A murder in Veracruz: Slain journalist’s story a portrait of a violent, corrupt era in Mexico
XALAPA, Mexico — Regina Martínez’s death was brutal. Someone broke in through the metal door from her beloved garden patio, the tiny patch of tranquility that kept her from moving from her modest cinder-block home to a safer location.
The intruder probably surprised her in the bathroom, from behind, investigators believe. At barely 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, she scratched and struggled to fight off her attacker, leaving skin under her fingernails. The assailant broke her jaw with brass knuckles, then wrapped a rag around her neck, squeezing the life out of the region’s best hope for accountability and justice.
In articles for the national investigative weekly Proceso, Martínez, who was killed at age 48, told her readers that two successive governors in her home state of Veracruz looted the treasury and allowed cartels to operate freely with the help of local and state police. She sought to prove the traffickers and their accomplices had executed hundreds of people: Teenage dealers and entire families. Farmers and politicians. Even young women who attended their sex parties.
Martínez was one of the very few reporters who dared to refuse bribes or to ignore cartel threats aimed at censoring the news. Her articles had an outsize impact.
“What the local press did not want to publish was published through Regina Martínez,” said Jorge Carrasco, Proceso’s editor in chief.
At least 27 journalists have been killed in the state of Veracruz since 2003. Eight others have disappeared. International press groups consider Veracruz to be the most dangerous place in the world to report the news.
“It has been a relentless attack against journalists,” said Roberta S. Jacobson, U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2016 to 2018. “They were forced out of the field of play. . . . It’s really amazing, their bravery.”
Eight years after Martínez’s homicide on April 28, 2012, a team of reporters from Mexico, Europe and The Washington Post has picked up where Martínez left off. The team continued her investigations of the two state governors — Fidel Herrera and Javier Duarte — and examined her homicide inquiry. Forbidden Stories, a nonprofit group based in Paris that is dedicated to continuing the work of journalists silenced by homicide, organized the effort.
LEFT: Writer and journalist Elena Poniatowska holds a photo of Regina Martínez during a 2017 protest in Mexico City calling for an end to violence against journalists. (Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images) RIGHT: Martínez’s gravesite in Xalapa, Mexico. (Forbidden Stories)
The story of Martínez’s death and her work is the first of a five-part series, “The Cartel Project,” which involved 60 journalists from 25 media outlets. It is being published by Forbidden Stories and its partners beginning today.
The team of reporters discovered that law enforcement authorities in Mexico, the United States and Spain had opened inquiries into allegations that Herrera colluded with leaders of the Zeta cartel while he was governor and took money from them for his campaign, as well as allegations that he was involved in money laundering while later serving in a diplomatic post in Barcelona.
Only the inquiry in Spain is known to be closed. Mexican and U.S. authorities declined to say whether their investigations are still active. Herrera has not been charged with a crime, and he denied all the allegations against him. Duarte is serving a nine-year sentence for embezzlement and money laundering.
Herrera did not respond to emails to his office. His son, Javier, said via Twitter that his father was ill and unable to comment: “My father has been in a hospital since April; this is a fact that you can easily corroborate; he suffered a stroke in April and has been in intensive care ever since. He has not seen the questions, it is medically prohibited by his doctor.”
Laura Borbolla, a senior prosecutor in the Mexican Attorney General’s Office who investigated Martínez’s homicide in 2012, said in interviews that state police and prosecutors made serious mistakes in their handling of the case. She also pointed to evidence that the man convicted in Martínez’s killing was tortured by Veracruz police and falsely confessed to the crime.
“The justice system in Veracruz is rubbish,” Borbolla said in her most extensive comments about the case to date. “Never in my career had I seen such an altered crime scene. . . . We may never know who killed Regina, but I know who didn’t kill Regina.”
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at a news conference in November that he would ask that the homicide case be reexamined. “I knew her quite well,” he said of Martínez, who had covered one of his earlier campaigns. “She was an incorruptible, professional journalist.”
Martínez is one of 119 journalists and media staffers killed throughout Mexico since 2000, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Her story offers a singular account of Mexico’s deterioration by 2020 into an anguished nation, beset by cartel-corrupted government institutions and haunted by thousands of killings and disappearances.
