Impunity in Mexico: Remembering Javier Valdez

Safety in Numbers

By Javier Garza Ramos

In 2013, the newspaper where I worked, El Siglo de Torreon, was one of the most targeted news organizations in Mexico. We were covering a wave of violence unleashed by crime organizations in the city, and the shootings at our building, kidnappings and threats that began a few years before had become an expected part of our work. As Editorial Director, I tried to make sure we had adequate security procedures in place for our reporters and editors, especially for those covering crime.

Taking part in the discussion on journalist safety in Mexico at the start of the decade – just as the country was descending into a spiral of violence – steered me inevitably towards the brave and dedicated founders of Rîo Doce, Javier Valdez and Ismael Bojórquez. Those two were in the thick of it, doing investigative journalism in the cradle of Mexico’s narco-trafficking industry.

We would bump into each other at conferences on press freedom or speak on panels side by side about violence and the media. Away from the mics, the subject would change to the inner workings of the drug cartels. We all believed this to be the most dangerous time to be a journalist in Mexico’s modern history.

At a conference in San Diego in 2014, Javier Valdez was adamant that we keep one harsh truth in mind: that in Mexico, criminal groups set the news agenda, not the journalists and not their audience. He then made an important distinction: we could work to change that, however, as long as it was the reality, journalists needed to learn how to continue doing their jobs without risking their lives. Javier was deeply aware of the risk he faced, and he took various measures to protect himself. Unfortunately, in the end, this wasn’t enough.

Javier also believed in “safety in numbers” – that pushing other news organizations to replicate or follow up on the delicate stories Rio Doce published meant that information could travel far and wide. That, to him, made publishing worth the risk and also provided another layer of safety. Something else was probably also on his mind: That sharing a story creates a bond of solidarity between journalists. By helping to amplify the news, those who aren’t in danger help those who are, and that same favor may be returned one day.

As violence has engulfed the Mexican press, with more attacks every year, solidarity is one way to mitigate the trauma. Understanding that your colleagues will be there in times of need is invaluable when you have nowhere else to turn: not the government and, sometimes, not even your employer.

Javier Valdez was a big believer in fostering solidarity and relationships between journalists across Mexico. One of the reasons his murder has had such an impact – beyond his outstanding work or the international recognitions he received – is that he was known and admired by journalists all over Mexico, and he made it seem possible to continue doing our work, even amidst tremendous violence.

Javier truly earned the respect of his peers. And this, perhaps, is the greatest recognition possible.