With the murder of a reporter members of organized crime seek to suppress free speech in Coahuila
• Reporter Valentín Valdés Espinosa was kidnapped after leaving the newspaper Zócalo de Saltillo, where he had worked for the past year and a half. One hour later he was murdered.
• Those responsible for the crime left a note on the reporter’s body, with the intent of threatening the rest of the journalists in that city, located in the north of Mexico.
• The Coahuila Public Prosecutor’s Office is to send an itemized case file to the Attorney General’s Office.
• Reporters from various news media in Coahuila are scared.
Valentín Valdés Espinosa was 29. He was known for “his professionalism, his dedication, a passion for and commitment to journalism.” On Thursday, January 7 they kidnapped him, tortured him and after midnight killed him. The Public Prosecutor’s Office has reasons to believe that those who carried out the murder and those behind it belong to organized crime.
Alongside the body the killers left a card on which they wrote “This is going to happen to those who don’t get it that the message is for everyone.” Although this kind of threat had already appeared linked to other murders or disappearances of journalists in states such as Durango, Chihuahua and Tamaulipas, this is the first time the guilty parties have left a message right on the body.
“We cannot see it any other way, it was not only an attack upon Valentín and his newspaper, they want to suppress freedom of expression and the people’s right to be informed,” declared a local reporter interviewed by the Rapid Response Unit.
Rodolfo Rodríguez, spokesman of the Zócalo de Saltillo newspaper, explained that the reporters were not working normally, as they were in a state of shock, and he said neither had journalists or the newsroom received any prior threat. “It took us by surprise, we didn’t expect anything like that. We’re puzzled, we have the same doubts as everyone and we’re waiting for what the Public Prosecutor’s Office may tell us,” Rodríguez said.
From 1989 to date five journalists have been killed or gone missing in Coahuila, cases believed to be linked to their work, though this has not been confirmed due to the lack of investigations on the part of the State Attorney’s Office and the federal Attorney General’s Office that have under their responsibility inquiries into the murders of Ezequiel Huera Acosta (in 1989) and José Valdés (2006), as well as the disappearance of Cuauhtémoc Ornelas Ocampo (in 1995) and of Rafael Ortiz Martínez (2006).
Valentín worked on Thursday, January 7 like on any other day. He finished his reports and at a quarter to 11 at night he said goodnight to his colleagues that were still in the newsroom and went out with two other reporters, one of them who also worked for Zócalo de Saltillo. They got into Valdés Espinosa’s car and headed along Venustiano Carranza Boulevard, the same avenue where the newspaper is located.
Barely 15 minutes later, very close to the Vanguardia newspaper, in the Colonia República neighborhood, two pickup trucks cut off their path and, according to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, some 10 armed men traveling in them accosted the three reporters and forced two of them – Valentín and Armando – to get into the pickups, then they fled.
At that moment a “red alert” was broadcast over the police radio, because it was said that gunshots had been heard very close to the Colonia República neighborhood, some reporters arrived at the scene shortly afterwards, all was quiet and there were only officers from the Public Prosecutor’s Office and municipal police. Asked what was happening, the officers replied that it was a false alarm about three pickup trucks having fired at a car.
Following the abduction and for a little more than an hour the assailants beat up the reporters. Valentín had “signs of torture, with bruises to the stomach and the back,” according to the coroner’s report. Reports obtained by the Public Prosecutor’s Office and announced during a press conference by the office’s director, Jesús Torres Charles, showed that “approximately at 12:50 a.m. on January 7 there were reported to the 006 emergency service gunshots outside a hotel (Marbella Motel) in the east end of the city. On reaching the spot, agents from a number of forces found a lifeless male person who was bound feet and hands with a brown cord and blindfolded.”
Valentín was shot five times, one of the shots causing “a secondary cardiac shock with laceration of the heart” which caused his death, according to the official autopsy report. Five bullet shells were found near his body, of two different calibers – super 38 and 223.
The public prosecutor said the journalist had been identified by a press pass bearing his name and next to him was the card bearing the message.
Reporters on duty at the time at various media outlets received the news that a body had been found and it was that of a fellow reporter. Around 3:00 a.m. they confirmed that it was that of Valdés Espinosa.
Until recently the city of Saltillo was one of the most peaceful spots in all Coahuila, having a good level of development for its inhabitants. However, kidnappings began, and murders, and extortions, little by little and one at a time.
But that changed radically about three weeks ago, when the number of people executed grew, the same as abductions, arrests of police officers and even of people identified as important members of organized crime, specifically of the Gulf Cartel.
On December 29, 2009 the Army carried out an operation in various parts of the city and at five hotels that led to the arrest of 12 persons and apparently provoked armed groups to shoot at different times and in different city areas, without leading to clashes with the police. Although all the media reported on what had happened they did so only briefly, there being no official press release. The newspaper giving the biggest report was Zócalo de Saltillo, which gave more details of the events, without naming its source.
