Uncovered: The buried truth of assassinated journalist Regina Martínez

On April 28, 2012, the murder of journalist Regina Martínez in the Mexican state of Veracruz marked a turning point in terms of impunity for crimes against the press in Mexico. Eight years later, Forbidden Stories and its media partners came together to pursue her investigations into the links between politicians and drug traffickers. They discovered that Martínez was preparing to publish an explosive report on thousands of people who had mysteriously disappeared in Veracruz in the months before she was killed.

Portrait of Regina Martínez in 1991, in Xalapa, Veracruz. (Credit: Alberto Morales / Agencia multigráfica)

His phone wouldn’t stop ringing, but the instructions were clear: don’t pick up. Hidden away in a Mexico City hotel, Andrés Timoteo awaited his fate. He was going to be exfiltrated to Europe under the protection mechanism for threatened journalists. The only idea in his head: get out alive.

For days, the journalist had been lying to his loved ones, telling them that he had gotten a visa to study in Paris. But in reality, he was leaving everything behind. He knew he would probably never go back to Mexico.

Five days earlier, on April 28, 2012 in Xalapa, a city in southeastern Mexico, the lifeless body of his friend Regina Martínez had been discovered. Martínez, also a journalist, had been beaten and then strangled to death in her own bathroom. Her murder was a warning sign to other reporters in the region of Veracruz, many of whom knew or knew of Martínez. For them the message was clear: you could be next. “If a journalist like Regina, who worked for a national media outlet, could be killed, it could happen to anyone,” Timoteo said.

Photograph of Forbidden Stories and its partners, at a meeting in March 2020, in preparation for the Cartel Project.

KEY FINDINGS

  • New revelations regarding the errors committed during the initial investigation into the death of Regina Martínez.
  • The official narrative about her death was spread online through an organized disinformation campaign using bot accounts.
  • Following up on Regina’s investigations, the Forbidden Stories consortium revealed that former Veracruz governor Fidel Herrera embezzled public funds, a system of corruption that was passed on to his successor.
  • Police in Catalonia identified Fidel Herrera’s criminal links during the time he served as consul in Barcelona.
  • The Forbidden Stories consortium was able to determine that just before she was killed Regina Martínez was preparing to publish an investigation into thousands of disappeared people in Veracruz.

 

A dogged journalist

“Everything that the local press didn’t dare to publish was published via Regina Martínez,” said Jorge Carrasco, the director of Proceso, the investigative weekly that Martínez worked for as a correspondent from 2000 until her untimely death in 2012.

A modest woman, born into a family of 11 children, Martínez knew Veracruz by heart — down to the smallest village. She studied journalism and began working as a reporter in 1980 for a local television station. She quickly learned that in the profession many reporters were paid by people in power to publish the news they wanted to hear.

Martínez — whose friends called her “La Chaparrita,” or the “little woman,” in reference to her miniscule size of 4’11” — made a name for herself as a professional reporter, always deeply ensconced in her work. Her professionalism isolated her bit by bit. A homebody, she preferred to stay in her house on the weekends chain-smoking cigarettes and tending to her plants.

Norma Trujillo, her longtime friend and a journalist in Xalapa, remembers her as a hyperactive and passionate woman.

“Her work was her life,” Trujillo said. “She was really interested in social issues, human rights violations. She was close to the people. That was her superpower.”

Regina Martínez interviews a Mexican film director in 1992. (Credit: Alberto Morales / Agencia multigráfica)

Regina Martínez interviews the current Mexican president, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador during his march for democracy in 1992, Mexico City. (Credit: Alberto Morales / Agencia multigráfica)

She was also a gifted, unparalleled reporter. In 2006, three years before the H1N1 crisis exploded, Martínez covered the horrible sanitary conditions of pig farms in La Gloria, the tiny village in Veracruz that was later determined to be the probable epicenter of the virus. A year later, she accused the Mexican Army of raping and killing a 72-year-old indigenous woman. Her doggedness and determination led her to investigate the excesses of power and corruption ravaging Veracruz. Fidel Herrera and Javier Duarte, who served as back-to-back governors, became central figures in her investigations.

