Miroslava: The Journalist Who Refused to be Complicit
Miroslava Breach lived under constant threat starting in March 2016, when she began to feel pressure over her publications regarding links between drug cartels and politics. She brought this to the attention of her old friend, the recently elected governor of Chihuahua state Javier Corral, as well as those in charge of the mechanisms at the federal level to protect journalists. The Colectivo 23 de Marzo is made up of Mexican journalists in collaboration with Forbidden Stories, Bellingcat and Centro Latinoamericano de Investigaciones Periodísticas (CLIP). We reconstructed the thread of threats linked to Miroslava’s work, the warnings that she raised about the danger she was in, and the clues that she let in her publications prior to her murder on March 23 2017 that the authorities did not fully investigate.
By: The Colectivo 23 de Marzo
Before her murder, a grey Malibu prowled down José María Mata street in the Granjas neighbourhood of Chihuahua. Security cameras captured the vehicle on the street six times between March 21 and 22 2017 as it passed in front of the two-story house now infamous for the murder: number 1609, with its brown gates and a small garden out front. On the morning of March 23, 2017, journalist Miroslava Breach Velducea was shot to death outside while waiting inside her car to take her son to school.
One of her sisters stayed with her in her home a few days before her murder. She remembers that on the afternoon of March 20, while they were getting from her car some house plants, they had just bought, her eyes met those of a man who was walking in front of the home. She felt chills. Later, when she learned about her younger sister’s death, she understood that she had been under surveillance.
Miroslava had grown used to living under threat as a result of her work. No one has been able to determine how many threatening messages the veteran correspondent had received by the time of her death on account of her work for La Jornada national newspaper or for her sharp political columns for El Norte de Ciudad Juarez under the pseudonym Don Mirone.
The most relentless phase of these attacks began a year earlier, after she had published information about the intentions of a criminal group that she knew was trying to gain power, not only through force, but also politically: Los Salazar.
This large family from Chínipas, Miroslava’s hometown, and its members went from being simple ranchers to associates of the Sinaloa Cartel, wanted by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Miroslava knew them well, because she had been born in Chínipas.
Starting in 2017, Miroslava’s relatives and friends noticed that she spoke about her death without qualms, and always made light of it. In her last months, Miroslava insisted on leaving instructions in case she were no longer around. She would talk about the life insurance policies with which she, a single mother, looked to the future of her 20-something daughter and her teenage son, and about how they should split their inheritance, and which of her sisters would look after her son.
In December 2016, as she did every year, Miroslava obsessed with renewing the expensive insurance policies for her children (which she held in both US dollars and Mexican pesos). She also did unusual things, like getting a quote from a business in El Paso, Texas for installing bulletproof windows on her vehicle, according to her elder sister Rosa Maria.
Miroslava never went through with her plan. The quote came back between 60,000-90,000 pesos for just the windows, and the year’s end had left her broke. Rosa Maria also remembers that she told her sister, whose bold articles no longer surprised the family, that she should not tell them about any more threats if she was not going to take steps to protect herself. Her family told Miroslava to inform her old friend, Chihuahua state governor Javier Corral, that she was being intimidated.
The testimony from her friends and colleagues found in case file 19/2017-8019 of the Chihuahua State Prosecutor’s investigation coincides in stating that in her last weeks, Miroslava was distracted and nervous. She would become emotional when she talked about the risks that journalists face and fantasied about retiring to dedicate herself to her other passion: cooking. No one doubted that she would have made a successful chef.
However, she would also say that she could never leave journalism because impunity made her angry. “Silence is collusion” was her mantra. She made plans to strengthen her growing news agency, which she had called MIR, and wanted to open a local edition of La Jornada, the national paper in which she had published her stories for over 20 years.
Los Salazares had been making it known to her since 2015 that they did not like her articles. That year, she published an article that named them as being responsible for the murder and forced displacement of more than 300 people in her beloved Chínipas, which she claimed was filling up with hitmen. She wrote that article because she felt that the group had taken aim at “the people”, including some very dear to her that were also forced to flee, displaced by the violent territorial dispute that the group was fighting.
On March 4, 2016, Miroslava Breach and her colleague Patricia Mayorga from Proceso magazine simultaneously published an article claiming that mayoral candidates in eight municipalities (seven from the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI and one more from the National Action Party or PAN) had connections to drug traffickers. The two journalists had devised such arrangement to provide protective cover for one another.
“Organized crime groups have infiltrated the candidates’ lists for mayors, mainly those of the PRI but also the PAN for the municipal elections in the sierra and in drug corridors this coming June 5”, she wrote in La Jornada. The two journalists agreed to publish the same article at the same time as a protective measure.
Among the municipalities they mentioned was Chínipas. The publication brought an end to the PRI-approved candidacy of Juan Miguel Salazar, nephew of Los Salazares’ patriarch and founder Adan “Don Adan” Salazar Zamorano.
Miroslava began to receive “warnings”, first through a relative who lived in the highlands with links to the criminal group. Then, others began to bring her threatening messages from that remote mountainous area where the state is hardly present. For a while Miroslava did fewer stories about the issue and only filed a short piece, when the PRI stripped two persons of their candidacies, including the candidate from Bachíniva (who was the mother-in-law of Arturo “El 80” Quintana, the head in that area for the Juarez Cartel). But, after five months, Miroslava raised her fists again. On August 6 2016, she published a story in which she claimed the forced displacement and the murders that affected dozens of families in Chínipas was the work of Los Salazares. The group was now under orders from José Crispín Salazar, who succeeded the patriarch Adan when he was imprisoned in 2011. “Starting in 2012 he began a campaign to cleanse the region under his control of his supposed enemies”, Miroslava wrote.
