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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Mexico journalists' killings solved? Critics doubt it

Veracruz state authorities say drug cartel members responsible for killing five news workers have been arrested or slain. An advocacy group doesn't buy it.

August 17, 2012|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY — With rare speed, authorities in the violence-plagued coastal state of Veracruz say they have solved the killings of five journalists and news media workers, pinning the slayings on two notorious drug cartels.

But press freedom advocates Thursday questioned what they considered a too facile resolution of one of the most alarming strings of journalism attacks in a country where such bloodshed has become all too familiar.

"The government of Veracruz is trying to shelve its worst-ever crisis of violence against the press," the advocacy group Article 19 said in a statement. It criticized Veracruz authorities for blaming all the slayings on a group of detainees who supposedly confessed but have yet to go before a court.

Veracruz state prosecutor Amadeo Flores said in a news conference Wednesday that seven members of an offshoot of the powerful Sinaloa cartel were captured and admitted slaying three current or former news photographers and a woman who worked at a local newspaper.

In what he described as full confessions, the suspects admitted that they had killed the victims because the journalists, in turn, had been the "causes" of the killings of other reporters, Flores said. He did not explain what that meant. Speculation is that the slain journalists may have been perceived as accomplices of a rival drug gang that killed other reporters.

However, people with access to the so-called confessions told The Times that they lacked any kind of detail that would build a case in court, raising further questions about the purported admissions.

Veracruz spokeswoman Gina Dominguez did not return phone calls seeking clarification.

Flores said the June abduction and slaying of Veracruz journalist Victor Baez had also been solved with the killing of two drug traffickers with the Zetas gang. A witness tied the traffickers to Baez's disappearance, Flores said.

In the Sinaloa cartel case, the four victims went missing in early May and their mutilated bodies were discovered May 3 in a suburb of Veracruz. The corpses of photographers Gabriel Huge and Guillermo Luna, who worked for the online agency Veracruz News, had been dismembered. Authorities also identified the bodies of Esteban Rodriguez, a welder who had worked as a photojournalist, and Irasema Becerra, employed as a publicist for a Veracruz newspaper.

Until 2011, Huge had worked for Notiver, one of Veracruz's most important newspapers, whose star columnist and crime reporter had been killed that year, a crime that spooked many of the paper's employees and drove them into temporary exile.

Veracruz, where the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has long held sway, remained relatively peaceful while one drug gang, the Zetas, was in charge. But in the last year, as another criminal network associated with the Sinaloa cartel moved in to claim territory, violence soared.

More than 70 journalists have been killed or gone missing in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against powerful drug cartels all over the country. Many journalists in parts of the country have chosen to throw their lot with traffickers, or to remain silent about the criminal takeover of their regions.

The killings declared solved this week followed the slaying of highly respected journalist Regina Martinez of Mexico's muckraking magazine Proceso in Xalapa, the state capital, in late April.

This week's arrests were "a great achievement in the pursuit of justice," spokeswoman Dominguez said at a news conference in Veracruz. But few outside the steamy state were buying it.

"The Veracruz authorities have clearly shown incompetence and negligence and unwillingness to solve these crimes," said Carlos Lauria, head of the Americas department of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "We may never know what happened to these journalists."

wilkinson@latimes.com

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