Under the two leaders, Veracruz became the world’s most dangerous place to be a journalist. Since 2000, 28 journalists have been killed in the region and another 8 disappeared — more than half of them during the 12 years Herrera and Duarte were in power.

The state’s geography has long made Veracruz a sought-after region for cartels, leading to elevated levels of violence. With the longest coastline in Mexico and a major international port, the state is a strategic zone for drug trafficking. Isolated footpaths linking northern and southern Mexico make it an ideal location for the extortion of migrants from South and Central America while mountainous forests serve as the perfect hideout for drug traffickers. “El Chapo” Guzmán, the infamous head of the Sinaloa Cartel, even found refuge there when he was on the run.

Police officers did nothing to stop the violence. On the contrary, they were part of organized crime

Beginning in the early 2000s, Xalapa, the state capital, began to morph under the influence of drug cartels. At first this change was subtle: the low hum of 4×4 trucks in the distance. Before long, unknown men were buying up bars and casinos and ads for prostitutes covered the city’s walls. The arrival of the Zetas cartel in 2008 unleashed a new wave of violence in the region.

“There were shootings in the streets at all hours of the day when Fidel Herrera was governor,” Trujillo said.“The barrier between the cartels and the people in power was blurry. Police officers did nothing to stop the violence. On the contrary, they were part of organized crime.”

A street of Xalapa, at night. (Credit: Forbidden Stories)

‘Band of undesirables’

Martínez regularly criticized Duarte and his predecessor Herrera for letting the state fall into the hands of the cartels. She reported from shoot-outs and revealed the true number of deaths, which the local authorities often tried to cover up. Her articles began to become a thorn in the government’s side. In 2010, her name appeared on a list of critical journalists that was reportedly leaked from inside the governor’s palace.

The local government could connect to people’s phones and know at any moment what they were up to

Two former high-level officials with experience in several administrations confirmed that authorities set up an underground spy unit to monitor journalists, among others. “The local government could connect to people’s phones and know at any moment what they were up to,” one of the officials told Forbidden Stories.

This network of political informants maintained a black book of critical journalists. Each journalist had a file containing a list of their family members, coworkers and places they frequented, in addition to their political affiliations and even their sexual preferences.

Journalist colleagues, photographers and friends march through the streets of Xalapa to Plaza Lerdo in front of the government palace to demand justice for the murder of journalist Regina Martínez. (Credit: Miguel Ángel Carmona /Proceso)

Martínez wasn’t the only black-listed journalist, but she was considered to be the ringleader of a group of five incorruptible journalists who received extra attention from the authorities. One of these journalists, who preferred to remain anonymous because of security concerns, nicknamed this group “the band of undesirables” on account of the frequent government attacks against them. Martínez and the other journalists in this group would publish sensitive news simultaneously in order to throw the authorities off their trail and ensure that no one journalist was “stranded at sea.”

Martínez was the most experienced and also the bravest among them. After publishing her stories, she frequently received phone calls from unknown callers threatening to bring her to court. In the face of these threats, she began to take precautions.

Martínez, who normally took the threats against her lightly, felt the danger creeping closer to her. In an article published anonymously about half a year before she was killed, the journalist wrote that she “lived in a climate of terror.”

I lock every door in the house,” she wrote. “I lock every door in the house. I don’t sleep and when I go out I am always looking behind my back to make sure that there’s no danger

“La Chaparrita” lived alone and refused to let anyone into her house. Even the other journalists who made up the “band of undesirables” weren’t allowed in.

Her house was her refuge — until that too was infiltrated.

In December 2011, after coming back from spending time with family during the holidays, Martínez returned home and immediately realized that someone had recently been inside her house. Everything was in order except for the bathroom. The room was filled with steam, as if someone had just gotten out of the shower. Her new soap bottles had also been opened, she told her closest friends.

Despite her friends’ suggestions, Martínez decided not to go to the police.