Writing under the pseudonym Don Mirone , she published a column (on September 10) in which she reported that the mayor of Chínipas, Hugo Schultz from the PAN party, had named Martín Medina Ramírez, a relative of Los Salazar, as the town’s chief of police. Miroslava accused Medina Ramírez of being a criminal.
On February 20, 2017, just one month before her murder, Miroslava published an article in La Jornada and El Norte that might have been her death sentence. In the article, she outlined that there were 10 municipalities where drug cartels had infiltrated local police forces and public works. Among them was Chínipas.
“Other municipal public safety directors, as is the case with Martín Ramírez Medina in Chínipas, had been ratified in their jobs with the change of administration, even though they are connected to criminal bosses. He is the cousin of Alfredo Salazar Ramírez, who is currently imprisoned for drug trafficking, and the nephew of Crispín Salazar Zamorano, the head of a group that operates in the Urique, Guazapares and Moris municipalities,” Miroslava wrote.
No one else in Chihuahua published that information. Most of the local media had learned to keep quiet during the governorship of César Duarte Jáquez, whom Miroslava was investigating for his enrichment and his links to organized crime. The information about her inquiries into Duarte’s connections was revealed during the first hearing against the prime suspect of her murder in December 2017.
Exactly 31 days later, while she went about her daily routine that included taking her son to his high school, a man stopped beside her car’s door and shot her eight times.
The investigation conducted by the Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office was eventually taken over by the Specialized Division on Crimes Against the Freedom of Expression (FEADLE) of the Federal Prosecutor General’s office a year later. These investigations suggest that the mastermind behind her killing was Juan Carlos Moreno Ochoa, a.k.a. El Larry, a man identified as a lieutenant of Los Salazar or Los Salalzares or the Gente Nueva Salazar, who is currently awaiting trial.
No member of the Salazar family, however, has been implicated in the crime. Neither has any politician.
In the first hearing of Moreno Ochoa’s trial on December 27, 2017, the state prosecutor unveiled an audio recording that experts from that office claim to have found in the home of the man who drove the triggerman to Miroslava’s house in a grey Malibu on the day of her death. The driver was a student from Chínipas, who was a relative of the Salazar and is currently a fugitive. The alleged hitman was later murdered.
In the audio recording, which was found on the hard drive of a black VAIO laptop, someone asks Miroslava to reveal her sources for the story on the Chínipas mayoral race. An angry Miroslava responded with the strong character for which she was known that she was the only source because she was from Chínipas, and that her relatives had also told her that publishing the article would be dangerous.
The courtroom heard the following transcription of the audio recording:
Miroslava Breach (MB): Hello?
Man: Hello, Miroslava. How are you?
MB: What’s up?
Man: Listen, I have to talk to you about figuring out how you can help us. There are people in the party there in [inaudible].
Man: The people there in the highlands are telling me that we’re being accused of having blown the whistle, and that’s not the case. But we can’t figure out a way to prove it.
MB: Tell me what places we’re talking about.
Man: Hold on. [A conversation is heard in the background. The man asks someone in the room with him: “Where?”]
MB: Which communities?
Man: So if we, then, are able to prove that it wasn’t us, then nothing will happen. So, if the journalists that published that information can attest or tell me they’re their own sources–not that they have to tell me who it was, just to ratify that it wasn’t us, that’s it. This would get these other people off our backs. Am I explaining myself?
MB: Well, then, this is very simple. Very easy. Tell them, why are they acting stupid? “Miroslava Breach is from Chínipas”. Just tell them that.
Man: Right, but what these guys need…
MB: No, no, no, no. No fucking around. Ask them, why are they playing dumb? “Miroslava Breach Velducea was born in Chínipas and she will not reveal her sources”. So, please tell them that and let them place it [responsibility] on me. That’s why I signed the article, because I’ve got ovaries and because I know how things are. I’ve talked to my uncles and they’ve told me that they’re praying for me. So, like, stop playing around…
Man: But, well, look. Let me make it clear, Miros: They’re not asking me to ask you to reveal your sources. I wouldn’t ask you that.
MB: No, no, no, no, no. It’s that there aren’t any sources; there are no sources. I simply stated the name of who it was in Chínipas.
MB: I simply brought that out to the world.
Man: You didn’t go.
MB: This is what happened. It’s that simple. What, do they think that I’m dumb, deaf and blind, or what? Tell them this: “I am the source: Miroslava Breach knows every stone in Chínipas, and she knows the character [Juan Salazar, the mayoral candidate].”
Man: I understand. So there wasn’t a source who went and told you this.
MB: Of course not. Of course not. When I saw the candidate list and I started to report on it, that’s why I reported about Chínipas, Buenaventura, and a bunch of things. That’s how it played out. And tell them: “It was Miroslava Breach”. And let them take a hike if they want to.
Man: So, you never met anyone there, like the municipal president?
MB: I never met with anyone! Absolutely anyone. I’m from Chínipas, and I knew about him [Juan Salazar].
Man: Alright. I understand. I’ll tell them that.
MB: Tell them. They know what’s up. Everyone’s knows about it. I’m telling you, my uncles have talked to me.
Man: Well, yes. They’ve told them that they’re going to fuck them up.
MB: Yeah. They’ve been warned. But tell them: “You want to fuck someone up? Go fuck up the journalist. You know who she is”. Let them come after me. They know perfectly well that’s why I signed the article.
Man: Well, Miroslava, that’ll be all. This is more than enough.
MB: I mean, that’s why I signed the article, because I knew. I have cousins, uncles in Chínipas. They should know that it was only me and that no one told me anything. I’ve known them all my life.
