Who Killed Rubén Espinosa and Nadia Vera?

Francisco Goldman / The New Yorker / 14 de agosto de 2015

On July 31, 2015, five people were murdered execution style in an apartment in the middle-class Mexico City neighborhood of Narvarte. All five were shot in the head with a nine-millimetre pistol. Two of the victims, thirty-one-year-old photojournalist Rubén Espinosa and thirty-two-year-old activist Nadia Vera, were known critics of Javier Duarte, the governor of Veracruz. Each had reported receiving threats and experiencing incidents of serious intimidation in that state, and they had fled in recent months, separately, to Mexico City, believing that city to be a safe haven amidst the terrible violence of contemporary Mexico.

The murders of the journalist and the activist—along with those of three other women, including Vera’s apartment mates, Yesenia Quiroz, age eighteen, and Mile Virginia Martín, thirty-one, and the woman who cleaned their apartment, Alejandra Negrete, forty—have provoked an international outcry that seems to be intensifying by the day. In the words of the digital news site SinEmbargo.com, the multiple homicides have “put pressure on Mexico in a way that hasn’t been felt since Ayotzinapa” referring to the still unresolved forced disappearances of forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa teacher’s college, in Guerrero state, last September. Nowadays, here in Mexico, it seems that one previously unthinkable or hard-to-credit atrocity or corruption scandal follows upon another.

During his eight years working in Veracruz, Rubén Espinosa, a freelance photojournalist associated with the agency Cuartoscuro, had made a specialty of covering social movements and the acts of violent repression those movements often encountered. He also photographed the repressors, and he took some now iconic, memorably revealing candid portraits of Governor Duarte, who is also a member of the national ruling party, the PRI. One of those photographs, featured on the cover of the influential opposition news magazine Proceso alongside the headline “Veracruz: A Lawless State,” shows Duarte, a Veracruz State Police cap on his head, with his belly hanging over his belt. In an interview in June, Espinosa told SinEmbargo that the photo had especially irritated Duarte, and that, after its publication, the governor had tried to buy out its local print run in bulk, presumably so that people in Veracruz wouldn’t see it.

Rubén Espinosa is the fourteenth journalist from Veracruz to be murdered since Duarte became governor, in 2010. In his eight years of reporting from Veracruz, Espinosa said in an interview in May, he had become accustomed to being roughed-up and harassed by police authorities and receiving threats. In 2012, in Xalapa, the state capitol, at a protest rally organized by the student movement #YoSoy132, he had just started to photograph the beatings being meted out by police to student protestors when he was roughly grabbed by the neck and warned, “Bájale de güevos, [“lower your balls”—in other words, stop taking photographs] if you don’t want to end up like Regina.” The threat was referring to Regina Martínez, another Veracruz-based journalist for the magazine Proceso, who was murdered in 2012. More recently, he said, in the following days, he noticed strangers keeping vigil outside his home, and realized that he was being followed. Convinced that his life was in danger, he decided he’d better flee to Mexico City, where he’d grown up and had family. Before and after coming to Mexico City, Espinosa gave several interviews recounting what he and other journalists had experienced in Veracruz, providing a long chronicle of acts of abuse and intimidation, which he also publicized over social networks. Artículo 19, a human-rights organization devoted to freedom-of-expression issues, began monitoring his case.

Espinosa’s friend Nadia Vera was a social anthropologist. She was a member of the University of Veracruz Student Assembly and of the #YoSoy132 student movement, which attracted hundreds of thousands of followers when it formed, in 2012, in protest of the Peña Nieto Presidency and the recuperation of federal power by the PRI, which had been out of power for twelve years after ruling the country for seventy-one. Vera was originally from Chiapas, and, like her mother, she wrote poetry. Recently, she’d been working as a cultural promoter for a dance company and for a film festival. Last week, a heartbreaking and seemingly foreboding poem written by her mother, Mirtha Luz Pérez, appeared in the press; it includes the lines “No te vayas de mí niña de azúcar / A deshacerte entre la piel del llanto / No te vayas de mí pajara libre / Hacia el páramo frío de la ausencia.”—That is, “Don’t leave me sugar girl / to dissolve inside weeping skin / Don’t leave me free bird / for the cold moorlands of absence.” As a student in Xalapa, Vera had participated in myriad cultural activities, conferences, and dance workshops. With other members of #YoSoy132, she joined many protests, occupations, and marches, and was particularly involved in, and led, protests against Duarte’s government.

