An independent Mexican journalist who reported on politics and crime was shot dead Wednesday night in the violent coastal state of Veracruz, one of the world's most dangerous places for journalists, with 22 slain there since 2000.
Leobardo Vazquez Atzin, who previously wrote for a local newspaper and recently launched an independent news page via Facebook, was killed outside his home in the municipality of Gutierrez Zamora, state authorities said. Vazquez, 42, was shot by assailants on a motorcycle. No suspects have been arrested in the case.
The largest number of killings has taken place in Veracruz, which press freedom advocates call a "zone of silence" because many reporters there practice self-censorship to stay alive. In Veracruz, with a population of half a million people — about the size of Wyoming — nearly two dozen journalists have been killed in the last 18 years. Reporters and photographers from the state have been slain at holiday parties, their bodies dismembered and dumped in canals; some have been tracked down and killed after going into hiding in other parts of the country.
Human rights advocates argue that Veracruz officials, and Mexican officials more broadly, have not done enough to protect journalists under threat and have not prioritized investigations into their killings. In Mexico, just 10% of journalist killings have resulted in convictions, according to the National Human Rights Commission.
On Thursday, press freedom advocates complained that the state attorney general's office in Veracruz was not taking the case seriously because it released a statement dismissing Vazquez as a former journalist working as a food vendor.
Although Vazquez apparently did operate a taco stand, "his Facebook page clearly indicates that he was very active as a citizen reporter," said Jan-
"His death," Hootsen said, "is yet another sign that the conditions for journalists in Veracruz simply haven't improved."
In a statement about Vazquez, the Veracruz State Commission for Attention and Protection of Journalists implored police to "consider his journalistic activity as the principal line of investigation."
Press advocates have fought to bring attention to the issue, holding protests, suspending publication for a day, and frequently reminding audiences that journalists in Mexico are as likely to die as those working in war-torn Syria. But while they have won added protections, including government safe houses for journalists under threat, those haven't made a dent in preventing killings. Despite pleas from the United Nations and U.S. Ambassador Roberta Jacobson, top officials here haven't made the issue a priority.
This week, Mexican journalists reacted angrily after one of Latin America's leading intellectuals said the increase in killings of journalists is a sign that press freedom is improving in a country that was ruled autocratically for seven decades by a single political party until 2000.
"The fact that more than 100 journalists were murdered is in great part to be blamed on the freedom of the press today, which allows journalists to say things that were not permitted before," Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa said Monday. He blamed the increase in such killings on "narcotics trafficking."
Vargas was criticized for blaming journalist deaths on criminal groups, when studies have shown that it is public officials — law enforcement officials and political leaders — who have been behind the majority of threats to journalists. Last year, it was revealed that the federal government used spying software to hack into the phones of several of Mexico's most prominent journalists.
In recent weeks, Vazquez published stories about a shooting in a shopping district and about a group of municipal law enforcement officials convicted of kidnapping charges. He wrote about a local mayor, whom he accused of having "favors that need to be paid," and about a burned-out vehicle discovered outside a chapel.
Previously, Vazquez worked for a newspaper called La Opinion de Poza Rica. An employee of that newspaper, Armando Arrieta, was shot multiple times by an unknown gunman outside his home last year. Arrieta survived.