“Miroslava Project”: The Journalist Who Refused to Be Complicit
Miroslava Breach has lived under constant harassment since March 2016, when she began to be pressured by her publications on the links between drug trafficking groups and their record in politics. She warned her old friend Javier Corral, recently elected governor of Chihuahua, and those in charge at the federal level of the mechanism to protect journalists, of her threats. El Colectivo 23 de marzo, formed by Mexican journalists, in collaboration with the international organizations Forbidden Stories, Bellingcat and the Centro Latinoamericano de Investigaciones Periodísticas (CLIP), reconstructed the web of threats linked to his publications, the warnings he issued about the danger he was in and the clues he left in his publications before his assassination on March 23, 2017, which the authorities did not deepen.
By : El Colectivo 23 de Marzo and international allies
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Before Miroslava’s murder, a gray Malibu was prowling around on José Maria Mata Street, in the neighborhood of Granjas, in Chihuahua, Mexico. Security cameras filmed the vehicle six times between the 21st and 22nd of March 2017, as it passed in front of the now sadly famous two-story house: number 1609, with its brown bars on the windows and a small garden in front. On the morning of March 23rd 2017, journalist Miroslava Breach was shot and killed outside her home while she was waiting for her son to take him to school.
A few days before her murder, one of her sisters was visiting her. She remembers that on the afternoon of March 20th, as they unloaded some indoor plants from Miroslava’s car, she came eye to eye with a man walking in front of the house. A shiver ran through her body. When she found out about Miroslava’s death, she realized that her sister must have been under constant surveillance.
Miroslava had grown used to living in danger because of her work. At the time of her death, no one was able to say how many threat messages the seasoned correspondent for the national daily La Jordana had received. She also wrote political columns for El Norte de Ciudad Jaurez, under the pseudonym Don Mirone.
A few months before she was killed, her relatives and friends noticed that she was talking about her possible death in the near future. But she always downplayed the problem, so that those around her would not get too worried. During the same period, she insisted on leaving instructions to her family in case she disappeared. Especially about her two children, his teenage son and her daughter, barely in her twenties. Instructions about inheritance, insurance, and who was supposed to take care of all that. She gave the impression that she had come to terms with the idea, and her calls to politicians for help were not being heard. How could the authorities not go further in their investigation when the journalist herself saw the tragedy coming?
With the help of testimonies from her loved ones and the various court hearings, El Colectivo 23 de marzo, a collective of journalists working in Mexico in collaboration with international groups namely Forbidden Stories, Bellingcat and the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP), paints a portrait of this journalist who was admired in her country, and traces all the threats she received until her death, all of them ignored by the authorities for years.
“In every single one of her school notebooks, we could read the word ‘Freedom’… this word had a real impact on her,” her sister Rosa Maria explained on the first anniversary of Miroslava’s murder. “For her, all her investigations were carried out in defense of freedom, of people’s rights.”
Young Miroslava first studied marine biology, before moving to the south of Baja California state in Mexico. That’s where she discovered political science. When she had to explain to her mother that she was changing her major, she did it with these words: “Mom, I can help more people. I can fight corruption. I can talk about all the abuses that are taking place and how we can improve our society.”
Miroslava was virtually a legend among Chihuahua journalists, but she remained modest. She had a strong character, she was outraged by injustice, and never at a loss with words. She chose her friends carefully, which made her unpopular with her colleagues, since she did not want to speak with journalists she considered unethical. She wrote articles that few others would have taken the trouble to write. She was a very good political analyst and her sharp pen was dreaded by the political class.
Miroslava downplayed danger. She loved driving her truck in the sierra, even though in recent years, the region had become a battleground for criminal groups competing for drug trafficking routes. Two photographers remember her love of speed. Whenever she saw that her passengers were scared of her driving, she would retort that the best way to die was in pieces. And it’s probably this courage, sometimes reckless, that led her to work on the most sensitive subjects in her country.
Miroslava Breach may have studied political science in La Paz, Baja California, but it was in Chihuahua that she built her career. In 1995, she returned to the land that saw her grow up to be a journalist. There, she covered cases of rape and human rights violations, in particular violence against women, or land theft against indigenous peoples, in Sierra de Tarahumara. It was in 2004 that she began to follow how drug cartels infiltrated election campaigns and political life in general. Adrian Esquivel, a young journalist trained by Miroslava and with whom she lived in Juarez when she was editor-in-chief of the newspaper El Norte, recalls a shift in her career: “Miroslava thought it was time to start covering crimes in the region when her political column was transformed into a column for minor news items.”
Having grown up not far from Chinipas, she was well aware of the activities of Los Salazares, as they too were originally from that same land and had expanded their businesses south of Sonora. Los Salazares was a large family of ranchers who became members of the Sinaloa Cartel and two of its members were among the most wanted by the U.S. anti-narcotics agency, the DEA.
In 1999, she published her very first article on the abuses carried out by drug traffickers in Sierra de Tarahumara. She then denounced the terror installed by drug cartels, whose members killed, and raped, and burned the homes of the local indigenous people to force them to grow drugs for them. All this, as the local authorities passively watched. A year later, she mentioned for the first time the name of “Adán Salazar Zamorano”, the founder of Los Salazares cartel, in an article for La Jordana. In the article, he was described as an “alleged drug trafficker whose notoriety suggests that he is the main producer and buyer of drugs in the sierra of Chihuahua state”. She pointed out how the authorities had let him escape despite the fact him being under close surveillance, and another episode in which he was tied up in an elegant neighborhood in Chihuahua from which he was saved by his armed escorts. She was becoming an expert on this criminal organization based in the highlands of this particularly violent state.