In Xalapa, Vera had lived the full life of a politically active student of a kind found in many parts of Mexico nowadays. But in Duarte’s Veracruz, students and activists, including Vera, were beaten and jailed; in one recent incident, a masked commando group broke into a house where eight University of Veracruz students activists were assembled and attacked them with machetes and bats, leaving some disfigured. The students accused the state government, which denied the charges. One day, Vera found that her home had been entered and ransacked while she was out. Frightened, she prepared to move to Mexico City. However, before she did so, she gave an astonishing interview, in November, 2014, for a documentary titled “Veracruz: la fosa olvidada,”—“the forgotten mass grave.” Later, the filmmakers would recount how frightened Vera had seemed, glancing repeatedly at the doors between takes. What the viewer sees in the documentary footage, aired on Rompeviento TV, is her beguiling composure, that mix of sweetness and bravery that many who were close to her have been describing now for the media. Narrating in the present tense, Vera speaks of the overwhelming number of disappearances in Veracruz and says, “The number of disappearances begins to rise when Javier Duarte becomes governor.” This, she says, causes young people to realize that they themselves have “become the product that they need. That product—let’s say they grab you as a woman for the sex trade, or they grab you as a student to be a sicario [a cartel assassin] . . . Here the problem is us, we bother the government as much as we do the narcos. So we’re caught between two fronts, or let’s say between legal repression and illegal. Because it’s the narcos who govern this state . . . it’s the Zetas who literally manipulate the state.” Looking directly into the camera, Vera warned that if anything happened to her or her colleagues, then it was Governor Duarte and his state that would be to blame. “We want to make very clear that our security is totally the state’s responsibility, because they are the ones who send people to repress us.”

The Colonia Narvarte murders have focused renewed international attention on the plight of reporters in Veracruz, but also in Mexico as a whole. Since 2000, at least eighty-eight journalists have been murdered in Mexico. Duarte belongs to the same party, the PRI, as President Peña Nieto, and it would seem obvious that his record as governor of the state where more journalists have been killed than any other is not doing the President any favors, especially at a time when Mexico is increasingly criticized internationally for violence against the press.

Whenever news of yet another horrifying murder or massacre somewhere in the country breaks, my friends and I often find ourselves asking if Mexico has “hit bottom” yet. Or we ask what kind of crime it will take for Mexico to finally hit bottom. To me, it seems that that bottom was reached months ago, with Ayotzinapa if not earlier, and that we now move crablike through the mud, from one shock to the next. But some crimes move or frighten us in ways we hadn’t anticipated, and the Colonia Narvarte massacre is one of those. That’s what I realized at the rally for the victims on Sunday, August 2nd, when hundreds gathered around the statue of El Ángel on Avenida Reforma. A group of four young women standing near me were embracing each other, and they couldn’t stop sobbing—the uncontrollable sobbing of deep grief and terror. As Rubén Espinosa’s sister addressed the crowd from the base of the statue, telling how her brother had been her angel and would remain so always, tears overflowed my eyes. It becomes too much at times, this rampant savagery, this sense of evil protected by power and impunity all around us, causing harm to so many innocent people, forcing them into the most profound suffering.

On June 30th, a month before the Colonia Narvarte murders, Governor Duarte had publically issued not very veiled threats against journalists in his state, accusing many “media workers” of “having ties” to organized crime. “Behave yourselves,” he warned, “we know which of you are on the wrong path . . . We’re going to shake the tree, and many bad apples are going to fall.” He continued, “Free expression shouldn’t be confused with providing the criminals with a voice via the media.” In Mexico City, weeks before his death, Rubén Espinosa was approached in a cafeteria by a stranger who said, “Hey, you’re the photographer who fled Veracruz, right?” He noticed other signs that he was being pursued in the city. Espinosa even approached the famed investigative reporter Lydia Cacho, who has had many threats directed toward her in the course of her career, to ask, “How do you learn to process an interminable number of death threats, some veiled, others clear and direct?”