“It is much more attractive to present ‘Chapo’ Guzmán as the great mastermind of organized crime that controls the country than to assume responsibility for the insecurity or to investigate those who have allowed the growth of organized crime,” Jorge Rebolledo Flores, a government and business security consultant with a decade of experience in Veracruz, said in an interview, referring to the infamous Sinaloa crime boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. “In reality, organized crime is a middleman. Those who really control everything and who benefit most are powerful political figures and senior security-force officers.”
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To gather information for this account, reporters traveled to Veracruz for interviews and to obtain documents. Others interviewed current and former law enforcement and intelligence officials in the United States, Mexico and Spain, former senior U.S. diplomats and a dozen experts on cartels, Veracruz and Mexican politics.
LEFT: Martínez in an undated photo. (Alberto Morales Garcia/Forbidden Stories) RIGHT: Martínez with Patricio Chirinos Calero, former governor of Veracruz. (Alberto Morales Garcia/Forbidden Stories)
‘The mass grave of Mexico’
By the 2000s, the state of Veracruz, with its huge Gulf of Mexico port, oil industry and hidden trails, had become a key part of the route from South and Central America for cartels smuggling people, drugs and other contraband north to the United States. Violence akin to terrorism — including beheadings, dismemberments and hangings, with bodies displayed as warnings — pervaded the lives of its 8 million residents.
Martínez reported it all: The rape and homicide of a 72-year-old Indigenous woman by army soldiers. The extortion of 80 small-town mayors. Executions, not just of petty dealers but of prominent business executives, livestock farmers and peasant leaders.
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She was born in a small town in Veracruz, one of 11 children. She studied journalism in college and began her career in the early 1980s at a state-run television channel. She eventually left in protest over censorship and working conditions. She joined Proceso in 2000. Reserved and private, she usually sat in the corner at office parties, one Proceso colleague remembered, itching to get back to work. Rarely did she talk to her co-workers about her sensitive investigations.
Herrera’s finances were of particular interest to her. She wrote of his increasing wealth at a time when the state debt soared without a clear explanation.
Proceso documented that he owned a private jet and 22 cars, including an armored vehicle, as well as ranches, a hotel and a yacht. When questioned about those holdings, the governor said they belonged to his wealthy wife. He also said he’d had good luck since childhood, which is how he explained twice winning the national lottery, pocketing $6.8 million in 2008 and $3.6 million the following year.
Martínez pored over state spending records, writing in 2008 that Herrera invested millions from the budget in a failing soccer team called the Red Sharks owned by a friend.
She also documented a 40 percent surge in violence under Herrera — a family wiped out with submachine guns; a mayor shot at the airport; even the governor’s bodyguard, dead. She quoted people saying they knew Herrera had given the orders. Meanwhile, she wrote in 2006, Herrera “assures Veracruz that nothing is happening,” that there is “social tranquility” in the state.
Frightened colleagues sometimes tried to warn her off investigations. Just before her killing, Martínez had begun visiting pauper cemeteries in Veracruz to compare the number of bodies buried to official death records. She worked to show that government forces were secretly burying hundreds of disappeared people in mass graves.
[The search for the disappeared points to Mexico’s darkest secrets]
Martínez contacted photographer Julio Argumedo to take pictures for Proceso. Argumedo, who has never before spoken publicly about her investigation, said he remembers that “the graves were so full that the bodies were overflowing.”
One co-worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for personal safety reasons, remembers telling her: “Regina, be very careful. Police sources are saying that you should stop investigating these leads.”
Her colleagues were right to be worried. At the time, the Veracruz government had set up a secret espionage unit to monitor critics, among them local journalists, according to two former officials with knowledge of the unit. “The local government could connect to people’s phones and know at any moment what they were up to,” one of the officials said in an interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns.
The unit also collected personal information about them, including the names of family members and co-workers, places they frequented, their political affiliations and sexual orientations.
Martínez was considered by her peers to be the leader of a group of five journalists whose reputations were above reproach.
One of these five, who asked to remain anonymous for personal safety reasons, nicknamed this group “the band of undesirables.” Martínez and the other four journalists often coordinated to publish sensitive news simultaneously to cover up which one had done the work and to ensure that no one journalist was “stranded at sea.”
The Forbidden Stories investigation found that U.S. and Mexican authorities had long been investigating some subjects that Martínez had been pursuing. In the time since Martínez’s death, her instincts have been validated.
Even before her death, Herrera was facing mounting allegations.
