How did a journalist who knew she would be killed live?
Regina Martínez suffered threats and censorship. She revealed Mexico’s corruption, organised crime and human rights abuses until she was murdered
“I know they're going to kill me,” Regina Martínez told a friend's relative in 2012. Already that year eight other journalists had been murdered in her home state of Veracruz, Mexico. Her colleagues offered to move her to another house to protect her, but she declined. “I'm not afraid of them,” she said, including a string of profanities.
Regina carried on reporting despite constant threats. But she knew what she was risking: she hadn't been out at night for years, and in the week before her murder, stress gave her headaches and she went days without sleeping.
Her investigations revealed the never-ending corruption, organised crime and human rights violations that took place under five different state governments in Veracruz, the Gulf coast state where she suffered threats, covert surveillance and censorship during her decades-long career.
Her huge bravery contrasted starkly with her tiny stature – she was 148cm tall, just under five feet – and unthreatening style: she wore John Lennon-style glasses and was usually dressed in a brown waistcoat, jeans and hiking boots, with her unmistakable leather bag crossed over her chest.
Regina was a pioneer of investigative journalism under the dictatorship of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), which lasted from 1946 to 2000. In that time, dissenters were silenced. That's how she met the current president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who led the Exodus for Democracy march in Veracruz in 1991. Thousands of people protested against fraud in the municipal elections, but were ignored by most media outlets. By contrast, Regina and Alberto Morales, her colleague in the newspaper Política, spent 15 days with López Obrador.
The freedom that any human being should have was taken away from Regina little by little, as it was from all Mexicans, in some areas worse than in others. The rampant violence of drug trafficking made the atmosphere very heavy in the country under President Felipe Calderon (2006-12), who inaugurated his term with the war on drugs.
Meanwhile, under state governors Fidel Herrera (2004-10) and Javier Duarte (2010-16), Veracruz became the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. Twenty-six reporters have been murdered and eight disappeared since 2000.
Fidelism, ‘my most desperate stage’
September 2009. Regina Martínez showed up to give me an interview about her dismissal from Política. Her case was emblematic of the repression during the six-year term of Herrera, which I studied as part of my master's research on the media in Veracruz.
She answered each question confidently, hesitating on only one, perhaps the simplest:
“Are you from Veracruz?”
“Mmm, yes,” she said in a low voice three seconds later.
Her reserve was part of her personality – it is still not clear when or where she was born. But it was also a defence against the constant attacks she had received during her journalistic career. Regina recalled some of those moments for me.
“In my 18 years of journalism, ‘Fidelism’ has been the most desperate period,” Regina told me, clenching her jaw as she talks about Herrera’s term.
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Minor officials sent her veiled threats that they would sue her because the governor was angry. “Well, let them sue me,” she remembered thinking. “We'll see each other in court and we'll see who's right.”
Regina worked at Política as a staff reporter for almost 20 years, and at the same time wrote on a freelance basis for the daily La Jornada and the weekly Proceso, Mexico’s foremost independent investigative magazine.
In 2001, when one of the founders of Política died, so did freedom of expression at the newspaper. Regina faced a series of blocks to her ability to investigate and publish freely.
In Mexico, it's common for governments to try to control the media by paying them off. In exchange for money, journalists either write good things about state officials or keep the truth hidden.
“My information was given to the government,” she told me.
Regina usually reported on what was happening in the governor’s office. But, with the death of Política’s co-founder, she was taken off that beat and ‘promoted’ to news editor to keep her away from reporting. However, she continued reporting for Proceso.
One of her investigations in 2007 exposed corruption in attempts by a private company to sell energy to Veracruz municipalities. The deal fell apart after Regina’s reporting. The governor was furious.
“That was the straw that broke the camel's back. Fidel Herrera asked for me to be fired from Política when the information was published in Proceso,” she said.
She recalled that Política’s deputy editor called her into his office. “Your work has upset Fidel Herrera very much,” he said. “We're going to take away your job as news editor and dispense with your services.”
“Let's see, explain to me, what work of mine, signed by Regina Martínez, published in the newspaper Política, has made Fidel upset?" she asked nimbly.
She kept her job, but from then on, every time she went to work, Regina faced the same hostility that she had been met with during her investigations. The newspaper stopped publishing her work, they gave her the oldest computer, and the environment became unbearable.
She suffered from stress and insomnia. Her lawyers advised her not to resign so that she would be entitled to legal compensation if she was sacked. “It was a struggle, a struggle for dignity,” Regina told me.
In 2008, she was fired – and filed, and won, a lawsuit for unfair dismissal. That was the only time that Regina ever made a formal complaint to the authorities.