International human-rights organizations and freedom-of-expression groups have been calling for the Narvarte murders to be fully investigated as a possible political crime. Both the journalist and the activist were internal refugees from the extremely violent state of Veracruz, and had vocally expressed fears of being targeted by its authorities. Espinosa and Vera, like many people throughout Mexico these days, would have feared turning to the police for protection because of the possibility that law enforcement would be complicit with organized crime. As the renowned Mexican writer and journalist Juan Villoro told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, on August 12th, “In Mexico, the police and the army cause as much fear as organized crime . . . the majority of journalists killed in Mexico have been murdered by people tied to government.” The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (O.H.C.H.R.) stated, “If the investigations confirm that this aberrant multiple homicide is related to Rubén Espinosa’s work as a journalist, then we are in the presence of a grave act against freedom of expression.” The O.H.C.H.R. called on the Mexican government to “redouble its efforts in investigating the case, both in the Distrito Federal and in the state of Veracruz, exhausting every possible line of investigation.”

The Distrito Federal’s mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, and his justice department, the P.G.J.D.F., are handling the investigation. For the first eight days following the murders, the P.G.J.D.F., under the direction of Prosecutor General Rodolfo Ríos, was single-mindedly treating the multiple homicide as a robbery. The same Sunday as the rally at El Ángel, Ríos met with editors and representatives of Proceso, the Cuartoscuro photo agency, Red de Periodistas de a Pie (The Barefoot Journalists Network, founded by Marcela Turati), Artículo 19, and PEN International. According to the account of the meeting published this week in Proceso, and corroborated to me by a journalist associated with Periodistas de Pie, the journalists were stupefied to hear Ríos dismiss the possibility that the murderers could have been related to Espinosa’s work. He hadn’t been assassinated “while performing his profession,” said the Prosecutor General. At a press conference following the meeting, Ríos said that Espinosa had moved to the city “in search of new opportunities as a professional photographer.”

The next day, Monday, stories that likely originated with the city prosecutors’ office began to appear in the press, most prominently in the right-wing La Razón and other similar tabloids. “They knew their murderers,” screamed the front page of El Grafico. “The murderers spent more than four hours with their four victims in the Narvarte apartment.” Reforma’s story led with the line “It all began with a night of partying.” According to these newspapers, the murderers and victims partied together from Thursday night until the murders were committed sometime Friday. Prosecutor General Ríos repeated those allegations in radio interviews throughout the day.

These early allegations would all prove false. The key witness was a woman named Esbeidy who had been living for two years in the rented Colonia Narvarte apartment that was the scene of the murder. She had rented rooms to the other women who lived there, first to Nadia Vera and to Yesenia Quiroz, the eighteen-year-old makeup artist, and, only fifteen days before the killings, to a Colombian woman whom the housemates knew as Nicole, though it would turn out that her real name was Mile Virginia Martín. She’d come to Mexico some years before in hopes of a modelling career, and, according to her family in Colombia, was planning soon to move back to her home country. The women shared the ten-thousand-peso monthly rent, the equivalent of about six hundred and twenty dollars.

Esbeidy had left for her job as a Federal office worker that Friday morning, just as Alejandra Negrete, the forty-year-old cleaning woman, was arriving. Some of those first Monday news reports had claimed that Esbeidy had seen several men in the apartment partying with her roommates that morning; later in the week, however, it would be reported that in fact she’d seen nothing unusual, certainly no strangers, on either Thursday night or Friday morning. When Esbeidy returned that Friday evening, at P.M., she discovered the bodies scattered throughout the apartment, each with a gunshot to the head, at least some of them bound by the hands. Reports gave conflicting information regarding the physical marks of abuse, including of torture and rape, found on the bodies. Newspapers reported that neighbors said there had been a loud party in the apartment, but those reports would also turn out to be false. As was widely reported later, the neighbors told the authorities that they hadn’t heard any noise coming from the apartment at all, no screams or gunshots.

At least nine surveillance cameras, some belonging to the city’s police force and others to private businesses, had views of the apartment building’s entrance, but it turned out that the camera directly over that entrance was broken. On Tuesday, August 4th, the newspaper La Razón was the first to report on and publish images from the city’s police-surveillance cameras, which had been provided to them exclusively. The footage shows three men leaving the apartment building together at 3:02 Friday afternoon. One is wheeling a suitcase. Another man gets into a red Mustang, which reportedly belonged to Mile Virginia Martín (who at this point was still known to her roommates and the press as “Nicole”) and which was recovered later that day, abandoned in the Coyoacán neighborhood. Prosecutor Ríos said at a press conference that he had information that “Nicole” had money in her possession, which made it possible that the motive had been robbery. Publicly, he didn’t close off the possibility that the murders had something to do with Espinosa and Vera’s past problems in Veracruz; but, as evidenced by his previous private comments to journalists, he was primarily interested in pursuing a robbery investigation.

