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The Murder of Crime Reporter Alberto López Bello

A Journalist’s Death in Oaxaca

by LUIS CARDONA

Translated by Patrick Timmons

Translator’s Note: According to freedom of expression organizations, Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas to practice journalism. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented 29 “work related” murders of journalists in Mexico since 1992, with the murders of 40 other journalists as yet unconfirmed. Investigations are stalled in most cases. A recent murder still considered unrelated to journalism is that of Oaxacan crime reporter, Alberto López Bello. But investigative journalist Luis Cardona reports that López Bello’s murder could be related to his profession. – PT

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At ten past seven in the morning on Wednesday 17 July 2013, officers from the Oaxaca State Attorney General’s office discovered two bodies on Sabino Street in La Humedad around a place called Trinidad de Viguera. One of the corpses was that of the journalist Alberto López Bello, crime reporter for the newspaper El Imparcial. According to the Attorney General’s office, Bello was discovered with the body of Arturo Alejandro Franco Rojas, “a municipal police informant.”

At the time of his murder, López Bello worked for El Imparcial of Oaxaca. Colleagues called him, “El Chamaco” (the Kid). His colleagues wrote on the newspaper website that, “We lament and condemn the loss of our colleague, a contributor to the crime section.” El Imparcial demanded the authorities offer a clarification “that shows how communicators are exposed to vulnerabilities as they carry out their daily work of faithfully and appropriately informing the citizenry.”

Oaxaca’s state governor, Gabino Cué Monteagudo, said in a press release that he instructed the State Attorney General, Manuel de Jesús López López, ”to pursue the murder as a high impact crime, directed by” a special investigatory committee.

The State Attorney General, Manuel de Jesús López López, reassured that the inquiry would not ignore any investigative lines. He publicly stated his commitment to use the powers of his office to clarify the murder and bring those responsible to justice. The state’s top prosecutor had analyzed the aggressions previously suffered by the journalist, giving some credence to media workers’ suspicions that police officers participated in López Bello’s murder.

Previous Threats Against López Bello

At a press conference last May, Alberto López Bello and Jacobo Robles, both crime reporters at El Imparcial held the State Secretary of Public Safety, Marco Tulio López Escamilla, and police officers responsible for an arbitrary detention occurring almost exactly a month before his murder. On Saturday 18 May, State Police detained the reporters as they covered the appearance of a narco-banner on a pedestrian overpass at the CONALEP Bridge in the township of San Antonio de la Cal.

Unidentified people had placed a printed message on a banner, the same one photographed by the journalists. Minutes later, the State Police arrived in a patrol car bearing the number 1514. The officers questioned the reporters, identifying them as responsible for placing the banner. At the press conference to denounce their detention held in front of the Palacio de Gobierno, the reporters confirmed that they did identify themselves. But the order the officers received on the “matra” — the radio system used by the State Police — instructed them to take them to police headquarters.

At headquarters, they were fingerprinted and, after five hours, ordered to appear at the Federal Attorney General’s Office. Both journalists maintained that because no officials were available at the Attorney General’s office, they were not processed. The reporters filed a complaint that directly accused the State Secretary of Public Safety of having given the order. When challenged, the state official took to Twitter to deny the facts. The journalists had also indicated that the State Police officers showed special concern about securing the immediate removal of the banner. During a telephone conversation, the officers reported the narco-banner’s message to their superiors.

The reporters remembered that the “narco-banner” made references to various State Police chiefs, asking them to fulfill previously negotiated agreements.

“They were trying to make us say who had told us about the banner, saying that we should not publish the photographs,” López Bello said at his press conference with his colleague.

“The State Police officers never recorded our detention.” López Bello added that when they arrived at the Federal Attorney General’s Office, one of the State Police chiefs asked over the “matra” communications system if “there was any possibility that they could be returned to the Police Headquarters.” But since they had already been taken to the Federal Attorney General’s office in Oaxaca, the state police officers were powerless to act.

Sub-delegate Elba Alicia Sánchez Domínguez of the Federal Attorney General’s Office in Oaxaca confirmed that no information existed about those events. A complaint detailing which crimes needed to be investigated did not exist, so the official said that she did not know the reason why the state police had detained the journalists, or why they had been transferred to the federal prosecutor’s local office.

As a result of these events, both reporters received assurances that their professional security would be respected and that they could work without interference. However, work colleagues (who requested guarantees of anonymity in fear of their safety) said that since their arrest the reporters asked to be accompanied, and communicated their whereabouts to their superiors and friends. However, on 17 July 2013, César Alfaro, Oaxaca’s State Police Commissioner announced that López Bello had been found dead in a place called Las Humedades.

