Podcasts: Feature

Killing the Truth: The death and life of Regina Martínez Perez

Penny Dale
15 December 2021, 12.00am
Regina Martínez
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Alberto Morales/Multigrafica. All rights reserved
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Regina Martínez – an acclaimed Mexican journalist known for her hard-hitting exposés of human rights violations and corruption – was beaten to death on 28 April 2012.

A man is serving a 38-year sentence for her murder. But he says he was tortured into making this confession and no forensic evidence ties him to the murder scene.  In partnership with A Safer World For The Truth, openDemocracy examines Regina’s death – and commemorates her life. 

For more information about the murder of Regina Martínez:

https://www.saferworldforthetruth.com/investigations/regina-martinez

Killing The Truth is a series of four podcasts produced by openDemocracy in partnership with A Safer World For The Truth. This series launches the openDemocracy Show. Subscribe to the openDemocracy Show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or onmost other podcast platforms.

Original music and sound design by Lee Sparey. Episode research by Anita Mureithi. Written, produced and hosted by Penny Dale. 

Transcript

25 mins

Killing the Truth, episode 1 - Regina Martinez, Mexico

A journalist is killed every week. Because their reporting uncovered a truth that someone wants hidden. Killing the Truth explores the cases of four remarkable journalists who paid the ultimate price. I'm Penny Dale. This time… the death - and life - of Regina Martinez Perez. Murdered in Veracruz, Mexico, on 28 April 2012.

Regina Martinez’s death is announced at a press conference held by the Veracruz attorney general

Regina’s body was found in the bathroom. She had been very badly beaten. And she had been strangled to death with a rag of some sort.

Ami: Somebody was so angry with her, they didn’t just kill her, they tortured her, they broke her jaw with a knuckle duster, she was beaten

Grillo: Regina Martinez’s murder really beginning of a wave of murders of journalists that made Veracruz become known as the graveyard

In her freetime she liked tending to her plants

Norma Trujillo is one of Regina’s closest friends. Norma’s also a journalist and currently she’s the spokesperson for the university of Veracruz.

Above all else, she liked doing things at home. She liked to cook, but she also liked to read a lot. She liked to sort through her newspapers, because she had a store-room of newspapers in which she had been published. She kept them all, and she said that was because from time to time she used things from them for new articles, or new versions of her stories, and that she had to go back to her earlier pieces.

As a person she was very reserved, but with a lot of strength and a lot of determination to make known or investigate what she cared about.

She was a little suspicious of people. It was an attitude that she adopted in order to survive. It meant not taking people to her home. Even with great friends, they could never come round her home.

Ami: Regina was more than anything else a good human being. She was just trying to uncover the truth.. Fighting for justice… very courageous. She inspired me to become a journalist

My name is Amigzaday López a Mexican journalist living in the UK

She used to wear t-shirts, jeans, a brown waistcoat. I remember that. Harry Potter style glasses and hiking boots. She was a very small lady. She was 148 centimetres, skinny. it's like, you will never imagine that her bravery comes from such a petite lady.SFX : sounds of downtown Xalapa

Bravery: because Regina was based in Xalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz in eastern Mexico. It’s beautiful, but it’s dangerous: rival drug cartels control different towns and cities and since 2000, eight journalists have been disappeared and 26 journalists have been murdered

You have to remember that the State of Veracruz already had a problem, a very serious problem of insecurity. This was a legacy left by the government of Fidel Herrera Beltrán. That was when there were so many disappearances, especially of adolescents, back in 2008 to 2010.

That’s Norma again.

It was a growing part of the violence that existed, the violence of organised crime that reached deep into many areas of the state. That was what she was most immersed in, like any other journalist in those years, when we witnessed shootings in the streets , people murdered, kidnappings,

I am Jorge Carrasco I am chief editor of Proceso, the most important weekly magazine in Mexico City, covering politics, the relationships with the organized crime. Independent for almost 45 years from the power - which is very, very important in a country where the press has had very tight links with the government of business or big business power. Regina Martinez was our correspondent in the state of Veracruz for almost one decade. She was a great journalist. She had very ethical standards. for that reason, among others. She was very recognised in both Veracruz and in Mexico City. She knew very well the politics of Veracruz and she witnessed how the politicians there were getting involved with the crime. And she was reporting that for many years.

But it was the plight of Mexico’s indigenous people that had first attracted Regina to journalism - more than 30 years before she was killed

There was a time in journalism in Veracruz when issues around peasant conflicts, especially over questions of land and fighting against caciques - local bosses - , were hardly touched on , so she dedicated herself to those things, that was what mattered to her.

For 20 years, Regina used to write for a publication called Politica. When it was a left-wing newspaper, she was paid to travel all over Veracruz state looking for stories.

Ami: When you travel around, go to the mountains, go to the farmers, when you speak to poor people, you’re going to find out important news, the news that the government doesn’t want them to cover, they focused on human rights, on poverty)

Amigzaday has researched Regina’s life, speaking to about 10 people who knew Regina in different periods of her life.