As years passed, she increasingly denounced the involvement of criminal organizations in elections. She wrote about mayors, particularly in Chinipas, who had “dangerous connections” with drug cartels, and armed groups who mobilized voters to cast their votes for their candidate. In 2011, she mentioned how the criminal group, under the command of Alfredo Salazar Ramírez, son of Adán, was seizing territories, setting up checkpoints, transporting hitmen in small planes and spreading terror to open a new route for drug trafficking. In 2013, she wrote that the authorities had not been able to set up polling stations in the sierra because of threats from members of organized crime, and that in Chinipas, people had been forced to vote for candidates handpicked by the cartel.
During all these years, Miroslava did not receive any threats. But everything changed in 2015.
When news of her murder broke out, there were as many theories about who had ordered Miroslava’s murder as she had enemies. Testimonies compiled in the official file of the case clearly show this: for some, Caesar Duarte, a Mexican official, was behind her murder because she had exposed his illegal schemes to enrich. Others immediately thought of the Juarez cartel and its leader “El 80”, who she had also investigated in the past. But what everyone remembered and mentioned, were her incriminating articles on the activities of Los Salazares in the sierra.
Threats had been increasing exponentially. From 2015 on, the drug cartel made her understand, through family and friends, and then strangers living in the Chinipas area, that they did not like the tone she used in the articles she wrote about them. In 2016, she and a colleague published an article revealing the names of candidates in eight municipalities linked to drug traffickers. One of them was a candidate parachuted into the town of Chinipas by Los Salazares. After the publication of this compromising article, she recieved a threatening phonecall from Alfredo Piñera, the spokesman for the state National Action Party (PAN), asking her to reveal her sources in a case she had just exposed about narco-candidates who infiltrated the sierra’s local political life. Not surprisingly, Miroslava refused to communicate this information, even going as far as talking about his pair of “ovaries”, mocking the man on the other end of the phone.
Piñera gave the recording to Hugo Schultz, former mayor or Chinipas, who gave it to members of Los Salazares in order to take the pressure off him, according to the state prosecutor’s office’s judicial investigation.
Despite the threats she kept receiving, she continued to write about the subject. There was no untouchable subject for her. Particularly about Hugo Schultz, the mayor of Chinipas, who she accused of being an emissary of the drug cartels in the region. Her last article on this subject, published in February 2017, is probably the one that cost Miroslava her life. Titled “Cartels Infiltrate Chihuahua Municipalities”, the article referred to public security directors linked to criminal groups in Chinipas. A month later, she was killed in front of her son. During her last few weeks, Miroslava’s friends had noticed her nervousness. She imagined retiring from journalism and devoting her life to her other passion: cooking. No one doubted she would make an excellent chef. But it was impossible for her to leave journalism, because she could not stand impunity. And like she herself said: “Silence is complicity”.
Javier Corral, the current governor of Chihuahua state, is a former journalist. Elected in 2016 from the PAN party, he was also a friend of Miroslava. A few weeks after his election, she revealed to him that she was receiving threats, and according to one of her colleagues, he made a commitment to intervene. Even then, Miroslava was already doubtful about his actions in the area. But his attentive ear had reassured her at the time.
Questioned on the subject during a press conference, the governor admitted that he had discussed these threats with Breach. But that was two years earlier, he said, when he was a senator, not when he became governor in 2016, despite the evidence and testimonies gathered by the collective. He nevertheless did state that contrary to what police investigation failed to see, drug cartels infiltrating local political life – or narco-politicians – were behind this murder.
With time, the threats became more and more frequent, but refused to file a formal complaint with the authorities. In her opinion, journalists were not supposed to receive special treatment or pose as victims. She kept talking about the threats on different occasions. On October 12, 2016, at a meeting of the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists in the city of Chihuahua, attended by journalists, defenders who were part of the transition cabinet and envoys from the Ministry of the Interior, he spoke publicly about his threats and they were written in the report of the meeting.
Also with time, she distanced herself from her old friend, governor Corral. One acquaintance told the collective that “she had entrusted Corral with information about her investigation [on narco-politicians] and he never did anything about it (…) she was very upset, disappointed, because it was valuable information.” All accounts by her family and friends are unanimous in depicting Miroslava as exhausted and resigned a few months before her death, as if she had no choice but to accept her fate, as all her calls remained unanswered.
In December, Miroslava began telling her family and friends that the situation in the state was going to get worse, and she warned that they would kill a journalist to “make a mess” in the state, and that she was on the list.
Then he asked for a quotation of the armor from the truck, he ordered his sisters from his youngest son. On March 23, 2017, she was killed.
On the first anniversary of her death, Miroslava’s brothers shared what Corral reportedly told them about their sister: that Miroslava was responsible for her own death because “she had played with fire” by investigating such dangerous subjects. A statement Miroslava’s family saw as “a slap in the face”. For the family, but also for journalists, and Mexicans in general, “because it comes from an official responsible for enforcing the fundamental rights to life, freedom, and security.” Corral denied that he had said this to the Breach family.
To date, the case of Miroslava Breach’s murder is still open. Only one man was arrested, El Larry, presented as the person who ordered the murder. His trial is at a standstill.
In September 2017 it was discovered that strangers entered his house, did not steal, only tossed papers. As if they were looking for something. The same thing happened two months ago.
In the legal proceedings to which this group had access, it is not reflected that the state and federal prosecutors had investigated the clues that Miroslava left in her publications about those who threatened her, which would allow them to delve into who could be behind her crime. The murder of Miroslava Breach Velducea, the journalist who did not want to keep quiet, remains unclarified because, as she repeated, silence is complicity.