“She was afraid, but she didn’t want to make her situation public because she didn’t trust in the justice system,” Trujillo said.

Regina’s lifeless body was found in her house four months after the break-in. A neighbor had called the police after seeing the door left open in the middle of the night. Martínez was found lying on her back in the bathroom, her head against the tub. Her body was covered with bruises and she appeared to have been strangled with her bath mat.

House of journalist Regina Martínez, filmed in Xalapa, Veracruz. (Credit: Rubén Espinosa / Proceso)

 

A bungled investigation

Twenty-four hours after she was found dead, Amadeo Flores Espinosa was announced as the local prosecutor in charge of the case.

“All leads that might clarify this unfortunate case will be explored,” he said in a statement at the time.

A federal investigator from the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against the Freedom of Expression, created in 2010 to fight against the impunity for journalist killings in Mexico, was also called in. The young woman in charge of the agency — FEADLE by its Spanish initials — was Laura Borbolla.

Borbolla arrived in Xalapa alongside her team of 14 officials four days after Martínez’s murder.

With her young face and pink headband, Borbolla doesn’t seem like the type of person who would have participated in the extradition of some of the biggest Mexican criminals, including the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel. Until now she had never spoken on record in detail about Martínez’s case.

Laura Borbolla, attorney for FEADLE (2012-2015) in Mexico City, 2020. (Credit: Forbidden Stories)

In front of the camera, Borbolla recounted what she saw as a colossally-flawed investigation that she believes ended with an innocent man behind bars.

“Looking back on this case puts me into a state of complete anger,” she said, unprompted, at the start of the interview.

Borbolla remembers discovering a strange crime scene at Martínez’s house. She said that local police in charge of the case destroyed fingerprints in the house by putting an excessive amount of revealing powder — a skill she noted is taught in the first year of criminology studies.

Never in my career had I seen such an altered crime scene

“It wasn’t an accident,” she said, adding: “That error didn’t only happen once.”

Borbolla was able to successfully reveal two sets of fingerprints that had not been found by other investigators but that were never identified.

Other objects that had reportedly been found at the scene of the crime — such as beer bottles — were not given to her to be analyzed until months later when they were handed over in a plastic bag. The bottles had been manipulated, making it impossible to perform any kind of analysis, she said.

Borbolla believes that the mishandled crime scene wasn’t just the product of amateur detective work. She accuses the police chief Enoc Maldonado of willing negligence. “He would say, ‘Of course, Madame the Procurer, anything you need,’ and then he would turn around and tell the others to give me nothing,” she said.

A perfect scapegoat

Borbolla found out — like many others in Mexico — through watching the television that a suspect had been arrested. Six months after the investigation was launched, Flores, the state prosecutor with whom she was supposed to have worked on the case, announced in a press conference that they had “successfully cleared up the murder of Regina Martínez.”

The motive of the crime, he said, was a burglary. The killer, furthermore, had already confessed to Martínez’s murder.

At the press conference, the suspect was brought out in handcuffs by hooded and heavily armed police officers. “Raise your head, imbecile,” the officers said to him in front of the crowd of gathered reporters.

The guilty suspect was revealed to be Jorge Antonio Hernández Silva, better known by his pseudonym ‘El Silva.’

According to the prosecutor, ‘El Silva’ went to Martínez’s house along with a friend, José Adrián Hernández Domínguez — also known as ‘El Jarocho’ — who local authorities said was Martínez’s romantic partner. According to their version, a dispute arose and the presumed killers made her reveal where she kept her valuables. ‘El Jarocho,’ they said, then beat her repeatedly until she was lifeless before fleeing the scene and disappearing for good.

Screenshot of Jorge Antonio Hernández Silva, alias "El Silva," being presented on television as the alleged co-author of the murder of Regina Martinez, October 31, 2012. (Credit: Plumas Libres)

Borbolla never believed in this theory. The federal prosecutor said that numerous indications at the crime scene did not seem to suggest a robbery gone wrong.

“Everything was in order,” she said. “If it had been a robbery, everything would have been in disarray.”

