Award-winning Mexican journalist and author who covered drug trafficking is killed in Sinaloa

By Jesús Nazario and Teresa Mioli

Internationally recognized, award-winning Mexican journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas was fatally shot by unknown individuals early Monday afternoon, according to Ríodoce, the newspaper he co-founded 14 years ago where he was still a reporter.

Authorities said the individuals apprehended Valdez, shot him in the head and dragged his body across Riva Palacio Avenue, near the offices of Ríodoce in Culiacán, the capital of the state of Sinaloa.

A getaway car the attackers may have used was found, but the motive and their identities are unknown, according to El Debate.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that Valdez told the organization in recent weeks he was concerned for his safety.

Valdez was a reporter and columnist at Ríodoce, a weekly newspaper that has been recognized for its outstanding and brave coverage of drug trafficking in Sinaloa. The state is notorious as the base of one of the largest and most violent drug cartels in Mexico

He also wrote the column Mala Yerba and was a Sinaloa-based correspondent for national newspaper La Jornada. Valdez was known for his dedication to investigative journalism in Mexico, despite threats and violence that make the country one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world.

When another brave and well-respected journalist Miroslava Breach, also a correspondent for La Jornada, was killed on March 23, 2017 in the neighboring state of Chihuahua, Valdez wrote on Twitter: “They killed Miroslava for having a long tongue. Kill us all, if that is the death sentence for reporting this hell. No to silence.” Breach’s body was found with a sign that said “Por lengua larga” (“for having a long tongue”), accusing her of being a gossip.

In addition to his work at the newspapers, Valdez authored multiple books about crime and corruption in Mexico. These included “De Azoteas y Olvidos” (2006), “Los Morros del Narco” (2011), “Levantones” (2012), “Con una Granada en la Boca” (2014), “Huérfanos del Narco” (2015), “Narcoperiodismo” (2016) and “Malayerba” (2017). In 2010, he was a finalist for the Rodolfo Walsh Award for best nonfiction book for his book “Miss Narco”.

In “Narcoperiodismo,” Valdez talks about pressures reporters face from organized crime, government, business, media owners and colleagues, according to La Jornada.

“I want to believe that I was working towards a more public story, by tackling a subject that allows us to understand ourselves as journalists: with fear, surrounded by corruption, with newsrooms contaminated by narcos,” Valdez said when discussing his motivation in writing “Narcoperiodismo,” according to La Jornada. “I hope I have helped to show this reality, our sickness, our pride, dehumanization, impunity, our poverty, our low salaries and working conditions. That is what I tried to do.”

Ríodoce and its journalists have been targeted since the newspaper’s formation in 2003, but their reporting has also been recognized nationally and internationally.

Valdez and a group of reporters from newspaper Noroeste started Ríodoce “due to the need for a journalism in Sinaloa that was more focused on the major problems in the area, and that was based mainly on investigation, and from a critical perspective,” according to the paper’s site.

The paper explained it was born into a context where the state government exerted strong control over the media, and so therefore, Ríodoce distanced itself from this power from the start.

The paper would survive despite economic pressure. It was also the target of physical and cyber attacks over the years.

In September 2009, a grenade was thrown into Ríodoce’s offices days after the newspaper published a series on drug trafficking, according to CPJ. No one was injured. The publication was forced offline in 2011 by hackers, according the organization.

For reporting despite these threats, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism awarded Ríodoce with the prestigious Maria Moors Cabot Prize in 2011 for outstanding reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean.

That same year, Valdez was given the International Press Freedom Award from CPJ.

At the time, CPJ quoted Valdez as saying: “Living in Sinaloa is a threat, and being a journalist is an additional threat. We learned how to live in times when bullets are flying around us.”

He told CPJ that threats came to the Ríodoce newsroom frequently and sometimes that meant reviewing material to figure out what to publish.

“There are no conditions to practice journalism, and this is no way to live. It has caused journalists to withdraw, to stay silent or dedicate themselves in a mediocre way to counting bodies. Ríodoce has preferred to tell the stories of the people involved in drug trafficking, including the kingpins, including the thugs, the police and ordinary people. This gives a better read of what is happening.”

He added that one of his goals is “giving the issue a human face, so that people know there are other people involved.”

Valdez’s book, “Levantones” was published in January 2017 in English as “The Taken: true histories of the Sinaloa drug war”. It was his first work translated and published in that language.

He is the fifth journalist killed in Mexico this year, a country where violence against journalists and subsequent impunity in those cases are rampant.

Just two weeks ago, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto told CPJ that the security and protection of journalists will be a priority during the final 19 months of his presidency.

Journalists from around the world have condemned the death and are calling for justice for their colleague.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.