Dateline Texas

Who killed border journalist Jose Luis Ortega Mata?

On April 29, 42-year-old Jesus Manuel Herrera, known to his friends and family as “Junie,” crossed the border into Ojinaga for what was supposed to be a day at the races. But Herrera never came back. Instead, he was arrested at the track by Chihuahua State Police and charged with the February murder of journalist José Luis Ortega Mata. Herrera, who remains in prison in Ojinaga, insists that he is innocent and is the scapegoat in a tainted judicial process.

Ortega had worked as a journalist for more than 15 years, was the president of the local journalists’ association, and occasionally wrote for publications on the U.S. side of the border. On February 19, the editor of the weekly El Semanario was shot to death. His body was found on the sidewalk next to his van; the motor was still running and the were lights on, his wallet and cameras intact.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York 10 Mexican journalists were killed from 1990-1999 because of their work. The northern border has become the most dangerous place for Mexican journalists to work because of the combination of drug-trafficking, corruption, and isolation–reinforced by the out-of-sight/out-of-mind mentality that prevails in the media centers of Mexico City, New York and Washington. There is also the problem of murky relationships between reporters and the people they cover. CPJ is still investigating the deaths of two border journalists killed last year. And just weeks after Ortega was killed, the assistant editor of El Imparcial, a Matamoros newspaper, was found shot to death. As CPJ’s Americas director Marylene Smeets points out, the issues on the border are especially complex and it’s often difficult to determine whether a journalist was killed because of his work or for other reasons.

One of the last stories that Ortega worked on was a series of articles he published about a drug warehouse in Aldama, just outside Chihuahua, the state capital, that implicated state law enforcement officials. Had he been killed because of his work? Other sources, including the police chief of Ojinaga speculated that “a crime of passion” was involved instead.

“After a reporter is killed, they always come up with all kinds of things about his personal life,” said Armando Bustamante, the owner of El Semanario. Bustamante is a U.S. citizen who lives in Odessa. He prints his free weekly newspaper in Pecos, a holdover from the bitter 1992 Chihuahua electoral season, when muckraking opposition journalists were threatened. (One of them was Ortega’s brother, Armando. See “Election Day in O-J,” July 24, 1992 by Jack D. McNamara.) As the case of José Luis Ortega Mata and Junie Herrera makes clear, “border journalism” knows no borders.

No matter what they come up, half the people won’t believe it,” Ojinaga Police Chief René Cardona, a former journalist, told John MacCormack of the San Antonio Express-News last February. “They’ll think whoever is arrested is being made the scapegoat.” So far, Cardona’s predictions have proved accurate, as the proceedings against Junie Herrera have done little to explain what happened to Ortega and why. The day after Herrera’s arrest, his friends and family joined reporters from both sides of the border in a small, sweltering office to listen to listen to the evidence being presented against the third-generation Presidio resident, whose family owns and manages the oldest grocery store in town. They listened in disbelief as court officials read into the record an eyewitness account by a woman named Guadalupe Valenzuela Lozano of Ojinaga, implicating Herrera in the death of the 37-year-old El Semanario editor. Valenzuela had reported that on the night of February 19, she saw a man, whom she described as short and moreno, or dark-skinned, fire the shots that killed Ortega. Then the assassin drove away in his truck, she said. Herrerra is tall with a fair complexion.

As the initial proceedings came to a close, Chihuahua State Prosecutor Arturo González and an entourage of reporters from the state capital breezed past the onlookers and surrounded the defendant. During the press conference that followed, reporters pointed out discrepancies in Valenzuela’s testimony. But González persisted, saying that his office had sent a team of the best homicide investigators in the state to Ojinaga and that there was a declaration from a witness that “had all the characteristics to sustain the arrest.” He did not provide a motive. Herrera has said that he knew Ortega only as a customer at the grocery store.

In protest of his arrest, Herrera’s supporters from both sides of the border, including the mayor of Presidio, blocked the international bridge. “Nothing against the state prosecutor’s office or the judicial police, but they just can’t go blaming whoever they want. This is an injustice,” said Presidio County Commissioner Jaime Ramirez.

Ojinaga Police Chief Cardona would seem to agree. After hearing that Valenzuela had identified herself as a prostitute and heroin addict, Cardona, a former journalist, searched jail records to see where Valenzuela was the night Ortega was shot. He produced documents indicating that Valenzuela could not have witnessed the killing since she was in jail at the time. “It was my obligation to present this information, otherwise I would be committing an injustice,” he said. “I don’t know if [Herrera] committed the crime…what I do know perfectly is that Guadalupe did not see what she says she saw.”

Following his revelations, El Diario de Chihuahua produced a series of articles with interviews of local police as well as addicts from the Ojinaga Plaza, discrediting Valenzuela’s statements. But the judge who issued the order that Herrera remain in prison pending the outcome of the ongoing investigation refused to admit the Ojinaga jail records that Cardona had presented. A spokesman for the State Prosecutor’s Office says that’s because those records were tampered with. Balbina Flores, who monitors threats to journalists for the Mexican Academy of Human Rights in Mexico City and the French non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders, notes several “irregularities” in the Ortega case. Officials produced an arrest fairly quickly, compared to most cases involving journalists, she said. She also noted press reports that Valenzuela had been threatened and had sought official protection.

The investigation of Ortega’s death and the arrest of Herrera is further complicated by the fact that the local Ojinaga government is controlled by the PAN, or National Action Party, while the state government is controlled by the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party; there is longstanding animosity between law enforcement officials from the two levels of government.

The case is also at least indirectly affected by the overall atmosphere in Chihuahua and the fallout from a higher profile crime that puts all law enforcement officials on edge. On January 17, Governor Patricio Martínez was shot in the head near his office at the state capital. Amazingly, Martínez survived the shooting. A former policewoman was arrested for the crime, but recently Martínez told the Mexico City newspaper Reforma that he doesn’t believe she acted alone. Last month El Diario de Juarez reported that an FBI informant had linked the assassination attempt to the Juarez cartel. And late last year, a few weeks before the governor was shot, the federal Attorney General’s representative to the state of Chihuahua was arrested on charges that he tried to bribe local law enforcement officials.

Meanwhile, Herrera and his family insist that Chihuahua politics and the tangled web of narco-corruption have nothing to do with him. Herrera has appealed the initial ruling in his case. “We want this anguish to end,” he said in an interview via cell phone from the Ojinaga prison. “I don’t know why they [Chihuahua state authorities] chose me.”

Adds his sister, Chely Baeza, “We don’t care about the PRI and the PAN. We want them to do their work and find the real assassin.”

Rosario Salgado Halpern is the co-owner of the Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa and The International, a bilingual weekly covering Presidio and Ojinaga, to which José Luis Ortega Mata occasionally contributed.

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Published at 12:00 am CST