Yet another Mexican journalist has disappeared in Veracruz, the most dangerous state for reporters in a country where the press is under constant threat from corrupt officials and organized crime.
José Moisés Sánchez Cerezo was abducted by nine armed men from his home in the municipality of Medellín de Bravo on the evening of Friday, January 2. The assailants, who were dressed in civilian clothes, also took his computer, camera and cell phone.
Sánchez is the owner of the weekly local print and online newspaper Unión de Barrial, where he wrote mostly about crime and corruption in local government. He has not been seen since he was dragged from his home and investigators are now awaiting the results of a DNA test on a body that was found in the area this week.
State prosecutors have questioned Medellín de Bravo’s entire police force over the kidnapping. Of 38 officers brought in to give statements, 13 are being held in custody, while state police officers have assumed control of the town.
Mayor under suspicion
Veracruz Attorney General Luis Ángel Bravo Contreras told the local press this week that his office is investigating whether Sánchez’s disappearance was linked to his activism and his work to denounce acts of corruption by the local authorities.
Sánchez, who had been working as a taxi driver to fund his newspaper, had often criticized the mayor of Medellín de Bravo, Omar Cruz Reyes, in his reports.
Cruz denied any wrongdoing in a press conference on Monday but the Inter American Press Association, Sánchez’s family, and press freedom watchdog Article 19 all alleged that he had received a number of threats from the mayor prior to his disappearance.
“Moisés Sánchez Cerezo had denounced a series of criminal acts in the municipality of Medellin de Bravo and its surroundings, making him an inconvenient journalist for the mayor,” said Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission in a statement released on Sunday.
In the weeks before he was kidnapped, Sánchez had also posted photographs of protests against the Veracruz governor, as well as publishing several reports about a vigilante group that local citizens had formed to protect their neighborhoods from organized crime.
These reports of vigilantism were “particularly sensitive for local officials who sought to downplay shortcomings in local law enforcement,” another local reporter told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Why is Veracruz so dangerous?
More than 50 journalists have been killed or disappeared across Mexico since 2007 and the eastern state of Veracruz is widely considered the most dangerous place in the country to practice the profession.
Ten journalists have been murdered there and at least five others have gone missing since Governor Javier Duarte de Ochoa took office in 2010.
Drug cartels are thought to be responsible for much of the violence against the press and the fact that Veracruz is territory of Los Zetas, arguably Mexico’s most violent criminal gang, partly explains why the state has become such a hotspot.
However, corruption has been so rife in parts of Veracruz in recent years that local authorities have at times grown almost indistinguishable from organized crime.
Public officials are often accused of attacking or intimidating reporters and in 2012 unconfirmed rumors even circulated that a hit list of Veracruz journalists had been issued not by the cartels, but by the state prosecutor’s office.
Governor Duarte, who represents the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has been strongly criticized over the killings and has often sought to downplay any links between the journalists’ deaths and their work.
On Saturday he further enraged the media by refusing to acknowledge Sánchez as a reporter and referring to him only as a “taxi driver and neighborhood activist”.
Although his office later backtracked over those comments, many saw it as further evidence that the state government is still not taking violence against the media seriously.
“Veracruz authorities have a history of denigrating the activities of local journalists and a miserable record of impunity in cases of crimes against journalists,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas.