‘I’m completely unprotected’: the killing of Gustavo Sánchez

By Duncan Tucker and Jan-Albert Hootsen*

A small metal cross, half obscured by the parched undergrowth, marks the spot where the journalist Gustavo Sánchez Cabrera was gunned down. Inscribed only with his name in white capital letters, this modest memorial stands beside a dirt road leading to the village of Morro de Mazatán, where Sánchez lived with his wife and their 15-year-old son, in the southern state of Oaxaca.

Sánchez had been riding on his motorbike with his son at about 8 a.m. on 17 June 2021, when two men in a car rammed them, knocking both to the ground. The assassins fired at least 15 nine-millimeter rounds, killing Sánchez with a shot to the head. His son survived the attack.

Sánchez covered crime and politics in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region for Panorama Pacífico, a Facebook-based news outlet in the nearby coastal resort of Huatulco, and on his personal Facebook page Noticieros Minuto a Minuto. An industrial hub and the site of several government megaprojects, the Isthmus is rich in natural resources and a lucrative corridor for drug trafficking and migrant smuggling. These factors have drawn organized crime to the region in recent years, resulting in a spate of killings of activists opposed to these activities.

Sánchez was killed despite recently enrolling in Mexico’s federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. The Mechanism condemned his murder and asked the National Human Rights Commission to conduct an independent investigation.

It could all have been avoided, if the relevant authorities had acted earlier, when he asked for help.

Marilú Salinas Zárate

The Commission found that Sánchez had asked to enroll in the Mechanism and submitted evidence of threats and aggressions against him on 2 May 2020. He then survived a shooting that left him hospitalized on 13 July and suffered threats and harassment later that year. Yet the Mechanism did not even evaluate his case until 13 January 2021.

Five days later, the Mechanism agreed to incorporate Sánchez under an “extraordinary procedure” in light of the grave danger he faced. Under the Mechanism’s rules, it must resolve urgent cases of this nature and approve protective measures within hours of receiving the journalist’s request.

Yet Sánchez received no such protective measures. The Mechanism did not assign him bodyguards, help secure his home or even provide a panic button. Officials said they would give him the phone number of a contact at the Oaxaca state police he could call in case of emergency. But they did not even fulfill that promise.

Gustavo Sánchez's widow Marilú Salinas Zárate holds a framed photo of him
“Gustavo wasn’t getting the help he was asking for,” said his wife, Marilú Salinas Zárate

Meanwhile, the aggressions continued. On 22 April, Sánchez sent the Mechanism screenshots of death threats he had received over Facebook Messenger. On 16 May, he told them that the man who shot him the previous year had just fired at him again while he was riding home on his motorbike with his son. Sánchez told the Mechanism he had called 911 and the Oaxaca Attorney General’s Office but neither helped him.

Sánchez repeatedly requested a bulletproof vest, to no avail. On 4 June, he told Reporteros Sin Fronteras that, “despite now being under the protection of the mechanism, I’ve not received any concrete measures. The police always say they have no resources… I don’t know how they’re going to protect me. I fear for my life, but unfortunately I have to go out to work, to support my family. If someone comes to my house, I’m completely unprotected.”

On 16 June, Sánchez emailed the Mechanism complaining that he had still not received any protective measures. More than 13 months had now passed since he first requested protection. An official replied: “the notifications corresponding to the protection plan set out by the government board have been made. We’re on time for said measures to be implemented.”

That was Sánchez’s last interaction with the Mechanism. The next morning he was murdered.

In November 2022, Sánchez’s wife, Marilú Salinas Zárate, told Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that he had looked anxious and pale in the days before his death.

“We felt worried, because Gustavo wasn’t getting the help he was asking for,” she said. “He asked for a bulletproof vest, for protection, for them to come and keep him safe… but he never received a thing.”

The Mechanism had installed a security camera and metal bars at their home in response to threats six or seven years earlier, Salinas said, but it removed the camera after three years upon deciding that he was no longer at risk. 

I feel the anxiety, insecurity and fear come back. I don’t sleep normally.

Hiriam Moreno

The National Human Rights Commission concluded that Mechanism staff were repeatedly negligent and “incurred in serious irregularities and omissions that had a direct impact on his life, physical integrity and personal safety.” Despite having the resources to effectively protect Sánchez and his family, the Mechanism “did nothing to protect them”, leaving them “in a state of absolute defenselessness.”

Hiriam Moreno, another local journalist who survived being shot in the nearby port of Salina Cruz in 2019, told Amnesty International and CPJ that Sánchez’s murder was a clear example of the Mechanism’s shortcomings and need for reform.

Moreno said the Mechanism had provided him with bodyguards on several occasions, only to withdraw them months later and leave him with only a panic button. This downgrading of his protection was deeply distressing, he said: “I feel the anxiety, insecurity and fear come back. I don’t sleep normally. When I hear a noise at one or four o’clock I get scared.”

Describing Mexico as “a graveyard for journalists”, Moreno said the attacks have forced him to self-censor and stop investigating crime and corruption. This has cost him income, while he has also stopped socializing and avoids public places.

Sánchez’s family members are also still struggling to come to terms with their new life.

“It’s hit us hard because he was the one who provided for us. And my children were really sad, too. Now I have to be both mom and dad… It’s very hard now that he’s gone,” Salinas said. “It could all have been avoided, if the relevant authorities had acted earlier, when he asked for help.”

*Duncan Tucker is the Americas media manager at Amnesty International. Jan-Albert Hootsen is the Mexico representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists