19 January 2010

“We journalists are on our own”

Early on the morning of Saturday, January 16 the authorities found the body of radio reporter José Luis Romero in a municipality in the north of Sinaloa state. He had been tortured and apparently secretly buried.
• In Los Mochis, Sinaloa, journalists are scared and say that the authorities are accomplices in allowing impunity. • The body of reporter José Luis Romero appeared on Sunday, he had been tortured and secretly buried. • For two weeks he had been missing and the authorities found him with the help of blankets placed by a group, possibly, from organized crime. Early on the morning of Saturday, January 16 the authorities found the body of radio reporter José Luis Romero in a municipality in the north of Sinaloa state. He had been tortured and apparently secretly buried. Due to the mobilization that his disappearance has sparked his killers exhumed him and left his remains beside the Los Mochis to San Blas highway in the municipality of El Fuerte. Forensic experts found him with signs of decomposition, from which they calculated that he had been killed more than 15 days earlier. He showed signs of torture. He had been shot three times. The Sinaloa State Attorney’s Office acknowledged that there had been no progress in the investigations. The office’s assistant state attorney, Rolando Bon López, announced that, given the characteristics of the crime, the case file would be turned over to the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (PGR in its Spanish acronym). “Everything indicates that it could be organized crime,” the official commented. Several reporters in the Los Mochis municipality admitted they are very scared, because neither the city, state nor federal authorities are capable of halting the violence and protecting the people. “We need justice in José Luis’s murder, so that the authority’s message be no more impunity in Sinaloa that puts us at risk,” the official interviewed by the IAPA Rapid Response Unit said. It began as an abduction One part of the state of Sinaloa is historically a violent place. There some of the leading capos of Mexico have been born – Joaquín Guzmán Loeras, Ismael Zambada García or the Carrillo Fuentes brothers, the Arellano Félix or the Beltrán Leyva, for example. In the first 17 days of this year there had already been 130 regettable homicides. At the north end of the area is Los Mochis, a town belonging to the municipality of Ahome and where there have been episodes of violence reported. Generally it is a peaceful and pleasant place to live, where usually robberies were the most serious crimes. A little over a month ago there began a very violent phase in which there have been seen destroyed and headless corpses found, executions in public places or kidnappings of up to six people in a single day. It is in Los Mochis, the workplace of José Luis Romero, who since December 21 had been on vacation and was due to return in January to the Línea Directa news program, where he worked as a reporter covering security and legal matters. On Wednesday, December 30, 2009 he went to the radio station to do some accounting paperwork. He did not go into the newsroom or booths. He left the premises at about 6:20. Driving his grey Jetta sedan, probably alongside former soldier Eliud Lorenza Patiño, they drove along Aquiles Serdán Street and turned into Doroteo Arango Street to eat at a shellfish stand. They were barely 10 blocks from the radio station. It was just a few moments later that a red pickup truck came up at full speed. In all there were four hooded men bearing rifles. They found Romero and the former soldier and forced them into the vehicle, whose engine was running and then made off at high speed. At least one of the assailants got into José Luis’s Jetta automobile and followed the truck. After 7:00 p.m. that evening the rumors began to circulate that a reporter had been abducted. “No one confirmed or denied it to me. It was a very strong rumor,” recalled Luis Alberto Díaz, editor of the Línea Directa news program. An hour later the name of José Luis Romero was already being mentioned as the victim, on the basis of which the executives of the Radio Sistema del Norte (RSN) company that he worked for called on the authorities to act right away to try and find him alive. Pressure and reaction The journalist’s disappearance right away sparked unease and concern. Journalists and news media, as had not happened for years, got together and urged the state and federal governments to find him alive. Representatives of the state government said it was their priority and that there were special groups looking for him. The Sinaloa State Attorney’s Office began initial inquiries labeled Moch/412/09 into the offense of unlawful privation of freedom. The PGR also opened a case file, number 605/2009, through which from the beginning, according to Assistant State Attorney Rodrigo Castro, they shared information. State Ministerial Police chief investigator Jesús Escalante Leyva took charge of the initial inquiries, but just a few hours later he was shot and killed some 50 yards from his office. He had survived another attack in July 2008 that was meant to be aimed at Major Jorge Constanino Sajarópolos Corona. From the outset state officials said that this incident could have to do with José Luis’s disappearance. The reporters complained that Escalante’s murder had caused the investigation into Romero’s disappearance to be held up, and so 40 of them marched to the offices of the Los Mochis Public Prosecutor’s Office to demand a speed-up in the inquiries. At the same time, the radio station where Romero worked called on the people, in its on-air programs and its Web site, to help find him. The response was the announcement that the military and federal police would be joining in the manhunt. On Friday, January 15, one day before the journalist was found dead, very early a blanket appeared hanging from a bridge in an area known as Trébol (Cloverleaf) on the southern outskirts of the town of Los Mochis, a heavily-trafficked place. On it were the words “Go back to José Luis Romero. Army, look in Plan del Río, Guasave.” The municipality of Guasave is next to Ahome, where the town of Los Mochis is located, and there an Army and police detachment was mobilized, it kept watch and searched some homes. There was no official report from any entity. On that blanket there were written several names of alleged perpetrators of José Luis Romero’s disappearance, as well as claiming they were responsible for abductions and extortions in the region. According to information from the authorities those names were of members of the Beltrán Reyes brothers’ organization and of the self-styled “zetas” who have joined forces to confront the group formed by Joaquín Guzmán Loeras, a.k.a. “El chapo” and Ismael Zambada García, “El mayo.” However, the investigators believe that it could be either a real denunciation or part of a strategy to confuse and distract. Organized crime Around 2:00 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, January 16 at the Municipal Police offices there was an anonymous call in which a person reported the existence