Man: Alright, that’s fine.
MB: It’s that simple. It’s that clear.
Man: What’s happening is that they are nervous. They’re very nervous because they believe that it was someone from there, like the municipal president.
MB: No, no, tell them clearly. I insist. My uncles have told me, one of my aunts called me crying because the pressure they’ve been under is gigantic. That’s why I told her, “Aunt, that’s why I signed the article because I know what it’s like and they know I’m from Chínipas”.
MB: I was born there. My family is from there.
Man: Alright, that’s fine Miros. Well thank you. I’ll let them know.
MB: Tell them, and tell tham that I’ve got more ovaries than they’ve got balls.
Man: I’ll tell them.
MB: Just tell them.
MB: Silence is collusion, and that’s what caused this whole mess.
At the hearing that kicked off the judicial process against Moreno Ochoa, it was revealed that the voice of the man in the audio recording was Alfredo Piñera, the state’s spokesperson for the PAN, the party of governor Corral. In his statement, Piñera confessed that he had recorded Miroslava during that call, as well as in a second call that he made to the journalist from Proceso asking her the same thing, because his cellphone had an app that records all calls. Piñera said that he had handed over the two audio recordings to Chínipas mayor Hugo Ahmed Schultz of the PAN party, because he had asked him for help in dispelling the suspicions of Los Salazar.
Schultz, for his part, explained in his statement that he handed over the audio recordings to El Larry’s people because he figured that it was the only way to clear the suspicions against him from Los Salazar that he had been the source of the information that had brought an end to Juan Salazar’s candidacy for the PRI, the opposition party.
Press reports from those days echoed that Miroslava herself had accused Schultz in an op-ed column from November 25, 2016 of being the “emissary for the narcos” and of “threatening journalists”.
The revelation of the audio recordings became a national scandal. The Chihuahua state prosecutors classified both Schultz and Pinera as protected witnesses, and not as suspects in the case.
The Colectivo 23 de Marzo—created by a group of Mexican journalists, together with the international organisations Bellingcat, the Latin American Centre for Investigative Journalism (CLIP) and Forbidden Stories—had access to the official investigation’s file. Testimony contained in this case file shows that Miroslava was told by a relative to drop her investigation after publishing her story on “narco-candidates” and to pass on the message to colleague Patricia Mayorga from Proceso.
This was not the only warning that they received. Father Gilberto Velducea, the priest from Chínipas, asked Miroslava and Patricia to stop covering those stories when they met him in a diocese meeting in the touristic town of Creel, in Chihuahua. Gil was moved out of Chínipas, and it was not possible to find him.
By then, Miroslava and Patricia had agreed to publish sensitive subjects like narco-politics together and in national media outlets, in order to obtain some protective cover. Chihuahua was not a state safe for journalists. 21 journalists had been killed until 2017 in the state. At least four had been forced to flee to other countries, including Alejandro Gutierrez, a friend of Miroslava who had been Proceso’s correspondent. The administration of César Duarte (today a fugitive of the law) had a tight grasp on the media, and pressured outlets into publishing only what pleased him.
Since the recorded call—which Mayorga dates on June 22 and Piñera on May 6—months passed before it “appeared”, according to investigators, in a computer in the home were Miroslava’s murder was allegedly planned. On May 26, mayor Schultz from Chínipas sent a press release to media outlets denying any links between organized crime and public officials and explaining that the town had been peaceful during Holy Week. He did this in response to an article that Mayorga published in Proceso in which she claimed that thugs were forcing people to grow crops used for drugs, and that those who refused were being forced to leave.
A video recorded in Chínipas that Holy Week shows a singer named Alfredo Rosas in concert singing in honor of Alfredo Salazar Ramírez El Muñeco, imprisoned since 2012 and whose extradition to the United States has been blocked by a judge.
This collective looked for Piñera and Schultz. The first said that he would not make a statement to our team. The second did not respond to requests for interviews that were passed on to him by members of our team.
Unable to remain silent
“In every one of her school notebooks you’d see the word ‘freedom’,” Rosa Maria Breach said on the first anniversary of her sister Miroslava’s death. “That word had an impact on her (…) all of her investigations, she saw them as a defense of liberty, of people’s rights.”
Rosa Maria said that Miroslava first began studying marine biology, and that she moved to southern Baja California. There, she discovered political science. When she told her mother that she wanted to change majors, she explained her decision by saying, “Mom, I can help more people from here. I can fight against corruption. I can talk about all of the abuses that are committed and that way we can have a better society.”
She began to write for the university newspaper.
She was well-known for her rigour. Rosa Maria said of her sister: “Whenever Miros published something it meant that she was very sure about it. She’d always say, ‘No one will be able to refute what I say’. When we’d ask her, “Why do all this, Miroslava?… going to la Sierra and doing all this. For what? You could get that information from a second or third-hand source, and it would still be good information.’ She’d reply, ‘No. Nothing anyone can tell me would be better than what I can see. Nothing that anyone can tell me would be better than information that I could find and corroborate myself.’” She remembers that she would even make time during family reunions to work and make her deadlines.
Miroslava was almost a legend among journalists in Chihuahua. She was a modest diva, according to one colleague. Her character was strong and she was foul-mouthed. She was careful in choosing her friends, which made her unpopular with colleagues since she would not speak to journalists whom she considered lacked ethics. She disliked sweet-talking politicians and she always returned the gifts that they sent her. She would write articles that few others would have taken the trouble to write. She was a good political analyst, and her sharp pen was feared among the political class.
