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A Journalist's Murder Underscores Growing Threat in Mexico

by Maria Verza
Monday Aug 7, 2017

The staff of the weekly newspaper Riodoce normally meets on Wednesdays to review its plans for coverage of the most recent mayhem wrought in Sinaloa state by organized crime, corrupt officials and ceaseless drug wars. But on this day, in the shadow of their own tragedy, they've come together to talk about security.

It's important to change their routines, they are told. Be more careful with social media. Don't leave colleagues alone in the office at night. Two senior journalists discuss what feels safer: to take their children with them to the office, which was the target of a grenade attack in 2009, or to leave them at home.

Security experts have written three words on a blackboard at the front of the room: adversaries, neutrals, allies. They ask the reporters to suggest names for each column - no proof is needed, perceptions and gut feelings are enough

Allies are crucial. In an emergency, they would need a friend, a lawyer, an activist to call.

The longest list, by far, is enemies. There are drug traffickers, politicians, businesspeople, journalists suspected of being on the payroll of the government or the cartels, a catalog of villains who make the job of covering Mexico's chaos perilous.

There is no respite from the violence, and as bodies pile up across the country, more and more of them are journalists: at least 25 since President Enrique Pena Nieto took office in December 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, with at least seven dead in seven states so far this year. A total of 589 have been placed under federal protection after attacks and threats.

Among the latest to fall is their editor and inspiration, Riodoce co-founder Javier Valdez Cardenas.

"The greatest error is to live in Mexico and to be a journalist," Valdez wrote in one of his many books on narco-violence.

His absence is felt deeply, although his presence is everywhere - a large photo of Valdez displaying his middle finger, with the word "Justice," hangs on the facade of the Riodoce building; two reporters in their 30s, Aaron Ibarra and Miriam Ramirez, wear T-shirts that display his smiling, bespectacled face or his trademark Panama hat. The masthead of the paper still bears his name, and each issue has a blank space where his op-ed column should be.

The workshop takes place less than two months after his death; the reporters discuss their shared trauma, their nightmares, insomnia, paranoia.

Mexico is now the world's most lethal country for journalists, more even than war-torn Syria. Although a special federal prosecutor's office was established in 2010 to handle the journalists' cases, it has only prosecuted two, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. As with most of the thousands of murders tied to drug trafficking and organized crime each year, the killers of journalists are rarely brought to justice.

At Riodoce, the journalists persist in covering the violence of Sinaloa, though they are heartbroken, though the terrain is more treacherous now.

Without information on the killers, without justice, the meeting to discuss security, says Ibarra, is of little use.

"It's very foolish to waste my time in this workshop," he says. "As long as we don't know why, you distrust everyone."

___

On the morning of May 15, Valdez left the Riodoce office in the state capital of Culiacan. He managed to drive just a couple blocks before his red Toyota Corolla was stopped by two men. He was forced out of his car and shot 12 times, presumably for the name of the paper - which translates as Twelfth River. The gunman drove away in his car and crashed it nearby.

His body lay for 40 minutes in the middle of a sunbaked street, with a kindergarten on one side and a restaurant on the other, his hat next to his head as if shielding his eyes from distraught family and friends gathering around him.

"I understood that as a message," said Francisco Cuamea, deputy director of the Noroeste newspaper: Anyone could be next.

Valdez was 50 years old. He left a wife and two adult children. There have been no arrests - which is no surprise to the national press corps.

Rumors tend to fly freely in Culiacan. But on the subject of Valdez, there's practically nothing but silence.

"Nobody wants to get involved with the death," said Juan Carlos Ayala, a professor at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa who has spent 40 years studying violence in the state. Authorities have been silent about any progress in the case. "Either they're complicit, or they're idiots."

Sinaloa is home to the cartel of the same name that was long run by notorious kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Since Guzman's arrest last year and extradition to the United States in January, Sinaloa has been one of the country's bloodiest battlegrounds as rival factions fight to fill the vacuum.

Someone or several people are shot dead in the street every day in Sinaloa and that the cemetery is filled with ornate, two-story mausoleums for drug kings, larger than many homes for the living. The state of "calm" is when just one cartel is in control of the coastal state with its valuable ports and drug-trafficking routes to the United States.