of a black bag with a body on the Los Mochis to San Blas highway in the Santa Blanca township, some 15 minutes from Los Mochis. The forensic experts and officers soon reached the place. They came across four black bags tied with yellow plastic ribbons. On opening them they found the journalist’s body which had the hands tied in front by a red handkerchief; he was wearing denim trousers and a green shirt. “He had been dead for more than 15 days,” Assistant State Attorney Rolando Bon López told a press conference. He reported that the body showed three bullet wounds, two to the head and the other to the shoulder, from where they were able to extract the remains of a bullet which they were examining to determine the caliber. The place where he was found was not the same one where he had been killed. The bag was clean on the outside, the forensic experts did not find any bloodstains and, on the contrary, the body was in an advanced state of decomposition and with soil. One theory is that he was killed a few hours after he had been abducted and they then buried him. The reporters felt that it was thanks to the pressure they were applying, along with their media and those at a national level, that those in charge were required to “show” the reporter’s remains. The autopsy also revealed that José Luis had been tortured – several bones on both hands were fractured, as was that on the lower left leg. Little has been reported about Eliud Lorenzo Patiño. Sinaloa State Attorney General Alfredo Higuera Bernal commented that this person’s identity was known and that he had belonged to the Armed Forces from the report of his kidnapping filed by his wife. Given the existing information and how the events had occurred the authorities decided to send their initial information to the PGR as there were apparently members of organized crime involved. The investigations State Attorney General Higuera Bernal explained during the first days of José Luis having disappeared that there would be no one line of inquiry, but everything would be looked into, including the life of the former soldier. “So far,” he said, “we cannot determine anything, we are looking into two aspects, José Luis Romero’s work as a journalist and also any activity of another kind that he or another person may have been engaging in.” One of the theories that the officials put forward is that Romero and some other reporters might have put our certain information that upset members of organized crime. Following his disappearance several reporters said they had been threatened. The same officials are also looking into Romero’s personal life, because there are rumors that he had a relationship with drug traffickers and thieves. They have also been inquiring about the properties and farm equipment that he owned. “I wouldn’t know if it’s true or not (that they are looking into that), but ruling something out often is the main excuse for authorities not to investigate. It is very easy to speak against someone who can’t defend himself,” Luis Alberto Diaz said angrily. For the Línea Directa editor José Luis was a very good reporter, he always came up with “exclusive reports, he had good relations with the Army and the state and municipal officials.” The local people knew him as “the friend of the police.” Díaz said that to be sure last year he had investigated José Luis to find out whether or not he received money in addition to his salary, and the result was that “he was clean.” “He didn’t even have any vices,” he added. “Or that he was a drunkard or a drug addict like other reporters.” So far, the radio news program editor said, what has been confirmed is that he was killed because of his work. The farewell On Sunday, January 17, José Luis was buried. Prior to that his coffin was borne to the San Juan de los Lagos church. His family, friends and colleagues were there. After the homily the funeral cortege began, with a stop at the offices of the radio station where he had worked during most of his professional life, Radio Sistema del Noroeste. Romero was 43. He was a thin man, pleasant, a good friend and one who knew how to cover the police beat. He was born in the communal cooperative of San Lorenzo Viejo and studied Political Science and Public Administration at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa. In 1986, on graduation, he began work at the “Noticentro” program of Organización Impulsora de Radio radio network in Los Mochis. Three months later he was hired by another news program titled “Notisistema” in the RSN group. In 1997, at that same company, he took part in the launching of the Línea Directa news program, in which he continued covering security and legal matters in the northern municipalities of Ahome, El Fuerte and Choix, among others. From 2006 to 2008 José Luis attended some workshops on radio reporting, reporting techniques and features and on two occasions received the Los Mochis Journalists Association’s Aarón Flores Heredia Award for the best coverage of the police beat. When his coffin arrived at the entrance to the RSN offices the orange-colored building was filled with his colleagues and friends. Editor-in-chief Manual Francisco Pérez Muñoz spoke of his rectitude, his professional responsibility and “his incomparable friendship.” “José Luis, you will be with us for a long time, you are going physically but your example, your work, your friendship we will have with us,” said Luis Alberto Díaz, Línea Directa’s editor. “To commit to continue to be unswerving, to continue demanding that this be solved, that justice be done, to continue demanding that the authorities do their job is what we ask of the authorities, and every time we open up the microphone we will be remembering José Luis Romero.” In this way his colleagues had an opportunity to weep and say farewell to him with applause. The entourage then made a longer journey; he was taken to his birthplace, San Lorenzo Viejo. There a wake was held at the home of his parents. They then buried him in the Los Algodones pantheon shortly after 6:00 p.m. on Sunday, when it was almost 18 days since he had gone missing, when the pain of his absence had begun for his family. Vestiges Following the death, the traces and the impact. Something in Los Mochis fell apart. The reporters no longer feel safe and they do not know how to handle their fear. Many have been cautious all their lives about covering things linked to organized crime, now they don’t know if they are doing it well or should change. “José Luis’s murder brought us insecurity in our profession, a lot of doubts and the authority not to make responses. They say that one reporter or another is already asking to be moved or is thinking about what to do,” said a local reporter. The Línea Directa editor angrily declared, “We journalists feel we are on our own, abandoned by the state, federal and municipal authorities. They are not present here, they were here last year when we did not need them and once the problem of the electricians arose they left Sinaloa. The groups are staging attacks to scare the people and in that the authorities are no darn good. Sometimes they only take photos to pretend that they were ‘in the war zone’.”