It was just seconds but it felt like hours. At 1pm on January 31, the Mexican journalist Roberto Toledo, 54, went out to the corner store to buy a soft drink and a few chocolate rolls. Toledo was doing work at a law firm in Zitácuaro, a city in the state of Michoacán that is also home to the local news site Monitor Michoacán. As he was walking into the building, Toledo was approached by two young men. One of them was wearing a grey-and-white sweatshirt and the other one had a black cap on, and they wanted to know if he was the person they were looking for. There was a brief conversation, the contents of which will forever remain a mystery. Toledo, who was still holding the bottle of soda pop in his hand, did not know he was about to be murdered. The hitmen waited until he opened the door, then followed him in and shot him in the back.
EL PAÍS has had access to footage that shows the attack and the moments leading up to the murder. The video is in the hands of Michoacán state prosecutors and its authenticity has been confirmed independently by this newspaper. The images show three hitmen driving up on two motorcycles and stopping on a street near the building that Toledo is about to walk into. Two of them, wearing facemasks and head coverings, walk towards the door as Toledo is returning from the store. They talk, then follow him in and open fire inside the courtyard: the man in the white sweatshirt pulls a weapon from his pocket, while the other one draws his gun a few seconds later. After the murder, both race away with their guns in their hands. Toledo was shot eight times at close range, and emergency crews dispatched to the scene were unable to save him. Weeks later, the bullet marks were still visible on the door of the building, as a reminder of the tragedy.
Toledo was the fourth journalist to be killed in January in Mexico by groups with ties to drug trafficking, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist. Monitor Michoacán, the news site that Toledo worked for, had received several threats in the past because of its reporting. This time, the hitmen made good on their threats.
After the murder, one of the killers returned to the scene of the crime to leave two pieces of cardboard with a written message that has been attributed to organized crime, according to the authorities. The message suggested a settling of scores with the lawyers for working for a rival group.
Joel Vera, who heads the law firm and is also an editor at Monitor Michoacán, refuted this version. “They want to create a smokescreen by saying it’s because I cover drug trafficking cases, but it’s not true, I don’t cover that kind of information,” he told this newspaper two weeks ago.
Armando Linares, who heads the news site, said that the threats began over a year ago and had intensified in the days leading up to Toledo’s killing. The news team is convinced that the attack is connected to their reporting work. “We are not armed, our only weapon is the pen,” said Linares.
Roberto Toledo was a versatile journalist who could cover a street demonstration and handle paperwork at the office. He always carried a cellphone in his pocket, ready to take a snapshot or record a video. Like so many other Mexican journalists, he held other jobs in order to make ends meet. He was making around 5,000 pesos ($300) a month.
Michoacán state prosecutors have opened an investigation into the crime and seized the motorcycles allegedly used by the killers, but no arrests have been made so far.
Toledo was the fourth journalist to be killed in Mexico in January, but there has been a more recent case: Heber López, a radio journalist from Oaxaca, was shot at his recording studio earlier this month. Before that, hitmen took the lives of Margarito Martínez, Lourdes Maldonado and José Luis Gamboa.
The Mexican government has yet to announce a specific strategy to end these killings. There were protests at the Senate and Chamber of Deputies on Tuesday, when reporters, photographers and camera operators marched to cries of “We want to stay alive! Freedom of the press!”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent monitoring group, has tallied 138 journalists killed in Mexico between 1992 and 2021.