.
Several days later I try to talk with Eleuterio again. There's no response.
I also try to contact some journalists from Xalapa, but haven't get lucky with that.
From the city of Veracruz I manage to talk with Maruchi Bravo Pagola, a twitterer jailed in 2013 for spreading rumors of an attack by hitmen on schools in the city. Her case made it into international media due to it being such an affront to freedom of expression. On August 2013, she published on Twitter and Facebook some rumors about hitmen attacking schools to kidnap children in the one million-person city of Veracruz. On that day when parents, alarmed by the rumors, met en masse at schools, creating traffic congestion and even some accidents, the police detained her under the pretense of having caused psychosis. As a result, she and a teacher by the name of Gilberto Martínez Vera, whom Bravo had no ties to and who had disseminated the same information, were detained, accused, convicted, and jailed in record time on counts of terrorism and sabotage. After a month of national and international pressure both were released.
On the day of the interview in her house, Bravo comes downstairs greeting us enthusiastically. She's happy that we're here to hear her story, she says. From what I know about her, she's quite well off and with some political connections, thanks to her father who was a member of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) and a military man. She's moved among the rich and powerful since she was a girl and she's not easily or often caught on the hop, and so it really shook her when she was jailed without cause. Since leaving prison, she hasn't slept well, she says, showing me a device that looks like a remote control, and she explains that it's a panic button that the federal government has provided for her protection. With it she can send a signal to the police station so that they'll come at once should she feel herself to be in danger. Have you used it yet? I ask. No, she answers. "Thank god I haven't".
Before we start, she sets up some pots with fake flowers around herself. This is to mask the lack of decoration on the walls, she says, because ever since she was jailed her house has been robbed several times, each time leaving her with less stuff. "Haven't you reported this?" I ask. "There's no need," she answers, "they've even called me asking me to report it, because they're the ones breaking in, they won't leave me alone!" She's talking about both local and state police. As absurd as it sounds I know it could be true. So things go in this country, the country André Breton once called the most surreal place in the world, and Salvador Dalí won't visit ever again because he couldn't stand a place even more surrealistic than himself, says Vox Populi.
As we leave, Maruchi asks us to cut nothing from the interview, because everything she's told is us is true and that it's important to her that it be known who governs us. As we part I take a picture of her wire fenced-house.
And then I learn that a journalist in Orizaba has been kidnaped: Anabel Flores. Four days later she was found. Dead. Her body was dumped along the side of a highway near the Puebla-Veracruz border. As her body is brought back to the morgue, the state attorney announces that Anabels' networks will be investigated. That is, before delving into whether the crime was related to her work as a journalist, it's important to know who she socialized with.
Yet again, the government criminalizes victims and applies different standards to journalists, just as it did with Regina Martínez (Proceso magazine correspondant), later with Gregorio Jiménez (freelance journalist) and Moisés Sánchez and all the others.
According to the Human Rights Watch 2018 report on Mexico, 90% of the cases remain unpunished.
I spend the morning looking into Morales Alejo. According to what I find on the Internet, he's originally from Córdoba and has worked in radio and print in the central part of the state. Also, he was the Director of Social Communication at the Fortín de las Flores municipality between 2001 and 2004. He now lives in Paso del Macho town.
From what I read, it's clear that he's a controversial figure. On the one hand, he won the National Journalism Award given by the Federación de Asociaciones de Periodistas de México [Federation of Journalist Associations of Mexico] two years in a row. On the other, there are accusations of corruption from while he was working in the municipality. Aside from that, I find a few reports of how members of a journalists' union have supported him after he was arrested by state police for having participated in a protest against a pig farming factory which is rumored to be a big polluter in the area.
In the afternoon I head to Córdoba where we've agreed to meet. I park the car at a parking lot a few blocks away. When I arrive to the café he's already there, drinking a cappuccino. I order a lemonade and we start to chat. I tell him in broad terms what I've learned about him. He says that he has nothing to hide, not since he was kidnapped. "I realized that life can end at anytime and the best thing to do is to continue living as well as I can, spending time with my family and doing journalism because it's still important and that's why I keep at it."
While we talk Hugo greets to men sitting nearby. I turn to have a look, both have a crew cut. I can't avoid feeling nervous. The conversation helps my nerves and as it starts to get interesting I ask him to not say too much. I'd rather he do the talking in front of a camera. He agrees to be interviewed and I promise I'll call him to set it up. While he's in the bathroom I ask for the check. When he comes back he says "I'm heading out, but it's better if we don't leave together, you go first,". Why doesn't he think we should go out together? Is he protecting me? Warning me? This is the first time I feel truly afraid.
