One month ago today, an assassin fired 12 bullets at Mexican journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas as he drove away from the office of Ríodoce, where he had long filed some of the most searing journalism on that country’s drug war. The bullets pierced Valdez’s forehead and hands, symbolic hits, many believe (the “doce” in “Ríodoce” means “12”), and left him dying on a street in Culiacán, the capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa. His Panama hat, a trademark of sorts, landed next to him, blocking his face.
“I want to work with others to make sure we don’t remember him as just another in line of inconsequential deaths of journalists in Mexico.”
Valdez wasn’t the first journalist to be killed in Mexico this year. The country is one of the world’s most dangerous for journalists, especially those who write, as Valdez did, about drugs, corruption and other forms of crime and trafficking. But something about Valdez’s brazen assassination struck a nerve, and it wasn’t long before his colleagues at home and abroad began mobilizing to not only commemorate the journalist’s life and mourn his death, but to organize an online event that they hoped would serve as a pressure point on the Mexican government and the international community.
Organizers invited journalists around the world to participate in today’s event, writing:
“Our voice is our strength: join us in publishing or broadcasting news articles, opinion pieces, editorials, political cartoons, blogs, photographs, tweets, Facebook posts, or any other form of journalism to be published on Thursday, June 15, one month after Javier’s murder. The content is up to you — you can address his killing specifically, attacks on Mexico’s press in general, the impact of violence and impunity on freedom of expression, the government’s inaction, its failure to protect its journalists, the response of journalists worldwide. If all you’re able to do is a link to a published article or post that says it all for you, that too is welcome.
“We only ask that you tag your piece, post or Tweet with the hashtag #ourvoiceisourstrength and/or #nuestravozesnuestrafuerza as a way of signaling to the Mexican government and to Mexico’s press that this is a collective effort.”
I spoke with Ricardo Sandoval Palos, one of the journalists involved in organizing the #ourvoiceisourstrength/#nuestravozesnuestrafuerza, via Faceook and email about the initiative, and about Valdez’s life and work.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 12 journalists have been killed in Mexico so far this year. Forty-eight were killed in Mexico in 2016. Why was Javier’s death a tipping point, and what did his death mean to you personally ?
Javier Valdez Cárdenas was a muckraking columnist for the Ríodoce weekly newspaper and website, based in Culiacán, on Mexico’s west coast in the state of Sinaloa. Consider what I just described: “Muckraking” and “Sinaloa” are not words you’d usually associate in the same sentence about coverage of Mexico’s complicated, bloody war against drug traffickers.
The city of Culiacán is the geographical epicenter of Mexico’s illicit drug trade, and it has always been dangerous for honest cops, prosecutors and journalists to do their jobs, so it was marvelous to watch Ríodoce emerge as the go-to source for the real stories about drug violence and corruption. I am a journalist who’s written about Mexico for decades, for U.S. audiences, and had never seen such bold coverage in a local publication.
Remember, in Mexico many local outlets have sworn off anything more than cursory coverage of drug-related crime. For many, the decision was easy: Too many publishers and editors have seen family and staff members kidnapped or killed, grenades tossed into their newsrooms, and their walls riddled with bullets.
“So why is Javier’s death a tipping point? Javier’s was a leading voice in Mexico’s coverage of this terrible wave of violence. Despite his personal modesty, as a stellar columnist among a community of journalists who censored themselves, he was a defender of Mexican democracy.”
Javier had been a writer for a local daily newspaper before he and a couple of partners split off to found Ríodoce. His writing flourished – influenced by his noir favorite, Dashiell Hammett – and journalists around the world began to follow his chronicles of life and death in Sinaloa. Many went to Mexico and sought Javier’s guidance and counsel for their own coverage of the war on drugs. For that, and the daily risk he faced, he was honored with international press freedom awards.
The numbers are in dispute, but only because different international and Mexican observers use different standards to classify motive for crimes against journalists. I agree that at least 100 journalists have been killed or have disappeared because of their work in the last 25 years.
