Originally published by palabra
Editor’s note: Click here to read this story in Spanish.
This feature story was based on a three-part documentary by Ojos de Perro vs la Impunidad, AC, a civil collective founded by 36 “communicators” in Mexico in 2014 to expose impunity, corruption, and inequality.
It also follows on from issues raised in palabra’s An Intensifying Danger by Iván Moreno, where we highlight examples of escalating threats against press freedom in Latin America, probing the toxic and dangerous conditions journalists in the region face.
The high rate of murders of journalists in Mexico has drawn the attention of much outside press reporting over the last five years, reaching a peak in 2021 when, along with India, Mexico topped the list of countries in the world for the most media killings. This year, the pace of assassinations among the press there is only increasing, with Mexican media reporting 11 to date.
But the frequent assassination of journalists in Mexico has been going on for over a decade — for 12 years it has been in the world’s top 5 countries for murdered reporters. Or longer. Since 2000, 153 Mexican reporters have been killed. Fifteen of these, about one-tenth, met their deaths in the southwestern state of Guerrero.
It is extremely rare that anyone — or group — is found responsible. Témoris Grecko’s report raises concerns about impunity for killers who are trying to stamp out freedom of expression in Mexico.
—Barbara Kastelein, editor
The documentary was produced with the support of the London-based Justice For Journalists Foundation.
As Priscilla Pacheco stands before the Permanent People’s Tribunal, a renowned international grassroots justice entity established in 1979, she understands that what makes her father Francisco Pacheco’s murder unique is not that, six years later, it remains fully unpunished. In fact, that’s what happens in 98% of aggressions against journalists in Mexico. His case is unique, though, because as many as five governmental institutions have gotten involved in it — one of them just to point out the other four’s failures and propose corrective measures — and yet the outcome is the same. Impunity is systemic and generalized.
Also exceptional is that Priscilla’s family maintains high morale and remains determined to seek justice. Most relatives of assassinated reporters tend to give up, as their lives are threatened, their homes lost, their income strangled, and the authorities revictimize them with neglect and even pressure to quit.
When a reporter is assassinated, relatives find that their own lives are jeopardized. Often the victim provided a necessary income they now are deprived of and they may lose their home and flee to a different city or country.
For years, all Priscilla and her mother Verónica Romero, sister Paloma Libertad and brother Ali have received are pretexts, unjustifiable delays, and loads of lies. In order to bring a case before a judge, prosecutors need to produce a preliminary inquiry (averiguación previa), including basic elements. But, in Pacheco’s case, six years have not been enough for the prosecutors to prove the mechanics of the crime, nor to come up with an analysis of the context, establishing who might have had motives to kill the journalist, nor to interview witnesses and possible suspects.
The Pachecos accepted an offer from the People's Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists to present Francisco’s case, as another step in their already long-standing struggle. The Tribunal’s purpose is to seek justice where governments fail to provide it. And regarding crimes against reporters, the Mexican authorities have failed disastrously.
A SELF-MADE JOURNALIST
Francisco Pacheco was born in 1966 in Taxco, a small colonial city in the southern state of Guerrero known for its pink and ornate central church and shops selling silverware and jewelry along steep cobbled streets. Designated two decades ago as a “Pueblo Mágico” (Magical Town) for its traditional attractions and culture, it relies heavily on tourism. This is a paradise for “vocho” (classic VW Sedan) lovers, as these cars are ideal for tackling the rickety roads built on the mountain slopes.
A graduate in civil engineering, Pacheco was a self-taught journalist who, having found his vocation writing op-eds for a friend’s newspaper, launched his own weekly, El Foro de Taxco. Soon after, he started enjoying the microphone as a radio host, wrote as a local correspondent for Guerrero’s state-wide media, and became an influential reference with his humorous, sharp pen. Despite this success, at the age of 46, he went back to college to study communications, in order to perfect his skills and methodology.
“When we had to tell each other things, we told them straight,” says Claudio Viveros, a journalist friend of Pacheco’s, sitting against the backdrop of Taxco’s beautiful Church of Santa Prisca. “We’d say if something wasn’t right, or when we needed to make improvements and become more professional. So he applied to Mexico’s National Autonomous University.”
