One of the most experienced and respected journalists covering Mexico’s brutal drug war was murdered Monday in Sinaloa, a state plagued by narco violence.
A brave and tireless reporter, Javier Valdez Cárdenas was shot 12 times after leaving the offices of Ríodoce, a newspaper he founded and edited in Culiacán, the state capital. He was the sixth journalist murdered this year — a seventh would follow before the day was done. Over 100 have been killed since 2000.
“The Mexican government condemns the murder of Javier Valdez. My condolences to his family and companions,” President Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted. “I reiterate our commitment to freedom of expression and the press, which are fundamental to our democracy.”
The president said a special prosecutor’s office for crimes against freedom of expression would investigate the killing, but observers are doubtful the government is truly willing or able to ensure that justice is done. From 2010 to 2016 that office received 798 complaints of aggressions against journalists, securing just three jail sentences, a 99.7 percent impunity rate.
Valdez’s death occurred less than 48 hours after 100 gunmen abducted seven journalists in the lawless southern state of Guerrero. The assailants stole equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars before releasing the reporters, who were covering violence in the region.
Jonathan Rodríguez, a reporter at a weekly newspaper in western Jalisco state was also shot dead on Monday evening. His mother, Sonia Córdova, who also worked at the paper, was hit too and is in critical condition.
“Unfortunately this is what brave journalists are exposed to when they cover delicate issues.”
Valdez was the most high-profile journalist to be murdered in recent years. His death led several Mexican media outlets to call a strike on Tuesday to protest the killings that continue with impunity.
Ríodoce described Valdez’s death as a “crushing blow” and affirmed that it was “without doubt” related to his investigations into drug trafficking.
“It takes courage to tell the truth,” Valdez’s friend José Cisneros told VICE News. “Killing those who tell the truth won’t change anything. Unfortunately this is what brave journalists are exposed to when they cover delicate issues. I’ll miss you, Javier.”
A recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which awarded Valdez the International Press Freedom Award in 2011, warned that “a lack of political will to end impunity exposes Mexico as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.”
“We’re all under threat just by living here.”
Valdez was an authority on organized crime in Sinaloa, the home state of billionaire drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who is currently awaiting trial in New York.
I first met Valdez at a café in Culiacán last year to discuss the impact of Guzmán’s latest arrest. Easily recognizable in his trademark Panama hat, he was frank, insightful, generous with his time (he was quoted multiple times over the years in VICE News). He was aware of the danger he was constantly in simply for doing his job, but he continued to dig in on his reporting.
“The succession could be dangerous, including for journalists and citizens,” Valdez said. “The Sinaloa cartel controls everything here. They don’t need to threaten me explicitly for me to know that I’m at risk, and that I can’t cross the line. We’re all under threat just by living here.”
Valdez wrote several books about the people caught up in Mexico’s decade-long drug war, which has left 200,000 dead and 30,000 missing. We spoke again in January about his last book, “Narcoperiodismo,” which detailed the risks of covering organized crime. Excerpts of the interview were previously published by Index on Censorship.
“In 2009 someone threw a grenade into the Ríodoce office, although it only caused material damages. I’ve had phone calls telling me to stop investigating certain murders or drug bosses. I’ve had to suppress important information because they could have my family killed if I mention it. Sources of mine have been killed or disappeared,” Valdez told me.
“I think I can say the bullets have flown past pretty close to me. The government couldn’t care less. They do nothing to protect you. There have been many cases, and it keeps happening. I think the best thing would be to take my family and leave the country.”
In many cases Mexico’s government is directly behind the violence. A study by press freedom watchdog Article 19 found that public officials were responsible for 53 percent of aggressions against journalists in 2016.
“I don’t see a society that stands by its journalists or protects them.”
“It can be more dangerous to investigate political corruption in Mexico than to investigate drug-trafficking,” Valdez noted. “The political class are intolerant, with no respect for democracy or the media. They have assassins at their disposal because they grew alongside and with the support of narcos.”
The situation left Valdez pessimistic about Mexico’s prospects.
“The risks for society and democracy are extremely grave. Journalism can have a big impact on democratic change and social consciousness but when we’re working under so many threats our work is never as complete as it should be. We’re creating a society that’s insensitive, uninformed, deaf and dumb in the face of so many tragedies. This inhibits democratic change and facilitates crime and corruption.”
“I don’t see a society that stands by its journalists or protects them,” he added. “If Ríodoce went bankrupt and shut down nobody would do anything. We have no allies. We need more publicity, subscriptions and moral support but we’re on our own. We’re not going to survive much longer in these circumstances.”
Journalists in Mexico and abroad expressed shock and grief at his death on Monday. VICE News Mexico wrote an editorial protesting the ongoing assault on Mexican journalists.
Duncan Tucker is a freelance journalist based in Mexico.