In December 2011, a bombshell news story described cartel penetration of the government in Veracruz, based on a still-confidential report by the Mexican Attorney General’s Office. Details about the report, which contained U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration data and cited “14 protected witnesses,” were published by Grupo Imagen Multimedia, a Mexican media conglomerate with television, radio, newspaper and Internet holdings.
The report described two alleged meetings that Herrera had with Zeta cartel leaders when he was governor in 2008, one at the Maviel Hotel in the port city of Coatzacoalcos and the other during a party Herrera threw at one of his homes in Veracruz’s capital city, Xalapa, in honor of a cartel founder and the cartel’s leader in the state.
“The Zetas called Herrera ‘Zeta Number One’ because he was the one who ran the state,” former FBI special agent Arturo Fontes, who spent 28 years on Mexican and Colombian drug and money-laundering cases, said in an interview. “Herrera was paid millions of dollars through liaisons to the cartels to let them operate with impunity.”
Rebolledo, the Veracruz security consultant, said: “He was the boss of bosses. Los Zetas could not operate in Veracruz without his permission . . . and he used them to keep order in some regions of the state.”
In 2012, after Martínez’s death, Herrera’s name also surfaced in sworn testimony at the U.S. money-laundering trial of Veracruz oilman Francisco Colorado-Cessa in U.S. District Court in Austin. Colorado-Cessa was ultimately convicted in a scheme involving the purchase of racehorses. During the trial, FBI Agent Scott Lawson testified that Colorado-Cessa “was established as an intermediary” between Zetas leader Efraín Teodoro Torres and the government of Veracruz “to allow the circulation of drugs freely in the state of Veracruz and, at the same time, to help Fidel Herrera finance his campaign as governor.”
A former Zetas cartel accountant, José Carlos Hinojosa, testified that Torres gave Colorado-Cessa $12 million “for the governor’s campaign” in 2003.
Veracruz officials awarded lucrative government contracts to Colorado-Cessa’s cartel-linked construction company, and government officials received 10 to 16 percent from each contract, Hinojosa testified. “It was a company to build highways . . . to do drilling, to do cleanup, things like that — anything that the government hired them to do,” the accountant testified.
Government contracts offer cartels and corrupt officials a way to help one another prosper, Fontes said. “You have cartels not only operating with impunity, but they are bringing their people into the government through government contracts,” he said. “This also deprives real businesses of business.”
Herrera, now 71, has always denied the allegations. “There was never a single illicit penny in my campaign,” he told the outlet Grupo Fórmula in 2014. “I am a man with clean hands.”
Fontes, who now runs a security company, Fontes International Solutions, said the problem is endemic to Mexico. “In the U.S., we have big corporations that give money to politicians” through legal lobbying, he said. “In Mexico, politicians rely on narcos” for campaign funds.
Herrera “belongs to the previous generation of governors, when accountability institutions lacked political power,” said Alberto Olvera, a sociologist at the University of Veracruz. “He and others of his time were fortunate that the governors who followed them were successors they’d chosen from their own party who covered the traces of the previous corruption.”
When Herrera’s term ended in 2010, he expressed a desire to run for president. Instead, he agreed to become a political adviser to the PRI, Mexico’s long-ruling conservative party. It had just returned to power, 12 years after its seven decades of consecutive rule had been broken. Enrique Peña Nieto, who once described Herrera as his “best friend,” ran and won the presidency instead.
In 2015, Peña Nieto gave Herrera a consul position in Barcelona even though he had no diplomatic experience. Herrera’s presence set off alarms. Forbes magazine had by then dubbed him “one of the 10 most corrupt Mexicans.” But Peña Nieto argued that Herrera’s business acumen made him the perfect choice for the job.
The Barcelona City Council and Catalonian police launched confidential inquiries looking at Herrera’s links to people in Barcelona with their own legal problems, according to documents and interviews. The inquiries attempted to determine whether Herrera “could be related to money-laundering networks and have criminal relationships with important drug traffickers in Catalonia,” said Toni Rodríguez, chief of the criminal investigation division of the Catalonian police force.
Rodríguez said the inquiries ended when Herrera, after 14 months, rushed home to Veracruz to answer allegations in a lawsuit that he and his successor, then-Gov. Duarte, had used public funds to purchase fake chemotherapy medication for children. That case has stalled.
Under Duarte, now 47, corruption and violence increased dramatically. Duarte had none of Herrera’s political charm. He lashed out at critics. When professors at the University of Veracruz would not stop publicly criticizing him, he denied the university millions in state funds and created a new university where he handed out credentials to students loyal to him, according to press accounts at the time.
During the 16 months Martínez was alive under Duarte’s tenure, she chronicled an escalation in violence, with mutilated bodies dumped in public almost weekly.
Duarte was obsessed, she wrote in Proceso, with censoring the truth. He outlawed crime reporting on social media — an action that was quickly overturned in court.
“Veracruz receives partial information and even lies,” she wrote in 2011.
Cartels controlled the state, she told readers, even promoting themselves in YouTube videos. Cinemas, nightclubs and shops were almost empty, a consequence of the violence, she wrote. As the local economy struggled, Duarte was “hiding the state’s financial crisis,” she wrote.
Under Duarte, the Zetas lost their monopoly on power in the state, and other cartels moved in, according to interviews and press accounts at the time.
“Duarte was taking money from everyone,” said Kirk Seeley, a former DEA special agent and supervisor with 16 years of experience, much of it investigating drug crimes in Mexico. “He was like a clown in a rodeo. He was running around with everybody.”
The presence of multiple, competing cartels provoked turf battles and an increase in killings. Some 50 young women disappeared over a three-day period after attending parties with Zetas and local officials, according to media accounts. The reports led to a government investigation that eventually stalled.
“It was a witch’s brew,” said Seeley, who now runs Constos Global Risk Management.
Someone wanted to stop the news reports about the executions. In June 2011, the deputy editor of the largest newspaper in the state, Notiver, was shot dead in his home along with his wife and son. Two weeks later, the tortured and decapitated body of Notiver’s police reporter was discovered. These horrific crimes prompted the 15 reporters who covered crime in Veracruz to flee town, according to an investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
LEFT: Soldiers and police block off an area in Veracruz where 35 bodies were dumped on a roadway in September 2011. (AP) RIGHT: State forensic experts, aided by crime-scene investigation students, work at analyzing the bodies. (Félix Márquez/AP)
In September 2011, two truckloads of bloody, half-naked corpses were dumped at a busy intersection in front of a shopping mall in the touristy beach city of Boca del Río, just blocks from where state prosecutors were holding a meeting. The Veracruz government said the 35 people were Zetas and the perpetrators were from the warring Gulf Cartel.
[The death of Mexican news in the age of drug cartels]
The violence became news all over the world. Veracruz, once best known for its thriving port, lush beaches and colonial architecture, got a new name: “The mass grave of Mexico.”
In 2016, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office charged Duarte with embezzlement, illicit enrichment and money laundering. He escaped the country in a helicopter and was later arrested in Guatemala. He pleaded guilty to some charges and admitted to working with “criminal elements.” He was sentenced to nine years in prison but has appealed, and media reports say he could be released early.
‘The perfect scapegoat’
Martínez’s homicide shocked many who assumed a reporter at such a respected national outlet was too high-profile to be killed. Her body had been quickly discovered when a neighbor alerted police to her open front door. It was headline news in Mexico, with calls for a thorough investigation. Some of her colleagues fled Veracruz the day she died and have never returned.
Duarte sent a huge flower wreath to Martínez’s funeral. Many of her peers believe he or Herrera was behind her homicide.
“Proceso paid a very high price for covering these issues: kidnappings, murders, threats,” said Carrasco, the Proceso editor, who left the country temporarily after receiving death threats when he tried to investigate Martínez’s homicide.
In 2015, Proceso photographer Rubén Espinosa, who had been physically harassed and verbally threatened for taking photos of crime scenes, finally fled to the safety of Mexico City, only to be tracked there and killed by assassins, his colleagues believe.
LEFT: The family of slain Proceso photojournalist Rubén Espinosa during his funeral in Mexico City in 2015. (Marco Ugarte/AP) RIGHT: Posters of Espinosa and four slain women hang outside Veracruz state government offices in 2015, above posters of then-Gov. Duarte next to a Proceso headline reading “Veracruz: State Without Law.” (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)
The United States took note of Martínez’s homicide, too. “The violence against a female reporter stood out as something unusual and unexpected,” said Thomas A. Shannon Jr., former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. “It was an indicator that she was getting close and that the response from drug cartels had to be certain and definitive.”
Four days after local police began investigating her killing, Borbolla, the federal prosecutor, arrived in Veracruz from Mexico City to do a parallel investigation for a new unit designed to probe crimes against journalists. A tough lawyer who had extradited cartel bosses, she brought 14 federal police officers with her. Borbolla is currently a prosecutor in a different part of the attorney general’s office.