So why is Javier’s death a tipping point? Javier’s was a leading voice in Mexico’s coverage of this terrible wave of violence. Despite his personal modesty, as a stellar columnist among a community of journalists who censored themselves, he was a defender of Mexican democracy. He represented the best kind of coverage professional journalism can offer amid crisis and conflict. And since many journalists around the world knew him and relied on him, his murder has hit close to home.
For me, personally, it was a reminder of the cost of speaking truth to power. I have been threatened for my own work on crime and trafficking in Mexico, but it was nothing compared with what Javier and other Mexican colleagues lived with, day in, day out. I could jump on a plane and return to the safety of my home in the U.S., in a country where the Bill of Rights singles out the press with protected status. Javier had graciously declined my offers in the past to talk about his work to U.S. radio audiences, and I understood why.
Tell us about the June 15 initiative, #ourvoiceisourstrength / #nuestravozesnuestrafuerza. Who’s behind it? What’s the goal?
We started the campaign to show our Mexican colleagues that they are not alone in their outrage and fear. We thought that if we gathered enough global voices, it could serve as a pressure point on a Mexican government notorious for its inaction after dozens of murders and assaults on journalists. Mexican politicians do respond to international pressure, and that’s what we hope is building here.
I just hope now we can establish Javier’s legacy as his writing, his books and the tenor of his chronicles of Culiacán. I want to work with others to make sure we don’t remember him as just another in line of inconsequential deaths of journalists in Mexico. This time we have to care.
We also hope the noise we’re making here resonates with international political organizations that can, in turn, apply their own pressure on the Mexican government. Mexico wants to be a player on the international commercial stage, but it should be reminded that respect for rule of law is part of the bargain: Outside of China, at least some positive respect for rule of law is a common characteristic of the world’s thriving economies.
Beyond the June 15 effort, what needs to happen, both at a political level and an international level, to support and protect Mexico’s journalists?
It would be a great thing if violence against journalists could become a question for Mexican presidential candidates. I don’t know if there’s enough support in the general public to make it happen, as crimes against journalists probably, justifiably, take a back seat to personal well-being and security. But by making freedom of expression the issue, and that all Mexicans have that right, the persistent questioning of candidates on this point could strike a chord.
Talk to us about journalism in Mexico generally, especially in the wake of Javier’s death.
Remember that Ríodoce and Valdez’s writings are not the only recent beacons in Mexican journalism: Aristegui Reports, Animal Político and newspapers in Juárez and Tijuana have shown resilience and bravery in publishing. There is an exciting new collective, Quinto Elemento, comprised of some of Mexico’s best investigative reporters, that is working to redraw the Mexican journalism landscape. It won’t be easy, but what’s grand is that these sites and outlets have gotten around the traditional barrier to a free media in Mexico.
It used to be that the government controlled every aspect of publishing and broadcasting in Mexico, from the newsprint supply to the broadband space. The Internet has put an end to that. Throughout Latin America, online news outlets are emerging with fresh, independent voices such as El Faro in El Salvador, Plaza Pública in Guatemala, Ojo Público in Peru and the Connectas network of investigative reporters, which started in Colombia. Stories going international at the speed of information have also strengthened the investigative muscle of newspapers in Argentina and Brazil, where persistent reporters like Hugo Alconada and James Alberti have exposed political corruption and triggered changes in government.
Much of this change has come about because of the new power of online publishing and social media. Our own call would have been muted were it not for our ability to fire up a special page on Facebook and draw international attention to the effort and to Javier’s death. Our tweets have been replicated and multiplied. And what will heighten the impact of this campaign is the use of the common hashtag #ourvoiceisourstrength, in Spanish as well: #nuestravozesnuestrafuerza. This will tell us how much impact we’ve had with this.
We’ve heard from dozens of journalists across the U.S., Latin America and Europe, and Mexican journalists are planning public events on the 15th to amplify the message. Remember, this all started with a simple email from Kate Doyle, of the National Security Archives, asking what we could do keep alive the memory of Javier’s work and help our Mexican colleagues push their government into action. Let’s see where social media takes us on June 15.
(You can read Ernesto Priego’s translation of one of Valdez’s last interviews here.)