She used to travel around the state with Beto Gato one of her colleagues in Politica and sometimes he told me that farmers and indigenous people would come to Xalapa to look specifically for her to expose their problems. They went to her because she would listen. This kind of topics was very close to her. She is one of 11 kids so she knows about poverty.

Ami: One of her biggest story was about the rape and murder of an indigenous woman called Ernestine Ansenio by the army. At the beginning, the governor admit it was the army. But then the President Felipe Calderon decided to protect the army and said she died by gastrointestinal disease. However, Regina was contacted by somebody who passed the medical certificate which say that Ernestina was killed by tumultuous rape, and even sent her picture of the lady lay down on the floor with blood coming out of her head. And she published this in Proceso. And this blow away the public official version.

Regina’s hard-hitting exposes meant she was a hero to some - and an enemy to others. In fact, Regina had to navigate an incredibly hostile environment throughout her career, as Amigzaday explains.

Ami: She had a bad experience almost at the beginning of her career. When she finished university in Veracruz she went to work in Chiapas, and a TV channel with another four journalists. About 23 years old. So one day they went to ask a pay rise to the director of the channel. But he made fun of all the girls say, How can a woman be angry because they earn little money. So all of them decide to quit in a block. And that makes him super angry. He sometimes drive the car at them. The director's son - he threatened them with a gun.

Later on in her career, Politica changed hands - and the newspaper that had once been Regina’s champion turned into a different place altogether. She told Amigzady all about it in 2009 when she interviewed Regina for an academic thesis she wrote about the manipulation of the media in Mexico

Ami: It's very common that government or even the presidency can give money to the newspaper, to publish just nice things and hide the bad things. In Veracruz the governor used to pay directors, journalists, columnists every month money and then Regina sadly, she was paying the price of all of these because she wanted to publish something and she was censored and like everybody was looking at her in a bad way, like she was the outsider because she wasn't participating in this corruption

Regina’s integrity set her on a collision course

Ami: She couldn’t say what articles she was working on because she knew that they would pass this information on to the government. The governor asked the newspaper to sack Regina. The newspaper wanted her to quit. But she wanted the newspaper to sack her otherwise she could not claim her compensation - and she had been working there for almost 20 years. So it was a big battle. She was constantly bullied. They gave her the worst computer. They didn't let her publish some things that she wanted to publish. And at the end, she won that battle. She was sacked, but it was at a cost. It was too much stress for her. And she told me she couldn't sleep. She was very stressed. She was anxious and nervous. It was a hard time for her.

Penny: That sounds very difficult… and for Regina to be talking so openly about it with you was quite unusual wasn’t it because she was a very private person.

Ami: It was very surprising, and it’s why I feel honour for that for the trust that she gave me. She answered everything, very openly very quickly. Except when I asked her Are you from Veracruz? she doubt. Because she was so private. And even now the age that it said everywhere - in Wikipedia is not true. The town that she was born is not true. It is a defence mechanism after all the threats she had endured during her career and she tried to protect her personal life.

Regina was, according to the entry on Wikipedia, 48 years old when she was murdered, so brutally. Six months before, Regina had been concerned enough about her safety to speak openly about her fears - to her Proceso colleague Jorge, and to her friend Norma.

Jorge: We were together at a party of the anniversary of Proceso in Mexico City. Regina told me about her bad feelings on what is going on in Veracruz at that moment. She was afraid of how the situation became so dangerous for the journalism. She decided not to work on security issues until she got the official information, not before because she was so afraid...

Norma: She spoke of certain threats that she had in the run up to her death. For example, one time she came home and she found steam coming out her bathroom. As if a person had just been taking a bath there. And she also found a bar soap with a person’s finger-marks on it. It was as if these were messages - that someone had entered her home and had taken something from her. That was about a few months before she was murdered, on Christmas eve. We told her to file a complaint but she didn’t believe that there would be any justice - and so she didn’t.

On 28 April 2012 Regina was murdered. And then came the investigation.

Jorge: It was a comedy. It was a tragedy

The state’s case was that Regina had been drinking all night in her house with two men. A fiance - that none of her friends had heard about - known as EL Jarocho . And his friend - known as El Silva.. According to the state, El Jarocho wanted money, and started beating Regina to get it. El Silva joined in. Things got out of hand. And they ended up killing Regina.

Jorge: The attorney of Veracruz concludes that it was a passionate crime. Because Regina was the fiancee of a prostitute man on the streets. It was unbelievable.

Norma echoes Jorge’s disbelief.

Norma: And now Regina was being stigmatised and shamed. And she was being made a victim again, because the focus became that it was a crime of passion.

And there’s more. The crime scene was contaminated - because the state forensic investigators used far too much powder in their search for fingerprints:

Laura Borbolla: I am Laura Borbolla

At the time of Regina’s murder, Laura was a federal investigator in an office set up by the Mexican presidency to investigate crimes against journalists. She travelled to Veracruz from Mexico City to gather evidence. The state obstructed her at every turn.

