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Indigenous journalists murdered in Mexico

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OAXACA, Mexico - On April 7, two indigenous radio journalists were shot to death near Oaxaca in an ambush that also wounded two adults and their two young children. Human rights and reporters' advocates are calling the incident an assassination; they are also asserting that it was not an isolated incident.

Mexican authorities have confirmed that two Triqui broadcast journalists - Teresa Bautista Merino and Felicitas Martinez Sanchez, who worked at The Voice that Breaks the Silence community radio station - were killed on their way to the city of Oaxaca, where they were slated to participate in the State Forum for the Defense of the Rights of the People of Oaxaca. The driver of the vehicle, Faustino Vazquez Martinez, along with his wife, Cristina, and their children, Gustavo, 3, and Jaciel, 2, were wounded and taken to a hospital near the city.

As of press time, none of the survivors had issued public statements about the attack, but speculation about the reasons behind it has made national and international headlines.

Activists from various regional and international groups are calling the murders political assassination by the state, and demanding a full investigation by federal prosecutors. A government spokesman claimed that the real target was one of the other adults, and that it was part of a regional political feud.

The slain journalists worked for a community radio station that dealt with political, social and cultural issues affecting the mostly indigenous town of San Juan Copala, which is also an autonomous municipality. The Voice that Breaks the Silence radio show had been running for three months before the attack; journalists Merino and Sanchez, as well as some of their colleagues, had publicly criticized several political officials, including the controversial governor of Oaxaca, Ulises Ruiz. According to San Juan Copala officials, Ruiz is the person who had Merino and Sanchez killed.

''People from the government of Ulises Ruiz contacted them to threaten them,'' asserted Jorge Albino, communications director for San Juan Copala, at a local press conference the week after the shootings.

''They were told that if they spoke out they would be in danger; if they kept their mouths shut, they would receive resources,'' Albino said. Mexican officials at the state and federal levels did not respond to Albino's accusations, but one spokesman did comment on the crime.

Evencio Martinez Rodriguez, a representative of the federal attorney general's office, said that the intended target of the assault was the driver of the vehicle, who works for the regions Civil Registry office. He did not give further details on his assertion.

While not directly accusing the Ruiz administration of complicity in the crime, other human rights and reporters rights groups have joined the campaign to seek justice for the indigenous journalists.

Organizations such as the Indigenous Communities Union of the Northern Zone, the World Association of Community Broadcasters, Article 19 (an international human rights agency devoted to freedom of expression issues), Oaxaca Human Rights Commission, the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights' Mexico office, and Reporters Without Borders have all issued calls for full investigations and for quick prosecution. Each of the organizations has also recommended special protections for the surviving witnesses.

''It is more than an act of harassment and aggression against the Triqui people's struggle for autonomy,'' said Carlos Beas Torres of the Indigenous Communities Union. ''It is a sign of the brutal repression in Oaxaca, with the complacency of the federal and state governments.''

Other regional activists, such as Omar Esparza of the Community Support Center (known as CACTUS in Spanish), explained that a local political group was deeply involved in the repression and that it has been going on for years. Esparza said that the Popular Unity Party maintains ''heavily armed groups'' that attack the communities and had ''already dismantled'' various radio stations of the Indigenous Community Network of Radio and Television.

In their combined press release in reaction to the crime, the WACB, Article 19 and Reporters Without Borders echoed some of the local activists' complaints. Among other items they called for was ''an end to the climate of impunity that is allowing such acts of aggression, disappearances and murders to continue to be committed against members of community media, as well as journalists and media outlets in general, which is making Mexico the continent's most dangerous country in which to work as a journalist.''

''It is important to recall that it is not the first time when Oaxaca community radios operated by indigenous communities suffer aggressions,'' the statement continued. ''In 2006, the personnel of Radio Nandia, a licensed radio from Mazatlan Villa de Flores, was violently expelled from the installations. Radio Cadena personnel, broadcasting from San Antonio de Castillo Velasco, were attacked by bullets.''

Mexican authorities have stated that they had recovered more than 20 shell casings from the crime scene that are linked to AK-47 assault rifles, but as of late April no arrests had been made in the case of the Triqui broadcast journalists.

The Voice that Breaks the Silence radio show is still off the air.