I leave the café weak-kneed and with my heart pounding. I look around and behind me to be sure that nobody is following me. I see people in the park and I wonder if it's possible that anything could happen in such a public space. It's horrifying to think that, as I've read several times in many newspapers, yes, in Mexico at this very time and place something could happen. Halfway through the park I stop, sit on a bench next to a man who doesn't look to be waiting for anything or anybody. He smiles and says hello. I respond, calmed down a little, yet I'm still shaking inside. Maybe I should get a bite to eat, to fortify myself a bit, but then I think that it'd just be silly. I get up, say good-bye to the man, and head back to where I parked.
In the car next to mine are several men; the fear returns. The woman who runs the parking lot comes out and, smiling, asks if I'm leaving. "Yep," I say. "How much?" "Nineteen pesos," she responds, still smiling. As I pay, two of the men get out of the car. They're eating sandwiches. They look delicious. One passes a bottle of soda to the other. Just to calm myself down, I ask myself who'd kidnap someone while eating one of those. I get into my car but, before I do, I can't avoid looking again. One of the men waves, sandwich in hand. It sure does look tasty.
La Unión de Medellín is the paper that Moisés Sánchez humble published which most people think is why he was killed. Many people suspect the mayor, Omar Cruz, who had asked that he not report on municipal deficiencies in exchange for 30 thousand pesos a month. Moisés was an honest man and didn't accept it, not even when Governor Javier Duarte had told off the mayor for having not silenced Sánchez. Two days after this happened, Moisés disappeared. A month later his body was recovered, nearly unrecognizable due to the torture he'd undergone. This is some of what Jorge tells us as photos of his father, of La Unión in its early days, and of the deteriorating streets in the municipality go by on a screen mounted on a table.
One photography stands out. In it, there is a father carrying his daughter, jumping puddles to bring her to a school mere meters away, yet which seems so far because it is so hard to get there. I'm reminded of Cartier-Breson's famous photo in which a man jumps over a puddle. The men in both photos can be seen reflected in the water below. I wonder if Moisés ever saw Cartier-Breson's photo.
As all this goes on, I see two people nobody's paid any attention to: Doña Mari, Jorge's mother, and Doña Gina, their neighbor. Both work tirelessly preparing food for the religious ceremony to be held afterward. With the subject of the preparation of the food as an excuse I approach them and take a few photos. The ice broken, I ask Doña Mari for an interview, which she grants me. "But not today because I'm very busy," she says. I promise to come back another time.
Fear in Xalapa
I head into the center of the city. After all this time, it seems incredible that Xalapa, little more than a sleepy, provincial town the first time I came here, can be the same place I'm in now, crammed full of cars. I remember all too well how it was a quiet city and how, if it weren't for the students and the bureaucrats, it still could have passed for a typical small town in rural Mexico.
As I walk towards the Centro de Estudios de la Comunicación (CEC) [Center for Communication Studies], to meet Dr. Celia del Palacio, I think about friends from my time here. No more than a year ago one of them expressed the sentiments of so many people here in Veracruz: when I asked him why he closed his store, which had for several years been successful enough for him to live comfortably, he grabbed my arm and pulled me into a corner and told me in a low voice, almost whispering in my ear, "first an extortion and from there it's only a small step to a kidnapping." I remember having taken a while to understand what he was saying; also that at first I thought that he was exaggerating. Later, upon hearing unspeakable stories of extortion and kidnapping I realized that his fear was everyone's fear. Now more than ever, I understand the importance of discretion.
Dr. del Palacio is from Jalisco, a historian who studies the press in Mexico. Naturally her opinions and thoughts are important for my project. She's a busy woman but nevertheless she is willing to give me some of her time so that I may talk a bit about myself and why I'm here. We set the interview for tomorrow. Before I go, she gives me a copy of her book Violence and regional journalism in México.
I spend the rest of the day reading the book. In it, I learn how violence against journalists in Mexico is nothing new, that it's been something journalists here have had to deal with for as long as there have been journalists in this country. Indeed, since colonial times, journalism has in many ways been practiced in the margins of society, in the shadows, yet also done in the service of those in power.
