Miroslava Breach Velducea became last week the third journalist murdered in Mexico in March. According to Mexican press accounts, the 54-year-old Chihuahua City mother was gunned down in front of her home Thursday morning, March 23, as she prepared to drive her son to school. Captured by security cameras, a photo of the suspected gunman is circulating in Mexican media.
The Chihuahua correspondent for the national daily La Jornada since 1997 and a contributor to the Ciudad Juárez daily Norte, Breach was a widely respected journalist in Mexico and abroad.
Decrying the killing of a friend, Mexican journalist and author Lydia Cacho, who’s suffered grave attacks and threats of her own, posted a video on Aristeguinoticias.com, a popular news site founded by prominent Mexican journalist and CNN host Carmen Aristegui.
“The murder has certainly left us devastated, but it’s not going to stop us,” vowed Cacho, fighting back tears. “We are millions and millions of women and men in this country defending the truth, defending what is right and good.”
Mexican news sources report that Breach was threatened before her murder. Bearing the modus operandi of an early morning killing at a family home when the kids were getting ready to leave for school, Breach’s murder recalled the 2008 homicide of Diario de Juárez crime beat reporter Armando Rodriguez in Ciudad Juárez.
Both crimes implied prior surveillance of an intended victim and the goal of eliminating not only the targeted individual but traumatizing and terrorizing an entire family — and society — as well. Rodriguez and later Breach were shot multiple times by an assailant wielding a handgun, a favored weapon of professional assassins in Mexico.
Fed up by growing attacks on Mexican journalists, reporters demanding justice occupied the Chihuahua State Congress only hours after Breach’s killing. “Ya Basta!” or “Enough is Enough!” proclaimed La Jornada’s website. In an unprecedented action, Chihuahua Governor Javier Corral, who once worked as a journalist, declared a three day period of official mourning.
Saying he first met Breach back in the 1990s and considered her a friend, Corral called Breach a “brave woman” who was a must-read in the public sphere. He pledged that the material and intellectual authors of Breach’s murder would be apprehended, and invited journalists and others to form a “plural commission” established with the goal of monitoring the police investigations.
“The media is very important because, as the name indicates, it forms, shapes and orients public opinion. But journalists are its most important workers,” Corral said in a statement.
Condemnation of Breach’s murder swept the globe, with the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, international journalist associations and representatives of the European Union, United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights all deploring the crime. Swiftly, the Mexican federal attorney general’s office announced it was probing the Chihuahua City homicide, as did the National Human Rights Commission.
Minutes of silence for La Jornada’s beloved “Miros” were held by both chambers of the Mexican Congress and at a Mexico City meeting that was attended by well-known lawmakers, activists and actors and hosted by former mayor and three-time presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.
At a March 24 memorial for Breach in the state capital of Chihuahua City, where her name was ironically added to a longstanding cross of nails honoring female murder victims, attorney Lucha Castro, founder of the Women’s Human Rights Center of Chihuahua City and advisor to Governor Corral, described the veteran reporter as a dedicated professional who gave voice to the voiceless snared in shadowy dramas of land and water conflicts, feminicides, forced disappearances, and displacements of entire communities by organized crime.
“She was an emblematic journalist in a profession like Chihuahua’s that is regrettably corroded by corruption. She always stood for high ethical values,” Castro told La Jornada.
Breach’s hard-hitting stories had international impact, and were frequently a source of information for the now suspended New Mexico State University news service Frontera NorteSur (this reporter served as editor of Frontera NorteSur from 2005 to 2016).
Angered by Breach’s murder, hundreds of journalists and supporters held demonstrations March 24-26 in Ciudad Juárez, Acapulco, Zihuatanejo and numerous other Mexican cities, protesting the killing of not only of the Chihuahua journalist but scores of others over the years as well.
“You kill journalists, fascist state!” chanted demonstrators in Mexico City. “It was the state!” rang out another slogan, in echo of the words that guided the mass protests which shook Mexico after the forced disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa college students in 2014.
Press and human rights associations maintain varying numbers of Mexican journalists murdered during the past two decades, with the highest toll in the wake of the Breach killing — 123 since 2000 — credited to Mexico’s official National Human Rights Commission; press reports indicate 20 additional journalists remain disappeared.
In response to the gunning down of Miroslava Breach, dozens of Ciudad Juárez print, radio, television and digital journalists have posted a Spanish-language video on YouTube demanding justice for a colleague and security in their profession:
A Sierra Tarahumara connection?
Miroslava Breach’s stories often gave a raw, first-hand look at the troubled Sierra Tarahumara region of Chihuahua, where overlapping dimensions of dope growing, ecological devastation, political corruption, rampant human rights violations and criminal impunity make for a dangerous and deadly place. The region is violently disputed by underworld organizations seeking to control the production of opium poppies for the U.S. heroin market.
Recently, Breach reported extensively on last January’s murders of indigenous activists Isidro Baldenegro and Juan Ontiveros in the Sierra Tarahumara.
In 2003 Baldenegro and a colleague, Hermenegildo Rivas, were arrested by Chihuahua state police and accused of illegal possession of drugs and weapons, charges supporters claimed amounted to a frame up concocted for the purpose of undermining environmental activism. The two men were freed in 2004 after an international campaign organized by the Sierra Club and Mexican and international environmental and human rights exposed their case to the world.
The winner of the esteemed Goldman Environmental Prize in 2005 for his struggle against illegal logging, Baldenegro told this reporter at the time that he was optimistic about saving Chihuahua’s forests.