A number of valuable objects, she added — such as a brand new CD player, a printer, her purse and her gold earrings — were not taken from on top of the dresser.

The day after the press conference, ‘El Silva’ walked back his confession, saying that it had been extracted under torture. “They had a sort of taser and they gave me electric shocks on my chest,” he said in a statement to the magistrate. “I couldn’t tell who did it because they had blind-folded me.

‘El Silva’ said that it was most likely the police who tortured him. Maldonado, the police chief at the time, refused to respond to these allegations. Contacted by Forbidden Stories, Maldonado denied all of the accusations against him. “The police staff who conducted this investigation performed their work in accordance with the law,” he said.

Hernández’s lawyer Diana Coq Toscanini used all of the legal recourses available to her to try to get her client out of prison, but has not been successful.

“He’s 34-years-old, HIV-positive and he’s going to die,” she told Forbidden Stories. “He’s the perfect scapegoat.”

The official story

Forbidden Stories and its media partners were given access to Martínez’s entire case file. According to the more than 1,000-page document, Hernández’s fingerprints were never found at the crime scene. The only charge against him comes from a single eyewitness account from a neighbor who said they saw him and ‘El Jarocho’ going together toward Martínez’s neighborhood.

Borbolla was never able to find this mysterious witness, nor was she allowed to interview ‘El Silva’ alone.

“We might never know who killed Regina, but I know who didn’t kill her,” she said.

‘El Silva’ was sentenced to 38 years in prison for aggravated robbery and homicide. He has since maintained his claim of innocence in conversations with his lawyer, the only person who visits him in prison. Borbolla, who stayed at FEADLE until 2015, refused to close the case.

Flores, the former prosecutor who is now a notary public in Xalapa, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. “Everything is in the case file,” he said.

The way that the truth had been constructed felt like a bad screenplay

The official version of Martínez’s death given by the Veracruz authorities — that of a crime of passion — quickly spread across social media. An article from the site El Golfo Veracruz was widely circulated on Twitter. “The PGJ [local prosecutor] clears up the homicide of Proceso correspondent Regina Martínez,” the title read.

Among the Twitter accounts that shared this story, Forbidden Stories discovered a number of fake accounts. Partnering with “The Disinformation Desk,” a Barcelona-based organization that specializes in disinformation, Forbidden Stories was able to identify 190 so-called ‘robot’ or ‘bot’ accounts that automatically shared the El Golfo Veracruz article. These bot accounts also shared other favorable coverage of Governor Javier Duarte.

Infographics: Aldo Salgado.

Forbidden Stories was able to identify the owner of El Golfo Veracruz as Othón González Ruiz, who was also a consultant for Governor Duarte at the same time. Interviewed by Forbidden Stories about the article in question, González, who calls himself a journalist, said that the case was not so black-and-white.

“For me, there was never a clear resolution of the affair,” he said. González denied any implication in — or knowledge of — the bots.

Jorge Carrasco, Martínez’s colleague and now the director of Proceso, also witnessed the effort to construct an official narrative about her death. After Martínez was killed, Carrasco was put in charge of covering her case for Proceso. After several round trips to Veracruz and months of reporting, Carrasco published an article on March 14, 2013 that shed light on the inconsistencies of the investigation in Veracruz.

“The way that the truth had been constructed felt like a bad screenplay,” he said.

Jorge Carrasco, Proceso Director, Mexico City, 2020 (Credit Forbidden Stories)

Immediately after publication, Carrasco began to receive anonymous threats by text message. “Stop investigating,” the texts read. “If you continue, they will come after you.”

Carrasco also received threatening text messages containing his home address. The threats had the intended effect. The director of Proceso was forced to stop the investigation and none of his colleagues ever picked it back up.

Local authorities, rather than treating Martínez’s journalistic work as a lead, instead began to investigate Martínez’s own network of friends. Many of them were fingerprinted and questioned, making them feel as if they were the murder suspects rather than witnesses. Authorities asked them who the journalist liked to hang out with and about her sexual orientation. Not a single question, they said, was about her journalistic work.

