“Project Miroslava”: Unexplored Leads in the Murder of Journalist Miroslava Breach
Over the past 10 years, at least 82 journalists have been killed in Mexico for exercising their profession. This gruesome death toll makes Mexico one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world. One victim of this violence was Miroslava Breach, an investigative journalist who had been reporting on “narco-politicians”, members of drug cartels who infiltrate the country’s political life to consolidate their control. On the 23rd of March 2017, Breach was shot dead in cold-blood outside her home. Since then, the investigation into her death has left loose ends. El Colectivo 23 de marzo, a group of journalists working in Mexico, in collaboration with international journalism organizations Forbidden Stories, Bellingcat, and the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP), joined forces to reveal what has been investigated and what not regarding this crime.
By Forbidden Stories
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At 7 a.m. on the 23rd of March 2017, Miroslava Breach, a well-known journalist in Mexico, got in her car outside her home in Chihuahua city, to drive her 14-year-old son to school. A man appeared, his face hidden by a hat, and opened fire. The journalist did not survive the attack.
Breach was known for her exemplary investigative work, defying danger. She worked for the newspapers La Jornada and El Norte de Ciudad Juarez, reporting about organized crime and corrupt local authorities in Chihuahua, her native state which also happens to be one of the most violent in the country. During the last months of her life, she devoted her work to “narco-politicians”, members of drug cartels who infiltrate the country’s political life to consolidate their control. She was particularly interested in the expansion of Los Salazar, an organized crime group operating from the small mountain town of Chinipas in alliance with the Sinaloa cartel, co-led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman before he was arrested in 2016.
More than two years after the murder, investigations by both local and federal authorities have left many loose ends. None of them have established any link between this murder and criminal groups or politicians despite Miroslava’s investigations on the subject, and despite the threats she received from them. Only one man, Juan Carlos Moreno Ochoa, nicknamed “El Larry”, was arrested. According to the authorities, he is believed to be the only person responsible for Miroslava’s murder, which excludes from suspicion precisely those whom she had investigated: organized crime and its links to politics.
However, many pieces in this puzzle have been left out of this official version of events. This is why the Mexican journalists grouped in El Colectivo 23 de Marzo, in collaboration with international journalists from Forbidden Stories, Bellingcat and CLIP joined forces to investigate under the name “Project Miroslava”.
The 25th of December 2017. Nine months have passed since the murder of Miroslava Breach. Eight bullets were fired at the journalist through her car windows. Her children, close by, heard the firing of the bullets. After nine months of investigation – and waiting – the governor of Chihuahua state, Javier Corral, announced in front of cameras the capture of Juan Carlos Moreno Ochoa, nicknamed “El Larry”.
The man, arrested in the neighboring state of Sonora, was presented as the mastermind behind Breach’s murder. The identity of the shooter was also revealed: Ramon Andres Zabala, a 25-year-old pistolero, who was found dead in the same state of Sonora. They had another accomplice, Jaciel Vega Villa, who, according to the authorities, allegedly drove the shooter to the crime scene before fleeing. In a very solemn tone, Governor Corral ran through the details of this police probe: 200 hours of video tapes analyzed, telephones tapped, some 20 witnesses interviewed, and experts sent to the crime scene for an investigation portrayed as a “national model” of how to investigate crimes against journalists in Mexico.
In spite of its exemplary appearance, the official investigation, carried out first by the Chihuahua State Prosecutor’s Office and then, by the federal General Attorney’s Office since 2018, has difficulty hiding its flaws: there are clues and evidence that were never looked into, politicians who were never properly questioned, people who may have been directly involved to some degree but who were presented only as witnesses with a protected identity, irregularities at the crime scene, and contradictory pieces of evidence.
Project Miroslava has identified all these irregularities, which together strongly suggest what the justice system does not seem to see: that narco-politicians, who could have been behind this crime, were not investigated.
The murder of journalist Miroslava Breach received extensive media coverage in Mexico. She is far from being the only one to have fallen simply for exercising her profession. But her uncompromising investigations, which regularly highlighted the close links between drug cartels and politicians, make her a symbol of the freedom of the press, which is constantly being violated in this Latin American country.
A few hours after the murder, police announced a first discovery: a cardboard sign thrown a few meters from the van, allegedly revealing the identity of the person who ordered the killing. A note on the cardboard was reportedly signed “El 80”, the nickname of a Juarez cartel regional boss, a sworn enemy of the Sinaloa cartel and its allies Los Salazar. But as hours went by, the nature of the written message changed. Dozens of journalists observed the changes in the official version: three times in 48 hours. The message changed and got longer as the hours advance, raising suspicions among reporters who closely followed the story. In addition, our collective discovered that the chain of custody of this particular evidence, while essential, had not been properly kept. It was impossible to trace through which hands it had passed, from the crime scene to the press.
