MEXICO CITY (AP) – Exiled from the coastal state where he felt threatened for his work, photojournalist Ruben Espinosa still was on edge in Mexico City.
Even in the vast metropolis, he sensed he was being watched. A man approached him in a restaurant to ask if he was the photographer who fled Veracruz, then another stranger did the same at a party, according to friends in whom he confided.
The encounters fueled the fear that had prompted Espinosa to make a pact with a friend after moving to Mexico City in June: They would regularly check in with each other via calls and texts to let the other know everything was OK.
As of 2:13 p.m. Friday, everything was. That was the last time anyone heard from Espinosa.
Later that day he was found shot in the head, his body bound and tortured. The attackers also killed his friend, Nadia Vera, and two of her roommates — a 19-year-old aspiring makeup artist and a woman believed to be from Colombia — as well as their 40-year-old housekeeper.
One person was in police custody Wednesday in connection with the slaying, prosecutor Rodolfo Rios Garza announced, adding that the suspect was identified through a fingerprint found in the apartment and that he had a criminal record. Rios gave no more details.
Mexican investigators have suggested the five may have been killed for any number of reasons, including robbery, and that the alleged Colombian woman was the target. But friends say it's hard to believe Espinosa and Vera, a Veracruz activist who also felt under threat from the state government, would be tortured and killed because they simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Mexico City's prosecutor released a video Tuesday showing the suspects casually walking out of the apartment building and leaving the scene, one in a red Ford Mustang, at 3:02 p.m. Friday. Investigators say the brutal assaults, murders and ransacking took place sometime between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
But Espinosa's final text messages, obtained by The Associated Press, show that at 2:13 p.m. he was still alive. A neighbor in the next building told the AP he saw one of the victims, the woman believed to be Colombian, on the street at 2:30 p.m. talking normally with one of the men who later entered the building and left.
If so, the killers would have had between 30 and 50 minutes to tie up five people, commit the horrific abuse, shoot them in the head and ransack their belongings, leaving the building less than an hour later, one with a suitcase.
The prosecutor's office said it had nothing to add when asked by the AP about the tight time frame.
Espinosa, 31, grew up in Mexico City, the place that much like New York looks down its nose at provincial cities around the country. His family was there.
But he loved Xalapa, Veracruz's mountainous capital city of government bureaucrats and college students, who made for a volatile mix and plenty of news.
The Gulf coast state is known for producing coffee and oil, being a route for migrants heading for the U.S. and having a strong-armed government whose officials have been accused of colluding with the cartels that move drugs and other contraband through the port of Veracruz city.
Since Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte took office in 2010, the state has seen 13 of its journalists killed, 11 inside the state, and three more are missing, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S.-based advocacy group.
Though no one has ever said the governor was directly involved in that violence, Duarte has been criticized for creating a negative atmosphere for the press. He has accused reporters of being involved in organized crime. His administration jailed two bloggers and threatened to jail a photographer (not Espinosa) for exposing groups of vigilantes in the state.
Duarte's administration also has been quick to blame any killing of a journalist on personal motives or accidents. Around the time Espinosa fled the state, authorities reported that another dead journalist, Juan Mendoza Delgado, had been hit by car even though he was missing for several days and was found with a bandage on his head.
It was in this environment where Espinosa worked for the investigative magazine Proceso and photo agencies. He didn't cover drug traffickers or crime, the most dangerous beats for Mexican journalists. His focus was social movements, but he found photographing government crackdowns on protesters proved to be no less dangerous.
It was his coverage of a controversial event that likely led Espinosa to flee. He photographed on June 5 broken windows and bloodied students after masked men with machetes and baseball bats barged into their home and pummeled them. A few days later he noticed strange men in front of his house. They took pictures, and once pushed him aggressively. Close friends urged him to leave.
When he arrived in Mexico City, he contacted Article 19, a free press advocacy group, for support during his exile. He and the photographer friend created the informal check-in system for his safety. Lacking trust in authorities after his time in Veracruz, he didn't go to a federal agency set up in Mexico City to help journalists under threat.
He saw a psychologist to help control his fear and anxiety.
After only about a week in Mexico City, Espinosa already missed Xalapa and talked of going back. He loved his life there, the coffee, walking the steep streets with Mexico's highest peak, the Pico de Orizaba, always in view. He missed his cocker spaniel, Cosmos.
But another friend and fellow photographer stopped in Mexico City for a visit and urged Espinosa not to return. He pointed to Mendoza being found dead and to a series of homicides that left 11 people dead in just one weekend.
Occasionally, he would stay with friends when he wanted to be closer to the city's center.
One was Vera, who came to the capital a year earlier from Xalapa to work as a cultural promoter. She had been an outspoken critic of the Duarte government and was a well-known organizer of protest marches, including against the 2012 election of President Enrique Pena Nieto and attacks on journalists.
In an interview several months before her death, she said, "We hold Gov. Javier Duarte Ochoa and all of his Cabinet responsible for anything that might happen to us, those involved in organizing these types of movements."
She rented an apartment in the middle-class neighborhood of Narvarte with the other women.
About 2 a.m. Friday, Espinosa, Vera and another friend ended up at the apartment, where they stayed up with two roommates drinking, eating and talking nearly until dawn. At some point, Espinosa's friend decided to leave. The photographer slept in, waking about 1 p.m. Earlier, the housekeeper had arrived and one roommate left for work around 9 a.m.
Espinosa's friend making the security checks had not talked to him since Wednesday, so he sent him a text message at 1:58 p.m.
Espinosa answered a minute later, saying he stayed at Vera's apartment.
"I was up until 6 a.m.," the friend wrote back.
"Me too. Now I have to go to work at AVC," Espinosa responded, referring to the Veracruz photo agency for which he worked some shifts to earn money.
"I'm heading to the street right now," he wrote at 2:13 p.m.
It was his last text.