Late Tuesday night, August 4th, there was a breakthrough in the case: fingerprints found in the apartment led to the arrest of Daniel Pacheco Gutiérrez, a forty-one-year old ex-convict, who had been convicted of rape and assault in 2000 and had served a five-year sentence. According to press accounts, he admitted that he had been in the apartment but said that he hadn’t participated in the murders, and that the motive was robbery. In a photograph taken of Pacheco in custody that was released to the press, the left side of his face is dark and swollen.

But Wednesday would provide the so-called Narvarte case with its most revealing moment so far, perhaps its definitive moment. At a press conference that day, Rodolfio Ríos revised what had been his hypothetical time line of the crime. After reviewing the surveillance footage, he and his investigators had surmised that the murders had taken place sometime between nine A.M. and three P.M. on Friday, but now, said Ríos, that window had been reduced to three hours, from noon on. The reporters in the room could hardly believe what they were hearing. On the previous Monday, SinEmbargo had published a story revealing that a Whatsapp conversation between Espinosa and a friend, who had shared his phone records with a journalist from the news site, showed an exchange of texts over forty-five minutes. The conversation ended when Espinosa, at two-thirteen, signed off with the message “I’m headed out to the street.” So Espinosa had definitely been alive less than an hour before the suspects were filmed exiting the building.

After SinEmbargo had broken the news of the communications between Espinosa and his unnamed friend, other press subsequently picked up on it. At the press conference on Wednesday, Sandra Rodriguez Nieto, the reporter who had written about Espinosa’s final text messages in SinEmbargo, went to the microphone and asked the General Prosecutor for a reaction to the story. Ríos responded, “I don’t know where you got that information.” He said that he knew a friend had written to Rubén Espinosa that Friday afternoon, but insisted that Espinosa hadn’t answered. Later that night, one of the General Prosecutor’s homicide investigators phoned Rodriguez asking for more information, and she said she had nothing more to reveal than what she’d published.

How could General Prosecutor Ríos and his investigators not have known yet about Espinosa’s final text messages? It was either a sign of extreme collective incompetence, or perhaps a lack of desire to figure out what had really happened.

Sandra Rodríguez Nieto had been the first reporter to make contact with the friend of Rubén Espinosa who’d had the Whatsapp conversation with him. On Saturday, August 1st, one day after the murders, she’d learned when Espinosa had sent his final, but she didn’t learn the contents of the rest of the conversation until Thursday, when she met with Espinosa’s friend. During their forty-three-minute exchange, the two friends had bantered in the ubiquitous slang of Mexico City youth. “Qué pedo [What’s up], what’d you do yesterday,” the friend asked, at one-forty-five. “Qué transa, [What’s up with you],” answered Espinosa. “I went out with a compa and an amiga. I stayed at her house, and I’m going home now.” “Jajaja, what a drunk,” wrote the friend. “Leve [the drinking was light] but we did stay up late,” Espinosa answered. He and Nadia Vera and a friend had been drinking in a bar in the city center, and got back to the apartment in Colonia Narvarte at two in the morning. They stayed up talking for several hours more, until that friend left. Espinosa slept over; he said he had to go to work later in the day for AVC, another Veracruz news outlet. He texted his friend that on Sunday he was going with his girlfriend to visit her parents in Puebla. “Oh good, you’re going with the chava. Chido, cool,” wrote the friend. “Símon, it’s going to be chido,” answered Espinosa, and then, at two-thirteen, he wrote, “Loco, I’ll write when I get home, I’m headed out to the street.” His friend answered, “O.K., be careful.” Espinosa’s final text, still time-stamped two-thirteen, was “Don’t drink anymore, jaja.” His friend responded, “You too carnal [bro].”

Sandra Rodríguez Nieto is a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard who for several years reported from Ciudad Juárez. Now she lives in Mexico City, where she reports for SinEmbargo. “In any murder case,” she told me, “in Ciudad Juárez or anywhere, the first thing you do is investigate the victim’s circle, his circumstances.” Not only had Prosecutor General Ríos and his prosecutors not done that with Rubén Espinosa, it took them five days, she said, even to admit that Espinosa should be considered a journalist. The context of the crime, she said, should have indicated that the governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, his government, and the police, needed to be investigated immediately.

