Reporters Without Borders hails provincial journalist Jesús Lemus Barajas’s release on 11 May and hopes that the authorities will one day explain how he came to be held for three years in the absence of any evidence against him, and compensate him for everything he has suffered. Lemus and his family now plan to go into exile.
The founder and publisher of El Tiempo, a local newspaper in Piedad, in the southwestern state of Michoacán, and a former correspondent of the national daily La Jornada, Lemus was arrested on absolutely baseless drug trafficking charges on 7 May 2008 while investigating drug cartel activity in Cuerámaro, in the neighbouring state of Guanajuato, and was transferred to a high-security prison in Puente Grande (in Jalisco state), five weeks later.
Shortly after his arrest, Reporters Without Borders drew attention to the lack of any hard evidence against him and to the appalling treatment he initially received, which reportedly including beating, torture and death threats.
Lemus was freed under a Guanajuato state judge’s ruling on 11 May that said: “Considering that there are no grounds for even the least suspicion that [Lemus] was linked to drug trafficking or organized crime activities, he is absolved of all charges and is given an acquittal.” His lawyer, Gregorio Medina Salazar, told Reporters Without Borders it overturned the 20-year jail sentence that another Guanajuato state judge passed on Lemus in January.
Lemus is convinced that his work as a journalist was the only reason for his arrest.
“What is clear to me is the government’s hypersensitivity to criticism and the determination of the authorities to use force to obstruct freedom of expression,” he told Reporters Without Borders. “My work was helping to shed light on the relations that exist between government circles and certain drug cartels.”
He said he intended to file a request for asylum in the United States or another country because it was impossible to work as a journalist in Mexico. “During my trial, the authorities did not even recognize that I was a professional journalist. And now that I am no longer in prison, I do not feel safe between the state’s persecution is palpable and I have also received threats from organized crime. I feel as though I am in the middle of this war.”
Michoacán is one of the epicentres of the federal offensive against drug trafficking that President Felipe Calderón launched on 15 December 2006, within days of taking office. This undeclared war is still being waged more than four years later with a toll now put at more than 40,000 dead.
Lemus’s family was harassed and intimidated while he was detained. A score of soldiers searched their home in La Piedad without a warrant on 31 July 2008. After another search on 18 August 2010, a complaint was filed with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
On 31 August 2009, the three lawyers then responsible for defending Lemus – Vladimir Camacho Guzmán, Rubén Emmanuel Castro and Gilberto Estrada – were murdered on the road connecting the state of Michoacán with the state of Guanajuato. Reporters Without Borders met members of the Lemus family and the staff of El Tiempo during a fact-finding visit to Mexico in July 2009.
According to the information available to Reporters Without Borders, the release of Lemus and the release a month ago of the last journalist detained in Cuba leave Latin America with just three journalists in prison for reasons directly related to their work – two of them in Peru and the third in Ecuador.
Also read the Reporters Without Borders report “Organized crime: muscling in on the media.”