The Murder of Mexican Journalists Spreads to a Magical Town

At around eight o’clock in the evening on October 28th, Fredy López Arévalo, a journalist in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, pulled up in front of his home in the highland city of San Cristóbal de las Casas. San Cristóbal has been called a crown jewel of a city and designated by the Mexican…

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At around eight o’clock in the evening on October 28th, Fredy López Arévalo, a journalist in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, pulled up in front of his home in the highland city of San Cristóbal de las Casas. San Cristóbal has been called a crown jewel of a city and designated by the Mexican government a pueblo mágico, or magical town. It has carefully preserved colonial architecture and a thriving Indigenous Maya community. Tourism Web sites depict it as a place far removed from the drug trade that has plagued so much of Mexico. An advertising campaign run by the Mexican tourism authority once featured an image of a couple strolling hand in hand in San Cristóbal’s zócalo, or main square, and described the town as being the Mexico people remember.

In the past thirty years, fewer than ten per cent of Mexico’s murder cases involving members of the press in Mexico have resulted in prosecutions.Photograph by David Guzmán / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

López Arévalo—widely known just as Fredy—grew up on a coffee farm in the town of Yajalón, forty miles from San Cristóbal on the eastern slopes of the highlands. He came from an accomplished family. One of his brothers, Jorge, is a professor of economics at the Autonomous University of Chiapas. Another brother, Julio, was a longtime Chiapas correspondent for the Mexico City-based magazine Proceso. Fredy had worked for several Mexico City-based newspapers, covering the wars in Central America, the conflict in Colombia, and the Zapatistas, an armed Indigenous group that, on New Year’s Day, 1994, surprised the Mexican government and the world by occupying several towns, notably San Cristóbal. He eventually returned to his native Chiapas, where he started a news agency, was a broadcaster on XERA-Radio Uno, and published Jovel, a San Cristóbal monthly.

On the night Fredy arrived home, he and his wife, Gabriela, were returning from a birthday lunch that they had hosted at a seafood restaurant—replete with coconut punch—for Fredy’s eighty-three-year-old mother, Doña Blanca Luz Arévalo Abadía, in the lowland city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Photos posted on Fredy’s Facebook page show him beaming. A friend of his described him to me as “muy campechano,” a hearty guy with a genial disposition. As Fredy, who loved to cook, unloaded a case of avocados from the trunk of his car that evening, an assassin walked up behind him, shot him at the base of his skull, and, according to press accounts, sped off on a waiting motorbike.

On the same day that Fredy was murdered, another Mexican journalist, Alfredo Cardoso, was pulled from his home in Acapulco and shot five times. Cardoso’s death in a hospital, several days later, raised the number of Mexican media workers killed in 2021 to at least nine and affirmed the country’s standing as one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism. Jan-Albert Hootsen, a Mexico-based representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me that Mexico currently has the world’s highest number of unsolved murders of journalists—twenty-seven in the past decade—and government officials are often involved. This had the effect, he said, of both creating a culture of impunity and “enabling attacks on reporters.”

I lived in San Cristóbal de las Casas thirty years ago, a time when an event like Fredy’s assassination was inconceivable. A longtime San Cristóbal resident told me, “There was poverty, inequality, but it never felt as if anyone’s life was at risk.” The changes in the small city that made Fredy’s brazen murder possible shed light on what is happening not just in Chiapas but across Mexico.

Months before his murder, Fredy closed the offices and print version of his magazine, Jovel, and began posting prolifically on Facebook. His posts reflected the diversity of his interests: the search for “freedom, dignity and peace” that fuelled immigrant caravans passing through the region, bound for the United States; newly discovered archaeological sites, demonstrating possible connections between the Maya and the Olmecs; mass layoffs at San Cristóbal’s city hall; and his favorite recipes. Three days before he was killed, he posted a recipe for sangría with a quote from the Mexican poet and Chiapas native Jaime Sabines: “If you survive, if you persist, sing, dream, intoxicate yourself.”

Two days before his murder, he posted a two-part message. The first concerned an ongoing conflict between narco-traffickers and the Indigenous population around the municipality of Pantelhó, a couple of hours north of San Cristóbal. Zapatista influence in San Cristóbal itself has waned since the nineteen-nineties, but it persists in rural areas such as Pantelhó, fuelling opposition to traffickers and the government. Through the years, though, drug syndicates have taken control of the Pantelhó municipal government and large swathes of Indigenous land, forcing out several thousand Maya farmers.

In the first part of Fredy’s post, he decried the assassination of Simón Pedro Pérez López, a well-known catechist and member of the Abejas—the “Bees”—a Catholic activist and pacifist resistance group sympathetic to the Zapatistas. A motorcycle-mounted hit man had shot him outside a market near Pantelhó. He was the twelfth person, according to Fredy’s post, murdered in the previous three months. After the killings, Indigenous residents had formed an armed civil-defense group—El Machete—burned the houses of a dozen or more suspected narco affiliates, and occupied Pantelhó’s municipal offices. In the second part of Fredy’s post, he described the murder, which happened one evening in a busy section of San Cristóbal itself, of Gregorio Pérez Gómez, a Chiapas-based prosecutor investigating the violence in Pantelhó. Two men on a motorcycle had ambushed Pérez in his car outside his office and shot him dead.

