Flowers, candles, and photographs sit outside the entrance to the Government Palace in the Mexican city of Xalapa, Veracruz. Most passers-by only pause to glance at the mementos before moving on. Such makeshift shrines to victims of Mexico's violence have become commonplace in many parts of the country.
The memorial was placed in honor of local photojournalist Rubén Espinosa and political activist Nadia Vera, slain at a Mexico City apartment along with three companions on July 31. Yet it also represents the loss of countless other lives in this picturesque university town that has become infamous for its climate of impunity.
"For a long time, I thought these things only happened in other countries," one journalist who knew Vera and Espinosa told VICE News at a café in the heart of Xalapa's colonial center. He requested anonymity due to security concerns. "Elsewhere in Latin America, maybe. But when you see your friends and colleagues dying, you begin to feel very differently."
Veracruz has transformed into one of the most dangerous and opaque states in Mexico, with hundreds of unsolved disappearances, rampant extortion, frequent kidnappings, and no fewer than 14 journalists killed in the past five years.
Vera and Espinosa fled the state for the country's capital after receiving threats against their lives. According to Mexico City prosecutors, the pair and the three other victims were bound, beaten, and killed with gunshots to the head. Before her death, Vera publicly blamed Veracruz Governor Javier Duarte for the threats she had received.
Onlookers to the memorial in Xalapa insist that the event was a tragedy, but decline to suggest why Vera and Espinosa may have been attacked. There is an undeclared code of silence in Veracruz, a sense that merely talking about the situation may put you in danger.
"Why are journalists being killed?" the reporter who spoke to VICE News asked rhetorically. "I'm not sure there's just one reason. It's part of the general atmosphere here, along with organized crime, politics, and everything else.
"The common denominator is that the state failed to protect them even after they had been threatened. And nobody expects the murders to be solved."
At least for now, Vera and Espinosa are among the journalists and activists from Veracruz whose murders remain a mystery. In 2012, Regina Martínez, a correspondent for the national news weekly Proceso, was strangled to death in her apartment. Earlier this year, Moisés Sánchez, a local newspaper editor, was abducted from his home in the municipality of Medellín de Bravo.
Bloodshed and impunity have afflicted much of Mexico in recent years. Yet certain states have become notorious for a vacuum of transparency. Violent atrocities occur frequently in Veracruz with few details released to the public. Media reports criticizing one of the country's most controversial governors are rare.
For many, Veracruz is a place where, in the words of peace activist Javier Sicilia, it is difficult to tell where organized crime ends and the state begins.
On September 20, 2011, 35 dismembered bodies were dumped on a busy freeway outside a shopping mall in Veracruz City, one of the country's most important seaports, 50 miles southeast of Xalapa on Mexico's Gulf coast. Even amid the daily horrors of the drug war, the grisly incident shocked the country.
A few days later, a video was uploaded to YouTube in which seven masked men claimed responsibility for the attack. Calling themselves "Zeta-Killers," sworn enemies of the infamous drug cartel known as Los Zetas, they vowed to "cleanse" the state of their rivals.
Veracruz City is where Spanish conquistadors first landed on Mexican shores in the 16th century, and where the US Navy invaded the country in 1847. Today, drugs, weapons, and other forms of contraband enter via the historic gateway, drawing many of the country's most powerful criminal organizations to the region.
Former members of the Mexican Special Forces formed Los Zetas in the late 1990s, and the gang initially served as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel before branching out on their own. They have since gained a reputation as one of the country's most brutal armed groups.
Following the notorious 2011 massacre, then-President Felipe Calderón indicated publicly for the first time that a Mexican state had effectively been captured by organized crime.
'There is a pact of impunity in the country where leading politicians are effectively untouchable by the law.'
"Yes, it's a case of the state empowering the criminals," Calderón admitted in the wake of the atrocity. "I believe that Veracruz was left in the hands of Los Zetas. Whether it was voluntarily or involuntarily, I don't know; I would like to suppose the latter."
Much of the controversy has surrounded Durate, the current governor and a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). During his 2010 election campaign, Duarte was publicly accused by an opposition candidate, Miguel Ángel Yunes Linares, of ties to Los Zetas.
Yunes, who belonged to Calderón's National Action Party (PAN), published an open letter to the president in which he stated: "We have very substantial evidence that… Duarte has strong links to drug trafficking. Specifically with Los Zetas, an organization that has been a key source of financing for the group represented by Duarte and (former governor) Fidel Herrera."
Both Duarte and Herrera fiercely deny the claims, and no high-ranking official from the state has been prosecuted. Yet the lack of transparent investigations into such matters amounts to what one specialist on Mexico refers to as a "pact of impunity" among the country's leaders.
"Veracruz is not the only place where this is happening, but it's one of the most severe cases," Edgardo Buscaglia, a lawyer who has advised the Mexican government on security issues, told VICE News. "There is a pact of impunity in the country where leading politicians are effectively untouchable by the law. Mexico has become a jigsaw puzzle of political mafias, and the federal government has lost the capacity to reel them in.
"It's impossible to say if any specific individual or organization is targeting journalists," Buscaglia said. "We have no evidence of that. Yet when there is complete impunity, anybody can take advantage of the situation — whether they be organized crime groups, police officers, the military or politicians."
Several reporters in Xalapa told VICE News that journalism has become an increasingly precarious activity in the city. The majority are paid extraordinarily low rates, local media refrain from criticizing government or covering crime, and bribes are often thrown at reporters to buy their silence.
"It's not a job that's highly regarded anymore," said one journalist. "In the eyes of the public, you're either a_vendido_ (someone who's been bought) or a chismoso (someone who goes around spreading rumors). It's hard to do serious investigative journalism in Veracruz, period.
"If you look at those journalists who have been killed, they were working on a variety of issues," he continued. "Some were working with police sources. Some were writing about government corruption. Others were active in social organizations.
"If I'm honest, I'd say the reasons they were targeted probably vary. The one connection is that authorities didn't lift a finger."
In June, Duarte drew fierce criticism when he publicly accused journalists in the state of "colluding" with organized crime and urged them to "behave themselves."
"Unfortunately, the criminals have ties to lawyers, businessmen, public officials, and also people collaborating with the media," Duarte claimed at a luncheon.
Asked whether there's a sense that government officials were behind the murders, one journalist responded, "It's impossible to know."
"What I would say is that there is a lot of repression in the state generally," he said. "At any protest march, for example, you will see infiltrators — nobody knows who they are — taking pictures of the journalists who are there to cover the event.
"They want to know who is attending the marches. It discourages you from going out there and participating, asking questions. People are afraid to say what they think."
The fact that Vera and Espinosa were killed in Mexico City, a metropolis unaccustomed to the violence that has swept other parts of the country, ensured substantial media coverage of their deaths.
'If you work in this profession, you walk around looking over your shoulder, wondering what might happen next.'
In a rare move that indicates the high-profile nature of the case, Mexico City prosecutors traveled to Veracruz to question Duarte personally on August 11. In a public statement, the governor described the attack as "aberrant."
Only one arrest has been made in the case thus far, although the suspect appears to have no obvious connection to Veracruz. Investigators have yet to confirm a motive for the killings.
One fellow photojournalist described Espinosa as "a really warm person who was there for anyone who needed him. He was a photographer, an activist, and above all, a great friend."
"We go on without knowing what's really happening," said another. "If you work in this profession, you walk around looking over your shoulder, wondering what might happen next."
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Watch the VICE News documentary, **The Missing 43: Mexico's Disappeared Students:**