~ This interview was originally published by SinEmbargo on July 1, 2015 ~
Mexico City, July 1 (SinEmbargo) – For nearly half a month, the photojournalist Rubén Espinosa Becerril has been living in the Federal District [Mexico City], in a self-imposed exile from Veracruz, forced out by the constant threats he faced. The young journalist, who has worked with Proceso, Cuartoscuro, and the AVC news agency, fled the state on June 9, after being subjected to various episodes of harassment.
The photojournalist is a native of Mexico City, but for eight years has lived in Veracruz. That is where he left his work, his reporting, his friends, his house, and even his dog out of fear of being killed like the other 12 journalists who have been executed during the administration of the state’s PRI governor Javier Duarte de Ochoa.
In an interview with SinEmbargo, Rubén discusses the state of the press and freedom of expression in Veracruz; the modus operandi of the Duarte de Ochoa government for subjugating the media; and the lives of those reporters and photographers who refuse to receive money in exchange for their silence.
The anarchy is such that everything is going poorly, except for corruption, in a Veracruz where death has chosen to live in the arms of a government that admires the former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.
–What prompted your flight from Veracruz? When did you leave the state?
–I left on June 9 because of harassment by unknown individuals. I left for work at 9AM on Tuesday, June 7 and a person was watching me closely. I did not think much about it. From there, I went to work my beat. I returned home and there, on Facebook, a colleague notified me that there were students gathered at a roundtable with authorities at the University of Veracruz. I went there at three in the afternoon and on the corner by my house there were three individuals by a taxi with the motor on. I did not try to look at them, because I was very aware of them. I could identify one of them. I took out my telephone to note down their details, and before getting into my taxi I turned to look and he took a photo of me. I got in the taxi. The guys were mean looking, they weren’t from Xalapa. They looked like people from the port of Veracruz. That’s when I realized that it was the same guy I had seen in the morning. In the afternoon I was heading back to my house and I saw two guys coming toward me very aggressively, they came without stopping. I got up against the wall and one of them walked by me very close, I could feel his breath. I got out of the way, I didn’t look as they passed. I kept walking, then turned and they were watching me. They were dressed in black. I came to the DF [Mexico City] on Thursday the 9th.
–What did you cover in Veracruz? Do you think your reporting caused this harassment?
–I specialized in social movements. I have a cover shot for Proceso magazine with the governor in it. That cover did a lot of damage, in fact the government bought it up in bulk [to prevent distribution].
–What is the photo?
–It is a photograph where the governor appears wearing a police hat and is walking in profile. Here in Xalapa we have always maintained that the government killed one of our colleagues. I was beaten during the removal of a teachers’ protest in 2013, in Lerdo plaza, along with other colleagues, and because of that we had to march. We forced congress to create the Commission for the Care and Protection of Journalists, which has done no good. I was at the unofficial ceremony to place the plaque in Lerdo plaza, where we honored Regina Martínez—another murdered journalist. I have given courses on safety to other photographers and it has been made clear to me that I am a problem for the state government.
–How has it been made clear?
–They do not let me into official events. On one occasion there were 35 bodies found in Boca del Río at the monument to the voladores of Papantla [a commemoration of a famous local indigenous ceremony], and the prosecutor Reynaldo Escobar Pérez was going to give a press conference. A person in charge of media relations, Edwin—I don’t remember his last name—asked me what I was doing there, and told me I had no business there and that I was in the way. Then people working for the state government started to take pictures of me.
–Are they harassing you only?
–They are harassing me, and the group of journalists I am with.
–This last harassment that caused you to leave the state was very close to the attack on the students at the University of Veracruz. Did you cover that? Did you take photos of the scene?
–Of everything. What is going on is that I follow all the cases. I do not just cover it once and move on. With all the movements that the students have had. I covered the parade [commemorating the start of the Revolution] on November 20 the year Regina [Martínez] was killed. Javier Duarte was at the parade and we could not be near the pavilion. The photographers and cameramen were forced out to the sides. I asked them to let me take a few pictures and in the moment I got close, I saw someone had opened a banner that said ‘Javier Duarte, the people are watching, they neither pardon nor forget.’ At that point a student comes to me and tells me that they are beating one of his companions. I went to cover that and when I took a picture of the guy who was arresting students a person who worked for the government grabbed my neck and told me: ‘stop taking pictures unless you want to end up like Regina.’ That’s what a government official told me. They are cops dressed like civilians. The person who orchestrated the operation against those students was in the public security ministry. There was a woman out on a shopping trip who told them to stop beating a student, and that person came and grabbed her hair, threw her things on the ground, and dragged her away. We are talking about a generalized anarchy. You cannot say or do anything. They had snipers on top of a hotel for the parade.
The Black List
–A few days ago the youths who were attacked with machetes in Veracruz came to say that there is a black list of those who upset the government. Are you on that list?
–No, in fact I thought I was going to be, but I’m not.
–Are any of your other colleagues, photographers, journalists, on it?
–No, it is just activists, commissioners of the INE [National Electoral Institute] and people from the PT [Workers Party]. My own colleagues call me an ‘anarchist,’ because I have covered that sort of events.