I also learn that journalistic code of ethics barely exist here, that, despite some efforts made by individual editors at a few newspapers, there's no common code of ethics at a national level. As I read this I remember an anecdote from my childhood: one day the local newspaper published a piece about a man who had died of a heart attack at a motel -where he was accompanied with a much younger woman to "enjoy good sex", The piece's headline read "HE DIES IN 'THE ACT'!" and included the names and addresses of both. The woman was our neighbor. From then on, her family was stigmatized and her only son, then just a teenager, had to suffer the consequences.
May our Lord protect them
After the press conference is over all of the reporters leave and I'm the only one left. So I lend Mari a hand with the food. When she sees me put my camera down, she asks me to pick up some bread and soda at the corner store two blocks away.
As I walk I ponder these are the streets which Moisés walked for the last that day, right before being forced into a van and taken off to his death. Fear again. I buy the bread and soda and return as fast as I can. Doña Mari is still busy preparing for the ceremony. About 30 people are invited, she tells me, although she isn't sure because some people are still fearful of the neighborhood.
People start to show up around 7 pm. Chairs have been set up and now there's an altar where the television screen had been. There isn't much light and I think about stepping out with the intention of taking photos of people as they arrive. But Doña Mari catches my attention as she brings plastic cups stacked with food to the two policemen stationed in front of the house. They're assigned to guard the house yet, as Jorge has told me, they also bring some uncertainty with them because they're part of the same force that, it's said, provides cover for the kidnappers and killers in the region. I follow Mari and strike a conversation with them.
We chat as they eat and I ask if they've had this assignment for long. They tell me that this is the first and likely the last time they'll be given this particular assignment. Tomorrow they'll beassigned something else and others will be there instead. "Where else have you been," I ask. "All over the state," one of them says. "Yesterday I was in Soledad Atzompa and I don'tknow where they'll send me tomorrow." I ask if they're afraid. "Sometimes," the same one says. The other steps over to the pickup parked some meters away. I can see that they wouldn't continue talking, so I ask if I can take a photo of the house, but with the police presence clearly visible. Granted. Not eager to be photographed themselves, both get out of view.
The religious ceremony starts and several preachers give sermons to those in attendance. Among the preachers are Moisés' brothers, ministers at the church. A woman with an assured voice thanks the reporters present and asks for God's protection. Silently, I thank her for her good intentions. I take a few more photos. During a break between sermons, Doña Gina offers me food. I accept it and eat. After a few minutes I'm ready to leave. One of the cops calls a cab. "Is it a safe cab?" I ask Jorge. "Yes, it's the same company where my father worked."
On the way back to the hotel I try to talk with the driver, maybe he knew Moisés? He answers coldly no, that he's only been at this job for a short time. We don't talk for rest of the ride.
An inquisitive gaze
I keep looking for anyone from the journalists collective in Xalapa, but I can't manage to find anyone. I contact one of them who works for the state edition of a nation wide paper. I've got her name and I've found her on social networks, which I use to send her messages, but she is non committal in her responses. Finally, she answers and we agree to meet at a cafe in the city center tomorrow.
When I arrive she's already seated, fiddling with her phone. I can see that she's ordered a cappuccino and I order one too.
I introduce myself and explain what I'm up to. She looks me in the eyes, her head tilted forward and narrow-eyed. Her gaze is inquisitive, forceful, but I don't look away. I tell her whom I've interviewed so far and ask to interview her too. "I'll think about it," she says without taking her eyes off me, "but probably not." I ask why not. "Because of the people you've interviewed. I don't like being associated with them." Her response is so surprising that I'm lost for words, but quickly I realize that she's testing me. I don't ask whom she's referring to specifically. Instead, I say that one of my objectives is to gather many different points of view. Then I can see her gaze relax some what, although she keeps staring at me.
"Including people like Hugo Morales in your project doesn't speak well of it. He's got a bad reputation and I don't want anything at all to do with him."
"You're probably right, I looked into it before interviewing him. But he's told me his story when few others would not, which is very important," I answer. Her phone rings and she takes the call. I can't help but hear what she says: "I'm going to give you the federal protection's number, the state authorities won't help you much, although it's a good idea to talk to them too. I'll send it to you now." She hangs up and explains that it's "a colleague from Orizaba, the municipal police just assaulted her," as she uses her phone.
