Mexico’s embattled press corps has suffered a shattering start to the new year with the murders of two journalists who had dared chronicle their country’s slide into drug- and corruption-fuelled violence.
Margarito Martínez Esquivel, a crime reporter and photographer who often collaborated with members of the foreign media, was shot dead outside his home in the northern city of Tijuana on Monday lunchtime.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t do anything for him,” his distraught wife, Elena Martínez, told the San Diego Union-Tribune – one of numerous international outlets the journalist had worked with, including the BBC, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.
Martínez’s death came a week after another journalist, José Luis Gamboa, was fatally stabbed in the eastern state of Veracruz, another of Mexico’s most violent regions.
Two days earlier Gamboa, the director of a news website called Inforegio, used Twitter to call for the appointment of an anti-drug tsar who might slow the decades-long escalation in bloodshed. Last year he lamented how parts of the government, instead of fighting drug trafficking, had been sucked into “a great criminal association” with the cartels. “The Mexican population still hasn’t grasped how serious this is,” Gamboa tweeted.
The two as yet unexplained killings – which follow the murder of nine journalists last year – sparked outrage and mourning in the Latin American country, which is considered the world’s most dangerous country for reporters outside war zones.
In some regions journalists have become so fearful of being abducted and killed that they take DIY dental impressions and leave them in the freezer at home before going out to report so relatives can identify their remains.
“It’s shocking to have this happen so early in the year and to have one murder happen so shortly after the other,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The Tijuana-based press collective Yo Sí Soy Periodista (Yes, I’m a journalist) demanded a swift investigation into the killing of Martínez, who spent more than two decades documenting the border city’s security crisis and worked for the weekly newspaper Zeta.
The group said Martínez was the 29th Mexican journalist to be killed since Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, took power in December 2018 promising to pacify the country.
Wendy Fry, who reports on Tijuana for the San Diego Union-Tribune and knew Martínez, remembered an industrious and kind colleague who was almost always the first to arrive on the scene of a story.
“It’s a risky thing to be a journalist in TJ and he just had a lot of pride in doing it … He worked tirelessly: day, night, afternoon,” said Fry, one of the shellshocked journalists who gathered outside the photographer’s house on Monday.
As news of Martínez’s killing spread, the Facebook page where he would livestream murder scenes to tens of thousands of followers was flooded with messages from workmates and politicians.
“I feel heartbroken. I can’t believe Margarito Martínez is gone … they murdered him in cold blood,” wrote one friend, Gabriela Díaz.
Another journalist friend, Manuel Ayala, tweeted: “The name of Margarito Martínez has this afternoon been typed out in every Tijuana newsroom with tears and with blood. We will never forget because on this day they shot every single member of our community through the chest.”
Michael Robinson Chávez, a Pulitzer-winning photographer for the Washington Post, called him “a true professional, brave and tenacious.
“He will be missed,” Chávez tweeted.
Hootsen said the seemingly never-ending wave of journalist killings was driven by government inaction and impunity.
“What it boils down to is that in Mexico if you want to hurt a reporter you can do it and there is a very small chance you will be caught – and an even smaller chance you will be sentenced to jail time,” he said. “The Mexican government kind of makes it easy for people who want to hurt reporters.”
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