It was on a busy Monday afternoon –last Monday, May 15 — in the middle of the street and in broad daylight, that a group of armed men surrounded veteran journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas and shot him numerous times from point-blank.
Valdez Cárdenas, Mexican Drug War jounalist as well as founder and editor of the weekly Riodoce in his home state of Sinaloa, was the eighth journalist murdered in Mexico this year. He joins Carlos Alberto García from Colima, Cecilio Pineda Brito from Guerrero, Ricardo Monlui from Veracruz, Miroslava Breach from Chihuahua, Maximino Rodríguez from Baja California, Juan José Roldán from Tlaxcala, and Filiberto Álvarez from Morelos. Their names are just the latest in the long list of media professionals targeted by drug cartels and organized crime that make Mexico one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practice journalism.
The scale of the violence in Mexico’s drug wars has reached incomprehensible levels. Some 200,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians, many of them in the most gruesome and inhumane manners. Rape and torture are commonplace; new mass graves are found almost daily.
But a journalist’s deaths hits particularly hard, because these men and women are not merely innocent victims, they are heroes. They willingly put themselves in harm’s way to reveal the realities of a country that has plunged deep into the abyss. Knowing the risks, they follow their calling and their passion in the service of law and order, of democratic values, of basic human decency.
During a long and distinguished career as a journalist, Valdez Cárdenas became one of the best known. In 2011, he was awarded both the Maria Moor Cabot Prize by the Columbia School of Journalism and the International press Freedom Award by the Committee to protect Journalists. During his acceptance speech for the latter, he described his life’s work.
I have preferred to give a face and a name to the victims, to create a portrait of this sad and desolate panorama, these leaps and bounds and short cuts towards the Apocalypse, instead of counting deaths and reducing them to numbers.
He did this as a reporter for La Jornada, one of Mexico’s main newspapers, as well as through his work at Riodoce. But his longer lasting contribution will be his many books, in which he chronicled the lives of thousands of individuals involved in the Apocalypse.
His first book, “De Azoteas y Olvidos” (“Of Cellars and Forgettings”) appeared in 2006. Though not yet focused on drug violence and crime, the volume made use of what would become Valdez Cárdenas signature literary tool, the “crónica” (or chronicle), a short narrative that introduces a character and then shows a handful of brief episodes from that individual’s point of view. This first collection of chronicles provides both unforgettable portraits of real people living their lives as best they can, but also an impressionistic panorama of the city as a whole.
A series of extraordinary volumes followed, each an indispensable document, a collection of testimonies, a view of the Apocalypse from a different angle.
In “El Morro del Narco”, he focuses on young men and boys sucked into the world of crime. Some were victims or families or victims, other recruits for the cartels. The book tells of young men who were made to shed their humanity to become “sicarios”, assassins for the cartels, or torturers, or terrorists. “Miss Narco” shifts attention to the thousands of young women appropriated by drug lords as sex toys or worse. “Levantones” looks at the victims of kidnappings and extortion, “Huérfanos del Narco” at the children left adrift by the atrocities committed around them, “Narcoperiodismo” at the journalists who try to make these stories visible and all too often pay the ultimate price.
Valdez Cárdenas dedicated this last book to his fallen brothers and sisters, in heartfelt words that will serve as his own epitaph,
To the Mexican journalists, brave and honorable, exiled, hidden, taken, murdered, beaten, terrorized, and giving birth to stories, despite censure and dark cannons.