For some, Gumaro Pérez was an experienced reporter who got on well with locals and earned the nickname “the red man” for his coverage of bloody crimes in Veracruz, one of Mexico’s deadliest states for journalists and civilians alike. But in the eyes of prosecutors, Pérez was an alleged drug cartel operative who met a grizzly end. He was shot dead December 19, while attending a Christmas party at his sixyear- old son’s school in Acayucan, purportedly by gunmen from a rival gang. Whatever the truth, the brazen daylight killing underscored the blurred-lines nature of how journalism is practiced in much of Mexico, especially in the countryside and in areas where organised crime gangs hold sway over corrupt authorities, terrorise local populations and are largely free to harass and murder reporters with impunity.
Reporting in such places of ten entails writing or uploading photographs to a rudimentary website or Facebook page, or working parttime for a small local media outlet whose meagre salaries don’t cover expenses. Holding down a second job is essential. Some moonlight as cabbies or run small businesses. Others may work for a local government. And some, it’s widely believed – though it is said to be a small minority – go on the payroll of a cartel or a corrupt government. Observers are calling the situation in Mexico a crisis for freedom of expression, and the risk is especially high for those who operate without editors, company directors or colleagues who could go to bat for them or steer them to institutions that would protect them.
“It certainly does make them more vulnerable,” said Jan- Albert Hootsen, Mexico representative for the New Yorkbased Committee to Protect Journalists.
Pérez, 34, got his start as a journalist working for Diario de Acayucan, the local newspaper in the city of the same name. Set in the steamy lowlands of southern Veracruz, near the Gulf of Mexico, the oil-rich region is a hotly contested drug trafficking corridor that today is said to be disputed by the Zetas and Jalisco New Generation cartels.
“Back then he was a hardworking boy,” said the newspaper’s deputy director, Cecilio Pérez, no relation, who later lost track of him. Over the years, Gumaro Pérez contributed stories to several local media outlets and helped found the news website La Voz del Sur. He also began working as a driver, personal assistant and photographer for Acayucan’s mayor, although he was not on the government’s payroll and it’s not clear how he was being paid, said Jorge Morales of the official State Commission for Attention and Protection of Journalists in Veracruz.
Mayor Marco Antonio Martínez did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this article.
According to several local journalists interviewed by The Associated Press, Pérez also apparently had a different job: keeping a close watch on what they were publishing about the Zetas and trying to influence their coverage or silence them through intimidation. One reporter says Pérez allegedly warned a reporter to “take down” a story or else he would pass their number on “to you know who, so they will get in touch with you.” Perhaps innocuous elsewhere, words like “get in touch with you” carry life-or-death weight in communities where the gangs are dominant.
The reporters did not complain to authorities. “If Gumaro were still alive, I would not even be telling you,” one said. “The journalists of Acayucan lived in terror and in constant anguish due to this guy,” said Ignacio Carvajal, a veteran reporter who covers that region of Veracruz, adding that the same pattern plays out repeatedly across a state marked by drug politics. “This is not an isolated case.” Prosecutors said just 24 hours after the killing that Pérez was linked to a cartel. They have presented no evidence, saying only that the allegation was based on data from his cellphone and visits to a jailed gang leader. Family members denied he was a criminal. “For me and my family, my brother is a very decent person who walks with his head held high and was admired by many,” Maribel Pérez, his sister, said at his wake.
Journalist Fidel Pérez, who is also not related to Gumaro Pérez, said he had known the slain reporter for nearly 10 years and he showed no sign of being flush with narco-cash. He called the narco allegations by prosecutors “very hasty, very risky.” Early investigations have turned up no evidence that Pérez was killed due to his journalistic work. The last time he is known to have published was several months ago. So as much as Carvajal believes Pérez may have been crooked, he said that prosecutors’ linking him to drug-traffickers smells of an attempt to lessen the political fallout and have the murder fade from the spotlight without a proper investigation. One of the reporters who alleged that Pérez threatened him said he has no reason to believe that he will be any safer now. The gangs are still powerful and he doesn’t know whom to trust. “His death leaves only fear,” the journalist said.