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The cartel leaders suspected of killing a legendary Mexican journalist could testify against El Chapo

The murder of Javier Valdez Cárdenas was supposed to change things. But the killings of Mexican journalists have not stopped.

by Keegan Hamilton
Dec 12 2018, 4:04pm

Listen to "Chapo: Kingpin on trial" for free exclusively on Spotify. Escucha este podcast gratis, en inglés o español, exclusivamente en Spotify.

The newspaper he left behind is called RioDoce, or River 12, a reference to 11 rivers that criss-cross the Mexican state of Sinaloa. The name represents the flow of information, the spreading of truth. That’s why the assassins shot him 12 times, at 12 noon, as if his death alone didn’t make it clear what the killers aimed to silence.

Javier Valdez Cárdenas, the cofounder of RioDoce, a publication renowned for its coverage of organized crime, was gunned down May 15, 2017, just half a block from the newspaper’s offices in Sinaloa’s capital city Culiacán. In a world numbed by senseless violence, the killing still shocked. It galvanized the press in Mexico and around the world in renewed calls for an end to impunity and attacks on reporters.

The rallying cry was "Ni uno más."

Not one more.

Since that day, at least 14 journalists have been killed in Mexico, including 10 so far in 2018. And the killers are still getting away with it. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mexico has 28 unsolved murders of journalists, second only to the Philippines. Across Mexico, over 90 percent of crimes go unpunished.

Javier’s case was supposed to be different. He was the revered author who chronicled the lives of cartel wives, kidnapping victims, and everyday people caught up in the violence that pervades Sinaloa. He was a lovable rogue who philosophized over beers and peanuts in the corner cafe. He stood for speaking hard truths without fear, for exposing corruption, lies, and bullshit, and so his killing was not supposed to go unpunished. It was supposed to change things, but it hasn’t.

“There was a public outpouring of anger and grief, and I was one of those people,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, CPJ’s representative in Mexico. “I knew Javier; he was a friend of mine. His death shocked me beyond anything I’d felt since I came here to Mexico. The outpouring was there, but it has not translated to any meaningful action from the Mexican government, and that’s tragic. I don’t have any other way to put it. It’s tragic.”

My own encounters with Javier were brief but memorable, and I’ve followed his case closely. While reporting our podcast this summer, RioDoce journalist Miguel Angel Vega took me to the newspaper’s offices and explained how the death of his friend and former colleague is linked to the ongoing trial of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

In short, Javier was killed because after Chapo was extradited, there was infighting among factions of the Sinaloa cartel. Javier covered this conflict in typically unflinching style, and for that he was murdered. And now the men who ordered his assassination could receive reduced sentences in exchange for testifying against Chapo.

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This is the issue of RioDoce that came out after Javier's murder in May 2017. Credit: VICE News

The suspected gunmen in Javier’s murder, who go by the names El Koala and El Quilo, are in Mexican custody on homicide charges. Their boss Damáso López Nuñez, known as El Licenciado, was Chapo’s former right-hand man, and he was recently sentenced to life in U.S. prison after pleading guilty to drug trafficking charges following his extradition. López Nuñez’s son, Damáso López Serrano, aka Mini Lic, surrendered to U.S. authorities at the border last year and pleaded guilty to drug charges in January.

“In the end, nothing is going to happen. Drug smuggling will continue. The bloodshed will continue."

Junior and senior’s nicknames — “Mini Lic” and “Lic” — are short for Licenciado, which roughly translates to The Lawyer. Licenciado was a prison official who allegedly orchestrated Chapo’s 2001 jailbreak and went on to become a key figure in the cartel. In early 2017, after Chapo was captured and extradited to the U.S., Licenciado and his son began fighting for control over the faction of the cartel Chapo left behind.

Javier landed an interview with Licenciado, but when RioDoce published the story, Chapo’s sons, known as Los Chapitos, blocked the paper from being distributed, sending men to follow the delivery trucks and collect copies. Javier continued to write about the internecine conflict, including a column that described Mini Lic as a “weekend gunman” who was “good for chatting but not for business.”

That was all it took — Javier wrote a frank assessment of a cartel scion who was in over his head trying to follow in his father’s footsteps after El Chapo’s extradition. The elder Lic reportedly confessed to Mexican authorities prior to his extradition that the sicarios who shot Javier belonged to his clan. According to RioDoce, Mini Lic issued the kill order.

Listen to "Chapo: Kingpin on Trial" for free exclusively on Spotify.

Licenciado’s name has been mentioned several times in the first five weeks of Chapo’s trial in Brooklyn, and the former consigliere could be among the remaining cooperating witnesses called to take the stand. In exchange for testifying against his old boss, Licenciado’s life sentence could be reduced on the recommendation of prosecutors. Other former high-level cartel members have similar arrangements in Chapo’s trial. Mini Lic may also get a deal, despite allegedly ordering the murder of one of Mexico’s most beloved journalists

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A mural in Sinaloa calling for justice after Javier Valdez's murder. VICE News / Keegan Hamilton.

Meanwhile, the outlook for reporters in Mexico remains bleak. New President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made press freedom and safety a talking point early in his new administration, but it will take nothing less than the “deep and radical” changes he promised during his campaign to make an impact. The superficial reforms ordered by ex-President Enrique Peña Nieto in the immediate aftermath of Javier’s death have done nothing to staunch the bleeding or bring justice.

The U.S. isn’t helping. Beyond the rhetoric from President Trump about “fake news” and “enemies of the people,” his administration has made it more difficult for Mexican journalists to seek asylum when they’re facing threats of violence. One U.S.-based reporter who exposed corruption by the Mexican military, Emilio Gutierrez, has been fighting deportation for over a decade.

As for El Chapo, my colleague Miguel Angel, who follows the U.S. legal proceedings of extradited drug kingpins for RioDoce, doesn’t feel his conviction will have any long-term positive impact. And convicting him certainly won’t mean justice for Javier.

“In the end, nothing is going to happen,” Miguel Angel said. “Drug smuggling will continue. The bloodshed will continue. We are just in the middle. We all have been victimized somehow either directly or indirectly. That’s just the way it is. We have to live with it.”

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A memorial for Javier Valdez that sits steps away from RioDoce's offices in Culiacán. VICE News / Keegan Hamilton.

Cover: A mural of Javier Valdez Cárdenas in Sinaloa. VICE News / Keegan Hamilton.