Despite that, and the fact that Valdez was intimately aware of the perils of his work, Ismail Bojorquez, 60, a co-founder and director of Riodoce, is wracked with guilt for feeling he failed to protect his friend.

He believes two errors contributed to the killing. First there was the publication in February of an interview with Damaso Lopez, a leader of one of the rival cartel factions at war with Guzman's sons. The piece may have angered the sons. Suspected gang members bought up all the copies of the edition as soon as they were delivered to newsstands.

The second mistake was not forcing Valdez to leave the country for his own safety after the seizure of another newspaper that carried the same story.

Valdez was a legend in Mexico and abroad, and his killing is seen as a milestone in Mexican violence against journalists. He'd survived for so long, his friends and colleagues assumed he'd always be there. He was a veteran reporter for Noroeste in 2003 when he joined five colleagues in creating Riodoce, selling $50 shares. In Sinaloa, "it was impossible to do journalism without touching the narco issue," said Bojorquez.

Over time the paper earned a reputation for brave and honest coverage, and sales and advertising increased. Reporters loved being able to publish hard-hitting investigations without fear of censorship, and readers were fascinated by a publication where they could read stories nobody else dared to cover.

Eight years after Riodoce was founded, it won the prestigious Maria Moors Cabot award for coverage in Latin America. That same year, Valdez won the International Press Freedom Award of the Committee to Protect Journalists for his courage in pursuing the Mexican drug story wherever it led.

He freely acknowledged that he was frightened. "I want to carry on living," he said at the time of the CPJ award. "To die would be to stop writing."

Drug trafficking in Sinaloa "is a way of life," he said last October, in an interview with Rompeviento TV. "You have to assume the task that falls to you as a journalist - either that or you play dumb. I don't want to be asked, 'What were you doing in the face of so much death ... why didn't you say what was going on?'"

___

The Riodoce staff misses Valdez, the jokester who swore like a longshoreman, the friend generous with hugs and advice, a teacher who knew how to survive. They relied on his routine. He would always wear his hat. He would go to El Guayabo, the bar across from the office, and would always sit at the same table. Now, they ask: Was his love of routine his downfall?

His death also has forced them to question their own assumptions about how best to do their jobs and stay alive.

It used to be that there were certain unwritten rules. It was OK to report on corruption as long as you were careful not to publish key details or appear to take sides. You must think carefully about story placement and timing. Don't accept money from anyone. Know the red lines for crime gangs.

"They don't like it if you mess with their women, their children, their clean businesses, their clandestine airstrips" used to move drugs. "Those things were off-limits," said Bojorquez.

The result is, even in the best of times, a high level of self-censorship and self-preservation. Trusting one's instincts. If it smells wrong, stay away.

The trouble, said Riodoce editor Andres Villarreal, is that "smell is a sense that can be fooled ... and then the thing with Javier happened."

The old rules, he and others say, no longer apply in Sinaloa- just as they don't in Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Guerrero and other states with a toxic mix of lucrative smuggling routes, weak institutions and corrupt government officials. In times of fracturing cartels, shifting political alliances and near-total impunity for attacks on journalists, it's no longer clear who can and can't be trusted, what is or isn't safe to report.

The landscape constantly shifts. In the room where Riodoce staff met for security training, suddenly no cellphones were allowed. Days before, it was revealed that spyware sold exclusively to governments had been used to monitor journalists and activists in Mexico.

Outside, two police officers sought relief from the 104-degree (40 Celsius) heat in the shade of a tree. They were assigned by the state government to guard Riodoce's offices, housed in a four-story building in a middle-class neighborhood of Culiacan. Half-jokingly, some of the reporters wondered whether these officers are among the 50 percent of officers whom the governor himself has said are not trustworthy.

It has been months since the reporters have gone into the mountainous countryside, where the drug gangs are in de facto control.

For this week's edition Riodoce's editors were looking at three main stories. There was the killing of former boxing great Julio Cesar Chavez's brother in Sinaloa. They also had an expose on government spending concentrated in the governor's hometown. And there was a group kidnapping in one of Culiacan's most expensive restaurants, a block from the prosecutor's office. There was no official word on who was abducted or how it happened, so caution set in when it came time to write what everyone in the city knows: that the restaurant is a favorite of both drug traffickers and authorities.

