ONE THING I’VE LEARNED as a journalist working on the border is that stepping into the space of a criminal investigation in Mexico can be something like entering the world of magical realism. I was reminded of this in May, when I arrived one Friday morning during visiting hours at the Cereso II prison, in Nuevo Laredo. As I walked toward the sprawling, unpainted cinder-block complex, I mentally ran through my list of questions and tried to picture the person I was about to interview: He was a 23-year-old gay man from across the border, a Laredo native named Mario Medina who had supposedly confessed to slaying 42-year-old Roberto Javier Mora García in the early-morning hours of March 19. Mora had been the editor of El Mañana, Nuevo Laredo’s most respected newspaper, and his death had raised fears that the murder was a form of reprisal for his outspoken coverage in a region increasingly ruled by drug cartels and so-called narcopolitics. But according to the State of Tamaulipas, the stabbing was nothing more than a crime of passion. The police had focused on Mario after he and his 28-year-old Mexican boyfriend, Hiram Oliveros Ortiz, who was the editor’s upstairs neighbor, called Mexico’s emergency hotline to report the killing. Mario told investigators that he had heard a metal trash can fall near the apartment building and stepped outside to check on the noise, only to find Mora’s bloodied body.
I had come to talk with Mario specifically because there were reasons to wonder if he was in fact innocent, yet another scapegoat for a government that prefers to solve its high-profile crimes quickly and neatly. Soon after his arrest, he claimed that his confession had been coerced. Mario told a Mexican state judge and the press that the officers who had arrested him hit him and tortured him psychologically, telling him that they had already killed Hiram and that they were going to show him Hiram’s body so that Mario could see what they were capable of doing. He even identified the two officers who he said had directed the torture, Israel Castellanos Castillo and Adán Nava Correa, both of whom failed to show up at a subsequent hearing on the allegations. In the meantime, the state human rights commissioner who had witnessed Mario’s confession declined to testify on the matter. In a journal entry written from prison on April 17, Mario wrote that one of the state’s prosecutors had warned him “that if I changed my story, bad things would happen to me in jail.”
Despite these threats, I didn’t expect any problems getting an interview with Mario. Since his arrest, he had talked—nervously, the Mexican papers reported—to anyone who’d asked for his version of the story. But on the way into the compound, I passed two television crews preparing for a live broadcast. I asked what the big news was.
“One of the two suspects who was being held for murdering that newspaper editor was killed last night,” a man with the American crew said.
I felt slightly nauseated. “Which one?” I asked. Hiram had also been arrested, charged with not reporting Mario’s alleged crime, and the two were sharing a cell.
“Mario Medina,” he replied. Then I got the details: Shortly before 8:00 p.m. on May 13, Mario was in the prison’s commons area when he was stabbed more than fifty times in the face, neck, and upper body. He never made it to the hospital.
Given the number of criminal investigations I have covered in Mexico, I don’t know why I was so surprised and disturbed by the news of Mario’s death. Three years ago I wrote about another Mexican American, Junie Herrera, of Presidio, who was arrested in Ojinaga, Chihuahua, and framed for killing a local journalist. In that case, the state government’s two witnesses were heroin addicts, one of whom had been in prison the day she supposedly witnessed the murder. Currently I am researching the events surrounding the eleven-year epidemic of rapes and slayings of dozens of girls in Ciudad Juárez, including the story of a bus driver who was physically tortured into confessing that he had killed eight of the young women. When his case became highly publicized and was taken up by the Mexican Human Rights Commission, the driver mysteriously died in prison after undergoing an unauthorized surgery.
It’s because of these experiences that I’ve come to understand the Mexican criminal justice system as a world of slippery slopes, a place where mysteries sometimes overshadow facts and few things can be decisively verified or discarded as false. It’s also a journalist’s worst nightmare: Every Mexican and American newspaper that reported Mario’s death had slightly different factual details about the killing. But if things often seem magically real, it’s not because the supernatural reigns in Mexico. These conditions are orchestrated by the state, which has discovered the power of obscurity and of ruling by intimidation.
The Roberto Mora and Mario Medina cases fall into this realm. On the surface, the government’s account of the murder is tidy and intriguing. Because Mario was a “schizophrenic, aggressive, and paranoid homosexual,” as thenTamaulipas attorney general Francisco Cayuela Villarreal had sketched him, he began to imagine that his partner was having an affair with the editor. According to Mario’s initial confession, he waited for the editor to arrive home on March 19. When he saw Mora’s 2002 yellow Ford Escape approaching the apartment building around two in the morning, he confronted him and threatened him with a knife. Mora tried to flee, tipping over the 55-gallon metal drum that served as the complex’s trash can. Mario allegedly stabbed him 26 times while Hiram watched from the balcony and screamed, “Don’t kill him!” Prosecutors say they retrieved a knife from the couple’s apartment that had blood splatters that have been matched with Mora’s DNA.
