Gumaro Pérez, a Mexican journalist, arrived just on time for the Christmas festival at his 6-year-old son’s elementary school on Tuesday morning.
Dozens of families had gathered at the school in Acayucan, a town in the Mexican state of Veracruz, for a typical family celebration just before the holidays. Parents, teachers and students enjoyed cake, music, dancing and piñatas. The door of Pérez’s son’s first-grade classroom was decorated with a Santa Claus theme.
Shortly after 11 a.m., Pérez’s wife, Adelina Mendoza, stepped outside the first-grade classroom with her son, who wanted to play out on the patio with his friends, she later told local reporters. The mother had to leave the event early for work, and her husband, a local police reporter in his early 30s, planned to stay behind. She began to say goodbye to her son.
“I gave him a kiss because I was leaving, and right then I heard the shots,” she said. “I thought they were fireworks that some child had brought into the classroom.”
They were actually bullets. Someone had been shot, Mendoza heard a person say.
She and her son ran into a different classroom to hide. A mother of her son’s friend came up to her.
“She told me it was my husband,” Mendoza said. Leaving her son in the care of another parent, Mendoza ran to the first-grade classroom.
Pérez was on the floor, dead. A pair of gunmen had stormed into the classroom, looking for him. The unidentified men fired several shots at him with 9 millimeter pistols, according to local reporter Carlos González Alonso, who arrived on the scene within minutes of the shooting. Then, the gunmen fled.
Pérez had spent half his life reporting on local crime and drug trafficking, working in one of the world’s most deadly places for journalists. His wife had warned him of the risks, she told reporters. She knew how often journalists got killed in this part of Mexico. But she never imagined something as brutal as this, in an elementary school classroom full of children.
“I can’t believe it,” Mendoza said in an interview with local reporters outside the school. “I can’t believe that they would do it in such a cruel, cruel way… in front of the children.
“You can’t live like this,” she added. “You can’t even relax in a classroom with your children. It’s gone too far.”
Pérez became the 12th journalist to be killed in Mexico this year, according to the organization Reporters Without Borders. His death would make Mexico the most dangerous country in the world for journalists in 2017, according to the group’s numbers, tied with war-torn Syria.
Since 1992, 95 journalists have been killed in Mexico, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 43 of those cases the motive has been directly related to the victims’ work as a journalist. Six of those have been killed in 2017, making it a record year. Far too many murders across the country go unsolved.
And Veracruz, the state along Mexico’s Gulf Coast, is one of the country’s deadliest spots. At least three journalists have been killed there this year.
They include Candido Rios, a local crime reporter shot in August at a highway gas station 25 miles from Acayucan, according to the Associated Press, and columnist Ricardo Monlui, who was slain in the town of Yanga in March as he left a restaurant with his wife and son.
A month earlier, Honduran photojournalist Edwin Rivera Paz was shot and killed by gunmen on a motorcycle in Acayucan.
González, who has been a reporter in Acayucan for two decades, said in an interview with The Washington Post that reporters refer to the area as a “red zone.” So far this month, there have been 15 killings in the town, slayings of journalists and non-journalists alike.
“The murders are frequent,” González, 47, said. They happen in homes, on the streets, between cars. “But in a school? This is the first time.”
Hearing the news that his friend and fellow reporter Pérez was shot, González arrived at the school within minutes, even before police. He found a scene of “total hysteria, a total crisis,” he said.
“Frantic mothers, running with their children, screaming,” he said. Pérez’s body was on the classroom floor.
Pérez has reported on security issues for a number of local media outlets since he was a teenager. He founded a weekly news site called “La Voz del Sur,” which ceased publication a few years ago, González said. More recently, he covered local police for the news site Golfo Pacifico. He also recently worked in communications with the local government.
In 2015, he participated in a state program designed to protect journalists, according to a news release from the State Commission for the Care and Protection of Journalists. But the commission said it was never aware of any threats to Pérez’s safety.
The commission urged local prosecutors and public safety officials to “promptly clarify the facts surrounding the murder of the journalist,” and identify and prosecute those responsible.
It appears that it was not the first time Pérez was attacked. According to the news site Diario del Sur, he was punched by a lawyer at the public prosecutor’s office while collecting information about assaults in the municipality.
Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, tweeted that she was “outraged by the death of another brave journalist in Mexico.”
“Cowardly killers” that murdered him “in front of his son in an elementary school,” she added. “You don’t kill the truth by killing journalists.”
Miguel Angel Yunes, Veracruz’s governor, condemned the shooting and said he ordered state police to provide protection to the journalist’s family.
González remembered Pérez as a responsible, driven journalist who was a good father and friend. He said Pérez was the best police reporter in town. There was not a single accident, however minimal, that he did not rush toward on his motorcycle. He was nicknamed “el hombre de rojo” or “the man in red,” because he always wore the color.
Pérez’s wife said he had not received any threats against his safety, that she knew of. But his job scared her.
“I would tell him, ‘leave that,’ because of what would happen to journalists,” she told reporters. In the last year, she begged him to find a new job. She wanted him to open a restaurant with her.
But, she said, “he would not leave his career as a journalist. He started there and that was what he liked.”
González said some of his colleagues have considered retiring because of the risks journalists face in Mexico. He has sought out protection through a local program that provides journalists with security cameras and panic buttons. “But it doesn’t protect you from the bullets,” he said.
As for González, he doesn’t plan to quit the job anytime soon. It’s all he’s done for 20 years, and he loves it.
“We have to keep going, no?” he said.
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