A reporter learned from public records that the restaurant was registered under the name of a politician belonging to the ruling Institutional Revolution Party, or PRI, which dominated all levels of politics for nearly all of the last century. Recently several PRI governors have been accused of corruption in high-profile cases.

Villarreal asked the reporter to write about prior incidents in that locale, including one in which a son of "El Chapo" Guzman escaped a military raid.

Just months before, readers would have looked to Valdez's column for the best-sourced information about the kidnapping.

"Before, we would have already known what happened," said Villarreal, 46, nicknamed "El Flaco" for his slender build. "Now all channels of communication with our sources have been broken."

___

Valdez's office has been repurposed as a storage room for signs and stickers protesting journalist killings, as staff have become something they never expected to be: activists on behalf of the press. Reporter Miriam Ramirez grabbed a few of the signs and headed out the next morning for a demonstration at the local prosecutor's office over yet another journalist. Salvador Adame disappeared in the western state of Michoacan three days after Valdez was killed. A burned body has been discovered and officials say it is his, based on DNA tests.

Nationwide, journalists have become more vocal, scrawling "SOS Press" on sidewalks and buildings in organized protests. On this day, the director Bojorquez is away in Washington, trying to rally international support for justice in the Valdez case.

At a meeting with the governor of Sinaloa the day after Valdez was killed, Ramirez accused authorities of spying on journalists and having them killed for telling the truth. She has since asked to be reassigned from covering the government, concerned that her anger has hurt her objectivity.

Valdez had repeatedly said that journalists in Mexico are "surrounded" by organized crime, complicit government officials and an indifferent society. In his last book, "Narco-journalism," he wrote that reporters are being killed not just by drug gangs but on the order of politicians and security forces in cahoots with organized crime. The media watchdog group Articulo 19 attributed more than half of attacks on journalists last year to police and public officials.

"In Mexico you die because they want to shut you up," Ramirez said.

Clearly, the murders have a chilling effect. No one forgets the death six years ago of blogger Maria Elizabeth Macias in the northern border state of Tamaulipas. Her body was found along with a note purportedly signed by the Zetas cartel: "Here I am because of my reports." A computer keyboard and headphones lay next to her severed head.

Some outlets have opted to close, such as the newspaper El Norte, in the northern border state of Chihuahua, after the killing of correspondent Miroslava Breach in March.

Others keep going, as El Manana of Nuevo Laredo did following the killing of its director in 2004. In 2010, Diario de Ciudad Juarez addressed the drug cartels publicly with a front-page editorial titled, "What do you want from us?"

Some journalists have fled their home states or even the country. It's a wrenching decision. It's hard to find work in exile, and they still scan the streets, looking for danger. And sometimes, they are hunted down, as apparently was photographer Ruben Espinosa, who was murdered in 2015 along with four women in a Mexico City apartment three months after fleeing Veracruz.

For those who stay behind and continue the work, it's a daily dance of high-risk decisions.

Ramirez was unsettled by a recent Facebook comment on a story of hers about shell companies contracted by a previous governor. "These reporters are looking to end up like Javier Valdez," said the anonymous poster, though the comment was later deleted.

Still, she says she has no intention of giving up on Riodoce or its mission.

"We have a commitment to Javier, to ourselves," said Ramirez.

Ibarra - who once wanted to be a poet - admits that covering the drug trade scares him. But he, too, intends to remain.

"Mexico is going to hell, and that's why I became a reporter," he said.

At midnight on a recent Friday, with the latest issue already put to bed, Riodoce editors sat on the sidewalk outside the office, drinking beer, when all at once, their phones began to buzz.

A series of shootouts involving gang rivals and security forces near the beach resort city of Mazatlan had left 19 confirmed dead. The war continued to escalate, as was promised by a series of cartel messages discovered in the area.

From the curb, via cellphone, they put the news up on Riodoce's website. The front page would have to be changed the next day. Sirens wailed nearby - another shootout in the area. Bojorquez glanced over at the police officers standing guard to see if they were alert. If they were at all afraid, they didn't show it.

Beneath the massive portrait of their newspaper's fallen founder, his middle finger displayed for all of Sinaloa to see, the staff of Riodoce was following in his footsteps.

"How can you even think of closing," Bojorquez said, "when the same day Javier was killed the intern asked me to send her out to report on the street?"

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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