BROOKLYN, New York — In the months after Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was extradited from Mexico to New York to stand trial as the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, the city of Culiacán descended into chaos. Allies turned against each other, fighting to fill the power vacuum.
El Chapo’s sons — known as Los Chapitos — were on one side. His former right-hand man, Dámaso López Nuñez, was on the other. And a journalist, Javier Valdez Cárdenas, was caught in the middle. While Los Chapitos and López battled for the throne, Valdez chronicled their power struggle in the pages of RioDoce. He was the cofounder of the weekly newspaper and wrote a column, Malayerba, which he used to elucidate the opaque world of organized crime.
At around 12 p.m. on May 15, 2017, Valdez was gunned down in the street moments after leaving his office. Violence against journalists is all too common in Mexico — at least 10 were killed in 2018 — but Valdez’s death sparked exceptional outrage because he was no ordinary reporter. He was a beloved figure, the author of several books, and the winner of The Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award. Many murders of journalists go unsolved in Mexico, but Valdez’s case prompted calls to end the impunity and swiftly bring his killers to justice.
On Wednesday, during Chapo’s trial in Brooklyn, López was forced for the first time to respond to the allegation that he and his son were responsible for Valdez’s death. The question came from El Chapo’s lawyer, Eduardo Balarezo, while López was under cross-examination. He vehemently denied responsibility, and instead cast blame on Los Chapitos.
“My son and I are innocent of this man’s murder,” López testified. “I’m telling the truth. I’ve sworn to tell the truth and I’m abiding by my oath.”
Valdez’s stories shortly before his death included an interview with López, known as Lic or Licenciado, and a subsequent column that was critical of López’s son, El Mini Lic. But at first the primary suspects in Valdez’s murder were El Chapo’s sons, Iván and Alfredo. They had reached out to Valdez through an intermediary and asked him not to publish the interview with López. When he went through with it anyway, Los Chapitos sent gunmen to collect every copy of the newspaper before it could be distributed in Culiacán.
López told his version of this story on the witness stand. He testified that he gave his interview with Valdez to set the record straight about an inaccurate story published by another newspaper in Mexico. According to López, Chapo’s sons gave the green light for Valdez to be executed because he was willing to publish the truth.
“He was a very good journalist,” López said of Valdez. “He was ethical and he did publish it. He disobeyed the orders of my compadre’s sons and that’s why he was killed. And since my compadre's sons are in collusion with the government, they did not find a culprit and blamed my son.”
Indeed, López’s son Mini Lic, whose real name is Dámaso López Serrano, was ultimately identified as having ordered the hit on Valdez. The motive was thought to be revenge for a public insult. In his column, Valdez called Mini Lic a “weekend gunman,” among other barbs. López claimed during his testimony that Chapo’s sons had forced Valdez and RioDoce to publish the column.
Two of the suspected gunmen in Javier’s murder, who go by the names El Koala and El Quilo, are in Mexican custody on homicide charges. A third, El Diablo, was killed in the Mexican state of Sonora in September 2017.
López, 52, was arrested in Mexico City in May 2017. He was in prison when Valdez was killed, but according to reports from Mexican newspapers, including RioDoce, the gunman El Koala belonged to his faction of the Sinaloa cartel. El Koala’s payment for the killing was said to be a pistol bearing the emblem of López’s faction.
López was extradited to the U.S. last July and sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to federal drug conspiracy charges. He testified against Chapo in hopes of receiving a reduced sentence. López was asked Thursday by Balarezo whether he was familiar with El Koala and El Kilo. Prosecutors objected to the question and called for a private sidebar conversation with the judge to discussion the issue. Afterward, Balarezo moved on and López was never allowed to respond.
López admitted Wednesday to having hundreds of sicarios and pistoleros at his disposal during his war with Los Chapitos. Balarezo showed the jury a patch — with crossed rifles, a rooster, and a skull — that belonged to the FED, or Fuerzas Especiales de Dámaso, López’s personal special forces unit.
Mini Lic surrendered to U.S. authorities at a border crossing in Calexico, California, on July 27, 2017, and pleaded guilty last January to drug conspiracy charges. López testified that his son was forced to flee Mexico because of the war with Chapo’s sons. Mini Lic has never publicly addressed the allegation that he put out the hit on Valdez.
For me, the killing was personal. Valdez had helped me report on two stories in Sinaloa prior to his death, and his murder was covered in our podcast “Chapo: Kingpin on Trial.” In episode 7 of the show, RioDoce reporter Miguel Angel Vega and I discuss the violence in Sinaloa after Chapo’s extradition and how it led to his colleague’s assassination. After López testified Wednesday, I called my co-host to get his response.
“I’m not really sure what to believe anymore,” Vega said. “If I could speak to Dámaso, I would ask something like, Did the people that killed Javier — they are identified, we know who they are — did they work for your faction of the cartel? Did they work for you or Mini Lic? And if they did, how do you explain that?’”
Vega was adamant that Valdez and RioDoce would not publish a story on the orders of Los Chapitos — or any other cartel members — as López alleged during his testimony. The newspaper, he said, practices “pure journalism.” Valdez, he added, knew there was an implicit threat when El Chapo’s sons asked him not to publish the interview with Licenciado, but he did it anyway because it was a story that needed to be told.
Vega noted that so-called “narco juniors” like Los Chapitos and Mini Lic have escalated the violence in Mexico, which was worse last year than ever before, with a record 28,816 homicides across the country. This year is off to an equally grim start, and already one journalist, 34-year-old Rafael Murúa Manríquez, has been murdered.
“The sons are not like all the other leaders, like Mayo, Chapo,” Vega said. “Those guys are old school and they give respect. This new generation is more violent. They’ve been rich since the very beginning. They are used to people coming to them to ask favors. They feel like gods. Whenever someone refuses them, they kill them.”
Jan-Albert Hootsen, the CPJ representative in Mexico, said his organization is closely monitoring El Chapo’s trial “to see whether any information comes to light that may be relevant to Javier’s case or that of any other murdered journalist.”
“Although several arrests have been made in Javier Valdez’s murder case, there are still lingering questions about who has given the order to carry out the murder,” Hootsen said. “As long as those questions remain unanswered, there is no full justice in the case.”
On Thursday, Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador said he will ask the government agency in charge of human rights to present a report about the progress in the investigation of Valdez’s murder and the unsolved killings of other journalists. He promised to find and punish “the material and intellectual authors" of Valdez’s assassination.
While there was some solace in López finally being confronted about the role he and his son allegedly played in Valdez’s murder, Vega said he and others, and RioDoce, will not rest until the case has been solved once and for all.
“There’s this whisper for justice that’s still out in the air,” Vega said. “Javier’s wife, she’s still screaming for justice. It doesn’t matter if it’s Lic or Mini Lic, there’s still no justice.”
Cover: Javier Valdez on the cover of RioDoce after his murder. (Photo by Keegan Hamilton.)