In 2015 she inherited the Don Mirone column, which she had run for years with her friend and colleague Manuel Aguirre. There was no such thing as a taboo topic for her. She studied in La Paz, Baja California Sur, but she built her career in Chihuahua, to which she returned with her young daughter in 1995. There, she covered human rights abuses, especially those involving violence against women or the theft of lands from indigenous peoples in the Sierra Tarahumara.
She liked to drive her van through the highlands, even though in recent years it had become a battleground for criminal groups fighting over control of drug trafficking routes. Two photographers remembered her love for speed. Whenever she saw that her passengers were scared, she joked that the best way to die was in pieces. Sometimes nobody would want to ride with her and she would go alone in her van.
In photos that show her reporting in indigenous communities, she is seen carrying babies, kneading tortillas, baking mud bricks on the floor, riding a tractor o talking to people in community meetings.
Journalist Olga Aragón, one of her best friends and a former colleague at El Diario de Chihuahua and independent magazine Aserto, remembers Miroslava in 1996 writing one of her stories in the newsroom: “while cradling her little daughter Andrea on her knees, she’d be sleeping there while [Miroslava] finished up another exhausting workday.” In an article published in La Jornada following her murder, Aragon described Miroslava as a good journalist, mother and woman. She wrote: “Her political science studies enriched, without a doubt, her analytic capacity, especially as a columnist, where she developed a very personal style of elegant sobriety and subtle mordacity.”
For two years, Miroslava investigated the properties of PRI governor César Duarte, and was the first to discover the triangulation of funds at the Union Progreso Bank which he had created and where the public deposited their money. In 2010 Miroslava focused on a story about the assassinations of the defense lawyer of the Rarámuri indigenous community in Baqueachi. He has killed apparently as a revenge by land-owners, whom he beat in a legal battle. The Courts had ordered them to return the land to the Rarámuri. The journalist became very close to the lawyer`s widow. Miroslava also became a protector and a friend of the indigenous community. She helped them set up a library and was planning to get them goats so they could earn money. ‘Miros’, as they called her, was for the Rarámuri was for them a friendly and allied “chabochi” (“mestiza” in their language), whom they invited as a special guest to their festivals.
Starting in 2004, she began to follow the infiltration of criminal groups in electoral campaigns. At the time of her murder she was investigation illegal water well drilling and the purchase of high-tech irrigation equipment in at least nine municipalities in Chihuahua, all as part of a drug trafficking money laundering operation, according to La Jornada.
Denouncing narcopolitics in Chihuahua was not easy. The state topped the countrywide list in number of murders and impunity since the 2006 declaration of the so-called “war on drugs” by then-President Felipe Calderón.
Miroslava had covered the murders of a lawyer who was close to her (Miguel Etzel Maldonado), of human rights activists, indigenous and environmentalist leaders, such as the Raramuri people of Baqueachi, whose quest to recover their ancestral lands she covered. She wrote about the case of a mother seeking justice after the murder of her daughter, Marisela Escobedo, who was shot on the doorway of the state house of government. Civil society associations placed a monument on that spot called the Cross of Nails asking for justice for all femicides, including that, eventually, of Miroslava.
“Miroslava said that she had to start covering crime when the political beat morphed into a crime beat,” says Adriana Esquivel, a young reporter whom Miroslava trained and with whom she lived with in Juarez when she was the chief editor of El Norte.
The general perception among those who knew her was that she did not talk about the threats made against her as to not scare her children and her relatives. She handled these threats as something that was normal in her life. “Sometimes she’d stay put at home for a few days”, Esquivel remembers.
Chihuahua was already a state known for its amount of crime news. Bordering Texas, it became famous starting in the 1980s for having the first industrial marihuana plantation, in the Buffalo Ranch. A decade later, it was famous for the unstoppable number of murders and disappearances of women who worked in maquilas that manufactured export goods. It was also famous for its mass graves, and for being controlled by a drug trafficker named Amado Carrillo, or El Señor del los Cielos, who founded the Juarez Cartel. In 2010 and 2011, Ciudad Juárez was the most dangerous city in the world.
An announced death
When news of her murder broke, there were as many theories about who had ordered Miroslava’s killings as she had enemies. The case file makes this obvious, as the collection of testimonies below shows (Each witness was given a pseudonym by the state prosecutor’s office to protect their identities):
“[Miroslava] was aware of the world in which she lived. The different topics that she was working could have been inconvenient or could have affected the interests of certain people. She knew that this could generate backlash. But she was also clear that she had a responsibility as a journalist” – Mila, a relative
“She was a person who was very firm in her decisions and in her character. She really defended her ideals, no matter who she was up against. She was collecting and documenting information relating to illegal activities carried out by the previous administration, as well as information regarding the links to drug trafficking. Also, the illegal properties that governor [César Duarte] and his associates had bought” – Silver, a relative
“She had documented all of the illegal ways by which governor César Duarte had enriched himself, and of the relationship that drug traffickers had with various politicians, and she was going to be revealing this information little by little. She told me that she had information about the relationship between mines and drug traffickers and people in government.” – Witness without a pseudonym. This person also remembered that, as a security measure, Miroslava bought several broadband services in other states so that her search history would not be visible to the sites that she visited.
“She said that the Chínipas municipal president was involved with organized crime in that area of the Sierra (including with members of the Salazar family) and that she also wrote about an organized crime figure in that mountainous area nicknamed El 80” – Monge, a colleague
“She wrote about the links between politics and drug trafficking, corruption, displacement in the highlands, abuses against women, and illegal logging (…) In personal conversations she’d talk about the situation in Chínipas, about Los Salazar, a group of drug traffickers that were directly controlling the local residents, who would say that they were tired of how these people acted in the town, of all the treats, the extortion, the killings and the drug trafficking” – Jaguar
Everyone took note of her article on the narco-candidates, and of the municipal police chiefs who had been put in their positions by drug traffickers.