She turns back to me with her inquisitive eyes. I wait for her to speak but she doesn't say anything, so I mention Anabel Flores, who was also from Orizaba. "The thing about Anabel is that she was a corrupt cop's wife and nobody can trust a journalist like that," she says. How do you know that? Do you think that's why they killed her? "We all know it in the media," she says. But that is all she says. I'm struck for a few seconds, but then I remember the state attorney general and the governor saying that they would look into who she had dealings with. Is she tarnishing her too? This gives me the impression that empathy isn't one of the strengths in the guild. Or, maybe I'm being "infected" by the feelings of distrust?
Then I mention that I find it strange that there's no national journalistic code of ethics and that even if only a few outfits have one, even fewer actually put them into practice. She doesn't say anything, just nods, and her gaze changes some more, looking more sympathetic. Finally she says,"yes, that's something we haven't been able to do at a national level, but we're trying. In the collective we have our own code of ethics and of conduct. We can't work like we used to, especially after they've killed some of us and attacked others." I spot my chance: "maybe you could talk about this in our interview. "She smiles and says, "it's not just what I told you already, but also we don't want to put ourselves in more danger. If we make statements all over the place we could be attacked. It's happened before and can happen again." she finishes. Even so, I insist. "You could also speak off the record," I tell her, hoping she'll give in, but it doesn't happen. "I'll tell you if Idecide to do it," she answers, reverting to her earlier glare.
It's been two hours and I don't think there's any more to say. I tell her that I'll wait for her response. I ask her to keep in mind that my project will get some international play, and it could be someone else from the collective, it doesn't necessarily have to be her, that I am really counting on them. Anyway, I insist until the last moment. She smiles, promises nothing. We part wishing each other luck. On the way to the car I realize that this was the interview.
The jail-like home
The Sánchez' home at El Tejar looks like a prison; it has a gate and a barbed-wire fence like the ones I've seen at military installations. There are security cameras on all corners and floodlights aimed at every nook and cranny. "The worst is the electric bill, which has gone up a lot since they installed all this stuff to 'protect' us,"explains Jorge. In the living room there's a set of monitor hooked up to the security cameras. Jorge has had to learn to use them in order to search, back up, or delete the images that come in constantly.
We do the interview in the garden, in the shade of a small almond tree, with the gate and the security guard making up our backdrop. It's windy and at times we can hear a fruit seller's loud speaker. It's a long conversation, and at times I can see how Jorge has to hold himself together, to not let all his emotions come out. The horrible tale he is telling me now happened about a year ago, yet he tells it with fortitude and with a wealth of detail.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm repeating myself," he tells me as he finishes."That's fine with me," I reply, "because then I can choose the best parts. Besides, I'm sure it really seems like that because you've gone over this so many times." He smiles and nods.
Mari comes in to cook for her grand kids. We agree that I'll interview her afterward.
So I ask Gerardo to shift to filming her close to the open fire she uses to cook some things. Jorge helps to light the fire, and as we set up the cameras and lights he looks at the monitor and says, "this interview I'd like to see."
Mari is a bit nervous and has a bit of a cold, so we decide to make it quick. Besides, she has to get back to work. She sits on a plastic chair, and has some tissue paper on her hands. She coughs as we make a few final adjustments. The fire behind her is heating up.
I finish the interview because she cries so much after talking about how they took Moisés; another question would be more than she could take, so I decide not to push too much. At any rate I have the footage I was hoping for: the testimony of the only witness.
As she pulls herself back together and Jorge holds her, we pack up our equipment in silence. On the way to the hotel we review our impressions. "It's incredible how all this went down only a year ago, right where we were," Gerardo says.
Leaving for Acayucan. In this swing south, we see the same as elsewhere: lots of police and soldiers.
We arrive in Acayucan towards the end of the afternoon. Driving into town I remember that I was here a few years ago, filming again. "I didn't remember the town was so green and full of life," I mention to Gerardo. But bit by bit I begin to recognize my surroundings and, indeed, I remember that this is how it is here.
The hotel looks out on the park. We check in and I call my contact here, "Jonás," who has requested anonymity. "I don't want to put myself in danger, the police here don't care about anything or anybody," he explains. We agree to meet in about an hour.
When it's time, I go down to the lobby. Jonás arrives and he suggests we go to a restaurant, across the park. We get there and have a beer while he explains about Gabriel Fonseca, a.k.a. Cuco, a 19 year old and self-taught journalist that disappeared in 2011, and the possible reasons for his disappearance. "Unfortunately, everything I can say is speculation, because nobody's dug into this. Neither the police nor the owners of the paper," he says. "But worst of all is his parents' situation. His mom's health took a turn for the worse and she was—still is—being treated with strong meds," he continues.