Carrasco, speaking to Forbidden Stories eight years later, said that he never had any doubts that Martínez was killed for her journalism.

“We wanted the authorities to investigate her journalistic work as a lead, and for the people who might have been bothered by her publications to be identified,” he said.

The corrupt governors

Many of Martínez’s articles shook the political class in Veracruz. Three weeks before her death, Martínez and a colleague at Proceso published a damning article about supposed links between two former Veracruz officials — Reynaldo Escobar and Alejandro Montano — and the Los Zetas cartel. The article listed all of the assets Montano had acquired through ill-gotten means. The next day, around 3,000 copies of Proceso mysteriously disappeared from the shelves of kiosks across Veracruz.

Forbidden Stories and the 60 journalists who make up The Cartel Project investigated the leads of Martínez’s reporting and traced the international networks of individuals she wrote about, starting with Fidel Herrera and Javier Duarte, the two former governors who ran Veracruz for more than a dozen years.

The 2010 election of Javier Duarte marked the beginning of a reign of terror for journalists. Including Martínez, 16 journalists were killed during the six years of his mandate alone. Contacted by Forbidden Stories, Duarte, for his part, responded with a Tweet from prison, where he is currently serving a nine-year sentence: “I have never censored anyone’s freedom of expression or freedom of the press,” he wrote.

Despite the clear danger, Martínez investigated Duarte’s lack of financial transparency and spiralling debt in the state of Veracruz during his mandate.

Javier Duarte, governor of Veracruz (2010-2016) speaks to the "El Lencero" Police Academy for a police graduation in Xalapa Veracruz. (Credit: Rubén Espinosa / Proceso)

Duarte resigned from his position in 2016, after being accused of illicit enrichment and embezzlement. An international arrest warrant was released against him and he fled the country by helicopter, landing in Guatemala. Six months later, he was arrested and extradited to Mexico. The investigative news outlet Animal Politico discovered 400 shell corporations that he reportedly used to embezzle public money. In 2018, he was sentenced to nine years in prison for money laundering and criminal association. The sentence was accompanied by a $3,000 fine — a laughable amount considering the millions of dollars he is accused of having embezzled.

“I’ve seen governors over my time involved in embezzlement and violence but he stands head and shoulders over all of them,” said one senior DEA official with extensive tours in Mexico.

In her articles, Martínez regularly pointed her fingers at the heritage left over for Duarte by his predecessor Fidel Herrera, a bigwig in the PRI, the political party that has almost exclusively governed Mexico for 70 years.

Herrera had amassed considerable wealth, even for a state governor, according to Proceso: a private jet, 22 cars, including an armored vehicle, ranches, a hotel, a yacht. Herrera says that he was able to gain all of this wealth through nothing more than dumb luck, which he said he had had “since his childhood.” He won the lottery in consecutive years: winning $6.8 million in 2008 and $3.6 million the following year.

Herrera would take money from everyone. He was always into a kickback

Fidel Herrera Beltrán, Governor of the State of Veracruz (2004-2010) February 28, 2006, in Xalapa, Veracruz. (Credit: Carlos Tischler / Proceso)

A perhaps more likely source of his incredible wealth was a system of corruption known in Mexico as the “diezmo,” or the “tenth.” This kickback system may have helped the governor to embezzle large amounts of money from public contracts.

According to a former official who served under multiple administrations in Veracruz, contractors who obtained public contracts — for example to build a road or highway — would pay 10 percent of the value of that work indirectly to Herrera through his associates. That same source confirmed having personally delivered multiple suitcases full of money destined for Herrera to his associates.

“It could be at the airport, at someone’s house, at a cafe, a hotel, in a different city,” the former official said, “wherever he ordered me to go.”

The DEA confirmed this vast system of corruption. “Herrera would take money from everyone. He was always into a kickback,” said one senior DEA official with extensive tours in Mexico. “In oil, horse-racing, mining, heavy equipment.

Despite multiple requests for comment, Herrera refused to respond to questions from Forbidden Stories.

