“Mica/DrivingMSSQL” for Borderlandbeat.com.
The text message came from a source in the local police: A car was burning along the Tijuana highway that traces the Pacific Ocean. There was a body in the back seat — another apparent homicide.
Inés García Ramos received the tips multiple times a day as the editor of Punto Norte, one of the city’s only independent newspapers. She chronicled the drumbeat of violent crimes carried out not just to kill, but to impress and intimidate. It was as if the murderers of Tijuana were competing against one another to see who could commit the most gruesome acts.
Her viewers shot messages back asking for more details. Some of them had relatives who had disappeared and were wondering if the victim might be their loved one.
“So far we don’t have any details on the deceased,” García told her audience.
What she didn’t say: Most likely, she never would. The killing would almost certainly not be solved; only about 2 percent of crimes in Mexico are each year.
But García had her own explanation for the city’s soaring homicide rate. She had watched as the spike in violent crime mirrored the surge in the trafficking of synthetic drugs. She had written about how large quantities of fentanyl remained on this side of the border, too, turning swaths of the city into open-air drug markets.
The violence and the drugs — she was sure they were connected. For over a year, she had been looking for a way to document that link. García dispatched Punto Norte photojournalists across Tijuana to investigate the city’s wave of crime.
Martínez was Punto Norte’s first photographer. He started shooting crime scenes by accident in 2003, snapping a few photos of a killing he happened upon. It was a natural fit: Martínez quickly became the heart of the city’s press corps, his camera always in the passenger seat. Rosales was a taxi driver who learned from Martínez, publishing his photos on Facebook until he got his own contract.
In January, at 49, Martínez was killed. He was gunned down while he sat in his beige Ford Escort outside his home. Witnesses saw a man shoot him and flee the scene. Martínez’s wife and teenage daughter found him lying on the ground.
The slaying marked the beginning of another year of historic violence for Mexican journalists. Since 2019, 50 journalists have been killed in Mexico, making it the most dangerous country in the world for media workers.
They decided they needed to find out who was behind Martínez’s death.
Their run of coverage began in January when García and her colleagues published a story about the gun used to kill Martínez, tracing it to several other homicides across the city.
“The 9mm pistol that took his life had been used in various crimes related to territorial disputes between drug dealers,” the Punto Norte team wrote, “and used by criminals who had been detained over and over again, but were set free to continue committing homicides.”
In Martínez’s slaying, the journalists saw a concrete example of how drug trafficking, drug use, and soaring violence were all linked.
In March, at the first hearing in Martínez’s case, García was the only journalist in attendance. The prosecutor read aloud the text message exchange between the men who allegedly ordered Martínez’s killing, a criminal network that reported to David López Jiménez, known as “El Cabo 20,” who had been affiliated with the Arellano Félix and Jalisco New Generation cartels.
“I need a soldier to commit murder,” José Heriberto, one of López Jiménez’s affiliates, said in a message. “He’ll be paid 20,000 pesos [about $1,000].”
Listening to the messages, García noticed that the men ordering Martínez’s killing kept two conversations open at the same time. One was about the homicide, and the other was about drug dealing.
“Today is Saturday, a good day for sales,” Christian Adán, another member of the group, wrote to Heriberto, referring to their local drug business.
Then the conversation immediately returned to the killing.
“Send me Margarito’s location,” Heriberto responded.
García stopped taking notes and sighed.
“It just shows you how closely these two crimes are linked,” she said. “Selling drugs and killing people.”
She had seen more proof of that link in February, when Mexican authorities arrested 10 suspects in the case. In the same raid, they also seized a stash of drugs that included cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.
López Jiménez, she learned, had been detained and released six times before he allegedly arranged Martínez’s killing, a case study in the way the judicial system cowers before powerful criminals. Four of those arrests were related to selling drugs, including a charge that he had operated a drug laboratory in central Tijuana. He was arrested in August for arms possession; prosecutors later said he was responsible for Martínez’s killing.
There was something both satisfying and heart-rending about getting to the bottom of the crime, García said. It happened so rarely in Mexico. Prosecutors appeared to take Martínez’s case more seriously because of the amount of attention it received, including from the U.S. government.
The case is ongoing, but the court dates are infrequent. García’s days are once again consumed mostly by routine crime coverage, like the story of the charred corpse in the back of the SUV.
After she ended her Facebook Live segment, the waves crashing behind her, García ran through the possibilities of what happened to the victim in the back seat. Maybe it was the violent end to a lover’s quarrel. Or a drug dealer deposing his rival.
She would try to follow up with her sources the next day. She would try to get more details on the crime.
But by then, she knew, there would be another homicide to cover; another alert on the police scanner of an overdose death; another load of synthetic drugs seized at the scene of another violent assault, never to be solved.