MEXICAN JOURNALISTS LOSE ANOTHER COLLEAGUE TO THE DRUG WAR/By Jon Lee Anderson
The New Yorker, May 20, 2017
Javier Valdez Cárdenas wrote about the shadowy line where the state and the underworld intersected. In the end, someone with a foot in either—or perhaps both—of those worlds decided that he had to go.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JARED MOOSSY / REDUX
In his last public remarks, made on a live television show, “El Almohadazo,” on Monday morning, the Mexican journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas spoke by Skype with the show’s presenter, Fernanda Tapia. Their conversation dealt with issues pertaining to Mexico’s decade-old drug war, in which at least a hundred and seventy-five thousand people have died and another twenty-eight thousand have disappeared. Valdez’s home state of Sinaloa—turf of El Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel—has been a key battleground from the start, and throughout he had been there, reporting from the frontline. Valdez had earned a reputation as a brave, independent, and outspoken reporter, as well as a prolific one. He wrote a column for Río Doce, a weekly local newspaper that he had co-founded; reported for the national daily La Jornada; and had published a half dozen books on Mexico’s narco underworld, including “Miss Narco,” “Huérfanos del Narco,” and his latest,“Narcoperiodismo.”
On the show, Valdez, wearing his trademark Panama hat and thick-framed glasses, told Tapia that he believed Mexico’s narco gangland had become an inextricable part of Mexico’s political and economic life. “Politicians no longer have to go to the narcos to seek their backing,” he said. “Nowadays the narcos are the ones who create the politicians from the start, and then nurture and promote them; we can speak of a narcopolitics present in almost all the political parties.” The government boasted of its success in arresting the drug capos, he went on, and while it was true that there were powerful and dangerous capos, there were also “other capos, who were untouched and untouchable, operating within the banking system and in the top rungs of the business world.” He concluded, “The money is key. Until we ‘follow the money,’ as the gringos say, we’ll never fully understand, from a serious and more complete perspective, what’s going on with the drug problem in this country.”
Later that morning, Valdez drove his red Toyota Corolla out of Río Doce’s office, located on a residential street in Culiacán, the Sinaloa state capital. After pulling into the street a short distance, he was stopped by two hooded gunmen, who made him get out of his car. They then pumped him full of bullets, killing him on the spot. In a photograph of the crime scene, Valdez—a burly, good-looking man of fifty—could be seen lying face down exactly in the center of the street, his straw hat beside him, blocking his face. Yellow plastic markers were placed around his body, marking where twelve bullet casings were found. The fact that Valdez was reportedly shot in the forehead and in both of his hands is believed by his colleagues to be symbolic, as well as the number of bullets used: Río Doce, the name of his newspaper, means River Twelve. Valdez’s car, in which his killers drove away, was found where they crashed it, a few blocks away.
Valdez had lived on the frontline of Mexico’s drug wars for many years, and had done so at great risk to his own life. In 2011, he was the recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award. “In Culiacán, in the state of Sinaloa, in Mexico, it is dangerous to be alive, and to do journalism is to tread an invisible line drawn by the bad guys, who are in drug trafficking and in the government, in a field strewn with explosives,” he said in his speech at the award ceremony. “One must protect oneself from everything, and everyone, and there do not seem to be options, or salvation, and often there does not seem to be anyone to turn to.”
Dozens of journalists had been murdered in Mexico since Valdez made his speech, but, even so, in numerous interviews he had made it clear that he was incapable of staying quiet—he compared silence to a kind of living death. In March, after the murder of yet another journalist, the Chihuahua reporter Miroslava Breach—whose killers left behind a piece of paper saying that she had died because of her “long tongue”—Valdez tweeted, “They killed Miroslava for having a long tongue. Kill us all, if that is the death sentence for reporting this hell. No to silence.”
In spite of his public bravado, Valdez nursed private worries. Two weeks before his murder, he travelled to Mexico City to tell colleagues that he’d received death threats that seemed serious. He was right to be concerned. When he died on Monday, Valdez left behind a wife and a son and daughter.
That same day, in the state of Jalisco, gunmen attacked Sonia Córdova, a co-owner of the weekly magazine El Costeño, and her son, Jonathan Rodríguez, who reported for the magazine. Sonia was wounded, while Jonathan died. Valdez and Rodríguez were the fifth and sixth journalists to be murdered in Mexico this year. A hundred and six journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000, according to Article 19, the international press-freedom-monitoring group, making it one of the worst places in the world to be a journalist—the most lethal, in fact, after Syria and Afghanistan.