The fact that Regina never filed an official complaint about the threats she received as a journalist was used by the authorities to claim that her death had nothing to do with her journalism. But she did not sue for the threats made by the governors Herrera or Duarte because “she did not believe that justice would be served”, says her reporter friend, Norma Trujillo.
Regina's audacity contrasted with the silence of the Veracruz press that kept quiet out of fear, censorship, or comfort, because of the thousands and even millions of pesos they received from the state government.
A private woman
When Regina graduated from the communications faculty of the University of Veracruz in 1981, she moved to the southern state of Chiapas with four colleagues to work for a local TV channel.
The jarochas – as people from Veracruz are known – travelled the state from north to south. They saw first-hand the pain of poverty and the injustices, a rawness that was deeply felt by Regina, who, as the youngest of 11 children, knew exactly what poverty was.
If something happens to me, say that you don't know me
One day they went to see the director of the channel, to ask for a pay rise. He ridiculed them. Upset, the five resigned. The director was furious.
When they returned to the TV station to ask for their final pay packet, one of Regina’s colleagues, Candelaria Rodríguez, remembers that the director's son threatened them with a gun.
The state governor of Chiapas, Juan Sabines, called the parties together. His order to the channel director was blunt: “Leave them alone.” But the director continued, even threatening the parents of one of Regina’s colleagues, Rodríguez recalled.
Regina told her family: “If something happens to me, say that you don't know me.” Years later, when Regina was killed, none of her family attended her funeral.
Regina’s experiences in Chiapas shaped her. She learned the hard way to protect herself by keeping silent and not giving away too much personal information.
Before Regina's murder, between 2005 and 2011, eight journalists had been killed, riddled with bullets, tortured and even decapitated. The government played down the murders by linking some to organised crime. They blamed the journalists killed because of “their involvement with the narco”.
Mexico City became a refuge for journalists: of 30 requests for help at the Human Rights Commission of the Federal District, 20 were from people from Veracruz. The number increased every month.
On 27 September 2011, via an anonymously filled-out questionnaire circulated by another Mexican journalist, Regina opened up about how she had survived that dark period. “I live in the worst climate of terror, I lock the whole house, I don't sleep, and I go out into the street looking from one side to the other to see if there is any danger.”
Three months later, her house was broken into. When she got home, the intruders had only just left – the bathroom was still steaming. I can imagine the fear that must have crept up behind Regina’s back and breathed in her ear. How do you feel safe when your house is not safe?
The door had not been forced, as it was when she was murdered two months later. The locksmith who changed the lock told Regina that the intruders were “professionals”, recalls Andrés Timoteo, one of her close friends, now living in exile.
Days before her death, she told friends that her phone was losing signal, that she had no internet at home, and that she thought her neighbour was watching her. She confided to one friend that cars had followed her but she had evaded them.
On 28 April 2012, Regina's body was found on her bathroom floor. She had been strangled with a length of cloth; punches with a knuckle duster had fractured her jaw. The Veracruz attorney general's office ruled the case a crime of passion.
The man convicted of her murder, Jorge Hernández, was known to Regina: ironically, she had once tried to win justice for him. In 1994, Norma Trujillo had discovered the story of Hernández, then a 15-year-old boy with HIV, who had been abandoned to his fate by the state.
Worried that the young man, who is known by the alias ‘El Silva’, would be ‘disappeared’ for exposing the treatment of infected minors, Norma, with Regina's help, published the story in Política. Today El Silva is serving a 38-year sentence for playing a part in Regina’s murder – a murder that he denies he had anything to do with. No forensic evidence links him to the crime scene.
In November 2020, President López Obrador promised to reopen the homicide file of the woman he called “incorruptible”. But Diana Coq, the defence lawyer of El Silva, asserts that a year later nothing has happened.
“Reopening the file would be the best tribute to Regina and also declare a pardon for El Silva, who was tortured so that he would confess to a crime he didn’t commit,” she said.
The former head of the Special Prosecutor's Office for Attention to Crimes against Freedom of Expression, Laura Borbolla, says it's a difficult case. But a trace of blood and fingerprints, which did not match El Silva’s, were found at the scene, which is why the case should stay open in case a match is ever found in Mexico’s national database.
“The fingerprints belong to a man who is not El Silva, and as for the blood, at that time we compared them with a presumed son of José Adrián Hernández, ‘El Jarocho’, [the alleged murderer, who is missing] and they were not his either, but DNA tests were not as advanced in Mexico at that time,” the lawyer said.
Now it is President López Obrador's turn to do what Regina would have done: continue searching until we find those responsible for taking Regina Martínez's life.
Hear more about the case of Regina Martínez in the first episode of our podcast series ‘Killing the Truth’
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