All Eyes On Mexico’s Newly-Empowered Special Prosecutor
It has been over a year since Mexico amended its constitution to make attacks on journalists a federal crime, and more than three months since laws took effect that made that amendment meaningful, giving the attorney general’s office authority to take control of investigations involving the murders of journalists throughout Mexico.
Two journalists have been murdered in Mexico since the attorney general’s office received these important new powers. On May 24, Mario Chávez Jorge, one of the founders of the online newspaper El Cuidadano, disappeared in Tamaulipas, along the U.S. Mexico border; his dismembered body was discovered beside a road some two and a half weeks later. Then, on July 17, Alberto López Bello, who covered the police beat for the newspaper El Imparcial and the radio program, “Foro Político,” was found murdered outside of Oaxaca City; he had been beaten and shot to death.
So how is the federal government doing in exercising its new investigative powers?
Not so well, CPJ’s Mike O’Connor reports from Mexico. In a fierce and moving blog post that got the attention of the Mexican government, O’Connor chronicles how surreal investigating journalists’ murders has become in Mexico—and how cautious the federal government’s special prosecutor for crimes against freedom of expression has been in exercising her new powers. In the Chávez case, he writes, the investigation so far is as surreal as it gets:
On June 10, the federal and human rights commission officials say, state police files show that an anonymous phone call led police to Chávez´s body on a rural road. It had been dismembered, a common practice in killings by organized crime. His body was officially identified by Lopez, his girlfriend, in the state morgue and the identity later confirmed by DNA tests, the state police records report, according to the federal officials.
But not if you ask the state attorney general’s spokesman, Ruben Rios. “We have no report of the death of this person,” Rios told CPJ. There is no report of Chávez even missing, Rios claimed. There is no report of his name in any recent police file, Rios insisted. And, he said, there is no information about a body being found along any rural road on June 10 or any date near June 10.
This would seem to be an excellent example of why state investigations of crimes against journalists produce such bad results—and an example of why the new law giving the federal government the power to take over is a step forward.
But a case like this one starts off badly because the crucial initial police work was done by a state which has what one might call a bad attitude toward the investigation. So, what about all the forensic work at the victim’s home, where he was last seen? The state did not do that, say federal officials. Nor forensics from where the body was found, they say. What about state interviews with family members or others? Only interviews of López and the victim’s brother, and those interviews were badly done, according to federal investigators. Chávez’s brother said he was left terrified by the state investigators.
O’Connor reports that rather than taking over the case, as the law now allows, the feds have sent a team of investigators to work alongside state investigators—a tactic that special prosecutor Laura Borbolla insists is beginning to pay dividends. According to O’Connor, “Borbolla says that she has found key witnesses, and that in the two months since Chávez’s body was identified, local officials have become easier to work with. She says that her policy of cooperating rather than confronting in this first case will lead to cooperation in the other cases to follow in other states.”
She may well be right: just having a federal team on the scene should begin to change the tenor and quality of the investigations. But will it change the outcome? As O’Connor writes, “It remains to be seen whether a successful precedent can be set with local authorities who claim publically that the murder victim is still alive.”
PEN pushed for the constitutional and legal reforms that give the federal government its new investigative powers, and it is encouraging to see the special prosecutor’s office taking even hesitant steps toward putting them into effect. But the real test, as always in Mexico, will be whether the questions that seem to swirl around every journalist’s murder will finally be answered with prosecutions and convictions.