The whole family went into journalism. Pacheco’s youngest daughter Paloma Libertad remembers that she grew up “surrounded by paper, there was always paper at home,” and “listening to my dad’s voice on the radio.” When first-born Ali was 10, he was sent to interview residents about potholes in the street. Priscilla, the middle child, had the toughest initiation: driving by a nearby highway, she told her father she’d just seen a dead body lying on the roadside. He turned around, stopped near the corpse and sent the 15-year-old teen to take photos with the command, “Don’t let your hand shake!”
Pacheco’s knowledge as an engineer became helpful when he learned to use sophisticated research tools like governmental transparency portals. He understood public works better than his colleagues which meant he could find traces of corruption when most others didn’t know where to look. Unaccustomed to this, officials would act candid and then lie about budget misuse, only to be caught red-handed by the journalist.
This never led to legal procedures against those responsible, though. Only discomfort. But maybe what really annoyed those in power was Pacheco’s last-page column, where he published sarcastic opinion pieces that became a staple of local life. As his colleague Raymundo Ruiz says, “Politicians used to use his articles to poke fun at each other: ‘Listen, Pacheco said this about you’; ‘Yeah, but he also said this about you.’”
“Politicians are thin-skinned about humor,” Pacheco’s colleague Claudio Viveros points out, “it drives them out of their minds.”
SELL … THEN REPRINT
Mexico continues to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and has been a constant member of the top five countries for murdered reporters since 2010. Guerrero state is among the riskiest in the nation for this profession.
Francisco Pacheco’s son Ali remembers several times when the former mayor Salomón Majul (2012-15) showed up, accompanied by bodyguards and police officers, to buy up every copy of El Foro de Taxco’s issues containing information on him that he didn’t like before they went on sale (they were published online a day before distribution). Pacheco gladly sold them and then reprinted them.
Majul’s cousin, Omar Jalil Flores, took office after him. Things gradually deteriorated. When Pacheco criticized the sorry state of police patrol cars while crime was at its highest recorded level in March 2016, he was banned from municipal office activities and press dispatches.
This didn’t deter the journalist, who obtained official figures showing significant federal transfers to the local government just after the mayor had declared the budget was exhausted. “Omar Jalil Fails Taxco People,” read the main headline on April 3, 2016.
On April 24, El Foro de Taxco posted its next day’s cover story online. But the copies wouldn’t ever reach the streets. Pacheco exposed how the mayor, under the guise of a tourism promotion campaign paid with public money, was advertising himself on buses in Acapulco, the biggest urban center in the state, key for winning the gubernatorial race. That was his last article.
LIFE, WE ARE AT PEACE
Did Francisco Pacheco know or suspect he was marked for execution?
Hours after his death, someone from Mexico’s Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists (Mecanismo de Protección para Personas Defensoras de Derechos Humanos y Periodistas), a federal program established in 2010 to support individuals at high risk, called Pacheco’s home asking to talk to him. Son Ali, then 25, says he picked up the phone: “I told him ‘you are so late, they killed him already.’” I asked Jorge Ruiz, then the Mechanism’s director, whether Pacheco had requested support or approached them in any way. Ruiz didn’t work there at the time and there are “no records kept” to verify if any contact had been established.
Colleagues and family don’t remember him saying anything specific about a possible danger. There were warning signs, though. Days before the crime, Pacheco fired his 30-year-long associate, Rafa Ortiz, alluding to financial problems no one else knew about. For weeks, he turned to unusual daily alcohol drinking. “Maybe he felt something was going to happen,” wonders daughter Paloma as she recalls that, “Several times, I heard my dad saying ‘if they are going to kill me, let them kill me but I won’t stop telling the truth …’”
Four nights before his violent death, he asked his wife Verónica to dance tango with him. “We danced. I asked him if anything was happening, because he didn’t seem like the Francisco I knew. He said, ‘nothing, but I’ll tell you this: I owe life nothing. Life, I owe you nothing. Life, we are at peace.’”
The family had just enjoyed a happy weekend. Because of their college studies, Priscilla, and Ali lived in a different city but, by chance, they coincided in visiting their parents that final weekend. Ali left on Sunday while Priscilla, then 24, chose to spend another night. On Monday morning, April 25, 2016 , Pacheco took her to the bus station in his white “vocho.” He returned home a few minutes before 6 a.m. The narrow, empty alley was still ruled by shadows. He parked and walked to the gate of his house.