He gives me the whole story. After an hour we agree on tomorrow´s activities.
On the next day the first interview is with with Jonás. We do it in his office, where he shares space with other journalists and photographers.
Then we go to the home of Cuco's parents.
Along the way we meet up with Susana, a colleague of Jonás. She tells us that she is studying investigative journalism and wants to see how we conduct the interview. "Aren't you afraid to work as an investigative reporter under these conditions?" I ask. "In truth, yes, but I try not to think about it because it needs to be done and it's what I want to do," she responds with a big smile I can see in the rear view mirror.
The entrance to the house is a doorway without a door, only covered by a metallic sheet pulled aside to enter. We're greeted by Juan, Cuco's father. He's a slight man, getting on in years, who wears a black sombrero. After the first round of introductions we're met by Candelaria, his wife, and their son Ricardo, Cuco's younger brother. The afternoon weather and light are nice, so we stay in the patio. Candelaria shows us her dog, nursing eight puppies in the shade of a banana tree. The patio has some fruit trees and decorative plants line the house. There's also a well, a chicken coop, and two rooms still under construction. "Cuco was helping with them, that's why they're still only half finished," Candelaria tells me.
This is a very sad interview. Jonás has already told us about the troubles the family has had since Cuco's disappearance. "He was the one who supported them. Thanks to Cuco, they had food on the table, but now they don't have nothing. The paper's owners don't pay them a pension, using the excuse that Cuco hasn't been declared dead, only missing," Jonás tells us. He's also told us that the Comisión Estatal de Atención a Periodistas has helped them with the issues of depression that Candelaria and Ricardo have faced. "Some colleagues got together and asked the Comisión for this, but it's harder because the rules say that they can only help out for up to six months, something like that. Sometimes among friends we all chip in and bring them some money, but we can't always manage it," he tells us, sad, frustrated.
It is almost nice for me to hear that solidarity is still among this people, in spite of everything.
When we finish we say our goodbyes but I don't know what else to say. The powerlessness I feel is more than any good wishes I could have and I only manage to say thanks and express that I hope things go better for them. Juan shakes my hand and, looking at his feet, says, "maybe you can bring my son's case to places where something can be done about it, all we want is to have him back and for them to give us the survivor's pension." His plea for help smacks of resignation and all I can say is that I'll do what I can.
When we get into the car and drive back, I ask Jonás if he thinks it'd be possible to see Juan again tomorrow. "Yes, he has a spot where he shines shoes and he shows up there every day at 10. You can find him there," he responds.
The day after, after breakfast we head out to look for Juan. We find him hard at work, on a busy street corner a few blocks from the hotel, shining the shoes of a man of about the same age.
To hide their wear, Juan goes over the man's shoes many times with brown polish. The man says that it isn't necessary yet Juan insists that the shoes can be made to look better. After a while Candelaria comes by with her shopping bag, sits on a bench near Juan, and watches him work. I sit to chat with her a bit and she tells me that she was in better spirits, "which is why I came out to go shopping, Maru, you've got to eat, and I hope it goes well for my hubby because I'd like to have chicken today." She tells me this holding me by the arm as though I were a neighbor or a friend.
Juan finishes his job. The client pays and leaves. As Candelaria brings him a thermos with coffee, he leans in towards me and asks, "Could you help us out a bit?" He goes on to explain, "I have to buy medicine for my wife and I don't think the money from Xalapa will arrive." Thoughts rush through my head: "Is it ethical? I should say no. If I give them money, will it be truly helpful?" I can't find any answers, but, feeling compassion, I reach into my pants pocket and take out a couple of bills which I give to Juan. Looking at his feet, he takes the money and thanks me. "May God pay you back and tenfold," he says, hugging me.
On the way out from Acayucan, it seems like maybe the town isn't as nice as it had seemed when we came in two days ago.
Another situation journalist have been facing all these years is displacement. There are no exact numbers for how many had left Veracruz since the horror started, but some say that there was a desbandada (disbanding) after Regina Martínez murder in 2012.
"Some just took it as an opportunity to look for new horizons, like studying abroad", I heard. But I also heard that many others just left because they got really afraid or because they realised they couldn't continue doing journalism in Veracruz, or because they got anonymous threats.
One of them is Rafael Pineda, a cartoonist that goes by "Rapé". He is from Veracruz City and lived in Xalapa when the crimes started to happen.
