Translated from Spanish by Sara Mellor
A couple of weeks ago I got a phone call from a young colleague. Rubén Espinosa asked me how one spends so many years living in fear, how one learns to process an endless succession of death threats – some of them veiled, others direct and crystal clear.
For this young photo reporter (a correspondent for Cuartoscuro photographic news agency and Proceso magazine), sleeplessness, loss of appetite and depression (which he called sadness in an attempt to downplay its punishing daily presence) were enemies he had to get used to living with.
I recommended a therapist specializing in posttraumatic stress (PTSD), a disorder that is so often the collateral damage of the work of journalists and those professionally involved in defending human rights.
PTSD is that shady figure who takes up residence in the life of anyone who experiences either sudden instances of violence or intense and systematic forms of it. PTSD puts both the bodily integrity and emotional wellbeing of the victim at risk.
Rubén had learned to coach his colleagues in matters of security: how to graphically document injustices and civil protests, employing strategies to safeguard both their personal safety and photographic material (the hard evidence of reality).
Along with some colleagues, both male and female, Rubén received help from the organization Article 19 to escape Veracruz and go into exile. Together with the other brave photojournalists who formed part of the #FotoperiodistasMX group, he decided not to give up, despite the very real and disturbing death threats he had received over the previous years for doing a good job in Veracruz; it’s all documented.
Along with some colleagues, Rubén was forced to move to México City where he lived with a group of close friends, including the activist, artist and anthropologist Nadia Vera, who was part of Xalapa’s #YoSoy132 movement.
‘Considérate enemigo del pueblo [Consider yourself enemy of the people],’ Veracruz’s government spokesperson said to Rubén as he blocked his entry into a press conference in which governor Javier Duarte was due to speak.
This happened after the publication of the now famous front cover of Proceso magazine, which depicts Duarte pulling a threatening, contemptuous face, and wearing a police cap. At the time the photo was taken, the people of Veracruz were already protesting against terrible government practices, corruption, impunity, and the lack of public safety. Their protests were vocalised in now well-known slogans which, according to Espinosa himself, enraged the governor’s security team: many of the slogans made reference to Duarte’s weight problem, and his irascible, violent, racist and sexist nature.
The truth is that Rubén Espinosa was a good photographer. He took hundreds of important photographs. With a single image he achieved what no amount of words could have achieved in any serious way on a news page: without filters, he let the real Duarte shine through: the clenched-fist metalanguage, the furious gaze, his name and station embroidered onto his shirt. ‘Javier Duarte. Governor,’ read the red letters across his chest – and let no one question it.
‘Governor’ reads his cap, complete with police badge: a gold star, symbol of power and social control. Yet, according to the photo’s author, this wasn’t the root of Duarte’s anger: for the governor, the real affront was the close-up that clearly exhibits his morbid obesity (a source of insecurity to Duarte, who has always feared being the target of mockery). Hence why he has an official photographer, whose responsibility it is to always photograph him from favourable angles.
It might seem trivial or ludicrous to state that many leaders take personal offence at the journalists (both male and female) who expose those unmistakable aspects of their personality that make them feel insecure, and which they take pains to conceal. We’re not only talking about physiology, but about the gestures that betray everyone, no matter how hard one tries to conceal them.
Rubén told me that the same spokesperson relayed to him the governor’s outrage at another famous Cuartoscuro close-up in which Duarte’s eyes appear to be popping out of his face, like a kind of incensed gargoyle; in the same photo he can be seen launching his body at a group of journalists who are questioning him, and baring his teeth in a clear sign of attack.
Over and over again, they warned Rubén not to stay in Veracruz, that he was on the enemies’ black list.
Rubén never received therapy for his angst, or got to work through the anxiety he took on hearing the fears of countless colleagues and the daily threats they received, for being journalists or human rights activists. He was murdered on Friday 31 July alongside activist Nadia Vera – a brave young woman with a firm voice and a spark in her eyes – who challenged the powers that be and injustices in Xalapa, Veracruz. Their bodies, along with those of Alejandra Negrete, Yesenia Quiróz and Mile Virginia Martín, were found tortured and shot. The weapon used was a military 9mm firearm and the shots were clean: both firm characteristics of hired assassins.
Only those who live under death threats know how the clock marks the hours differently. Not only does it imply living with fear, but it also goads the spirit of self-censorship that makes us ask: Is it worth it? Is exposing yet another atrocity in a country of despicable leaders really worth the risk? I can only answer that it is always worth telling the truth, always worth fighting against ignominy and trying to build a country in which it is worth growing up, living, loving.
And then there is the ever-present guilt of us men and women who survive: we wear that guilt like a tattoo when the threats are shared, until one terrible night you learn of the openly forewarned death of that person you just spoke to on the phone; a person who had faith, who believed in ethics; a person with whom you repeated like a mantra: They won’t dare kill you: not after all the denunciations against him; not after you’ve openly pointed the finger at your potential murderer. They won’t dare kill you.
I can hear Rubén’s voice, and the voices of many other colleagues singing along side by side at a solidarity march: ‘No se mata la verdad matando periodistas.’ / ‘You cannot kill the truth killing journalists.’
English PEN members have joined writers from around the world in condemning the murder of Rubén Espinosa. Read the letter here.