BOCA DEL RIO, Mexico (AP) — Grieving, frightened journalists remembered three slain colleagues on Friday as young and energetic members of a press corps working under terrifying conditions in a state torn by a war between Mexico’s two most powerful drug cartels.
Traffic dwindled from the streets and shopping areas emptied hours after the discovery Thursday afternoon of Guillermo Luna Varela, Gabriel Huge, Esteban Rodriguez and Irasema Becerra, who had been slain, dismembered and stuffed into black plastic bags dumped into a waste canal.
It was a sense of dread familiar to Veracruz, where a cartel battle for control of one of Mexico’s largest ports has spawned horrors such as the slaughter of 35 people dumped on a main highway in rush-hour traffic in September.
At least seven current and former reporters and photographers have been slain in Veracruz over the last 18 months, forcing their surviving colleagues to work under precautions reminiscent of those in a war zone. Journalists let colleagues and family know by phone when they are leaving for work and coming home. They call ahead before covering a story to see if the area is safe. Once they go, they move in groups of four or five and scan areas from the vehicle before getting out, remaining in constant contact with their newsroom.
Few talk anymore with strangers, a new reticence in an area once known for its tropical warmth and welcoming attitude to tourists and other visitors.
Huge, a new father who was in his 30s, and Luna, his 22-year-old nephew, were “part of a new generation of young photographers who permeate the media in Veracruz,” wrote Sandra Segura, a columnist for the newspaper Notiver, where both men had worked.
Along with the two other victims, who included the girlfriend of one of the men, “they were all spouses, children, siblings, parents, like Gabriel, the father of a 2-year-old girl. All of them had a future snatched away in an instant,” she wrote.
Friends and relatives of Huge and Luna filled the single-story cinderblock house where Luna had lived with his family. The bodies of the two men lay in open coffins but covered in white sheets. Luna’s favorite baseball cap rested on his sheet.
Luna’s mother, Mercedes Varela, said she had begged him to leave journalism, but he had refused, saying he had nothing to fear. She described her son as a ferociously dedicated journalist who listened constantly to all-news radio.
The sound filled their small house at all hours, said.
“That’s what I’m going to miss,” she said.
The four were discovered less than a week after Regina Martinez, a correspondent for the national magazine Proceso, was found beaten and strangled in her home in the state capital of Xalapa.
Martinez was one of the few reporters in Veracruz who continued to work on drug cartel-related stories. Her last story for the magazine was about the arrest of nine police officers accused of links to drug traffickers, but she did not work on any of the longer-term stories that have gained Proceso a reputation for deep investigations that anger the powerful in Mexico, according to a high-ranking editor at the paper, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Press freedom groups said all three slain photographers had temporarily fled the state after receiving threats last year. The organizations called for immediate government action to halt the wave of attacks against journalists in Veracruz, which has left social media and blogs as often the only outlets reporting on cartel-related crime.
Veracruz is a common route for drugs and migrants coming from the south on the way up to the United States. Much of the area around its main port city on the Gulf of Mexico was controlled until last year by the Zetas, a brutal paramilitary-style cartel founded by defectors from the Mexican army special forces and known for its gruesome butchery of opponents.
Last year, the Zetas’ territory in Veracruz came under assault from the New Generation, a cartel based in the western state of Jalisco and allied with the powerful Sinaloa cartel, which is led by kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
A Mexican military official with direct knowledge of the situation in Veracruz said that the New Generation had been systematically killing Zeta members in Veracruz and since the end of 2011 had taken control of the city of Veracruz and its valuable port. Zetas continue to control the city of Xalapa and many small municipalities around the city of Veracruz, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Local law enforcement in the state was considered so corrupt and infiltrated by the gangs that Mexico’s federal government fired 800 officers and 300 administrative personnel in the city of Veracruz-Boca del Rio in December and sent in about 800 marines to patrol.
Drug cartels battling for control of smuggling routes often use threats, bribes or both to demand the support of local officials, prison directors and other influential people in the cities they are fighting over. Reporters have not been spared. Drug bosses often try to manipulate coverage by having reporters play down their own atrocities or highlight those committed by their enemies.
In the state of Tamaulipas, on the border with Texas, local media stopped covering drug-trafficking violence, mentioning drug cartels or reporting on organized crime shortly after two gangs began fighting for control of Nuevo Laredo in 2004. As part of that war, reporters were targeted to keep them silent or because they had links to gangs.
Prosecutions for murder, including those of journalists, are rare in Mexico.
Luna was a crime-news photographer for the website www.veracruznews.com.mx who was last seen by local reporters covering a car accident Wednesday afternoon. He began his career working for the local newspaper Notiver.
Huge worked as a photojournalist for Notiver until last summer, when both men fled the state soon after two of the paper’s reporters were slain in still-unsolved killings.
In June, Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco, a columnist and editorial director for Notiver, was shot to death in Veracruz along with his wife and one of his children.
Authorities that month also found the body of journalist Noel Lopez buried in a clandestine grave in the town of Chinameca. Lopez, who disappeared three months earlier, had worked for the weeklies Horizonte and Noticias de Acayucan and for the daily newspaper La Verdad.
The following month, Yolanda Ordaz de la Cruz, a police reporter for Notiver, was found with her throat cut in the state.
Lopez was found after a suspect in another case confessed to killing him, but the other two murders have not been resolved.
Around the time of the killings, Luna received a phone threat that told him not to publish a recent piece of work, and prompted him to flee, said Martin Lara, director of veracruznews.
“The voice on the phone said he ‘I know where you live, and I don’t want that to come out,’” Lara said, without providing any details.
Like his nephew, Huge returned to the state to work as a journalist again this year. State officials said the third victim was Esteban Rodriguez, who was a photographer for the local newspaper AZ until last summer, when he too quit and fled the state. He later came back, but took up work as a welder. The London-based press freedom group Article 19 said he, like the other two, had been a crime photographer.
The fourth victim was Luna’s girlfriend, Irasema Becerra, state prosecutors said.
Mexico’s human rights commission says 74 media workers were slain from 2000 to 2011. The Committee to Protect Journalists says 51 were killed in that time. It noted in a statement on the Mexico killings that Thursday was World Press Freedom Day.
Castillo and Associated Press writers Michael Weissenstein and Olga R. Rodriguez contributed to this report from Mexico City.
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