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‘It was nothing personal’: Chilling texts hint at planning behind murder of Tijuana journalist

Three individuals have been held over for trial in Baja California for allegedly murdering photojournalist Margarito Martínez Esquivel, an act they viewed as “la chamba” — or just “a job” — according to text messages read in court Tuesday evening.

Their motive for the crime was likely retaliation for publication of personal details and the criminal network of a violent criminal group who controlled the neighborhood where Martínez lived, according to evidence revealed in court. Prosecutors say the criminal group mistakenly believed Martínez was responsible for information published in Zeta and on social networks that exposed the criminal network of a man called “Cabo 20.”

According to a witness who gave testimony to prosecutors, one of the defendants told the witness: “It was because Margarito was making publications on social networks of the man’s family and even passed photographs to the Zeta newspaper.” The judge said the information was given to the witness in the context of why Martínez was killed.

During a process that functions as a preliminary hearing, a Baja California judge read messages aloud sent between the alleged killers of Tijuana photojournalist Martínez before issuing a ruling that it was likely that the three defendants were responsible and bounding them over for trial. The trial date was scheduled for Sept. 8.

“It was nothing personal. La chamba es la chamba. (The job is the the job.),” one message stated.

Martínez, 49, who covered crime and security issues in Tijuana, was shot to death Jan. 17 outside his home as he left for work. A month earlier, he had made an official complaint about threats he had received while working as a journalist and was in the process of seeking protection under a government program. He also worked as a “fixer” assisting international news outlets including the BBC, Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune.

Baja California Judge Lauro Guillermo Vizcarra Romero ordered Christian Adán, alias “El Cabo 16,” José Heriberto, alias “El Huesos,” and Adrián “El Uber” remain jailed until their trial date. He ordered the media not to publish the last names of the defendants, one of whom is a U.S. citizen. In Mexico, full names of individuals are not provided by authorities unless they are convicted of crimes — a measure aimed at protecting their presumption of innocence.

Tijuana photojournalist Margarito Martinez, who was shot outside his home on Jan. 17.

(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“El Cabo 16″ and “El Huesos” are facing the additional charge of being the intellectual authors of the crime based on a Jan. 15 and 16 series of communications in which they talked about having Martínez killed and recording a video of his death, all “by order of ‘El Cabo 16.’”

The judge stressed the most recent court finding did not mean the three defendants have been found “criminally responsible” or “guilty.” But he did find that there was sufficient evidence that it was probable they participated in the crime of homicide with aggravating factors including premeditation and treachery.

Judge Vizcarra Romero read aloud evidence that revealed the apparent motive for the crime was retaliation for investigative newspaper Zeta’s publication of information about a violent criminal group, led by “El Cabo 20.”

David López Jiménez, alias “Cabo 20,” has not been arrested for involvement in Martínez’s murder.

Zeta has reported — based on information the publication obtained from state authorities — that Jiménez is a violent criminal offender who was at one time a leader for the Arellano Félix Cartel. He controlled the Sánchez Taboada area of Tijuana, which is where Martínez lived.

“In 2018, the government of Baja California considered David López Jiménez as one of the priority targets for being materially and intellectually responsible for various homicides and the disappearance of fishermen in the Sánchez Taboada and Los Pinos delegations in this entity in the north of the country,” the news agency wrote in March 2020.

In reviewing aloud pieces of evidence presented in the investigative file by the Baja California prosecutor’s office, the judge on Tuesday also read some messages between the three defendants in which they discussed sending spies to Martínez’s wake to monitor conversations of his family and friends, including other journalists in the Baja California region.

The messages were initially read aloud at a hearing on March 4 and first made public by the news organization Punto Norte.

“Send me the location of Margarito, where he lives,” stated one chilling message. “I need a soldier to commit a homicide,” said another.

Other messages described paying the hitman 20,000 pesos — or about $957 — and another 20,000 pesos to another individual involved.

“Does Margarito know Uber?” Christian Adán (El Cabo 16) asked in a Jan. 16 message to José Heriberto (El Huesos.) Later, Christian seemed to try to prioritize the killing of Martínez, over other possible chambas the group had assigned to them.

“How are we doing with what we discussed?” Christian Adán (El Cabo 16) insists in a message to José Heriberto (El Huesos.) “The 4 is urgent. We are busy presenting our work here with the man.”

The 4 referred to Martínez’s nickname 4-4, according to prosecutors. The nickname refers to how Martínez monitored obscure police frequencies and often joked by responding to questions in police code.

The public defender for the three defendants tried unsuccessfully to get evidence obtained from the cell phones thrown out, arguing the devices were obtained under a search warrant for narcomenudeo or drug dealing. The judge denied the request.

At the beginning of the hearing, Christian Adán (‘El Cabo 16,’) told the judge he had not been allowed to make a phone call to obtain a private attorney, a complaint which his co-defendants echoed. The judge said the hearing would proceed with the public defender.

At the end of the hearing the judge ordered the La Mesa Social Reintegration Center, where the group is being held, to allow each a phone call within 48 hours. The detention center, located near the 20 de Noviembre neighborhood in Tijuana, just across the street from the courthouse, was surrounded with at least two dozen members of the National Guard just before the hearing began Tuesday evening.

A spokesman for the National Guard said their presence near the courthouse and jail Tuesday evening was aimed at addressing high numbers of homicides in the city, rather than being specifically required to protect the jail or court against a possible armed attack.

Ten people were initially detained on Feb. 25 on suspicion of planning and executing the shooting. Three of those suspects have since been released from jail and ordered to later appear on lesser misdemeanor crimes. It remains unclear where the other four people are in their legal process — that information was not discussed during Tuesday’s hearing.

Baja California Attorney General Ricardo Iván Carpio said last week the prosecutor’s office did not plan on letting anyone go who was responsible for Martínez’s murder. He said the investigation is ongoing.

File source

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