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Killing, Threats Cause Concern in Mexico

November 23, 1992|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — The recent murder of a regional newspaper editor and repeated death threats against a leading human rights worker have renewed concerns about rights abuses in Mexico, where dozens of journalists and activists have been assassinated.

Journalists and human rights monitors are urging the Mexican government to fully investigate the slaying earlier this month of Ignacio Mendoza Castillo, an editor in the southern state of Quintana Roo.

The killing follows a series of anonymous death threats against Maria Teresa Jardi, human rights monitor for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico City. She has received five written threats against herself and her children since early October.

The two events, believed to be unrelated, have drawn international attention.

"These are very worrisome developments," said Ellen Lutz, California director of Human Rights Watch, who reports on Mexico. "If the government allows a situation of impunity (for such crimes), it could be very dangerous."

The Miami-based Inter-American Press Assn. said it was sending in a team over the weekend to look into the murder of Mendoza, who officials say had many enemies and questionable business dealings.

The government has launched an investigation into the threats against Jardi, even calling on the FBI for help analyzing the letters, and has given her an armored car and police protection. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari met with Jardi last week in a public demonstration of his support for her case.

Officials also promise a rigorous investigation into Mendoza's murder, but some activists are skeptical. Twenty-eight journalists have been killed during this administration, according to the Manuel Buendia Foundation for journalism. While many of the killings may not have been political acts, few of the cases have been resolved.

Mendoza, the editor from Quintana Roo state, was shot in the back three times by an unidentified gunman as he arrived home in Mexico City with his son and a friend before midnight on Nov. 13. Earlier that evening here in the capital, he had joined a group of journalists from southern Mexico protesting press attacks and censorship outside a meeting of the Foreign Correspondents Assn. at which Salinas was appearing.

Mendoza had had a long public feud with the governor of Quintana Roo, Miguel Borge Martin, whom the Mendoza family now blames for the editor's death. The governor has denied the accusation publicly and in a sworn deposition to federal attorneys.

Like many journalists in Mexico's provinces, Mendoza had business interests in Quintana Roo beyond his small newspaper. When the governor closed down one of his enterprises, a supermarket, Mendez retaliated in print with charges of government corruption, according to journalists and government officials.

Privately, government officials insist that Mendoza was a "loan shark" and "bigamist." They say that his standards were not those of a professional journalist. A group of journalists from Quintana Roo published a letter after he was killed criticizing his ethics and saying he often used the press for his own interests.

Jardi and Quintana Roo journalist Lorenzo Pacheco, who led the protest against censorship, say they doubt that the governor had Mendoza killed. But they are urging the government to solve the case, saying no one should be able to kill journalists with impunity.

Pacheco accuses Borge of having intervened to have him fired as director of the daily newspaper Novedades de Quintana Roo last year because of stories he wrote about corruption--specifically, the lending of state funds to Borge family members and friends. He says such state pressure is common throughout the south of Mexico, whenever journalists write stories that might affect the political or economic interests of local bosses.

Reporters who do not necessarily support Pacheco agree that censorship remains a serious problem in the provinces.

Jardi believes that current or former federal police officers are responsible for the threats against her because of newspaper articles she has written about drug traffickers' corruption of police agencies, police torture and the government's failure to solve the murder of another journalist in Chihuahua state last year.

She worked briefly as the federal attorney general's human rights officer but resigned over the handling of the investigation into the killing of Dr. Victor Manuel Oropeza.

Oropeza, who had written about police abuse and electoral fraud as a columnist for two regional newspapers, Diario de Juarez and Diario de Chihuahua, was found stabbed to death at his medical office in Ciudad Juarez in July, 1991.

Government investigators said they suspected private motives behind the killing, such as a homosexual liaison and the sale of prescription drugs, and arrested two suspects. Jardi publicly accused the police of "the manufacture of guilty persons through the use of torture," resigned and took the case to the National Human Rights Commission.

Salinas' concern over Jardi's welfare no doubt stems from past assassinations.

In May, 1990, human rights activist Norma Corona Sapien was shot to death in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, as she was reportedly preparing to release information about police involvement with drug traffickers and local killings. Two former state police officers were arrested and accused of killing her, and federal judicial police commander Mario Alberto Gonzalez Trevino was accused of ordering the assassination. He was said to have feared that Corona would expose his role in killings, kidnapings and corruption.

Corona's predecessor at the Human Rights Commission of Sinaloa, journalist Jesus Michel Jacobo, was killed in December, 1987, also presumably for his reporting and his human rights work. There have been no arrests in that case.

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