‘Zeta 1’

Martínez didn’t only look into Herrera’s embezzlement schemes. The journalist also investigated his connections to organized crime.

In 2011, Martínez wrote that at least half of the Herrera administration had been infiltrated by the Zetas cartel. Several months after her death, a photo published in the local press showing Herrera riding horses alongside Francisco ‘Pancho’ Colorado Cessa — a businessman later tried in the US for laundering money for the criminal group — rekindled suspicions of Herrera’s ties to the Zetas. The Mexican news outlets that published the photo later received physical and legal threats from a journalist close to Herrera.

The 2013 court case against Colorado in the state of Texas revealed more details about the arrangement between the two men. During the trial, former Zetas’ accountant José Carlos Hinojosa said that he transferred $12 million to Colorado in order to finance Herrera’s 2004 gubernatorial campaign.Mexican media later revealed that the Herrera administration gave out 22 public works contracts to a company that Colorado used to launder the Zetas’ money. Scott Lawson, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation, said at the trial that in exchange for helping get Hererra elected, the Zetas would be allowed to freely operate their drug trafficking operations in Veracruz.

In Mexico, no investigations were ever launched against Herrera. Herrera, for his part, publicly denied any involvement with organized crime in a television interview. “My hands are clean,” he said. “I never received a single illegitimate cent for my campaign.”

The Zetas called Fidel Herrera ‘Zeta 1’ because he was the one who ran the state

Security experts, however, contend that the relationship between Pancho Colorado and Fidel Herrera wasn’t purely anecdotal.

“Fidel was the boss of the bosses,” said Jorge Rebolledo, a security expert for a number of foreign governments and companies who spent more than 10 years in Veracruz. “The Zetas couldn’t have operated in Veracruz without his permission and he used them to maintain order in some parts of the state.”

Arturo Fontes, a retired FBI agent who spent 28 years investigating drug trafficking networks and money laundering in Mexico and Colombia confirmed this.

“The Zetas called Fidel Herrera ‘Zeta 1’ because he was the one who ran the state,” he said.

The consul and the criminals

Despite suspicions of corruption and possible links to organized crime, Herrera’s political career was largely unaffected. In 2015, he was named Mexican consul to Barcelona by President Enrique Peña Nieto.

In the Catolonian capital, the designation of a former governor suspected of collusion with drug cartels was met with disapproval. The chief criminal investigator of the Catalan police, “Mossos d’Esquadra,” Toni Rodriguez, revealed to Forbidden Stories and its media partners that his team had begun collecting information about the links between the consul and money launderers in Barcelona.

At the center of this criminal network was Bernardo Domínguez Cereceres, a businessman who owned a publishing house that was investigated in 2018 for money laundering. Contacted by Forbidden Stories, the businessman admits to having known Herrera and having visited him on multiple occasions — even inviting him to his wedding — but denied any commercial relationship with Herrera.

“He never made any sort of commercial proposition,” Cereceres said. “He only asked me to edit his books, that’s it.”

The Catalan police also looked into Herrera’s relationship with Simón Montero Jodorovich, a member of Barcelona’s underworld who stands accused of running one of the most active drug trafficking rings in the area and laundering money for consuls. Although Jodorovich and a number of his associates were arrested in 2019 for money laundering, Herrera was able to slip through the cracks. The former governor left his position in January 2017, effectively ending the Catalan police’s research.

Screenshot from the twitter account of the Mexican consulate in Barcelona, with Simon Jorodovich, accused of directing one of the most active drug trafficking groups in Barcelona, ​​to the right of Fidel Herrera (Twitter / @ConsulMexBCN).

Since returning to Mexico, Herrera still has never been sentenced. The former governor did not respond to any of the emails sent to him by Forbidden Stories. His son, Javier Herrera Borunda, told Forbidden Stories that his father’s health condition made it impossible for him to respond to the questions we sent.

At 71-years-old, he has become untouchable. Despite a number of investigations brought against him since 2010 none have ever bore fruit. Nor has the former governor, or his successor, ever had to answer for the thousands of people who disappeared in Veracruz during his mandate.