In recent interviews, Borbolla provided new details about her investigation.
She said state police badly damaged the fingerprints they found at the crime scene with smears and excess dusting powder. “It was not an accident,” she said. “We learn how to do that in the first year of criminal studies — and it didn’t happen only once.”
Her team found two good prints that state police had missed. Neither matched anyone in the country’s crime databases.
Borbolla said she believed Enoc Maldonado Caraza, chief of the Veracruz Investigative Agency, delayed handing over other evidence. When he finally did, some was too damaged to analyze. “We felt that, on one hand, I was being told, ‘Yes, of course, prosecutor, whatever you need.’ And I would turn around, and he would be talking to them and telling them not to give us anything.”
In an email response to questions, Maldonado rejected each of Borbolla’s accusations and said the investigation was carried out in a timely and effective manner and that the man convicted in Martínez’s killing was not tortured.
Six months after the investigation was launched, Borbolla, along with the Mexican public, learned via a television news conference that the state prosecutor had “successfully cleared up the murder of Regina Martínez.”
It was a burglary, and the killer had confessed.
Police said a witness had told them he had seen two men near Martínez’s house hours before she was killed. Police had apprehended one of them, Jorge Antonio Hernandez Silva, who was known as “El Silva.” He was an illiterate drug addict and low-level criminal, reporters learned.
But the day after the news conference, Silva told a court magistrate that he was not guilty and that he had confessed only because he was being tortured.
“I want to say that they hit me on the back and I feel pain,” Silva said in a statement provided by his attorney, Diana Coq Toscanini. “They had a sort of buzzer for giving electric shocks, and they put it on my chest and gave me shocks. They did that, but I didn’t see who, since I was blindfolded. And last night my chest was in pain. And I wouldn’t kill anyone because I’m already dying bit by bit since I have HIV.”
Coq described Silva as “the perfect scapegoat.”
Police denied his claims, but Borbolla said she believes Silva. “It was very clear that the elements of torture had been carried out by the state government, by local authorities,” she said.
Borbolla had other problems with the crime investigation, which was supposed to be done jointly with state authorities. She was never able to find the mysterious witness. She was not allowed to interview Silva without the presence of state police and prosecutors.
Borbolla said the crime scene did not look like a robbery. Martínez’s home was mostly undisturbed, and items of value remained — little gold earrings on the dresser, her purse, her phones, a printer, kitchen appliances. Only her tape recorder and computer were gone.
When Borbolla transferred jobs in late 2015, she insisted Martínez’s case remain open because “we have those two fingerprints that implicated someone, and we didn’t know who he was.”
Two Mexican intelligence officials said in phone interviews that Martínez’s homicide may be connected to the hackers known as Anonymous in Mexico. In 2011, the group announced it would begin releasing the names of cartel members and their accomplices in government, which it had obtained through hacking. In retaliation, the Zetas kidnapped several members to threaten them and to learn the names of people who had access to the hacked information. The intelligence officials said one of those kidnapped disclosed that the group had contacted Martínez. Editors and colleagues said they were unaware that Martínez had any relationship with Anonymous.
Argumedo, the photographer who had accompanied Martínez to the gravesites, said he believes she was close to finishing the story when she was killed. A colleague of Martínez said that she had calculated that the number of dead had increased tenfold in Veracruz between 2000 and 2012, a toll not reflected in official records.
LEFT: Signs mark clandestine graves where almost 300 bodies were found in Colinas de Santa Fe, in Veracruz, in 2018. (Félix Márquez/AP) RIGHT: Relatives try to identify their missing loved ones at the morgue in Cosamaloapan, Veracruz, after more than two dozen bodies were found in a mass grave in 2014. (Félix Márquez/AP)
In the years after Martínez’s death, the mothers of the disappeared across Mexico formed collectives to demand that authorities find the bodies of their missing loved ones. They have hired gravediggers and forensic experts. Mass graves containing tens of thousands have been subsequently discovered across the country.
In 2017, remains of 250 people were unearthed in Veracruz. The next year, 168. Duarte’s public security secretary, Arturo Bermúdez, was charged with heading a death squad that disappeared at least 15 people. Bermúdez has pleaded not guilty, and the case is pending.
“What I can say is that I am innocent,” Bermúdez said at the time. “I very much regret each death and each person who receives some mistreatment. I have not done it, and I have never led a criminal network.”