This Monday, August10th, Mancera announced that Governor Duarte had agreed to answer questions from P.G.J.D.F. investigators, who would interview him in Veracruz. Rodríguez Nieto has been in close touch with the lawyers representing Nadia Vera’s family, who are legally permitted to aid in the investigation. They are demanding that the city’s justice officials also interrogate the Veracruz State Police. The lawyers did not, in conversation with Rodríguez, discount the significance of the decision to question Duarte, but they also cautioned that it might, in the end, amount to nothing more than a mutually contrived show for the benefit of themselves and the media.

On Tuesday, August 11th, the newspaper Reforma reported that Daniel Pacheco, the man imprisoned for the crime, has identified his two accomplices only as Abraham and Omar. The former is supposedly a former Mexico City policeman, about twenty-five years old, who now works as a “viene-viene,” someone who guards parked cars in the streets in exchange for small tips; the latter, Pancheco said, is a juggler who performs, also for tips, at traffic intersections. It seems that Pacheco had not known the two men very well, or hardly at all, or for very long.

According to Rodríguez Nieto, who has had access to the statement Pacheco gave to prosecutors, Abraham phoned Pacheco on Friday to invite him to visit a Colombian woman he knew in Colonia Narvarte. At the General Anaya metro station, he met up with a man he knew only by the name of Omar, and together they travelled by metro to the San Antonio Abad stop, thirty long blocks from the apartment in Colonia Narvarte, and then took a taxi. Had they stayed on the train until the Xola metro stop, Rodríguez pointed out, they would have gotten off only three blocks from the apartment. Pacheco said that once inside the apartment, he had “sexual relations” with Yesenia Quiroz, the makeup artist, and that Abraham did the same with “Nicole” (Mile Virginia Martín), until two-thirty P.M., when the cleaning lady chased them out. Pacheco didn’t mention Espinosa and Vera in his account other than to mention having seen a man with a beard and the woman he was with.

Pacheco’s story is baffling in various respects, and may either be a lie or simply a partial and confused account. Pacheco said that he left the apartment with Abraham, who was carrying a suitcase. He told investigators that he didn’t hear any gunshots and had known nothing about a robbery. Pacheco said in his statement that the suitcase held some of Abraham’s belongings, and that Abraham explained he’d been carrying on a relationship with the woman known as “Nicole.” Abraham briefly went upstairs to get the keys to let them out of the building, and Omar came down fifteen minutes later. The three men left the building through the front door. Omar and Pacheco then departed in the automobile in which Abraham had supposedly arrived, with Omar driving, and Abraham left in Mile Virginia Martín’s Mustang. Pacheco claims he didn’t learn about the murders until two days later, on Sunday, and that, when he phoned Omar and Abraham, they told him they didn’t know what he was talking about and warned him not to get them mixed up in any problems. The Tuesday after the crime, Pacheco recognized himself in the surveillance-camera images published alongside the first news accounts; he was arrested in his domicile that night. Omar and Abraham are fugitives. The city justice department, the P.G.J.D.F., is far from concluding its investigation into the multiple homicide, or from formally declaring what it believes the murderers’ motive to have been. But, if it turns out in the end that the P.G.J.D.F. seriously intends to pursue a case of a multiple homicide motivated by robbery, the authorities are going to need a much stronger story than the one so far supplied by Pacheco.

The Vera family lawyers told Rodríguez Nieto that, in fact, the actual Narvarte case file contains no factual information that points to a robbery: the three intruders didn’t steal personal computers or even phones. The most valuable item taken, the Mustang, was abandoned, and then, rather than flee, Pacheco, an ex-convict, simply went home to await his capture, four days later. The nine-millimetre weapon used in the murders was outfitted with a silencer, but it was “clean,” that is, there is no record of it having been used in any crime before. How, the lawyers asked, did three men who essentially lived off the street—a man who watched parked cars, a juggler, and Pacheco, a car washer—come to be in possession of such a weapon?

Governor Duarte’s public statement Tuesday, following his brief interrogation by D.F. prosecutors who’d travelled to Veracruz, was defiant. He declared, “This is far from having value, far from the truth and covers up the real culprits.” He disavowed any connections to the case and took the victim’s role for himself, comparing the questioning and the suspicions now focussed on him to “a lynching.”

The last interview Rubén Espinosa gave before he died was to SinEmbargo. There he said, “It’s sad to think about Veracruz, there aren’t words to express how bad things are in that state . . . . Death chose Veracruz, death decided to go and live there.”

To conclude his public statement, Governor Duarte said, “The truth will set us free.”