(AP) MEXICO CITY - Three photojournalists who covered the perilous crime beat in the violence-torn eastern Mexico state of Veracruz were found slain and dumped in plastic bags in a canal on Thursday, less than a week after a reporter for an investigative newsmagazine was beaten and strangled in her home in the same state.
Press freedom groups said all three photographers had temporarily fled the state after receiving threats last year. The organizations called for immediate government action to halt a wave of attacks that has killed at least seven current and former reporters and photographers in Veracruz over the last 18 months.
Like most of those slain, the men found Thursday had been among the few journalists left working on crime-related stories in the state. Threats and killings have spawned an atmosphere of terror and self-censorship among the journalists of Veracruz, leaving most local media outlets too intimidated to report on drug-related violence. Social media and blogs are often the only outlets reporting on serious crime.
Mexico has become one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists in recent years, with news people disproportionately targeted as a government offensive against drug cartels and rivalry among crime gangs have brought tens of thousands of killings, kidnappings and extortion cases.
Prosecutions in journalist killings are all but unknown, although it is generally the case with almost all homicides and other serious crimes in Mexico.
The latest killings came in Boca del Rio, a town near the port city of Veracruz where police found the bodies of four people Thursday after passers-by spotted four suspicious black plastic bags in a wastewater canal, the Veracruz state Attorney General's Office said. The bodies, pulled from the canal by police boats, bore signs of torture and had been dismembered, the prosecutor's office said.
One victim was identified as Guillermo Luna Varela, a crime-news photographer for the website www.veracruznews.com.mx who was last seen by local reporters covering a car accident Wednesday afternoon. According to a fellow journalist, who insisted on speaking anonymously out of fear, Luna was in his 20s and had begun his career working for the local newspaper Notiver.
The journalist said Luna was the nephew of another of Thursday's victims, Gabriel Huge. Huge was in his early 30s and worked as a photojournalist for Notiver until last summer, when he fled the state soon after two of the paper's reporters were slain in still-unsolved killings.
Huge had returned to work as a reporter in the state, but it was not immediately clear what kind of stories he was covering most recently.
State officials said the third victim was Esteban Rodriguez, who was a photographer for the local newspaper AZ until last summer, when he too quit and fled the state. He later came back, but took up work as a welder. The London-based press freedom group Article 19 said he, like the other two men, had been a crime photographer.
The fourth victim was Luna's girlfriend, Irasema Becerra, state prosecutors said.
Article 19 said in a report last year that Luna, Varela and Rodriguez were among 13 Veracruz journalists who fled their homes because of crime-related threats and official unwillingness to protect them or investigate the danger. The Committee to Protect Journalists said in 2008 that Huge had been detained and beaten by federal police when he tried to cover a fatal auto accident involving officers.
State officials said the killings of the four bore the hallmarks of organized crime and they would ask federal authorities to help investigate.
Veracruz is a common route for drugs and migrants coming from the south on the way up to the United States. Much of the area around the state's main port city on the Gulf of Mexico turned in recent years into a battleground between the Zetas cartel and New Generation, a gang based in the western state of Jalisco that is allied with the powerful Sinaloa cartel led by kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
The Zetas are known for their ruthless targeting of anyone perceived as an opponent, and for their deep infiltration of local law enforcement in many Mexican states.