“The residents [of Chínipas] had told her that the town had been taken over by organized crime groups (…) She always handed over her notes at the last moment, just before publication, to avoid leaks” – Aries, a journalist
“She said that criminal groups were pressuring regional political party leaders to run their candidates. In fact, [these groups] warned residents that only the candidates that they approved would run” – Casio, an official
Other testimonies brought to light the pressure she endured.
Los Salazares, old acquaintances
As Miroslava herself said in her call with Piñera, she knew about Los Salazares. They had been born in the same town. They had set up a base of operations there. According to the case file in the trials of Adan and Alfredo Salazar, they controlled the flow of drugs into the United States from there.
After the death of Miroslava’s father, the Breach family moved to Navojoa, a city close to the town in Sonora state. There too, Los Salazares (as she used to call the clan also known as Los Salazar and Gente Nueva Salazar) had expanded their illegal businesses.
On August 27, 1999, Miroslava published her first story on the abuses committed by the drug traffickers in the Sierra Tarahumara and mentioned Chínipas. Based on a complaint made by non-governmental organizations that worked to defend the rights of the Rarámuri indigenous people, Miroslava wrote about “the drug cultivators who sow terror (…) by committing murders, torturing, and burning the homes of indigenous peoples in order to force them to work in the planting of marijuana and poppy.”
“Drug traffickers from other states arrive at the most remote areas of the Sierra Tarahumara and take over indigenous lands to establish their illicit crop fields, and force [the natives] to work in cultivation. They do this, given the passivity of members of the state and municipal authorities”, she wrote.
Chínipas is a town in Chihuahua located right in the middle of the Sierra Tarahumara. Its economic activity, along with its educational and health systems, depend on the states of Sonora and Chihuahua. Given its location in relation to the two border states, it is a strategic location for the planting and transport of drugs.
In the year 2000, between the column Don Mirone which Miroslava still shared with her colleague Manuel Aguirre and her stories in La Jornada, Breach mentioned Adan Salazar Zamorano six times. She described him this way: “He is another alleged drug trafficker whose fame suggests that he is becoming the main producer and buyer of drugs in Chihuahua’s highland region”.
On October 10, 2000 she asked why Salazar Zamorano—who called himself as businessman—was arrested in the city of Chihuahua and then released despite having had in his possession military-grade weapons. He was even issued a certificate stating he did not have a criminal record.
On September 19, 2004, she reported on an assassination attempt made against Don Adán in an affluent neighborhood in the city of Chihuahua, in one of his many properties. His armed escorts saved his life. In that story, Miroslava wrote about how Don Adán was financing political campaigns.
“That drug trafficker is none other than Don Adán Salazar’, as the municipal presidents of Chínipas call him. He was born there, and he is known there as a big financier who gives money to the political campaigns of municipal presidents and lawmakers in that region. The thugs who were arrested with an arsenal are mostly from the Guazapares and Urique areas, where Adán Salazar holds an important amount of power, just as he does in Chihuahua where it is increasingly evident that he enjoys police protection,” she wrote.
Later, she denounced how drug trafficking organizations were influencing elections. She wrote about mayors, including that of Chínipas, who had “dangerous liaisons”, and about how armed groups were mobilizing voters to cast ballots for their candidates. She also wrote about how municipal authorities were granting protection to drug traffickers, and about the shattering of the traditional political party system on account of the injection of drug money.
In 2005, 2007, and 2008, Miroslava continued to write about what was happening in the region, including the political protection that Los Salazar were receiving, their ties to the mayor of Chinipas, the discomfort in the municipality at the opening of the Palmarejo mine due to what she called “gold fever” in the Sierra. She also wrote about the appearance of a ‘narco-message’ of the Juarez Cartel accusing Adán Salazar Zamorano and his son Alfredo Salazar Ramírez of having founded the Chihuahua chapter of the Sinaloa Cartel, and of having operated with impunity in the state capital for ten years. In her stories, she mentioned how the prospered while two PRI governors were ruling the state.
In 2005, Los Salazar had come under investigation under suspicion of having carried out the first ever disappearance of a journalist in Mexico. His name was Jose Alfredo Jimenez Mota, and he worked for El Imparcial, a newspaper out of Sonora state. He had written about the bosses who controlled drug trafficking in Sonora, and about the support that they received from public officials. He is still missing today, fourteen years later.
Massa graves and a zoo were found in a ranch in Navojoa during drug-related search warrants carried out in the homes of the Salazar family in Sonora in relation to the disappearance of Jimenez Mota, according to an investigation called Projecto Fénix. Three sources consulted for this project asserted that the Salazar family still has lions, which –according to popular culture—it uses to disappear people.
In 2010, Miroslava continued to cover narcopolitics. She wrote that “candidates ask drug traffickers in Chihuahua permission to campaign”, and that the Sierra Tarahumara was “a lawless land” under the control of criminal groups, including that of Alfredo Salazar. She also claimed that he was the one responsible for the first massacre carried out during the so-called “war on drugs”: the Creel massacre of 2008, which claimed the lives of 12 young people and a baby.
Starting in 2011, her work was more incisive. She wrote about the travels “aboard airplanes” of criminal groups “apparently from Sonora” who were looking to open new drug routes. “Only in whispers is the name Alfredo Salazar Ramírez mentioned. He is linked to the Sinaloa Cartel, and is responsible for a logistical operation to extract hundreds of tons of marijuana that were stranded in ranches and communities,” she wrote on September 18 of that year. That year, federal authorities captured Don Adán, the organization’s patriarch, in the city of Querétaro.