Mexico’s mass grave

Through several matching testimonies, Forbidden Stories was able to determine that before her untimely death, Martínez was getting ready to publish an explosive investigation into Veracruz’s disappeared and had even located the location where some of them may have been buried. The journalist had published a few lines about this topic in a separate piece for Proceso, but the in-depth article she was preparing in the months before her death never saw the light of day.

Preferring to stay anonymous out of fear for his own life, a former high-level official explained that the disappeared people Martínez had been investigating were individuals the government and cartels wanted to get rid of. Among them were business owners who refused to submit to cartel extortion and young women that drug traffickers found to their liking and who were never able to return to their homes.

“Finding these bodies was like searching the sand for turtle eggs,” the source said. “You would scratch the surface and find bodies upon bodies.”

The official estimated that between 24,000 and 25,000 people disappeared in Veracruz during the mandates of Herrera and Duarte. Official statistics from 2015 put that number at about 5,000. According to the official, “the instructions were that this information never become public.”

In 2015, after the discovery of a number of mass graves and the continued silence of the authorities, journalist Marcela Turati began to map the clandestine graveyards containing bones, skulls and other human remains.

“It seemed crazy that the state was not keeping track of the clandestine graves in Mexico,” she said.

For a year and a half, Turati and her team discovered on average two new hidden graves per day. In total, she counted 2,000 across the country. Mexico, she found, was becoming an open air cemetery. For the journalist, this count was just the beginning.

“In some regions, the prosecutors were still in cahoots with the cartels,” she said. “They preferred to hide the bodies and not be transparent about the statistics.”

It was like going into a lion’s den. I told her that neither myself nor anyone else wanted to go there with her

According to individuals close to Martínez, the reporter had begun to investigate Mexico’s disappearances in 2009. At the time, nobody imagined the sheer scale or horror of the situation in Mexico. The family members of disappeared people held out hope that their loved ones had been simply kidnapped, and were not buried ten feet under. Oftentimes fear of speaking out prevented them from going to the authorities for help.

Despite the danger, Martínez started to look for the bodies of the disappeared. She told Andrés Timoteo, the journalist who fled Mexico after Martínez’s death, that she had been looking for the bodies in public morgues, but to no avail. She asked him to come with her to speak with police sources.

“It was like going into a lion’s den,” he thought. “I told her that neither myself nor anyone else wanted to go there with her.”

Martínez didn’t stop there. In July 2011, she interviewed Father Solalinde, who ran an inn for migrants attempting to reach the United States through Mexico. The priest recounted a number of testimonies from migrants who had made it past the Zetas cartel, who kidnapped them and asked for ransom money before allowing them to continue heading north. If they refused or couldn’t pay, they were executed and their bodies piled up in clandestine graves in the desert.

The graves were so full that the bodies were overflowing

At the end of 2011, several months before her murder, Martínez’s investigation had begun to pick up steam. ‘La Chaparrita’ had confided to a friend that she had embarked upon the most dangerous investigation of her career. She believed that she had determined where some of the disappeared had been buried. This time, however, it wasn’t the cartels that made them disappear, she believed, but the authorities themselves.

Martínez contacted photographer Julio Argumedo. Argumedo, who had never spoken publicly until now, said that he remembers going along with Martínez to a number of mass graves, including one at Palo Verde, near Xalapa.

“The graves were so full that the bodies were overflowing,” he said.

Photo of the mass grave at the port of Veracruz, during a visit with Julio Argumedo, July 2011. (Credit: Julio Argumedo/Veracruz en red.mx)

As Argumedo took pictures, Martínez spoke to the gravediggers to try to find out where the bodies were coming from. According to her calculations, the number of bodies buried in these mass graves had increased by 1,000 percent between 2000 and 2012.

According to the photographer, Martínez’s investigation was very near publication. “I didn’t know the exact date, but I knew that she was getting ready to publish very soon,” he said.

