Impunity in Mexico: Remembering Javier Valdez
No to Silence
Javier Valdez had a way of sliding an old spiral notebook out of his breast pocket, jotting down a brief note, then sliding it back into hiding before you realized it had ever been out. Part reporter, part poet, he loved detail and he loved to decipher the meaning of symbols. Valdez was a voice for a city enshrined in organized crime: Culiacán, Sinaloa. It’s a city where the forefathers of nearly every Mexican crime family built either retirement homes, or their tombs.
“They either live out the rest of their days here like Carrillo Fuentes,” he gestured at a rose-colored mansion belonging to the mother of the founders of the Juárez Cartel, its cupolas peeking over the top of a security wall one morning. “Or they have their tombs ordered. Either way, this is where they want to end up.”
He titled his newspaper column, Malá Yerba, which could mean “pot,” but also forms part of an old Mexican saying, “a bad weed never dies.” I was never clear on which, and he would never specify.
I first met Javier in 2005. Only two years before, he and a cohort had started a newspaper, an aggressive alternative weekly called Río Doce. Río Doce means the Twelfth River, and it stands for the river of ideas – one to supplement the other eleven rivers in Culiacán. A lofty title for a scrappy newspaper. For a reporter chasing the unsolved murders of Mexico’s journalists, it was a good place to learn.
I moved to Culiacán, Sinaloa, intent on following the career path of another young journalist, one who disappeared months earlier in the shadows of the northern border state of Sonora. This young man, Alfredo Jimenez, got his start covering the spilled entrails of the Sinaloa Cartel on its home turf: the crippling death of El Chapo Joaquín Guzmán’s son in Culiacán; the killing of Ramón Arellano Felíx at the hands of the Mexican Army in Mazatlán, Sinaloa; and the cold murder of Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, the heir apparent of the Juárez Cartel in 2004 that cracked the split into the timber of the old Sinaloan families like a blackening lightning bolt that would bring on a decade of destabilizing war.
Valdez taught me the nuance of reporting in that beautiful, savage Pacific coast city: how in a place like Culiacán, you can’t rely on press briefings, open source information and records laws. How a recorder could be perceived as a weapon and how a notebook should appear and disappear, never hovering too long.
Around this time, Valdez, this foul-mouthed veteran, grim and laughing and obscene and hilarious and loving and caring, sat down to write about Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán.
First came one man, accompanied by two, three more. He spoke with a thick, loud voice; grabbing the attention of the diners who at that moment numbered maybe 30.
"Gentlemen, please," the man said. "Give me a moment of your time. A man is going to come in, the boss. We ask that you remain in your seats. The doors will close and nobody is allowed to leave. You will also not be allowed to use your cellulars. Do not worry; if you do everything that is asked of you, nothing will happen. Continue eating and don’t ask for your check. The boss will pay. Thank you."
The diners stayed where they were, surprised, expectant.
El Chapo, according to Valdez, paid a visit to Las Palmas restaurant in Culiacán’s notorious Colonia Las Quintas. Weeks later, the restaurant owner threatened to sue the paper; but the paper never ran a retraction and is open to this day, suggesting perhaps, that someone had backed down. And it wasn’t Valdez.
By 2008 his city had hardened into a stronghold against a Sinaloan drug lord breaking old treaties and terrorizing the country. The daily violence also hardened Valdez.
A colleague of his was murdered in March: 54-year-old Miroslava Breach worked on the opposite side of those feral mountains of the Sierra Madre.
Valdez tweeted in response that day: "If the sentence for reporting this hell is death, they will have to kill us all. No to silence.”
Six weeks later, two killers approached him. They shot him in the stomach and then in both arms after he raised them defensively. Then, when he fell forward, they delivered the tiro de gracía, the coup de grace shot to the head.
It has been a month, and it’s growing increasingly likely that Javier’s case will never be solved. We’re left with no motive, no suspects, no arrests. The only clear details of his death are the manner in which he died.
But we’re also left with the details of his life. He spent much of that life capturing the dark soul of a savage country, and he left us with his judgment of that soul in the savage murders he wrote about, the odd and sometimes flagrant deals struck between Mexican politicians and the underworld that he alluded to, the rhythm and detail of what he saw in his city, encapsulated in his columns and stories. Valdez the poet captured Mexico’s soul. Valdez the reporter captured its people and their facts. There among both lies the clear possibility of a motive for his death.
No to silence.