From the window of Paloma’s room you can’t see the street, only the inner patio. A high school student who had just turned 18, she was getting ready when she heard two loud noises. And saw two flashes of light. Moments later, a friend called her: “Something happened to your dad, you should go outside.” Verónica, still in bed, also heard the shots. When Paloma yelled, she knew something was badly wrong and rushed out: “When I opened the gate, he was lying on the ground. I spoke to him. The blood started flowing from his head.” He had received two shots at close range.
‘PLEASE DON’T STOP’
Two hours later, the performance began. Even while in shock, Verónica noticed police officers stepping on the bullet cases and had to tell them not to. Local investigators gave Paloma items Pacheco had with him, like his cell phone: “I washed the blood off it. I also used sawdust to remove my dad’s blood from the floor. I didn’t know anything about preserving evidence and no one took care of that.” The family was allowed to cremate Pacheco’s body, although this is forbidden by investigation protocols.
State police officers spent hours taking both women’s statements, and then also statements from Priscilla and Ali, who had quickly returned to Taxco. Days later officials from FEADLE (a federal special prosecutor for crimes against journalists) turned up, explaining they were taking on the case and then asked them to repeat their depositions.
FEADLE’s then head prosecutor, Ricardo Nájera, and Julio Hernández, chairman of CEAV, a presidential commission to help crime victims, promised to expedite justice, protection and economic support. A local newspaper published a story and their photos with the family (the photos are no longer visible), and then they left – not to be seen again. Nájera and Hernández declined an interview request for this story.
Two police officers were appointed to oversee the family’s security. Yet different acts of intimidation kept the Pachecos in fear. Like the time they saw a man’s shadow at their door and heard him cocking a gun, prompting them to hide in the bathroom, in the dark. On May 7, 2016, less than two weeks after the crime, two men showed up at Priscilla’s home to tell her that she was next to die and, if she wanted her mother and siblings not to be hurt, they would have to leave in three days.
On the 11th, just after Mexico’s Mothers’ Day, “at 5 a.m., as if the criminals were us,” remembers Priscilla, they took Pacheco’s vocho and drove away. The officers assigned to protect them said they only had enough gasoline to escort them for 20 kilometers (a little over 12 miles); then they’d be on their own. “We left Guerrero state without looking back”, Pacheco’s middle daughter says. Along the way, she was talking to the car: “Please don’t stop! It was an old vocho, it had issues. But I was saying, ‘Please, don’t stop!’”
It’s Sep. 24, 2021, before 9 a.m. With my colleagues from Ojos de Perro vs la Impunidad, a film and journalism collective focusing on justice and human rights, we are making a short documentary on Pacheco’s case and we meet Priscilla and Verónica outside a black high-rise building on a busy roundabout near Mexico City’s downtown. It’s the Fiscalía General de la República, Mexico’s attorney-general’s office. The women are awaiting an important appointment: FEADLE put a new agent in charge of Pacheco’s case, the fourth one already, but this time, instead of their monthly meeting, he asked them to give him three months to make sure he can show them new advancements, like witness interviews.
Over the last years, the family has gone through hell. In December 2017, a governmental autonomous body, the National Commission for Human Rights (CNDH), made a case analysis to establish why both Guerrero’s state prosecution and FEADLE failed to follow official protocols for murders of journalists and didn’t conduct a proper investigation, keeping those responsible for the crime still at large. Another question was why the Protection Mechanism and the Victims Commission had all but abandoned the Pachecos, leaving the family to economic hardship and exposing them to new death threats and intimidation in a city different from their own.
In a 39-page public 2017 report, the CNDH detailed their failures and suggested corrective measures, which the four institutions involved vowed to comply with. But nearly four years later, little has changed.
In many similar cases, living in fear and lacking freedom and income, families tend to give up. But the Pachecos are different. Furthermore, Priscilla graduated in 2015 as a copyright-specialized lawyer and has kept an expert track of all legal procedures, repeatedly pointing out the many deficiencies.
“Every time we come (to FEADLE) it’s a mental and physical setback for us,” the young woman says. “We’ll give them a list of to-dos, missing tasks, work plans that they made but were never fulfilled.”
Do Verónica and her daughter expect this new FEADLE investigator to finally start doing things right? As they enter the building, Verónica replies, “We are mentally prepared to be told ‘He (a witness) isn’t there’, that the witnesses are nowhere to be found.”