Contrary to what some people had told me that he wouldn't talk about his case, Rapé answers all my questions, even the ones about the threats he's received, which caused him to leave Xalapa. He is actually very open to telling everything. He talks about the steps his career must go after he moved, first to Paris and then to Mexico City while "looking for the right place to be". The interview finishes with a joke and then we go out for some tacos.
I go to the presentation of the Artículo 19's annual report. The report is named MIEDO (fear), initials for Media, Impunity, State, Democracy and Opacity.
As I arrive a video about journalists in Veracruz is being shown. Some of them I've met and others are on screen, telling their stories, Jorge Sánchez among them. At the end of the conference, I catch him and Mari are among the audience.
I come up to say hi and talk with them for a while, especially with Mari, as Jorge gives interviews. After, more people come to say hello to Mari. Among them are Denisse Dresser, a well-known journalist and political analyst; Pedro Canché, a journalist from the state of Quintana Roo who has been hounded and even jailed by the government in his home state; Claudia Ordóñez from the Mexico City's Commission for Human Rights; and Perseo Greco, from the Somos el Medio collective, an alternative online newspaper. We all talk about our projects, exchange email addresses and telephone numbers and even discuss working together in the future. Pedro Canché invites me to Quintana Roo to discuss making a film about Mayan culture and I promise to go as soon as I can. Indeed, this is a gratifying way to finish this phase of my project.
While I spend the last few days with my family before I go back to Norway, Jonás calls me and asks me to not use the part of his interview where he mentions that the chief of police in Acayucan might be involved or at least might know who kidnapped Cuco. "Why?" I ask. "Because they just promoted him to commandant. He has more power now," he responds. I promise him I'll be careful with how I use his interview but I also tell him about the importance of his testimonial. I say I really would like to have it in the story. He finally agrees and we hang up.
Corruption, kidnapping, killings, mistrust. It's definitely not easy to be a journalist in Veracruz.
In August 2016, due to extreme political and social pressure, Governor Javier Duarte resigned office and fled the country in October. Six months later he was arrested in a hotel in Guatemala and extradited to a federal detention in Mexico.
At this time, 2019, Duarte faces accusations of corruption, money laundry, organized crime and even forced disappearances, but none of the cases of murdered or dissapeared journalists have been mentioned in the audiences, says Proceso reporter Noe Zavaleta who has been present at all the judicial audiences in order to cover the case.
After the state attorney's attempts to convict Duarte, he manages to avoid some of the charges and gets a nine year old conviction and a bail for a little more than 58 thousand pesos (nearly 3,000 USD).
All the cases mentioned here haven't got punished.
Jorge Morales in no longer Commissioner, but Executive Secretary of the Commission. He now faces very strong criticism from the journalists community for not been able to push the system towards justice, just like he said when he was Commissioner.
Credits and Thanks
All the photographs are mine, except where indicated. The video capsules contain some video clips and images taken from the internet. All of them are credited, when possible.
Author, video directing and editing, still photography and design: Maru Sánchez López
DoP, Veracruz: Gerardo Rufinelli
DoP, Mexico City: Ernesto Madrigal
Video editing and subtitles: Pia Jensen
Sound postproduction: César González
Color correction, video editing and subtitles design: Elena Morales López
Music: Ray Cadó
Text translation: Michael Wolf
Maps design: Harald K. Jansson
Thesis advisors: Tormod Utne and Ana Sánchez Laws
Thanks to Pål Aam and all the personal from Volda University College.
This project was possible thanks to the support of the Fritt Ord [Free Speech] fund.
And the help of: Andrea Reyes Elizondo, Anja Naper, Anna Ntrouka, Carmela Hernández, Corina Hurtado, Francisco Sandoval Alarcón, Icauhtli Cisneros, Leticia and Silvia Núñez, Liz Palm, Mussio Cárdenas, Pablo Osorio, Pablo Robles, Pierre Cattan, Rosalba Michaca Fandiño, Thelma Muñoz Ibarra, Yadira Mata, Yadira Hidalgo González and all the participants at the Interactive Documentary Workshop at University of Applied Sciences and Arts at Southern Switzerland, 2017 and Sandra Gaudenzi at i-Docs, Bristol 2018.
Special big thanks: To all the journalists, academics, students and families in Veracruz and Mexico City, that kindly accepted to participate in this project. To my family and friends for helping me and making me feel safe in Veracruz.