In the years that followed Martínez’s assassination, the biggest scandal in Mexico was uncovered bit by bit. Loved ones whose family members had disappeared organized brigades that scanned the ground for human remains. Starting in 2014, the Mexican authorities had no option but to follow suit. Thousands of mass graves were subsequently discovered across the country.

Today in Palo Verde, where Martínez investigated nearly 10 years ago, a man continues to look for traces of a mass grave. He is looking for his daughter Gemma, who disappeared in 2011 at the age of 29. After much insistence, the authorities admitted to him that her remains had been found in a plastic bag that had been deposited at Palo Verde. But they refused to dig around the entirety of the three-and-a-half acre plot of land where his daughter is almost certainly buried, along with many others.

“I have nowhere to put flowers for my daughter, to speak to her,” he said. “It’s like I’m rowing against the current. The authorities have no reason to dig. They just want to cover each other’s backs.”

In 2016, mass graves were found in the backyard of the Veracruz state police academy. Arturo Bermúdez, who served as public security secretary under Duarte, has since been put on trial. He’s accused of having headed a death squad implicated in the death of at least 15 people. He was conditionally freed in 2018 and is currently awaiting trial.

Even today, reporting on mass graves in Mexico remains dangerous. Turati and her team had to stop their on-the-ground investigation abruptly after receiving death threats. “They told me that if we continued, we wouldn’t get out alive,” she said.

She was a journalist who stirred things up. I think that the mass graves could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back

On November 9, 2020, Israel Vázquez, a reporter for El Salmantino, was killed as he investigated the discovery of human remains in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato.

A high-level government official who was privy to sensitive internal conversations said that the mass graves could have been the subject that led to Martínez’s death. “She was a journalist who stirred things up,” he said. “I think that the mass graves could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“Disappearances are a very sensitive subject,” he added. “It’s not a crime like a homicide where the person is killed and it’s over. With a disappeared person, you don’t know whether they’re dead or alive. So the families keep putting pressure on the government and the government doesn’t like that bad press.”

A presidential promise

It’s impossible to know how far Martínez had gone in her investigation because her materials were stolen on the morning of her death. Borbolla, the federal prosecutor, noted that “they didn’t steal all of her work affairs, but rather her computer and two cassette tapes with her latest interviews.”

According to one of her friends, killing Martínez was a way to bury the truth. “By killing her, they burned down the library of Babel.” he said.

In 2015, the investigation into her death was officially closed by local Veracruz authorities. Asked about her case by Forbidden Stories at his November 17 press conference, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador committed to reopening the case if he could find a legal basis for doing so — a promise that may not do enough to heal Veracruz’s wounds.

Eight years after Martínez’s death, the cloak of silence is still palpable. Her friends preferred to meet with us at our hotel — looking right and left, fearful of being spied on. All of them were threatened after the journalist’s death and remain afraid to this day.

Andrés Timoteo has still not stepped foot back in Veracruz, where now the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG by its Spanish initials) has replaced Los Zetas. Journalists in the region — and across Mexico — avoid naming specific cartels, instead opting to refer to them as “organized crime.” Many journalists in Veracruz won’t say the names of Fidel Herrera and Javier Duarte out loud. Duarte, currently in prison, could be freed as early as 2022 thanks to a lightened sentence.

Each year, this silence is broken on one day. On April 28, the anniversary of Martínez’s death, her friend Norma Trujillo organizes a march in front of the governor’s palace — a building Martínez was never allowed to enter. And every time organizers put up a plaque in the central square, renaming it “Regina Martínez Square.”

Each year, the authorities take down the plaque. Even in her death, Martínez continues to disturb.

Tomb of Regina Martínez in the Bosques del Recuerdo cemetery, Xalapa, Veracruz, 2020. (Credit: Forbidden Stories)

Jules Giraudat (Forbidden Stories), Arthur Bouvart (Forbidden Stories), Nina Lakhani (The Guardian), Dana Priest (Washington Post), Antonio Baquero (OCCRP), Veronica Espinosa (Proceso) and Lilia Saúl (OCCRP) contributed to this article, among others.