In 2012, she reported that the authorities were unable to set up voting centres in the Sierra due to threats from people linked to drug trafficking, and that in Chínipas people had been forced to vote for the PRI candidate. She also claimed that Los Salazares and other groups had roadblocks in the mountainous backroads.
During all those years, Miroslava is not known to have received threats. But something changed in 2015.
The first record of a threatening call came after she published the article about the 300 families that had been forcibly displaced from Chínipas. She wrote about how thugs arriving by land and air were looking for Los Salazar, and that they had terrorized people. She also wrote about something that people in the town continue to say to this day: that their telephone calls were being intercepted. Under the Don Mirone pseudonym, Miroslava accused Los Salazar of acting “with the complacency of the state police and the soldiers stationed in this area.”
The next threat was related to the narco-candidates. They never forgave her for that story. The same week that she published it, she received a warning call.
“After that, the Chínipas municipal president contacted Miroslava to tell her that El 80 wanted to talk to her, so she would tone down her stories,” Mila, the witness with protected identity, told the prosecutor’s office. “She told me this personally approximately one year ago. They then threatened her again, telling her to not come by to the Sierra because they would kill her, but she kept writing about the Sierra cartels and giving their names. You can read about these articles in the news.”
This statement caused controversy in the courtroom during the audience of El Larry’s trial, in December 2017, since Schultz lives in a zone controlled by Los Salazar while El 80 controlled a different area.
The witnesses had difficulty stating definite dates. Our collective conducted interviews to corroborate this information with four of Miroslava’s close relatives and a dozen of her friends and colleagues, yet it is still difficult to stablish a chronology.
During the hearing, Venancio (one of Miroslava’s relatives) stated: “One time I heard that someone talked to the victim on the phone on behalf of a group of people about killing a story… and she hung up on them”.
Miroslava told Patricia Mayorga (who now lives in exile, and whom we interviewed for this project) that her relatives started to ask her to stop writing about the violence. Mayorga told our team: “We understood [those calls] as the natural uneasiness that relatives get when we publish something sensitive. The calls came from people that Miroslava knew, and so for us that was a natural reaction,” she explained. What mortified Miroslava most was that they used her relatives in the Sierra as messengers, and that they were constantly being scared.
Javier Corral won the Chihuahua gubernatorial election on June 5, 2016. Miroslava was anxious for a change in government, according to those who knew her. Corral had been a journalist before getting into politics and was Miroslava’s friend and that to a group of critical journalists known at that time for their investigative work. However, little by little these journalists had been leaving their jobs as journalists. A couple of them became officials in the Corral administration, which was promising to bring about change.
Following the threats for her publication of the story on narco-candidates, people continued to look for Miroslava to tell her what was happening. On August 6, 2016, Miroslava got back into the fight and published an article claiming that the cartels were forcing people out of their homes. She wrote:
“The murder of entire families and the forced displacement of others of Chínipas, which is located on the border with Sonora and Sinaloa in the Tarahumara range, is an example of the general situation affecting the Sierra. Starting in 2012, a criminal group known as Los Salazares, currently under the command of Crispín Salazar Zamorano, unleashed a campaign to cleanse the region under his control of enemies.”
The threats that no one heeded
In a press conference on the day of the murder, governor Corral admitted that she had spoken to him about the threats but said that this conversation had happened two years earlier. Corral did not mention who was making the threats and was never asked to make a statement in the case about this issue.
“Two years ago, she came to me very worried about threats that were being sent to her as the result of her publishing the articles that we all know that she published alongside a colleague from Chihuahua, which directly addressed the structure of organized crime in Chihuahua. At that time, we talked while I was still a national Senator. She was worried and I made some suggestions to her. Now, as governor (…) ‘Miros’ never mentioned this to me, that she’d been threatened or warned,” governor Corral said.
Governor Corral also mentioned then that the main thread the investigation into her murder would be the work that she had been doing: “Miroslava exposed up front organized crime groups [and] corruption in Chihuahua state, and that work is the main thread in this investigation”. Two days later, he told Proceso that the main thread to follow would be the narco-politics.
Miroslava’s sisters contradict his version of facts. In a statement one of them said:
“There’s a conversation between [Miroslava] and governor-elect Corral in which she told him that she was being constantly threatened, [with things like] ‘stop looking into things that aren’t your business, stop talking about narcopolitics or they’ll kill your children, your family and you, so that she would see what she was causing with her stories…”
A year after Miroslava’s murder, in the remembrance ceremony at the site of the Nails Cross, her sister Brissa Guadalupe told reporters that the cellphone taken by the Chihuahua’s state prosecutor’s office, which had evidence of her plea for help to Corral, was missing. “There was also a text message where she told [Corral], but that went missing when they got her phones the day of the [murder]”, she said.
Her sister, Rosa Maria, said something similar during the same ceremony
“Miroslava told me that if something happened to her it would be on account of this, [and that] it was going to be here on my phone (…). There were other threats and she recorded them. These recordings must have been in her phone. When she was there [dead] in the van, they asked us for her phones, computers and we did not suspect anything. In that moment you are in shock and you don’t think about making a copy and we handed over everything. As far as I know, those recordings are still missing”.
These messages are not included in the case file. Neither is the information she had in her computer and the hard drives that the state prosecutor picked up. The head of the Federal Special Prosecutor Office (FEADLE) did not answer the Colectivo’s questions regarding these files. Neither did the state prosecutor respond to our repeated messages requesting an interview.