On discovery of the bodies, it could be seen that both had been attacked in the head with large pieces of paving stone, like those used for posts in rural areas.

The victims had been gagged, and bound hands and feet. Blows to the head had destroyed their faces, complicating the process of identification.

Discovery of the Victims’ Motorcycles

The State Prosecutor recognized that around two o’clock in the afternoon the same Wednesday the victims’ motorcycles, their usual form of transport, had been found in front of a bar between Porfirio Díaz and Morelos streets. He assumed that the night before both had been drinking inside the establishment.

The body found beside that of the journalists was Arturo Alejandro Franco Rojas. The State Attorney General said he worked as a municipal police informant. One of the journalist’s friends confirmed that he was one of López Bello’s sources.

The Attorney General said that the State Police investigated these events and assumed that when the men left the bar they were captured. However, there are no known witnesses to corroborate the state prosecutor’s version of events.

The battered old model motorbikes that belonged to the two men were parked on the sidewalk in front of the bar.

Oaxaca’s prosecutor added that owing “to the fight against organized crime, there is an ever-present risk that these types of organizations want to influence the editorial line of certain newspapers.”

“I cannot confirm if the killings’ motive is connected to freedom of expression. There exists, however, a 2009 precedent when a truck belonging to El Imparcial del Istmo was attacked, and three workers were killed,” he said.

The Federal Attorney General asked the State Governor to be aware of these facts and that Oaxaca’s state prosecutors should work with counterparts in the Federal Special Prosecutor of Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE, according to its Spanish acronym).

Oaxaca Fails to Investigate While Federal Investigation Underway

The Oaxaca State Prosecutor’s office admitted the existence of an inquiry (401/PGR/2013) conducted by the Fourth Investigative Division into the detention of López Bello and his colleague. But it could not confirm the motive for their May 2013 arrest.

At López Bello’s press conference the journalist said that state authorities had not conducted a preliminary investigation into their detention. Furthermore, the Federal Attorney General’s representative recognized the journalists had been transferred without a criminal complaint, just an order for detention, which is why they had been released.

Article 19, a press freedom organization dedicated to the protection of at risk journalists, said: “The reporters’ detention by state police sends a message criminalizing the practice of journalism. In the context of violence against the press their detention not only violates the state’s international responsibility to prevent and protect journalists from any type of aggression but also increases the vulnerability of those exercising their right to freedom of expression. Their detention undermines the promotion of a freedom essential to democracy.”

The arbitrary detention of López Bello and Jacobo Robles occurred just two weeks after death threats against two other journalists in the state, Pedro Matías and Giovanni Vásquez. In Oaxaca in 2013, 11 threats were made against journalists and reporters. When added to the 22 threats documented in 2012, of Mexico’s 32 states and the Federal District, Oaxaca registers one of the highest numbers of attacks against freedom of expression.

López Bello gave an interview to Article 19 in which he discussed his arbitrary arrest: ”After we photographed the banner, two state police officers arrived on the scene and they asked us to identify ourselves. We identified ourselves and showed them our press passes. But the still detained us. They took our equipment from us, including our phones and money. Then they transferred us to the Federal Attorney General’s office, where we were then released.”

During their detention, state police deprived journalists of contact with the outside world and fingerprinted them. Finally they took them to the prosecutor at the Federal Attorney General’s Office. But the now murdered López Bello confirmed that once the federal prosecutor had taken their statements, “he said that there was no crime to investigate and that the police had acted incorrectly.”

Laura Borbolla, Federal Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression Concluded that the Journalist’s Death “Was Not Work Related”

The Federal Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression, Laura Borbolla, reported publicly on 6 November 2013 that Alberto López Bello’s murder was not work related. Instead, she said that it was connected to his relationship with his murderers, who belong to a gang. Borbolla criminalized his relationship to his murderers and ended her office’s investigation.

But nobody has reviewed the statements López Bello made when he protested his arbitrary detention in May 2013.

Oaxaca’s Attorney General has indicated that gang members Julián Ramírez Benítez, Gerardo García Flores, Rafael Martínez González and Aldo José Luis Tenorio Benítez, all from Verarcuz, were arrested for the murders of López Bello and his companion, a city police officer, Alejandro Franco Rojas.

The State’s top prosecutor said the four culprits in custody for López Bello’s murder could be identified because last June they had participated in murders at two bars, La Farola the Casa de Mezcal.