But the government’s credibility fades with Mario’s death, for which a consistent and logical explanation has not been provided. On the one hand, a jail administrator told reporters that another inmate, Roberto Herrera González, killed Mario because of a long-standing feud between them. But a supervisor for the state attorney general’s office in Nuevo Laredo, Roberto Maldonado Siller, had a completely different story: that Mario had been making sexual advances toward his killer. “It’s surprising because it’s a death, but it’s not surprising because of what [Herrera] said, that [Mario] was sexually harassing him,” he said, raising his eyebrows insinuatingly.
In addition to being inconsistent, both explanations are unconvincing. Why would Herrera, a 30-year-old Mexican national who’s serving a sentence for transporting firearms and who has four other criminal proceedings pending—including two involving homicides—have a “long-standing” feud with a 23-year-old Laredo college student who hardly spoke Spanish? Why would Mario have made passes at an intimidating prisoner when he shared a cell with his romantic partner and spent all of his time with him? Even more troubling: Why was the scene of Mario’s murder scrubbed clean before investigators could get to it?
Beyond the legal questions, the murder cases of Roberto Mora and Mario Medina reveal some serious social blemishes that should worry not just Mexicans but any of us whose lives are affected because we share an international border. For one, it appears that Mario and Hiram might have been targeted by the police because of their sexuality. Following a ridiculous logic, the state’s prosecutor at one hearing presented sexually explicit photographs of them that were taken from Hiram’s computer as evidence of the defendants’ “moral quality.” When I spoke to Mario’s mother, Viviana Medina, she showed me the letter he wrote from prison in which he said he was scared because “it seemed the police didn’t see us as humans, but gays.” He wrote, “When all your life you have been scared of who you are, it frightens you when it is used against you.” The rest of his letter drips with fear. He said he was scared when he saw Mora’s body on the street and scared when the police began acting tough with him, touching their guns and wrapping his wrists in newspaper to handcuff them behind his back. He was scared that his mother might never know what had happened to him, scared that Hiram was already dead and that he would soon be too.
But Mario wasn’t the only one who was afraid. What causes more concern is that none of Hiram’s neighbors came forward as witnesses. Nobody except Hiram and Mario claimed to have heard the 55-gallon trash can fall. Nobody heard the editor’s screams or Hiram allegedly shouting at Mario to stop. It’s as if the morning of Friday, March 19, had been the start of just another peaceful day in the Colonia Jardín, one of the city’s nicest neighborhoods. What’s more, according to Mario’s letter, the rest of the fourplex’s tenants decided to move out after Mora’s murder because they didn’t feel safe, including a man who owned a car identical to Mora’s, which initially raised suspicions that the murder was a case of mistaken identity.
The day of Mario’s murder, I had visited the small brick apartment complex at 3890 Guanajuato Street. It was deserted, the gates to the top apartments padlocked and the first-floor wrought-iron doors stuffed with yellowing advertising supplements. The house next door was for sale, and the street was quiet except for the din of a nearby road crew. I have sensed the same attitude in Juárez, where being street-smart means fleeing from crime scenes and denying having known anything. And given the facility with which anyone can be imprisoned in Mexico, I understand the fear of having to face the police under any terms, even if it’s simply as a witness. It is certainly too easy for me to say—living protected as I do on the other side of the border—that Mexico needs to start standing up to the police. But to do the opposite, to live in fear and worry about saving one’s own skin, is to let civil society lose the war against corruption and authoritarianism.
Why were Roberto Mora and Mario Medina murdered? The U.S. embassy is now demanding answers, as even the consul in Nuevo Laredo, Michael Yoder, received conflicting stories when he inquired about Mario’s death. In the days before the Laredoan was killed, Yoder had visited the prison and been assured that Mario and Hiram were being kept in a cell segregated from the general prison population; according to Mario’s mother, that had not been true since April 2. Maybe Mario was talking too much. Or maybe the police didn’t want the investigation of Mora’s murder to go any further; now that Mario is gone, his case in state court and his appeal before a federal judge are automatically closed.
The day after Mario was killed, Hiram was scared and jittery, and he refused to share any information about his partner’s murder with the press. “It’s not good for my security,” he said from behind a prison gate. And so Mario’s family will likely never know what really happened to their son, nor will they ever have a chance to prove to the Mexican government that he was innocent. But the questions still surrounding Mario’s case—and his murder—will continue to speak louder than his confession.