A former reporter for Mexico's media conglomerate Televisa who was poised to begin an independent newspaper was among six victims shot dead by an armed commando just after midnight in the state of Veracruz.
According to authorities, the shooting took place just after midnight on Thursday, killing journalist Juan Santos Carrera and five others, including the alleged local leader of the Zetas drug cartel in the city of Orizaba, Jose Marquez Balderas, said the Veracruz state prosecutor's office.
Carrera was inside a bar called La Taberna when a group of armed men entered the place. The state prosecutor said he and Marquez were "socializing" at the time of the attack, although it was unclear how well the Zeta figure and the reporter knew each other. Another local report said the gunmen approached the men and spoke to them before they began firing.
Veracruz is the state that murdered photojournalist Ruben Espinosa fled before being executed along with four women two weeks ago in Mexico City.
Santos was identified as a father of two, including an infant, and had reported for the state news agency of Televisa. The multinational media group controls a majority of broadcast outlets in Mexico and has been accused of collusion with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
Judith Frias, a Televisa spokeswoman, said Santos worked as a reporter in Veracruz and that he sometimes shared visual material with the company. Santos stopped working for Televisa about a month ago, but there were no details on why their business relationship ended, Frias told VICE News.
According to two of his colleagues in the neighboring city of Cordoba, Santos was about to launch an independent newspaper in Orizaba in the following days.
"Last week he came to Cordoba to buy paper. He had a promising future, he was just beginning his business," one of Santos's colleagues, who wished to remain anonymous for fears for his safety, told VICE News.
The reporter also said that Santos and several other journalists received threats from local police officers after they covered a demonstration against forced disappearances some weeks ago. Santos denounced the harassment to the authorities, but "once he made it public, they threatened him in phone calls," the friend said.
'We thought that since he worked for Televisa, he could have more protection.'
Fifteen Veracruz journalists including Espinosa have now been killed during the term of Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte, sparking international outcry among press-freedom groups and human-rights observers.
On Tuesday, Duarte met with investigators from Mexico City in relation to the case of Espinosa and activist Nadia Vera, two of the victims in the July 31 massacre who had denounced alleged threats by Duarte before they were killed.
Thursday's killings further cast a pall over the state and Duarte's administration.
"Could it be what Duarte said, that he'd shake the tree, and the bad apples would fall?" asked a Mexico City AM radio host on Thursday morning.
Two journalists with the Cordoba newspaper El Buen Tono witnessed the shooting that ended Santos's life. Luis Dominguez, the newspaper's editor, told VICE News what his employees told him before they delivered their statements to authorities.
The reporters left work on Wednesday just before midnight, and as they made their way home, they saw Santos sitting in the bar with others. The reporters entered to greet Santos, and minutes later, an armed group stormed in shooting.
The reporters dropped to the ground, and could see Santos's body falling after being shot point-blank. The attackers shot the others and then beat the two reporters, leaving them with a warning, "You are lucky."
The reporters and the other bar customers ran from the scene, and once they were outside, they witnessed a shootout between the armed group and the police. Two policemen were shot, but no one was detained, said the Veracruz statement and witnesses.
"The relationship between organized crime and some state officers has grown tighter" in recent years, Dominguez said. He also recalled Santos as a "close friend […] and a good colleague."
"We thought that since he worked for Televisa, he could have more protection and that something like this would not happen, but I see that's not how things are," Dominguez told VICE News.
This is not the first time that reporters for El Buen Tono have been attacked. On the night of November 6, 2011, a group of armed men entered the newspaper's empty offices in Cordova and torched the place. No one was injured.
"Even our newspaper boys are detained by organized crime. They strip them, slap them, and tell them they will abduct someone if we don't behave," Dominguez said.
Follow Melissa del Pozo on Twitter: @melissadps