A second Sierra Tarahumara connection could be behind the Breach murder. The Chihuahua journalist was killed only five days after a fierce gun battle between rival drug gangs claimed eight or more lives near Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua, the gateway to the Sierra Tarahumara.
According to Mexican media reports, a narco-style message purportedly signed by “El 80,” one of the alleged protagonists in the Cuauhtemoc violence, was left at the scene of Breach’s murder.
Reportedly labeling Breach a “gossip,” the note warned that Governor Corral, who took office last October, would be the next victim.
A predecessor of Corral’s, current Senator Patricio Martinez, was nearly killed during his term as governor when a woman state police agent shot and seriously wounded him in 2000.
A big question is whether “El 80” is the true signatory of the note, or if its authorship belongs to another party out to create confusion and sow chaos. For La Jornada, other leads in the murder of their prized reporter include Breach’s stories about and investigations of money laundering in the acquisition of high-tech irrigation systems and/or organized crime’s control of municipal governments in the Sierra.
The political ramifications of a journalist’s murder
Expanding on the organized crime angle in the Breach murder, Chihuahua State Prosecutor Cesar Peniche said another line of investigation would examine a possible intent at destabilizing the state government in order to detour pending corruption charges against ex-Governor Cesar Duarte (2010-2016), who was elected on the ticket of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s PRI party. Governor Corral is a member of the National Action Party (PAN).
Elected on a reform platform, Corral’s administration has been hamstrung during its first months in office by spiraling violence, debts incurred by the Duarte government, and hostility by some quarters of the press. Citizen groups that backed Corral’s campaign are growing impatient over dwindling prospects for change and becoming increasingly critical of administration responses to worsening bouts of violence.
The political scene is heating up in the aftermath of the Breach murder. Speaking to business leaders in Toluca last Friday, federal Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, who is considered a possible PRI presidential candidate in 2018, said the Peña Nieto administration would not permit the further “deterioration” of Chihuahua and had been in conversations with Corral to “enter” Chihuahua for public safety purposes.
Interpreting Osorio Chong’s comments as a slap at the new state government, the Chihuahua state leadership of the PAN took issue in a response published on the Ciudad Juárez web site Lapolaka.com.
Signed by Fernando Alvarez Monje, the statement blamed rising insecurity on “an inheritance from corrupt PRI governments, and this burden of violence and criminality that has been aggravated by the absence of the federal government and its wager on destabilizing the government of Javier Corral.” What’s more, Alvarez accused the federal government of stalling legal investigations into the alleged ring of corruption surrounding former Governor Duarte and associates.
An already tense and volatile atmosphere was further heightened Friday afternoon when Georgina Tapia, psychologist for the Chihuahua state judicial system, was shot by assailants outside her Chihuahua City home, possibly with the same caliber of pistol used to assassinate Miroslava Breach, according to El Diario de Chihuahua.
In many respects, the current landscape in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua City and other parts of the state resembles the transition from a PRI state government to a PAN administration in the 1990s, when Francisco Barrio (now a backer of Corral) became the first PAN governor in the border entity. Barrio’s administration (1992-98) was marked by narco wars, a wave of feminicides, deepening police corruption, rampant delinquency and, significantly, the repositioning of shadowy personalities in positions of political and economic power.
Open season on the Mexican press?
Besides Miroslava Breach, two other Mexican journalists were murdered this month. On March 2, Cecilio Pineda was slain in a Guerrero murder the state’s attorney general pinned on organized crime. On March 19, in a slaying similar to Breach’s, Ricardo Monlui Cabrera was gunned down in front of his family in the southern state of Veracruz.
Like Chihuahua and Guerrero, Veracruz is submerged in narco-tainted hyper-violence and gross human rights violations. For instance, the March 19 edition of Proceso magazine featured a story on the narco-graves of Veracruz, where relatives have uncovered the remains of hundreds of previously missing people.
In a separate piece, Proceso detailed other recent attacks on the press, including physical attacks on reporters covering protests in Puebla and Oaxaca; death and rape threats against a woman columnist for the Mexico City-based daily El Universal; the running down of a reporter by a government official in Guanajuato; the police detention and search of a reporter in Coahuila; and the offering of monetary rewards for the killing of any reporter covering the lucrative activities of huachicoleros, or gasoline thieves.
Early March 24, Israel Hernandez, a 26-year-old Veracruz reporter and correspondent for Aristegui Noticias, was wounded by a bullet during a live transmission covering a violent internal union conflict that claimed the lives two people and injured as many as 20 others. The same morning, Guadalajara reporters complained of aggressive behavior and threats by federal police upset by the presence of video cameras during a battle between cops and market vendors.
La Jornada cited a survey of 377 Mexican journalists done between 2013 and 2015 by Mireya Marquez of Mexico City’s Universidad Iberoamericano and the University of Miami’s Sallie Hughes. The study found that 40.4 percent of respondents reported being threatened. Of that number of respondents, three-quarters stated receiving threats more than twice.
According to a list compiled by the International Federation of Journalists, Mexico was the third most deadly country for media workers in 2016, suffering 11 journalists murdered. Only Afghanistan (13) and Iraq (15) topped the Mexican Republic in the grim category.
Outraged by Miroslava Breach’s murder, journalists and students from the Autonomous University of Chihuahua have plastered posters across Chihuahua City that quote Mexican writer Francisco Zarco. “The press is not only the strongest arm against tyranny; it’s also the most efficient and most active instrument of progress and civilization,” the posters read.
Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region.