Journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas, one of Mexico’s most prominent chroniclers of drug trafficking and organized crime, was shot dead in Culiacán, Sinaloa, on May 15. His slaying marks a new low in violence against journalists, a new high in the confidence of their killers, and the latest dark milestone in Mexico’s drug war.
Early news reports said that Valdez, 50, was walking towards his car at around midday when a vehicle pulled up beside him and shot him several times. He fell to the ground not far from the offices of the newspaper that he founded, Ríodoce, and was declared dead at the scene.
Pictures from the crime scene showed Valdez’s body lying in the middle of the road, covered by a blue sheet and surrounded by yellow plastic police cards marking where bullet shells had fallen. His emblematic Panama hat, which he often wore even during television interviews, was visible from underneath the sheet.
A video interview with Valdez, produced in 2012. Credit: Univision / Deborah Bonello
The charismatic Valdez was the winner of a number of national and international awards including the prestigious Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) International Press Freedom prize. He was the author of many books on organized crime, narco culture and drug trafficking, and Ríodoce is widely considered a pioneering, independent publication.
“Where I work, Culiacán, in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, it is dangerous to be alive, and to do journalism is to walk on 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 when he accepted the CPJ award in 2011. “This is what most of the country is living through. One must protect oneself from everything and everyone, and there do not seem to be options or salvation, and often there is no one to turn to.”
His most recent book, “Narco Periodismo” (Narco Journalism), was about the experiences, realities and dangers of journalists covering drug trafficking in Mexico.
Following his death, shocked colleagues from home and abroad paid tribute to Valdez across social networks. Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto condemned Valdez’s murder via his Twitter account.
El @GobMx condena el homicidio del periodista Javier Valdez. Mis condolencias a sus familiares y compañeros.
— Enrique Peña Nieto (@EPN) May 15, 2017
The CPJ representative in Mexico described his death to InSight Crime as “an unspeakable tragedy.”
“He chronicled the drug war and ran the only independent magazine in Sinaloa despite the constant threat of violence,” said the CPJ’s Jan-Albert Hootsen.
InSight Crime Analysis
The killing of Valdez is the latest grim marker on Mexico’s drug war timeline, and a body blow to journalists as they near the end of what has been a dark decade for the profession.
Valdez had one of the highest profiles of any Mexican journalist, both at home and abroad, and was largely considered untouchable as a result of his fame. The attack, which took place in broad daylight, sends a message to all the country’s journalists: no one is safe.
This year alone, six journalists have been murdered. The state of Veracruz is considered the most dangerous place for journalists in the region. Violence against the press has risen since the Mexican authorities launched a militarized crackdown on drug trafficking and organized crime in 2006. A recent report on attacks on the media from the CPJ notes that the majority of cases of murdered journalists remain unsolved, their perpetrators unpunished.
The murder of Valdez comes the week after the emergence of a video that captured a Mexican soldier apparently executing an unarmed man in custody by shooting him in the back of the head. The execution not only highlighted the corruption within the Mexican armed forces, which are on the frontline of the government crackdown, but it also illustrated the inability on the part of the authorities to curb the rising violence in Mexico.
Last year was the most violent year of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration, and despite a spike in spending on security, the violence is getting worse. Over the weekend of May 13 and 14, violence in the state of Guerrero between criminal groups and community police surged, despite efforts by the federal government to try to bring it under control that date back years.
Culiacán has been at the center of a struggle for power between different power cells of the Sinaloa Cartel following the re-arrest and extradition of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to the United States. Chapo’s former right-hand man, Dámaso López Núñez, alias “Licenciado,” was arrested in Mexico City in May 2017, which may have caused further splintering and in-fighting.
The authors of Valdez’s murder so far remain unknown. CPJ Mexico said that he had not reported any recent threats to his life, but when InSight Crime called him for comment last week on a story, he said he did not wish to be quoted for security reasons.
Valdez’s fame could increase the pressure on authorities to undertake a serious investigation into his killing, but the fact that he was murdered in broad daylight suggest his killers are not too worried about the consequences.
“At Ríodoce, we have experienced a macabre solitude because nothing that we publish has reverberations or follow-up. And that desolation makes us more vulnerable,” Valdez said in 2011. “Despite all of this, with all of you, and this award, I can say that I have somewhere to take shelter, and to feel less alone.”
Watch our May 18 Weekly InSight discussion on Facebook Live about the murder of Javier Valdez, with InSight Crime Senior Investigator Deborah Bonello and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists Mexico representative, Jan-Albert Hootsen.