A 73-Year-Old Is Latest Victim Of Deadly Attacks On Mexican Journalists

Apr 17, 2017
Originally published on April 18, 2017 7:45 am

You wouldn't expect a 73-year-old to be on the crime beat, but Maximino Rodriguez Palacios couldn't help himself, says Cuauhtemoc Morgan, editor of the Baja California news blog Colectivo Pericu.

"It was totally by chance," he tells NPR. "In November 2014, Max called me about a shooting near his home in La Paz. And then he sent me a story and photos about what happened. From that moment, he was our crime reporter."

Rodriguez's passion to cover crime led to his death. Gunned down Friday as he pulled up in front of a supermarket, he became the fourth journalist murdered in Mexico in just six weeks. The country continues to be one of the deadliest places in the world to report the news.

For decades, Rodriguez had worked in journalism and in public relations for the state government. He came out of retirement to take up the crime beat for Colectivo Pericu, and in the following years his work became increasingly important. His home state, Baja California Sur, has become one of Mexico's most violent in recent months as drug cartels fought over the territory. In January 2017 the state recorded its most murders ever in a single month.

Through this, Rodriguez built up a following. A Facebook Live video from April 5 got more than 15,000 views. In it, he runs up to the police tape around a crime scene and, winded, tells his audience that the subject is dead. The victim would turn out to be a plainclothes police officer.

Several police officers had been murdered in recent months, and Rodriguez chased the story. In the last column he wrote for Colectivo Pericu, he cited anonymous sources to identify the leader of a local cartel as the mastermind. But this turned deadly.

"Our comments sections [on the blog] are open, so it has become routine for us to receive threats there," says Morgan.

Rodriguez's final column had five comments on it. Four were threats. Among expletives, one comment ominously reads, "You're lighting the candles for your own funeral, Max."

Three days later, Rodriguez was dead. His bullet-riddled car was the exact kind of crime scene he would have run to cover, camera phone in hand.

On Sunday night, the state attorney general's office said that ballistics tests showed that the firearm used against Rodriguez was the same one used in the killing of the police officer that Rodriguez had covered a week earlier. The investigation points toward Rodriguez being targeted for his work.

Since President Enrique Peña Nieto was elected in 2012, 31 journalists have been murdered in Mexico. Dozens more have been threatened or attacked. Reporters under threat have become hardened to this reality.

"When I hear of another murder, I just think 'who's next?' " says Noe Zavaleta, a reporter in Veracruz state. "It sounds crude to say, but it's the way I have to think about it now."

Zavaleta knows the danger of reporting well, as 20 journalists have been murdered in his home state since 2010. He began writing for the investigative magazine Proceso after his predecessor, Regina Martinez, was strangled to death in her home. One of his best friends and colleagues, photojournalist Ruben Espinoza, was murdered in Mexico City after seeking refuge there. But Zavaleta is back in Veracruz after briefly fleeing to Mexico City for his safety.

"Things haven't changed — if anything, it's gotten worse," he says. "But this is what I know how to do, and I refuse to leave because of intimidation. Maybe it's pride or my ego, but I won't leave."

The Mexican government recently has beefed up protection measures for journalists, as well as a specialized unit that investigates these types of crimes. But journalists don't just need protection from organized crime.

"[These protections] feel imaginary, because I have filed complaints about threats I have received from government authorities and their cronies," says Zavaleta. "I don't expect them to go anywhere, but I file them anyway so that other journalists can document what has happened to me."

The systems to protect reporters aren't working in practice, says Carlos Lauria, the Americas director for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"Unfortunately, these bodies and mechanisms have clearly been insufficient to fight the violence and solve crimes against the press," says Lauria. "Impunity is still pervasive. Even in the cases where progress has been made, masterminds are still free and justice is losing."

By CPJ's estimate, 87 percent of the murders committed against journalists in Mexico since 1990 either have not been investigated or have no arrests.

But the journalists themselves aren't the only victims of press violence, says Lauria: With many reporters too scared to cover news that could anger criminals or corrupt politicians, the public often doesn't get to see the most important stories.

In Baja California Sur, it's unclear if reporters will be silenced by Max's death. Cuauhtemoc Morgan says he's talked to some journalists who want to get off the crime beat after the murder. But not everyone will stay quiet.

"My wife [the co-editor of Colectivo Pericu] and I are reflecting on what to do," he says. "But right now, we don't plan to stop reporting on this type of news."

On Monday, Colectivo Pericu kept publishing, like it was just another day.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In the last six weeks, four reporters have been murdered in Mexico. The latest victim was Maximino Rodriguez. He was gunned down in his car on Friday afternoon in La Paz, near the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula. As James Fredrick reports, Mexico continues to be one of the world's deadliest places to report the news.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: At 73 years old, Max Rodriguez wasn't the kind of person you'd expect to be on the police beat. But he couldn't help himself, says Cuauhtemoc Morgan, the co-founder of Colectivo Pericu, the blog where Max worked. I catch him on his cell as he's driving to a memorial for Max.

CUAUHTEMOC MORGAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "It was totally by chance," he said. "In November 2014, Max called me about a shooting near his home in La Paz. And then he sent me a story and photos about what happened. From that moment, he was our crime reporter." After decades as a reporter and government spokesman, Max Rodriguez came out of retirement to cover crime. He didn't know at the time how important the work would become.

Murders have recently spiked in his state as a feud broke out between drug cartels. January of this year set a record for the most murders there ever. A week before his death, Max posted this Facebook Live video which got 15,000 views.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAXIMINO RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: He's running up to a crime scene outside a local prison. A man had been shot and would turn out to be a plainclothes police officer. But this type of reporting put Max at risk for exposing crimes and sometimes the criminals behind them.

MORGAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "Our outlet promotes freedom of expression," says Morgan. "Our comments sections are open, so it's become routine for us to receive threats there." Last week, Max wrote about a string of murdered police officers and named the head of a local gang as the mastermind. There are five comments on the story. One ominously reads you're lighting the candles for your own funeral, Max.

Three days later, Rodriguez were shot to death as he pulled up in front of a supermarket. It was the exact kind of crime he would have run to cover, camera phone in hand.

On Sunday night, the state government said that the same weapon was used in the murder of Max and the police officer Max had reported on the week before, meaning he was likely targeted for his work. Max's death on Friday is the latest in a long list of murdered reporters throughout Mexico. Three others were murdered in March alone.

NOE ZAVALETA: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Noe Zavaleta knows the risks journalists face as well as anyone. His predecessor at investigative magazine Proceso was strangled to death in her home. And a photojournalist he often worked with was killed after fleeing to Mexico City.

ZAVALETA: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "We journalists face real threats," says Zavaleta. "Organized crime, that's obvious. Another is the state that tries to oppress our voices. And the third are corrupt media outlets that work with the first two to try to smear journalists who become victims." Murdered journalists have become so common as to harden Zavaleta's reaction to another death.

ZAVALETA: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "When I hear of another murder, I just think who's next? It sounds crude to say but it's the way I have to think about it now." Now with this climate of fear and intimidation all over Mexico, the most important stories often can't be covered. Cuahtemoc Morgan says some of the reporters in his state want to get off the crime beat after Max's murder.

MORGAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "My wife and I are reflecting on what to do," he says, "but right now, we don't plan to stop reporting this type of news." For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.