When I asked a researcher at a Mexican university if there was a connection among the assassinations of Fredy, the catechist, and the prosecutor, he pointed out a fourth killing in San Cristóbal. In July, an Italian N.G.O. worker, who was said to have spoken out against the increasing violence, was shot as he bought food at a corner store while walking home from a bar, where he’d watched the Italian soccer team win the European championships. Asked if he thought there was a link between that murder and the others, the researcher, who asked not to be named, said nothing.

San Cristóbal is a profoundly conservative town with a legacy of deep racism toward its Indigenous population. Until the nineteen-fifties, the Maya were allowed neither to walk on city sidewalks nor to enter the city alone at night. No paved roads connected the city with the rest of Mexico. Since then, San Cristóbal has expanded “almost beyond reason,” the long-term resident told me. The city is now a tourist and expatriate destination. Several downtown streets are lined with bars and restaurants and shut off to vehicular traffic. Parts of San Cristóbal look like an upscale mall in Los Angeles. A large house in the town center can sell for half a million dollars.

The Maya, though, remain marginalized. The highlands surrounding San Cristóbal are still filled with milpas, the small, traditional corn, bean, and squash fields that are the defining attribute of traditional Maya life. But a hundred thousand Maya now live around the city in colonias, crowded neighborhoods where extreme poverty is the norm and the demographic skews young and jobless. Eighty per cent of colonia residents are Chamulas, the largest Maya group in the San Cristóbal region. Tsotsil—the language of the Chamulas—is the lingua franca.

As the population has grown and the corn-and-bean fields in the Maya highlands have become inadequate to sustain it, Indigenous men have had to supplement their incomes with migratory work, according to “Trapped Between the Lines,” a 2014 paper, by Diane and Jan Rus, in Latin American Perspectives. By the mid-two-thousands, Chiapas had become Mexico’s second-largest exporter of undocumented labor to the United States. After the 2008 recession and immigration crackdowns by the Obama and Trump Administrations, large numbers of Maya wound up on the margins of cities such as San Cristóbal. The Maya living in San Cristóbal’s colonias scramble for whatever temporary work they can find. “They’re fodder,” an anthropologist told me, “landless, jobless, marginalized, and hopeless.” Many have been hired by organized crime groups, often run by non-Maya. “The criminal business community is flourishing in Mexico.”

Two to three years ago, young Maya residents of the colonias began to form motorbike gangs known as motonetos. The gangs started as self-defense organizations and included both Maya and non-Maya. As they became more prominent, members began to engage in theft, extortion, and other crimes. Eventually, they developed a reputation for what the anthropologist referred to as “shock troops for local narcotraficantes.” In September, a hundred of the motonetos—many carrying long rifles—flooded the city center, firing fusillades of bullets from automatic weapons in the air. One of the bullets tore through the corrugated roof of an Indigenous family’s home on the edge of town, killing a seven-year-old child.

Nobody I spoke with in San Cristóbal seemed to know what had motivated the mass turnout of motonetos, but it’s difficult to imagine that their show of force didn’t have something to do with narcotics. A former journalist—who’d once worked with Fredy—told me that cocaine was now plentiful in the city. You could have a gram—a grapa—brought to you by a narcomenudista, a motorbike delivery man, for the peso equivalent of ten to twenty dollars. When I asked her about the narcotics trade more generally, she, like others I spoke with, asked not to be named. She said that, as a journalist, she had come to prefer life-style stories. “If you report on narcotics,” she told me, “you run a big risk.”

On October 20th, eight days before he was assassinated, Fredy put up a longer-than-usual post on Facebook. In his message—something of a rant—he claimed that sixty-five per cent of the cocaine that comes to the U.S. enters Mexico through Chiapas’s border with Guatemala, which is, he noted, the widest and most porous border that Mexico has with Central America. He claimed that journalists in Chiapas press were forbidden from even using the word narcopolítico, a politician who works for the drug cartels. Fredy was also critical of the municipal president of San Cristóbal, Mariano Díaz Ochoa. In earlier Facebook posts associated with Jovel, Fredy’s magazine, he’d linked members of the Díaz Ochoa administration to several of the leaders of the motonetos. (Díaz Ochoa declined a request for comment.)

Fredy’s posts were notable not just for their imprudence but also for their nonspecificity. Who were, for example, the municipal authorities who “felt themselves to be giants but were in fact ‘dwarves?’ ” Which narco-traffickers were battling one other municipio by municipio? Much of the vagueness of Fredy’s posts was, no doubt, driven by an attempt to survive. But it also likely reflected his underlying frustration as a journalist—indeed, of any citizen—watching the triumph of criminality without being able to say anything about it.

When I asked about the arrival of narcotics in Chiapas, the university researcher told me that he was intensely interested in how it was unfolding but, out of caution, had been forced to feign indifference when discussing the subject with sources. He told me that, in Chiapas, there was now a self-described Chamula cartel run by a Chamula capo who dressed all in black and wore a pistol at his waist. The cartel transacted its business in Tsotsil—effectively making it the “code-talker” cartel—and had an entente with a much larger and much more violent cartel based in western Mexico and spreading into Chiapas, the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación. “There’s a major smuggling corridor across the highlands,” he told me, “one that connects Guatemala with San Cristóbal, Chenalhó, Pantelhó, and the road north to the Gulf.”

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