My crew and I wait for the women outside. I had made a formal request to attend their meeting, to record it for our documentary, but even access to the building was denied. So was an interview with Ricardo Sánchez, who replaced Nájera as head of FEADLE in 2017. Not once has he accepted repeated requests to meet the Pacheco family.
An hour later, the large windows allow us to spot both women coming down the escalator. They are clearly upset. As they come out, I ask them what happened; they can hardly contain their tears. “These are cheap speeches, they didn’t do anything in three months,” says Priscilla. “They want me to trust, to have faith, patience ... I’ve been patient for five years! They say, ‘It’s a complicated case, there are perfect crimes’. No, what’s (going on) here is corruption!”
Our crew’s activities and interview requests alerted the authorities. The family was getting unexpected attention. Suddenly, things seemed to start moving. Meetings were held to hear their complaints: representatives of FEADLE, the Mechanism and the Commission for Victims promised to do what they should have done long ago. This time however, the CNDH seemed oblivious, uninterested in making sure its own recommendations had been properly fulfilled. Maybe this was because they were made by a previous administration. As for Guerrero’s prosecutor, he didn’t respond to an interview request.
More than half a year later, though, things are back to normal. Back to the dull normality of complicit negligence.
Why do nearly all assassinations of journalists in Mexico go unpunished? It seems easy to get away with killing a reporter for their published work or murdering them to prevent an investigation from reaching the public.
Mexico-based U.S. journalist John Gibler says that, in Mexico, investigating an assassination is more dangerous than committing it.
“When you look at those in power who are affected by journalism, these are mostly public servants, agents of organized crime or other de facto powers who are still in charge of prosecution offices or the judicial power,” says Ana Lorena Delgadillo, a respected lawyer who runs Fundación para la Justicia y el Estado Democrático de Derecho (Foundation for Justice and the Democratic Rule of Law). “When prosecutors are really put to the test is when they have to investigate the State itself, when they have to investigate agents of the State, that’s when they run into a wall.”
Delgadillo says the prosecutors’ offices are “built like a great machine of impunity.” Prosecutors take on all criminal cases as if they existed in isolation from each other, rather than looking at the whole picture and context. “This is on purpose”, the lawyer explains.
“The intention is to drown the public investigators in a vast number of cases, so that they can’t investigate (properly),” she says.
By taking the cases out of context, “they are protecting those real, or de facto powers; seen in context, the cases would lead you to the intellectual authors, to those powers that are influencing justice. The impunity is intentional,” Delgadillo says.
If they want to see a resolution, it is up to the victims of a crime to struggle with the prosecutor's office to force it to do its job. “In this country, if victims don’t get involved in their cases in person, they can hardly expect any results.”
So lies, sluggishness, changes of prosecutors, a litany of futile meetings, blaming the victims themselves for their dire situation – all this works to wear families out and make them give up. In a previous feature documentary we did, “The Truth Shall Not Be Killed” (2018), and in my book “Killing The Story” (2020), the same exact pattern emerged in other cases of murdered journalists, including killings in many other states: Moisés Sánchez (Veracruz), Rubén Espinosa (Mexico City), Javier Valdez (Sinaloa) and Miroslava Breach (Chihuahua).
But Verónica and her kids won’t give up. It’s been six years and they keep staging demonstrations, writing articles, publishing El Foro de Taxco online and privately and publicly confronting high-level officials in their quest for justice. “We will carry on, despite the death threats,” says Verónica.
Priscilla could have focused on her career as a copyright lawyer but on Sept. 20 last year she graduated, in a ceremony held online because of the pandemic, as a Specialist in the Rights of Journalists, a title awarded by the Inter-American Academy of Human Rights. “Do you swear to use the acquired knowledge and skills to protect freedom of expression?” “Yes, I swear”, she replied.
She told me they’d take her father’s case beyond Mexico’s borders, if necessary. Presenting it before the Permanent People’s Tribunal is a first step. This helped draw the attention of representatives of international bodies who believe Francisco Pacheco’s murder should be considered at supranational levels.
Young Paloma Libertad reflects on the name her parents gave her: Dove Freedom. Will she honor its meaning? “I had a dream days after he died. He told me, ‘You know what I thought the day they shot me? I thought of you.’ What I best learned from him is determination, in what I decide and what I do. Wherever I go, I will honor him.”