Inconsistencies started accumulating, such as Governor Corral’s presence at the home of one of the accomplices, Jaciel Vega Villa, when police inspected the household, three days after the murder. A few months later, on a radio show, he casually admitted he had been present at the scene of investigation.
It was in this same house that many pieces of evidence were found as part of the official investigation. The car that drove Miroslava’s killer to the crime scene was found in the garage. It did belong to Jaciel Vega Villa, a university student and the man behind the wheel at the time of Miroslava Breach’s murder. After looking into this, El Colectivo 23 de Marzo discovered a significant family relationship: Jaciel was none other than the godson of Alfredo Salazar Ramirez, the leader of Los Salazar, who was requested in extradition by a United States court last June.
The search of Jaciel Vega Villa’s house also allowed investigators to get their hands on a personal computer with two audio recordings. Both correspond to telephone conversations during which a man intensely questioned Miroslava Breach and another colleague who had published the same exposé. His goal was to obtain information about her sources in her stories of “narco-politician” candidates standing in municipal elections, especially the one designated by Los Salazar in Chínipas. During the phone conversation, Breach flatly refuses to reveal this information, even going as far as talking about her pair of “ovaries”, mocking the man on the other end of the phone. “Silence is collusion” she told him.
About ten days later, the state prosecutor finally identified the man who called Breach on the phone: it was Alfredo Piñera, spokesman for the National Action Party (PAN), the party of Chihuahua’s governor and one of Mexico’s most important. The spokesman forwarded these illegal recordings to another local politician whom Miroslava Breach later denounced for his possible links to organized crime: the then mayor of Chínipas, Hugo Schultz. The local politician testified to judicial authorities that with this recording in hand, he looked to prove to the Salazares that he was not the source of the information leak, and thus avoid any retaliation. However, by forwarding this recording to people close to El Larry, he was actually sentencing the journalist.
Some would say that so much information against a man would be enough to make him worried in front of the law. This has not been the case. Since the beginning, Schultz has enjoyed special witness status and even has a pseudonym, “Boby”, in the court transcripts to protect his identity. The same treatment was granted to Piñera, whose name has been changed to “Casio” in the judicial investigation. Furthermore, the two men have advanced in their careers, despite this damning information. In 2019, Piñera was hired as an advisor to the coordinator of PAN’s national parliamentary group. For his part, Schultz went on to work in the state administration and kept his teaching position. He is now considering taking over the leadership of PAN’s National Committee in Chínipas.
In April 2018, Mexico’s Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE) of the Federal Prosecutor General’s office took over the case, to the great displeasure of the Chihuahua authorities. There was renewed hope that justice would be done. As soon as it took up the case, the Office of the Special Prosecutor interrogated two new people, two leading men at the PAN. the Office also requested information of the social media activities of 5 journalists close to Miroslava.
So far, the results have turned out to be disappointing. This collective discovered that there was no real investigation either into other cases that were linked to the journalist’s murder, nor into the circumstances surrounding the murder of Miroslava Breach’s hitman Ramon Andres Zabala.
Jaciel Vega Villa, the driver of Breach’s killer, is still on the run. A high-raking state officer confirmed media versions that the young man had been heard by the authorities a few days after the murder without being charged, justifying that the identity of the suspect was not known at the time. However, the official later corrected himself, saying he had been mistaken, when the state prosecutor strongly denied they had ever had Vega in custody. Since then, two witnesses assured to this collective that Vega had indeed been interrogated and others claim that he is hidden in Chínipas. He remains fugitive to this day.
Other questionable moves by the judicial authorities include a state police officer -and El Larry’s niece- who hosted the killers and a man who drove them away from the crime scene, who were both granted witness status, with protected identities and never considered potential suspects. Criminal investigators also did not inquire into a pilot license left at Vega’s home, nor did they identify the owners of the phones with which Vega communicated right after the murder. This collective neither found evidence of a judicial investigation in Chínipas, despite the fact that so many pieces of evidence in Miroslava’s assassination led to this municipality in the Sierra Tarahumara.
El Larry’s trial is deadlocked, blocked by a witness who refuses to speak. Chihuahua’s state prosecutor did not respond to El Colectivo 23 de Marzo’s request for an interview and, though the federal prosecutor talked to us, he refused to give any details that he said could compromise the investigation and expressed his support for the state prosecutor’s case despite its evident flaws.
This is the current status of the investigation which was intended to be a “national model” for any future murders of journalists in the country. Whether carried out by Chihuahua state, or later, by the federal authorities, the official investigation ignored leads that are of crucial importance. And our collective’s questions were only met with silence. And silence, as Miroslava Breach said herself, is collusion.