Ruben Espinosa—along with four women, one of whom was a human rights activist—was found bound and shot execution-style in a private apartment in the calm, middle-class neighborhood of Navarte in Mexico City on July 31, 2015. In June, the 31-year-old photojournalist had “auto-exiled” himself to the capital after receiving threats related to his work in the gulf-coast state of Veracruz, widely known as one of Mexico’s most dangerous states. Espinosa is the first journalist-in-exile to be killed in the federal district. On August 5, 2015, a man was arrested in connection with the murders because police stated they had found his fingerprints at the scene. The man, a convicted serial rapist, had been accompanied by two other men that remain at large. However, the possibility of government involvement in this murder, due to the animosity of Javier Duarte, then governor of Veracruz, and his government towards Espinosa, was completely ignored by investigators.
Ruben Espinosa was a photojournalist for several outlets, including AVC Noticias, Cuartoscuro, and the leading investigative magazine Proceso.
Originally from Mexico City, in 2007, he moved to Xalapa, the capital of the south-eastern Mexican state of Veracruz, to begin working at ElGolfo.info. In 2009, he began working as a photographer for current Veracruz governor Javier Duarte during his gubernatorial campaign. Later, he also worked for the former mayor of Xalapa, Elizabeth Morales.
Espinosa stopped working in the public sector because of his critical stance on the violence journalists in Veracruz suffered. As an agency photographer, he covered a broad range of daily issues; however, he did not cover crime or drug-trafficking. As a correspondent for Proceso and Cuartoscuro, he was especially focused on social movements and protests. Following fatal attacks on his colleagues, he became deeply involved in the movement denouncing crimes against journalists in the state of Veracruz, participating in the journalist demonstrations and protests to demand justice for their colleagues and stop the attacks.
In interviews he discussed being harassed over several years while covering events in Veracruz. In November of 2012, he was told to stop taking photos of students being violently detained during a protest against Governor Duarte in honor of murdered investigative journalist, Regina Martinez. “Stop taking photos if you don’t want to end up like Regina,” Espinosa said he was told by a government representative controlling the crowd. Then, on September 14, 2013, while documenting a violent encounter between protesting teachers and authorities, he and other reporters were attacked by state security forces, who then confistcated their equipment and made them delete their photos. Following this mistreatment, he filed a complaint against the police and was further harassed.
He had become a troublesome photographer for the government. It was his photo of Governor Javier Duarte, published on the cover of the February 15, 2014, edition of Proceso with the headline “Veracruz, State With No Law,” that bothered the governor. In fact, the state government bought up that edition of the magazine from stores and newspaper stands in bulk.
The government’s disdain for Espinosa and his work reached a point where Espinosa was not even allowed to enter official events. However, he continued to mobilize against impunity and even participated in the symbolic renaming of Plaza Lerdo to “Plaza Regina Martinez” with the placing of a plaque with the murdered journalist’s name.
In June 2015, around election season, he documented the brutal attack on eight students by masked men who allegedly worked for the government. On June 9, 2015, fearing for his safety, he fled from Veracruz, temporarily moving to Mexico City.
In one of the last interviews he gave before his death, Espinosa described to Rompeviento TV that the circumstances surrounding his departure from Veracruz were a result of instances of intimidation that should not to be taken lightly: groups of unidentified men began stalking him—blatantly watching his home and following him while he worked, even photographing him. He said, “I had to leave because of acts of intimidation. I had to leave because it was not a direct threat, but I got the message. It was just recently when students were attacked and brutally beaten with machetes. In these situations, we can’t do less with any type of aggression or intimidation because we don’t know what might happen. Veracruz is a lawless state.”
Veracruz is one of the most dangerous states in Mexico for reporters, with 11 journalists killed since 2010 under Governor Duarte’s administration. Two more, including Espinosa, have been killed outside of the state and three have gone missing.
In 2012, Mexico federalized crimes against journalists and dedicated new resources to a national protection program. In the following years, the program has been plagued by insufficient funding and understaffing, technological failures, and a lack of transparency that has shaken journalists’ confidence in the established safety protocols. In January, a report by Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights revealed that 97 journalists had been killed in Mexico in connection with their work since 2010.
Espinosa spoke about the mistrust he had for government agencies, thus not filing an official complaint for his safety. Instead, he was in talks with non-governmental organizations.
On August 5, 2015, a man was arrested in connection with the murders because police stated they had found his fingerprints at the scene. The man, a convicted serial rapist, had been accompanied by two other men that remain at large. However, the possibility of government involvement in this murder, due to the animosity of Duarte and his government towards Espinosa, was completely ignored by investigators.