“Corral was informed, in some cases in detail, about threats against her (Miroslava) and another journalist; first, in September 2015, then in March 2016, later in August when he was already governor-elect and finally in October when he had already taken office as Governor” wrote journalist Olga Aragón who interviewed friends and family during the funeral.
Our Colectivo managed to find a screenshot of a Whatsapp conversation that Miroslava had with a colleague, in August 12, 2016. In it, Miroslava wrote that she had informed Corral about the intimidation she was suffering.
“Corral called me this past Friday, [his] stance is very good in terms of the issue that we discussed. He told me not to worry, that he would take charge of the situation with the mayor of Chínipas,” Miroslava wrote.
The person with whom she was speaking responded: “That’s great. Let them calm things down politically.”
“I don’t know if he will,” replied Miroslava, “but at least he appeared sensitive, and that makes a difference.”
On September 10, 2016, one month after Miroslava talked to Corral, in her popular column Don Mirone she published a sharp criticism of Schultz. The article read:
“The residents of towns in the Sierra have learned that political parties’ acronyms come and go. They exchange PAN and PRI governors, and all the while insecurity and violence do not change, and neither does the territorial, economic and political influence that the local drug traffickers have. There are even mayors who serve their interests. For example, the municipal president of Chínipas, Hugo Schultz Alcaraz, who has recently been active as intermediary”.
As soon as Shultz ended his term as mayor, was invited to join Corral’s government.
She then published the story about violence in Chínipas. The repercussions reached Sonora, from where an old acquaintance told her that Crispín Salazar was looking for her. “Around October or November of last year, we received—I don’t remember specifically how—a message that said that Mr. Crispin, or Boss Salazar, Adán Salazar’s brother, was very angry with Breach over her stories and her publications that she had been putting out lately about their activities in Chínipas,” reads an anonymous testimony.
When a relative found out about Cripin’s threats and asked Miroslava what she was going to do, she replied by saying, “What can I do? Someone has to tell things as they are.”
Miroslava denounced in several places the risks she was running, but she never filed an official complaint with the authorities. Her closest colleagues —some of them from her own MIR news agency– knew that she did not believe that journalists should receive special treatment or make themselves out to be victims.
On October 12, 2016, she spoke publicly about the threats in a meeting of the Federal Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists in the city of Chihuahua. The meeting was attended by journalists, human rights defenders and representatives from the country’s Interior Ministry.
She spoke about the difficulties of working as a journalist in Chihuahua, and the reprisals that she had faced over the publication of criminal interference in elections. Her opinions were included in the final document to come out of the meeting. The attendees spoke about the need to activate an alert plan that, they promised, would be presented to the state governor.
Section six of the draft of that document reads: “Threats. Due to stories regarding: narco-candidates, they removed two candidates”.
On the issue of risks faced by journalists, the draft document contains the following:
“Receiving threats directly, or from third parties, oral and via telephone about what they are writing. Organized crime reacts to articles immediately. It is published, and the outlet is immediately threatened. (…) correspondents who cover this face the gravest risks.”
Another cause of threats for journalists and human rights defenders mentioned in the meeting was the reporting on mega-projects and mining projects.
In the meeting, besides public officials, there were human rights defenders who were already participating in Corral’s transition team and later became members of his staff. Public officials of the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists gave a final diagnosis of the risky situation to governor Corral and members of his staff, to undersecretary of the Interior Ministry Roberto Campa and to journalists and defenders. This document tacitly reflected information about the threats against Miroslava and others.
It is not known what effect governor Corral’s actions could have had on the threats that Miroslava told him about. However, Don Mirone mentioned Schultz on November 25, 2016 as an “emissary” of the drug traffickers and someone who threatened journalists. By then the former mayor of Chínipas was coordinator of education for the Sierra region for the Corral government. A relative of Breach told our team in an interview that Miroslava had run into Schultz in one of the hallways of the state government house, and that she had become very angry by that.
In December, Miroslava began to tell her family and friends that the situation at the state was going to get worse and warned that a journalist —possibly her— would be killed. In January, she asked for the quote for a bulletproof glass for her vehicle.
“She said that 2017 looked difficult in terms of money, politics, everything related to the state,” another witness stated. “She explained that ever since Corral had won the governorship, things were going to become very difficult because his government included many people from the previous one, and Duarte [the previous governor] was working to protect himself so that he would not be questioned. Corral was going to have his hands tied, and things were going to get complicated in relation to the drug cartels and the violence”. The same witness added that Miroslava said that “the cartels’ intention was to destabilize the Corral government” and spoke of new threats she had received.
One of her sisters gave similar testimony. She said that Miroslava told her that “things are going to get hairy”, and that “there was a list of three or four journalists that they were going to kill, and she was one of them.”
Another person close to Miroslava said that she told her “… that she was angry because she had given Corral information during his campaign, information relating to her investigation and that he had not acted on it, and that she was very angry, like disappointed, because that was valuable information.” This was related to her investigation on Duarte’s properties, as was confirmed to this team by the witness.
Another person said that Miroslava had said that an unspecified public official sent her a warning and insinuated something about her children. A relative asked Miroslava to take the matter to the FEADLE, which angered her.
In a story published by Proceso magazine on the first anniversary of Miroslava’s murder, journalist Patricia Mayorga wrote that they had breakfast together on February 1, 2017. She told the Colectivo from her exile that Miroslava told her that “the calls were still happening, [and] that her family in Chínipas was worried because she kept publishing.” Mayorga noted that Miroslava appeared sad that day, and that she was wondering if it was worth the risk, or if she should abandon journalism. Miroslava spoke about the case of a federal lawmaker who had just died, and that at least he had been able to leave money to his family. She wondered about dedicating her life to cooking, but she would then tell herself that she could not do it because if she were to abandon journalism, she would be unable to look at her children in the eyes.