One day later, on December 30, the National Defense Ministry announced the arms that had been seized and the names of those arrested, one of them being Floriberto Andaya Espinoza, otherwise known as José Luis García González, alias “El ricochet” (The Ricochet), who was accused of being in charge of “auditing the Cárdenas Guillén organization’s cells” in the states of Aguascalientes, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí, as a subordinate of Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, a.k.a. “El cuarenta” (The Forty), the main operator of that organization.
It was precisely at the Marbella Motel where the Army arrested “El ricochet” and it was at the same place where Valdés Espinosa’s body had been found.
Another important event that could have some connection to the reporter’s death occurred the following week, on January 7, when five people were arrested, also near that motel, among them a municipal police officer, José Manuel Espinosa Espinosa, along with a former officer, José Martínez Pérez, who had six rifles, hand grenades, clips and a pistol, according to official information. That same police officer had been arrested in May 2009 and charged with kidnapping, but he was acquitted due to lack of evidence.
Several journalists interviewed by the Rapid Response Unit confirmed that Valentín had reported on these events for the newspaper, but he had not been bylined.
“To many of us reporters it seems that the newspaper was not careful about the information it was publishing on organized crime, but what is very clear is that those responsible for Valentín’s murder were not content just to kill him and thus threaten the paper, but they are also seeking to intimidate and make it clear that these people want to have control of everything, it is clearly an attempt to have the press and freedom of expression under control,” said a journalist working in Coahuila.
The Public Prosecutor said that the investigations are being headed by the official assigned to the Homicide and Offenses Against Public Safety Bureau and added that an itemized preliminary report will be sent to the federal Attorney General’s Office “as because of the characteristics of the matter there is a presumption that the crime was committed by members of organized crime, as well as it being the murder of a journalist.”
Valentín was invited to work at the Zócalo de Saltillo newspaper because he was an outstanding reporter. So it was that he became one of its founders in June 2008, assigned to special affairs in the local section, covering government and security matters. Valdés Espinosa already had a background that his colleagues admired. He began his career in the newspaper industry early in life. In 2001, one year before graduating in journalism from the Communication School of the Autonomous University of Coahuila, where he had one of the highest grade averages of his class, he was invited to join El Diario de Coahuila, where he began reporting on the police beat.
“He was president of the School’s student body and was one of the most outstanding students of an entire generation,” declared one of Valentín’s university colleagues.
Some time later he was asked to work on the “Guardián del Pueblo” supplement, published by the Saltillo newspaper Vanguardia, where he stayed for just a year, because he was then invited to join a new paper that the Reforma Group launched in the state, Palabra, where he worked for nearly six years. He was later invited to the Zócalo, it being a multimedia company with a presence throughout the state and with a circulation of 20,000 in Saltillo.
“Our colleague, who covered the local beat, was characterized by his professionalism, his dedication and his passion for his work, as well as a strong commitment to journalism,” an item appearing in the newspaper’s January 8 issue said.
Several reporters in Saltillo all agreed in describing Valentín as an honest, serious and responsible person who always showed balance in his reports. “He was an honest man, a worker highly devoted to his investigative work. He had not yet married, in fact he lived with his mom and dad,” one of his friends said.
At midday on Thursday, January 7 Public Prosecutor Jesús Torres Charles described as a cowardly act the murder of the journalist, who he said was a personal friend. He declared, “The State Public Prosecutor’s Office, like the whole state government, expresses its rejection of these cowardly actions against a media colleague, its condolences to his family and to the press, and the commitment to continue working to shed light on these events and to solve them in due course.”
Later, Coahuila Governor Humberto Moreira commented that he knew of the reporter’s work and offered to talk with the news media outlets’ executives “because the people’s voice must not be inhibited or silenced some action will have to be taken.”
In the same press conference he called on the federal government to halt the violence existing in the country. “That’s enough, President [Felipe Calderón]! From Los Pinos [the presidential residence], locked in, he is leading a war that he set out upon, with no less than one thousand soldiers looking after him and La Laguna sends only 300.”
“The municipal and state police are dedicated to prevention, while the federal ones deal with organized crime,” he added, in an annoyed tone, “but in recent years our agencies have devoted themselves to helping him do the task of the federal part.”
After learning of Valdés Espinosa’s murder several reporters awaited instructions from their newsrooms, because they were scared. “We’re upset by what happened, now we have to be watching out for ourselves much more about what we write and how we write it, because any interpretation that we make of an event can cost us our lives, these people don’t respect or even accept interpretations,” one reporter said.
A number of journalists commented that they have started the task of making reporters aware of the need to take more precautions and, above all, join forces together more so as not to be so vulnerable.
“A lack of confidence among reporters has begun to be created, there are a lot of rumors that criminal organizations are offering money for things not to get published,” said another journalist. “We have to stop that and have the news media of Coahuila and the whole country get together to confront these attacks on freedom of expression and for impunity not to exist.”