January 25, 2021

In 2012, Regina Martínez was killed brutally in her home in Xalapa, Mexico. A journalist for the national investigative weekly Proceso, Martínez had been one of very few reporters in the Mexican state of Veracruz who refused cartels’ bribes or threats aimed at censoring the news. 

“What the local press did not want to publish was published through Regina Martínez,” Jorge Carrasco, Proceso’s editor-in-chief, told The Washington Post.

In early December, the Post published a portrait of the slain Mexican journalist who was known for reporting on two successive governors (Fidel Herrera and Javier Duarte) in Veracruz who she said had looted the treasury and allowed cartels to operate freely with the help of local and state police. Before her death, Martínez had sought to prove the traffickers and their accomplices had executed hundreds of people.

Her investigations were picked up and continued by a team of reporters as part of The Cartel Project, a five-part series involving 60 journalists from 25 media outlets in 18 countries. The front-page story in the Post about Martínez’s death and her work was the first installment of the series. The collaboration was organized and published by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based nonprofit dedicated to continuing the work of journalists silenced by homicide.

Laurent Richard, founder of Forbidden Stories, said this collaborative journalism brings protection.

“If you are looking for some bad guys and you say that you are calling on behalf of 25 international news organizations, it’s really different from calling as a single journalist from Veracruz,” Richard told Poynter in an interview conducted via Zoom.

Richard, a French documentary filmmaker and producer, added that every piece of information is not backed by a single journalist, but by 60, which he said produces “much more fact-checked information.” 

He said drug cartels are killing in connection with organized crime groups that operate on an international level. “The crime’s crossing the border, so our journalism needs to cross the border as well. That’s extremely important, and that’s why collaborative journalism is really the new trend and a new paradigm, that there’s a globalization of crimes — so we need a globalization of journalism.”

Dana Priest, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist for The Washington Post, wrote the portrait of Martinez with other contributors. Priest said she came into the project a bit late, and it wasn’t easy wrapping her head around the groundwork already underway from collaborators in other countries. She’d sometimes wake up to about 80 Signal messages, but learned that not all pertained to her.

“In order for it to work, we really had to share what we were learning, as we were learning it,” Priest said. “We didn’t have to share the names of our confidential sources, but if you got a piece of information that really seemed like (it was) worth following up, then you really wanted somebody overseas, if it was relevant, to try to follow up. We do that in the newsroom between beats, but being able to do it internationally was even more exciting, because sometimes it actually worked.”

The Post story on Martínez revealed how a team of reporters discovered that law enforcement authorities in Mexico, the United States and Spain had opened inquiries into allegations that Herrera (one of the governors Martínez was investigating before she was killed) colluded with leaders of the Zeta cartel while he was governor and took money from them for his campaign. Herrera has not been charged with a crime, the newspaper noted.

Other stories that are part of The Cartel Project include investigations on drug cartels’ expanding supply chain for chemicals used to make fentanyl, the rise of Mexican “cooks” in underground meth labs in the Netherlands and Belgium, and the business of cyber-surveillance companies selling Mexico invasive surveillance technologies that are being turned against journalists.

In 2012, journalist Regina Martínez was brutally killed in her home in Xalapa, Mexico. (Courtesy: The Cartel Project)

Veronica Espinosa, a correspondent for Proceso in central Mexico, was one of several journalists who shared a byline with Priest in the Post story about Martínez. She described collaborating on The Cartel Project as a very intense and enriching experience which also helped her partners in other countries more fully understand the dangers facing journalists in Mexico.

According to the first installment of The Cartel Project, Martínez reported it all: the rape and homicide of a 72-year-old Indigenous woman by army soldiers; the extortion of 80 small-town mayors; and executions of prominent business executives, livestock farmers and peasant leaders.

Espinosa said Martínez was a journalist who was very critical, who investigated and published important information about the corruption of governors in Veracruz, drug trafficking in Veracruz, and more. She added that it was evident that Martínez’s work began to bother the local government.

“Officials wouldn’t answer her questions. She would be blocked from access to press conferences,” Espinosa said. “They would evade her.”

Espinosa spoke to journalists and politicians, many off the record. She said there’s still great fear in Veracruz to speak about Martínez and what happened to her.

“It’s very comforting to know that our fellow collaborators from the rest of the world share a concern for the assassinations, the monitoring and disappearances of journalists in Mexico,” Espinosa said in Spanish during an interview through Signal. “Things haven’t changed much. Despite there being a new government — both on the federal level and in Veracruz — there’s still a prevalent risk. Journalists are still being killed … and this is what we have to face. We have to keep talking, and we have to demand justice until this war against journalists comes to an end.”

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
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