An analysis of the murder conducted by the late Mike O’Connor, Mexico Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found that during 2013 no murders of journalists occurred for work-related reasons. O’Connor added that this was the first time in a decade CPJ had been unable to confirm a work-related journalist’s death in Mexico, saying also that the country has always been a difficult place to pinpoint the motive behind the murderof journalists.

Other Murdered Journalists in Mexico in 2013 

- 24 April 2013: the mutilated body of Daniel Alejandro Martínez Bazaldúa was found in Saltillo, Coahuila. He was a photojournalist for the society section of Vanguardia. He had worked for the newspaper about a month.

- Jaime Guadalupe González Domínguez, reporter and editor of Ojinaga Noticias, was killed on 3 March 2013 in Ojinaga, Chihuahua, on the border with Presidio, Texas. Rival organized crime groups are fighting to control the trafficking routes to the United States. He was shot while eating at a taco stand.

- On 15 April 2013 Alonso de la Colina Sordo, 50 years old, was fatally shot the moment he exited a bank in Puebla. He had been the long-term presenter of a news show in Guerrero, a state brought low by organized crime. The Zetas, the Beltrán Leyva Oragnization (BLO), the Sinaloa Cartel, and the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) are all fighting for control of drug trafficking routes in Guerrero. De la Colina Sordo retired from his job in February 2013.

Mexican Journalists Killed In 2012

At least 16 journalists were assassinated or disappeared in Mexico in 2012 under circumstances which authorities believe was connected to their work:

- In November 2012, freelance journalist Adrián Silva and his assistant, Misrael López González were killed minutes before covering an army operation near the city of Puebla. In that operation, soldiers secured a warehouse filled with quantities of gasoline stolen from Mexico’s state-owned oil company, PEMEX. Both men were shot.

- In August 2012, photojournalists Arturo Barajas and José Antonio Aguilar Mota were killed in Michoacán. Their bodies were found in the boot of a car. Both had been shot in the head.

- Also in August 2012, Mario Segura, editor of the Tamaulipas newspaper Sol del Sur was kidnapped and then released. Today he lives outside the state.

- In June 2012, Victor Manuel Baez Chino, crime reporter for national newspaper Milenio was murdered in Xalapa, Veracruz. According to the police, two Zetas hit men are suspected of murdering Báez, who was writing articles about organized crime that angered the leaders of the Zetas.

- Also in Veracruz, in May 2012, Guillermo Luna, a photojournalist with veracruznews.com was found dead beside the body of Gabriel Huge, a photojournalist with Notiver, and Esteban Rodríguez, a photojournalist who left the profession in 2011. Their bodies showed signs of torture.

- In May 2012, Marco Antonio Ávila García was shot and killed while working in Sonora.

- Also in May 2012, the body of René Orta Salgado, reporter for El Sol de Cuernavaca was found in the trunk of a car in the state of Morelos.

- Again in May, the body of journalist Marco Antonio Ávila García was found on an unpaved road in Sonora. He was working as a reporter for El Regional de Sonora. Some armed men kidnapped Ávila García in Ciudad Obregón, about 65 miles from where his body was discovered.

- In April, Proceso magazine investigative journalist Regina Martínez was beaten and strangled in her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

- In January, Raúl Regolo Garza, a reporter for Última was killed by gunshots in Sonora.

Analysts’ Conclusions

“Attacks on journalists continue because criminal groups insist on coverage of their acts in order to keep their turf warm,” commented Gerardo Rodríguez, security analyst for Seguridad Mexico.

For Vicente Sánchez, analyst at the Colegio de la Frontera, violence against journalists serves as a warning so that they do not publish specific information on certain subjects about organized crime, making the gang members liable to attack or prosecution by the Federal Government.

Journalists are under constant threat in Mexico because nobody really wants to protect them. According to José Pérez-Espino, author of several books about journalists, journalism, and press state relations, journalists always work at their own risk, and neither media outlets, nor the authorities provide security against the threat from organized crime.

Luis Cardona is an investigative reporter based in Mexico; translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist based in the Americas. This story first appeared in Spanish in Diario19.com at http://diario19.com/?p=299

Patrick Timmons is a writer, human rights journalist, and language teacher with a PhD (2004) in Latin American History from the University of Texas at Austin. From 2011 to 2012 he was the Human Rights, Migration, and Security Policy Officer at the British Embassy in Mexico City where he reported for the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office on a wave of killings of journalists in the Mexican Gulf state of Veracruz. He is finishing his first book Plucking the Plumed Serpent: A Memoir of Madness and Sensibility in North America. He divides his time between Mexico City and Colchester, England.