On February 18, 2017, Miroslava wrote about the “orgasmogramo in the palace,” in reference to a scandal regarding allegations of governor Corral’s extra-marital affair. Her reporters in El Norte said that she asked the paper not to cover the affair because it was a private matter and it could be dangerous.
On February 20, 2017 she published an article tackling armed groups directly. It was titled “Narco Groups Infiltrate Municipal Governments in Chihuahua”, and was based on reports from intelligence authorities and the state prosecutor’s office. Even though she had agreed to a joint publication with Proceso, for some reason she published it at an earlier date. The story talked about local directors of public security with links to criminal groups in Chínipas, among them, Martín Ramírez Medina, nephew of Los Salazares. At the time, she was investigating forced disappearances attributed to this man.
Miroslava was staying at her sister’s home that day, and that she remembers that “among lighthearted chatter she reminded me to take care of her children.”
In March 2017, Miroslava and other journalists approached the Chihuahua state attorney general, César Augusto Peniche, after he gave a press conference on the violence in the Sierra Tarahumara and about the murder of the Rarámuris leader Isidro Baldenegro, a world-renowned environmentalist and winner of the prestigious Goldman Prize. From exile, Mayorga said:
” We asked him about why there were several known crime bosses in several municipalities, [and that] all of the residents know who they are and where they live but they don’t get arrested even though some of them are on the [Mexican government’s] most wanted list.”
Peniche said that when they took over the state government, there was no file about those cases. A photograph captured their meeting.
By early March, Breach had already distanced herself from governor Corral. She told him sarcastically to not be so quick in investigating his predecesor. Moreover, the op-ed column in which she had mentioned the scandal after an assistant to a lawmaker had made public statements about the extramarital issue, had driven them apart.
She appeared isolated. She seemed annoyed with many social activists who had been her old friends and allies, many of whom had agreed to work with the so-called New Dawn government. In the last press conference she attended to she criticized them harshly for omitting the names of water hoarders in the state.
Oscar Cantú, her former boss at the El Norte de Ciudad Juarez, said in his testimony that Miroslava had told him that she was thinking about retiring, and that she for several weeks she had not been able to focus on her work. In fact, something that had never happened before took place: he had to call her to remind her to submit an article, when it was usually the opposite.
Cantú shared two pictures with the state prosecutor’s office. One of them shows a young, sweaty man with an injured hand. He seems cornered. He never asked Miroslava why she had sent him that picture. They speculated that the young man was following her and that she caught him in the act and took a picture of him. She also sent him a picture of a police operation in an unknown location, also without explanation.
When a relative asked her why she did not make a formal complaint about her situation to the authorities, an angry Miroslava responded by saying that “they’re stupid if they don’t already know”. She also said that Corral would have a big problem if a journalist were killed in his state.
According to the witness nicknamed Silver, someone left a note at her home in March threatening her. On March 21, Miroslava spoke to her daughter, who was engaged to be married at the end of the year, about her inheritance. Miroslava, once again, asked one of her younger sisters to take care of her younger son.
Her sisters remember another premonitory moment from Miroslava’s last days. “On March 21, she asked her daughter that when she died, she should buy a plot of land in the area surrounding the greenhouse with the half of the money that she would get, and that the other half belonged to her brother,” she said. “I am sure that my sister was getting more threats than she talked about”, said another one of her sisters.
On May 21 2017, the gray Malibu with a spoiler, tinted windows and stylized rims was caught by security cameras outside Miroslava’s home at 19:43 and 19:45. On March 22, in her Don Mirone column, Miroslava accused Chihuahua State Prosecutor Peniche of being co-responsible for violence in the state, given that he had been the Federal Prosecutor’s General representative in the state during the Duarte administration. That day, she had an argument during an International Water Day conference with some of her former activist allies, whom she accused of having lost their critical spirit with the arrival of governor Corral. That night, the grey vehicle drove by her house again four times between 8:00 PM and 10:00 PM.
She was murdered the next day.
Sharing the blame
At an event at the Nails Cross monument on the first anniversary of their sister’s death, the Breach brothers said that Corral had told them that she was to blame for her own death because “she had stepped on the devil’s toes” by investigating dangerous topics.
“That phrase from the governor is a slap in the face to our family, to the journalists’ guild and to all Mexicans, because it comes from an official who is responsible for enforcing the basic rights to life, liberty and security,” one of her brothers said. Governor Corral has denied saying this to the Breach family.
The Breach brothers have asked FEADLE and federal authorities to take over the case given that, as civil society organization Propuesta Cívica documented, they did not have access to the case file for 10 months. As of this moment, the only person arrested in connection to the murder has been Juan Carlos El Larry Moreno Ochoa, who maintains his innocence.
Three people connected to the murder have been killed. These killings have not been properly investigated.
In September 2017, six months after Miroslava’s murder, unknown assailants broke into her home. They rummaged through her documents but did not steal anything.
“It didn’t seem like a robbery. They didn’t take anything of value. It looked as if they were looking for something, what with all the documents, the chairs, the beds thrown everywhere”, her cousin Alcira Velducea said. She was looking after Miroslava’s abandoned home.
This year alone in Sonora, at least six banners have appeared in different cities accusing Los Salazar (Adan, Alfredo and Crispin) of committing the murder, and an anonymous video making the same claim circulated on social media shared by Chihuahua news outlets.
Miroslava’s documents have been useful to inform cases against local criminal groups, state prosecutor Peniche told local press. They might have helped in other cases, but not in that of Miroslava Breach Velducea, the journalist who refused to remain silent because, as she said, “silence is collusion.”