–You’re talking about the same journalists? They call you an anarchist photographer?
–In fact, our group has been called guerrillas. They call me a guerrilla, because I have given classes in safety and professionalization to colleagues. It is ridiculous.
–And what weapons do you carry to be called guerrillas?
–None. My camera and ethics above all. I have never received a single peso. I do not even think of it. Every time a student joins the profession, I try—you could say—to snatch them and tell them ‘hey, don’t take money,’ that’s not how it is.
–Is there a lot of bribery of journalists [‘chayoteo’] in Veracruz?
–I think it’s about 98 percent of the media.
–And we are talking about everyone from reporters to directors?
–Of course. In fact there are colleagues who have been sent to cover just cultural things, so that they do not do anything, so that they do not do investigations. What they do not want to happen in Veracruz is investigative journalism, it is prohibited, everyone has to conform to the press release. We are talking about a place where there have been 12 colleagues killed, four disappeared, and from 2000 until today, 17 forced into exile. And every time a congressman or the governor organizes one of their “Freedom of Expression Breakfasts,” it fills up, because disgracefully, the press of Veracruz is at the service of those who feed it.
–What do they receive at these freedom of expression breakfasts?
–Well, look at the one colleague who won a car…
–They give away automobiles?
–Yes, cars, televisions, telephones, iPads. In the case of Víctor Báez, a murdered journalist who was the director of police reporters, he was at one of those breakfasts, he won a car, and a week later the car was smashed to pieces in front of the Diario de Xalapa newspaper offices. His car lasted a week. I disagree strongly with the notion that the press should be given money, it’s not necessary. I understand that salaries are low, but if we demand benefits, as a profession, we might get them, but it is easier for everyone to just receive money. Just recently the congressman Renato Tronco, who wants to be governor, held a freedom of expression breakfast. Even the colleagues who have been participating in marches see it as normal to win a car, televisions; they do not realize that it has bad consequences: ‘I scratched your back, now you scratch mine,’ this is the reality of Veracruz, that is how politics, and journalism, are done, that is how society is managed. It is a press that has been ridiculously undermined by the government. You can see front pages with the press releases, not even the title is changed, it is the same photo and same heading on all the front pages. When they burned the local office of the INE, on Ruiz Cortines, the press arrived and behind us some masons, then the police stopped them and we took photos. The serious part is not the unwarranted arrest, the serious part is that the arrests were directed by a journalist. She was the one who said to the police: smell their hands, open their bags, check this, and she is a journalist who carries a gun and whose daughter is working in the state prosecutors’ office.
–Rubén, who did you tell and who did you ask for help with the threats and your escape to Mexico City?
–I have talked with Article19, with the CPJ [Committee to Protect Journalists], with the outlets I work with, with Proceso and Cuartoscuro, with AVC, they are all aware. I am seeking to talk to the organization Periodistas de a Pie, because in Veracruz there are no guarantees. The state Commission for Care and Protection of Journalists is useless. The day of the beatings on September 14, they shocked a colleague on the heart with electric prods and the very commission said “better to take the money, don’t make a scandal, it’s over, they robbed you.” I have come here and they ask me if I will talk to the Commission. They have no idea of the corruption that there is there. I don’t trust any state institution, I don’t trust the government, I am afraid for my colleagues and for myself. It’s not just Rubén, it is family, friends, I don’t want anyone else to be hurt in this.
–Is Veracruz governed by repression?
–There is much more repression coming than what we face today, and we remember that Javier Duarte, at the start of his term, said that he was an admirer of Franco. It was a reference that people did not pay much attention to, and now the residents of Veracruz are living with it. I only ask that people, society, and journalists take a look at Veracruz, because they are killing all freedom of expression.
–How has your life changed since coming to the DF?
–It bothers me a lot that some person decided to change the course of my life. That on a whim, out of capriciousness, because of completely plain immaturity, I have to leave a state that I love very much.
–How long were you there?
–Eight years, my house, my job, my reporting, the people I love, and coming here has made me very sad.
–Are you starting from nothing here?
–Well, not from nothing, but it does feel like that. I have received a lot of support, but I am sad and very angry about what is happening, and that nobody is doing anything. That the paper removes your columns for attracting too much attention, and they don’t look to see that there are 12 people murdered. That your own colleagues say that when you are beaten at the marches it is something natural, a risk of the job. I don’t understand. I am worried about my colleagues, because they are seeing their avenues of communication closed. It was very hard for me to come here again. I am unaccustomed to the size of the city, and it is complicated, because the resources I brought with me are beginning to run out. Transportation here is expensive, food is more expensive, rent is more expensive, obviously it has been difficult and the intention is to return, when the state is in conditions that will allow me to work. I don’t want there to be a number 13 or 14. It is hard to think about Veracruz, there are not words to describe how bad the state is, how bad the government is, how bad the press is, and how good the corruption is. Death chose Veracruz, death decided to live there.
This interview was originally published by the website SinEmbargo under the title “’La muerte escogió a Veracruz como su casa y decidió vivir ahí’, dice fotógrafo en el exilio” and is available at: http://www.sinembargo.mx/01-07-2015/1398019
Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute