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VICE News

A Mexican Journalist Is Murdered After Reporting a Fugitive Police Chief's Alleged Criminal Ties

His last article, published two days before his murder, was part of a series he had written in recent weeks on chupaductos — teams of cartel-linked bandits that steal fuel and oil.

by Andrea Noel
Aug 14 2014, 9:30pm

Photo via AP/Félix Márquez

A Mexican journalist was shot and killed on Monday after accusing a local police chief of leading a criminal gang in the last article he published. He was at least the third reporter to be violently attacked in Mexico in less than two weeks.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists' 2014 Global Impunity Index, Mexico ranks seventh among places where murders of journalists are likely to remain unsolved, right behind Afghanistan. It's ranked first in the Western Hemisphere, followed by Colombia and Brazil. Mexico's special prosecutor for crimes against freedom of expression counted 102 journalists killed in Mexico between January 2000 and June 30 this year.

Octavio Rojas Hernández, 47, was at home with his family in the Oaxacan town of Cosolapa when a young man came to the door in the late afternoon asking if a car parked out front was for sale. According to a statement from the Oaxaca attorney general's office, the man fired four bullets after Rojas stepped outside to discuss the vehicle, hitting him twice in the head and once in the chest and shoulder. The killer immediately fled, and Rojas was pronounced dead at the scene.

Rojas had been working as a reporter for El Buen Tono, a newspaper in the nearby city of Cordoba in Veracruz State, which has been the site of a violent turf war in recent years between the brutal Zetas drug cartel and its former patron, the Gulf Cartel. His last article, published two days before his murder, was part of a series he had written in recent weeks on chupaductos — teams of cartel-linked bandits that syphon off fuel and oil from illegally tapped pipelines for sale on the black market.

As many as 10,000 barrels of oil are stolen in Mexico every day, an astonishing figure recently highlighted in the VICE News documentary "Cocaine & Crude." Mexican newspaper El Universal revealed earlier this year that oil and gas theft from Pemex, Mexico's state-owned petroleum company, skyrocketed 1,548 percent between 2000 and 2013.

Mexico topples oil theft ring, but cartel threat still lingers over state-owned petroleum company. Read more here.

Rojas's final article did not include his byline, but Miguel Ángel Contreras, the news director of El Buen Tono, told VICE News that Rojas was the paper's only reporter in the Cosolapa area, making it relatively easy to deduce his authorship. The article reported that the Mexican army and Oaxacan state police had broken an oil-theft ring, and noted at the end that the police chief of Cosolapa, Fermín Vanegas Fernández, was "believed to be the alleged leader of this well-organized criminal cell dedicated to fuel theft."

Authorities are reportedly searching for the Cosolapa police chief, who is considered a fugitive.

Rojas was also working as the municipal press officer for Cosolapa. When the Oaxacan attorney general's office announced an investigation into the homicide, it referred to Rojas's municipal employment but made no mention of his side job as a reporter, prompting concern that it would neglect the likelihood that his journalism had something to do with his death.

Journalists in small communities in Mexico often work other jobs to help support themselves.

"We and his family, and even sources at the city hall, believe that [Rojas was killed] because of his articles," Contreras said. He suspected the involvement of local officials and police.

Contreras told VICE News that the newspaper was heightening security but not planning to change its coverage. He added that a patrol car has kept watch outside the offices of El Buen Tono since 2011, when criminals set the newspaper's headquarters on fire.

"The attack against our collaborator has not caused us to be more fearful — quite the opposite," Contreras told VICE News. "We want to work harder and continue to inform."

Fatal shooting highlights threats facing community and indigenous radio stations in Mexico. Read more here.

Rojas's death follows two recent fatal attacks against reporters in Mexico.

Nolberto Herrera Rodríguez, a cameraman and reporter for a local news outlet in Zacatecas, was found dead in his home on July 29. His body had been stabbed more than 20 times.

Just four days later, on August 2, Indalecio Benítez, the operator of a community radio station in a combative area of the state of Mexico, came under fire as he arrived home with his family. The bullets missed Benítez, but his 12-year-old son was shot and later died.

Follow Andrea Noel on Twitter: @metabolizedjunk