One month ago, the award-winning journalist Javier Valdez was pulled from his car and killed in broad daylight near his office in Culiacán, in Sinaloa state in Mexico. Valdez is the sixth journalist to be assassinated in Mexico this year, and his killing has sparked outcry and sent new shockwaves of fear through the country’s media.
The journalists being targeted in Mexico have something in common: a commitment to documenting political corruption and state links to drug trafficking. Valdez’s assassination follows a pattern of murder directed at silencing the messengers who are digging up truth and exposing the underbelly of the drug war.
Valdez was the co-founder of Ríodoce, the only independent paper still operating in Culiacán, which is the center of the Sinaloa Cartel and much of the drug war violence in the region. In February, Ríodoce published an interview with an envoy from Dámaso López (“El Licenciado”), formerly the right-hand man of the notorious drug lord “El Chapo” Guzmán. Lopez was apparently moving to take control of the Sinaloa cartel’s territory in a fight with Guzmán’s sons before he was captured by authorities last month. Guzman’s sons reportedly pressured Valdez to not publish the interview. Other journalists who were close to Valdez suspect involvement of Sinaloa and federal authorities in the killing. To date, there have been no arrests reported in the case.
“We thought Javier was untouchable,” said Marcela Turati, a prominent journalist who writes for the weekly magazine Proceso who was a close friend of Valdez. “He was one of the most internationally recognized journalist in the country. How do we protect ourselves if they are able to kill the most visible with impunity?”
A week before Valdez’s murder, the Committee to Protect Journalists published a report detailing prominent recent murders of journalists and failures in the prosecution of the crimes. The Mexican government’s human rights commission reported in 2016 that 90 percent of crimes against journalists go unpunished — 82 percent for killings and 100 percent for disappearances, where the bodies of journalists are never found. Of the 114 murders of journalists that the Mexican government has recorded since 2000, a federal special prosecutor’s office for crimes against free speech has investigated 48 in the past seven years, resulting in only three sentences.
The U.S. State Department’s human rights report on Mexico last year noted that “journalists were sometimes subject to physical attacks, harassment, and intimidation due to their reporting. Perpetrators of violence against journalists continued to act with impunity with few reports of successful investigation, arrest, or prosecution of suspects.” This same line has appeared in all of these reports in recent years.
Nonetheless, in the face of blatant inaction by the Mexican government, U.S. assistance to Mexico’s drug war has continued to flow, and to expand. Declassified State Department documents unearthed in recent years show that the United States has armed and funded Mexican military and police units despite being well aware of abuses and cover-ups. At the same time, the United States has supported projects supposedly aimed at strengthening the rule of law in Mexico, but none of it appears to be having the stated effect.