Impunity in Mexico: Remembering Javier Valdez

They Are Killing Us

By Marcela Turati

When I heard the news that Javier Valdez had been murdered, I was with a group of journalists discussing how we could support seven colleagues who had just been ambushed in Guerrero by 100 armed gunmen threatening to burn them alive as they stripped them of their equipment. Weeping was followed by panic. 

Javier was one of our most revered and beloved. He was like a big brother, a mentor who taught many of us how to cover drug trafficking. He was a generous and responsible guide to all the national and international investigative journalists who came to report on his native Sinaloa, the dangerous place notoriously known as the home of “El Chapo” and the cartel he led. We thought Javier was untouchable; of course we were wrong. His death sent shockwaves of terror through our community of journalists. 

That same day Javier was killed, the deputy director of a newspaper in Jalisco was attacked. His son died as a result.

Javier was murdered on May 15. A couple of months earlier, three other journalists were killed, including Miroslava Breach, the Chihuahua correspondent for La Jornada, the same national newspaper where Javier worked. When Javier learned of Miroslava’s death he tweeted a message that took on an ominous meaning, and then went viral in the aftermath of his own death: "If the sentence for reporting this hell is death, they will have to kill us all. No to silence.”

But in Sinaloa, Javier’s murder prompted journalists who now understood the heightened risk to plead for help to leave the country. They now count themselves among the displaced.

As Mexican journalists demanded that the authorities investigate Javier's murder, a masked person in Michoacán forced journalist Salvador Adame into a pickup truck. He continues to be listed as “disappeared.” And his story, which received scant coverage, is also invisible.

Of the many journalists who have been killed since 2006 in the wave of violence unleashed after the Mexican government declared a so-called "war against narcos,” Javier Valdez was best known. Consequently, the massive demonstrations demanding justice have focused on his murder.

But attacks on journalist are frequent. Murders and disappearances of Mexican journalists are now so numerous that they can be called habitual; and with this regularity comes invisibility, as many are never even covered in the press.

In the weeks after Javier’s death, we learned that someone cut off Carlos Barrios’ ear. The purpose of this brutal attack on a Quintana Roo journalist was to send a warning to his boss. Then, an indigenous reporter, Marcela de Jesús Natalia, was shot when she left the radio station where she worked. There are many more cases of threats and censorship. These are just a few of the attacks that have taken place over the past three months.

The outcry from Mexican journalists and our demand over the past decade has been for the government to deliver justice. But in Mexico, impunity is a state policy: 99.8% of crimes against journalists go unpunished. This record of impunity is an invitation to continue silencing journalists.

And silencing journalists is becoming a national sport. In Mexico there are so many attacks on the press that journalists jump from emergency to emergency. Before we finish tending to one crisis, there is another at our door.

"They are killing us." These are the words that a group of journalists painted at the base of the popular monument to the Angel of Independence, in the heart of Mexico City. "They are killing us" is the new slogan of Mexican journalists. And that is no hyperbole. According to official figures, more than 126 journalists have been killed since 2000, more than 20 are missing, and there have been at least 51 attacks on the media.

At night we come together to think through how to push back against impunity. We question and analyze every detail of the most recent crimes to understand their hidden messages. We rethink where we can and cannot publish our journalism. We share anecdotes of nighttime paranoia that follow us into the shadows, and we talk to press freedom advocates sharing our ideas, our fears and our plans of actions.

Along with many others, I have become a sort of air traffic controller trying to support actions that my colleagues have initiated, like publishing collaboratively en masse on anniversaries of killings, like this one, and encouraging people to read Javier’s work. We are papering the city with posters to remind everyone of what is happening, and running funding campaigns to support critical independent media. At the end of a recent press conference we asked our colleagues to leave their egos at the door and set competition aside so that all journalists will participate in conversations over the coming weeks to identify problems and construct solutions.

But, please know, this is also an SOS to the international community. We need your help, now.