Disappearances of four journalists in Michoacán state all still unsolved

Four journalists are still missing in the southwestern state of Michoacán, one of the epicentres of the federal offensive against the drug cartels that President Felipe Calderón launched on taking office in December 2006.

José Antonio García Apac, the editor of the local weekly Ecos de la Cuenca, has been missing the longest. He disappeared exactly four years ago, on 20 November 2006, just days before the offensive began. It is still not known what happened to him (Read this report).

Michoacán is notorious for a cartel called “La Familia,” one of whose chiefs, Arnaldo Rueda, was arrested in 2009. During a recent visit, Reporters Without Borders found that the investigations into these disappearances have all ground to a halt. The State Human Rights Commission (CEDH) has nonetheless undertaken a total of 600 initiatives in 123 disappearances since 2008, its president, Víctor Manuel Serrato Lozano, told us.

Complaints about attacks on journalists fill 11 files in the CEDH’s offices. Most of these cases involve illegal searches and threats by the police or armed forces. State agents are just as much to blame for violence against the press as organized crime. And cases that should get priority treatment end up being mislaid due to cumbersome bureaucratic procedures at both the state and federal level.

Under Mexico’s federal criminal code, the definition of “forced disappearance” is limited to one in which a government employee or public office holder is implicated. At the same time, the Michoacán state criminal code does not list “disappearance” as a crime. So the disappearances of the four journalists are being investigated as “illegal privation of freedom.” As a result of this legal vagueness, the cases keep on bouncing between the various local and federal departments involved.

Meanwhile, the families of the four journalists missing in Michoacán are wearing themselves out pestering the authorities for answers.

The investigation into García Apac’s disappearance is virtually at a standstill. The case has been put “on hold” three times, the latest in March 2008, for lack of new evidence on which to proceed. According to his family, he had information about collusion by Michoacán state and municipal officials with drug traffickers and had tried to alert the federal authorities about this several times before he disappeared.

Not much more progress has been made in the investigation into Mauricio Estrada Zamora’s disappearance on 12 February 2008 . He was a reporter for La Opinión de Apatzingán, a regional daily. The day before he went missing, it ran a story with his by-line about the arrest of a gang of drug traffickers in the locality of Aguililla. A member of the “anti-kidnapping” squad told the family there could be a link.

According to another account, Estrada was involved in a dispute with a man known as “El Diablo” (The Devil), who was in fact a police officer in the former Federal Investigation Agency (a Mexican FBI), an agency given over entirely to combating drug trafficking. The reasons for this dispute never came to light and “El Diablo” was transferred out of Michoacán on 11 February 2008, the day before Estrada disappeared.

“The best in the region”

Maria Esther Aguilar Cansimbe has been missing since 11 November 2009 and her relatives fear the investigation is going nowhere. Her sister, Maria del Carmen, is convinced the authorities know something and that their silence is deliberate.

Aguilar had worked for 10 years for the dailies ABC de Michoacán, Diario de Zamora, El Sol de Zamora and La Voz de Michoacán. She also covered crime and drug trafficking for another daily, El Cambio de Michoacán. “She was the best in the region,” one of its editors told us.

Shortly before her disappearance, Aguilar had covered alleged use of violence and abuse of authority by Jorge Arturo Cambroni Torre, the municipality of Zamora’s public security chief. She also covered the arrest of a member of La Familia, Jorge García Garnica, known as “El Bofo” (Fatty), in a heavy-handed army operation. Reporting of this kind often leads to reprisals by either the cartels or law-enforcement officials concerned about protecting their image. Aguilar had received threats and the police were clearly aware of her.

Ramón Ángeles Zalpa had been reporting for El Cambio de Michoacán for ten years when he went missing on 6 April of this year. By July, the federal attorney general’s office had initiated 18 proceedings in connections with his case. None of the initiatives has produced results and it now seems less certain that his disappearance was linked to his journalistic work.

At least 30,000 people have been killed in the past four years in the federal offensive against the cartels and in organized crime turf wars. Mexico is one of the world’s deadliest countries for the media. A total of 69 journalists have been killed since 2000 and 11 have gone missing since 2003. Twelve have been murdered since the start of the year. A link to the victim’s journalistic work has been established or is probable in eight of these cases. Mexico was ranked 136th out of 178 countries in the press freedom index that Reporters Without Borders published last month.

Reporters Without Borders reiterates its request to be involved in consultations about the new mechanisms for protecting journalists that the federal authorities have recommended.

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Updated on 31.05.2017