On Monday evening, in response to the two killings, Mexico’s President, Enrique Peña Nieto, who has been in office since December, 2012-—during which time at least thirty-three journalists have been murdered—issued a tepid tweet, saying, “I reiterate our commitment to freedom of expression and the press, fundamental to our democracy.” On Wednesday, he followed up with a press conference in which he solemnly promised, as he has done before, to provide greater official protection to vulnerable journalists, and also to vigorously pursue their killers. His speech was interrupted by journalists shouting, “No more speeches! Justice!”
Indeed, few journalists in Mexico give credence to such ameliatory statements by officials. With a judicial success rate in the apprehension and prosecution of journalists’ killers at under two per cent, many see a pattern of official complacency, and, in some cases, of complicity. But Valdez’s murder had the feeling of a death too far. A gifted writer, Valdez was also a warmhearted and humorous man, beloved by many of his colleagues, and his killing aroused grief and outrage that seemed unprecedented. To mourn him, a number of Mexican newspapers and Web sites decided to run black covers the day after his death, and silent protest marches took place in cities across the country, including in Culiacán. Many of the demonstrators carried black banners with the slogan “The only crime is silence,” and others demanding “Justice for Javier.”
Diego Enrique Osorno, himself a valiant Mexican reporter who has also covered Mexico’s narco wars, e-mailed me to express his despair. “His murder ends the idea that the mafia doesn’t mess with journalists who have a high public profile. Javier knew all the codes of the dark world and who was daring but not irresponsible,” he wrote. “One thing that we can do to honor him is to follow in that same path, but it’s also very probable that his death will inhibit many colleagues, above all in Sinaloa and the north of Mexico, from reporting on the topic.” Osorno added that he didn’t know exactly how, but he and other reporters were determined to make sure that Valdez’s murder did not end up as “just another pointless death.” This week, they set up a Web site to begin an “immediate discussion” aimed at finding “urgent measures to protect journalists.”
Valdez had admirers far from Mexico’s borders. In Great Britain, the prominent television correspondent Lindsey Hilsum told me this week that she had been shaken by the news of his death. She had worked alongside him in Sinaloa in 2008. “He took us to the shrine to Jesús Malverde, the patron saint of narcotraficantes, and introduced us to a former cartel member who had been shot twice in the head and had the cavern in his skull to prove it—and, although I was anxious, I was never really frightened, because I trusted him,” she recalled. “The narcos were not his friends but they were his neighbors, contacts, and sources. He knew them and they knew him. He explained that he wrote his column in Río Doce almost in code—readers understood what he meant, but he had to be careful what he said and how he said it.”
Because most crimes in Mexico go unsolved, it is difficult to know precisely who has ordered this or that journalist’s murder. It is not so difficult to make presumptions. In Sinaloa, a succession battle has been taking place since El Chapo’s arrest and extradition to the United States, a few months ago, pitting his sons against a former lieutenant, Dámaso López, also known as El Licenciado (The Graduate), and it has been bloody: hundreds have died this year. In early May, López himself was captured, but his faction remains active. Did one side or another in that battle want to silence Valdez? Maybe. Valdez’s last column, published on the day of his death, was titled “El Licenciado,” and told the story of López’s violent rise to power from within the ranks of the Sinaloa cartel. But, in the end, Valdez wrote about the shadowy line where the state and the underworld intersected, and, in the end, clearly, someone with a foot in either—or perhaps both—of those worlds decided that he had to go. In an interview last year, he said, “The narcos have the power they do because the government has either allowed it, has submitted to it, or has become their accomplice.” As if reaffirming Valdez’s accusations, the Sinaloa prosecutor this week ventured that while Valdez’s journalism was the main line of police inquiry in seeking motives for his murder, it might have been the result of a bungled carjacking. His suggestion seemed to echo a long-standing tradition by Mexican officials to minimize their responsibilities in the cases of slain journalists.
Unlike in the U.S., with its Trump-fuelled media battle, almost nobody in Mexico talks about “fake news,” for the simple reason that, in Mexico, the news can get you killed. The war that is under way there is over control of the narcotics trade, the consumer market for which lies across Mexico’s borders, in the United States. It is being waged with guns that are manufactured in the United States and smuggled south. In this war, which is as much an American war as the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan ever were, Javier Valdez is one of the latest victims.
Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer, began contributing to The New Yorker in 1998. He is the author of “The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan and Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.”