Laura: I don’t know really the reasons exactly. Cover up or incompetence or negligence.

Laura managed to find fingerprints and a bit of blood overlooked by the state investigators.

Laura: We found a complete and incomplete set of fingerprints. As well as a trace of blood. The fingerprint and blood turned out to be of male profile. But the blood with El Silva’s blood is not a match. Today we don’t have a match.

That’s important. There’s no match And yet El Silva is serving a 38-year sentence for the murder of Regina. The state had no forensic evidence against him, but they had a confession.

Diana: They held him incommunicado and tortured him….

That’s why El Silva confessed to a crime he didn’t commit says his lawyer Diana Coq Toscanni

Dina: El Silva is innocent they never found any of El Silva’s fingerprints and he proved he wasn’t with El Jarocho. They needed a scapegoat and he was the perfect scapegoat.

Grillo: My name is Ioan Grillo, I am a journalist, writer based in Mexico, I've been here for 20 years, specialising on covering organised crime and violence and drug trafficking. I followed the attacks on journalists here and I collaborated on a special report on Regina Martinez’s murder and the investigation into the murder.

That report is part of the A Safer World for the Truth project - which is documenting and investigating the killings of journalists - and trying to pursue justice for them. It’s a collaboration between Free Press Unlimited, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders. The first investigation was on Regina Martinez.

Grillo: Xalapa, Veracruz is a fairly small town. People, they're very exposed. A lot of the police, and the state investigators who conducted this case are still around. So people were very concerned for their safety. Basically, in all places we went, we found people who were contradicting the state case, and pointing to duress and foul play. But as well as that the failure of the state investigation to look at the obvious motives connected to Regina’s work and instead focus on a motive connected to Regina’s alleged love life which from everyone we spoke to looks very out of character

And this is what he found when it came to finding the key witness who had supposedly helped the police crack the case.

Grillo: We went to try and track him down, he had passed away. And he supposedly had seen Regina and seen Silva on this night. And we talked to a woman who ran this shop, that Regina had supposedly been into. She was very, very adamant that Regina had not been there. And she described this witness as being quite an unreliable drunk. It's a classic tactic I see in various investigations. Where you know, the kind of people they all suddenly produce as witnesses at key times, you know, happened to be unreliable drunks, you know, people who they can easily manipulate

A Safer World for the Truth also managed to speak to El Silva. It’s the first media interview he has given.

Grillo: We went to the prison, where El Silva is being held. And then we're able to have a series of video conversations with El Silva inside his cell. He described how he had been kidnapped by the police, and held in a safe house, not in a police station. And he was also taken to Regina’s house by the police. then shown stuff that would then be pushed into his statement.

El Silva also talked about El Jarocho. In another twist in an already murky tale -- El Jarocho is nowhere to be found.

Grillo: The last time he saw El Jarocho he was having a drink with him on the street, right before el herrocho disappeared. Now he did talk about El Jarocho saying that people had asked him to carry out this murder. Why was he suddenly disappeared, you know is there a possibility that he did carry out the crime on orders of someone else and was then disappeared. So he could not be questioned at all about this or contradict those statements. And then you put these other fall guy El Silva in there who have somebody who's very, very vulnerable. So so so El Silva is somebody who had a very difficult life was at times homeless, was a sex worker in the city had HIV who was functionally illiterate. So somebody who's very, very vulnerable to being framed in a case like this.

There are so many unanswered questions, too many gaping holes in the original investigation into Regina’s murder. Regina’s friends, her colleagues, the world of journalism want the case to be re-opened.

That’s the current Mexican president promising a Mexican journalist that he would re-open the case - if there’s a legal way to do it.

But that was over a year ago. Mexico’s journalists are still waiting and pushing for answers.

Mexico remains one of the deadliest places to be a journalist. And a decade on, the impact of Regina’s murder is still felt. Jorge and Amigzady.

Jorge: The assassination impact so much. Before Regina’s murder, Proceso worked so hard on the so-called War on Drugs. When Regina was murdered, we stopped covering in that way the issues of narco, narco-politics. We were afraid.

Ami: It is a professional tragedy for journalism, and all the sources that she had they may not be as well leaving information anymore. And this has an impact on democracy and transparency. And there’s a probably innocent man in jail. So the past government avoided to look into Regina’s job as a journalist. But this needs to be done. And the president himself has committed to open the case. But as far as I know, nothing has happened. But it's important to know what happened because at the end of the day, impunity lead to more crimes.

Outro: That’s it for Killing the Truth: the case of Regina Martinez. There are more details about her in the episode notes. This is an OpenDemocracy production in partnership with A Safer World for the Truth. Original music aund sound design by Lee Sparey. Research by Anita Mureithi. Written and produced by me Penny Dale.

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