Javier Valdez

Houston Chronicle June 14, 2017

By Katherine Corcoran


Amid the accusations and insults President Trump hurls at the U.S. media, it's easy to ignore that there is a real, shooting war on the press — and it's happening in Mexico.

So far this year, six journalists have been gunned down in various parts of the country. Another is missing in the western state of Michoacan.

The most brazen case occurred exactly a month ago in western Sinaloa state, where journalist and author Javier Valdez Cárdenas, known for his investigations into the drug trade, was stopped by gunmen in his car and shot to death near the offices of the weekly Ríodoce, which he helped found in 2003. Sinaloa is home to Mexico's powerful drug cartel of the same name, once headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who is in the United States awaiting trial.

As a journalist working in Mexico for nine years, I saw the war firsthand. We were always concerned about safety, but the international press generally remained outside of the crosshairs, while reporters for local press lived under harassment and threat.

Valdez had an international profile, recognized by both the Committee to Protect Journalists and Columbia University (with the Maria Moors Cabot Prize) for his work and courage to not be silenced.

His killing sent the message that no journalist in Mexico is safe. Valdez had no illusions about that. When I interviewed him last fall about his latest book, "Narco-Journalism," he told me that he didn't need any reminders that his work could cost him his life:

"I have to learn on every story how far I can go, what information I can't publish ... and I know if I cross the line they're going to kill me."

Mexico is a democracy. It's not a country at war, at least not officially. Yet it ranks ninth in the world for number of journalists killed since 1992, ahead of Afghanistan, Rwanda and Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, according to CPJ. But if you look at the numbers in just the past five years, Mexico is No. 1 — surpassing even Syria and Iraq — in noncombat killings that CPJ says are work-related or are under investigation for being work-related.

The general drug-cartel violence that has engulfed Mexico is clearly a factor. But there's another statistic that is often overlooked: Nearly 40 percent of attacks on journalists in Mexico are carried out by some state actor, that is, a government, military or police official, according to the government's own statistics.

That number rises to 81 percent in the Gulf of Mexico coastal state of Veracruz, where half of Mexico's journalist assassinations have occurred in the past five years — including a killing and an attempted homicide in the past two months.

In Mexico, the deadliest terrain for journalists is where government and cartel interests intersect. Reporter Miroslava Breach was killed March 23 in the northern city of Chihuahua, shot eight times as she was leaving her home with one of her children. Three weeks earlier, Breach published an article about links between local mayoral candidates and organized crime.

Veracruz saw a spike in killings, intimidation and threats under former Gov. Javier Duarte, who near the end of his term (2010-2016) fled Mexico, accused of money laundering and organized crime. (He was captured recently in Guatemala.) Attacks on the press in Veracruz wiped out nearly all critical reporting, guaranteeing Duarte the cover to rob the state of tens of millions of dollars for his own use, as is alleged.

Javier Valdez became concerned for his safety in March after Ríodoce published a story about narco-political links and copies of the weekly disappeared, CPJ's Carlos Lauría wrote Friday in the New York Times. "This is something different," Valdez told Lauría.

Like all crime in Mexico, the vast majority of press killings go unpunished. Only two of 38 in the past five years have resulted in convictions. Most are never even investigated. But it makes sense when you consider that the state, which is charged with prosecuting the crimes, is also the suspect in a high percentage of attacks.

Americans who take a free press for granted may not recognize the danger of a government using its powers to delegitimize and suppress media watchdogs. But Trump's cries of "fake news" and "enemy of the people" give us the perfect opportunity to consider what can happen when the vitriol spins out of control.

I would never argue that the situation in the United States is anything close to what's happening in Mexico. Still, Americans should care.

Mexico is also an important reminder of what can happen if we become casual about our own right to free speech. After Trump's "enemy of the people" remark, CBS anchor John Dickerson asked Chief of Staff Reince Priebus what he would say to Trump supporters, known to have acted out at rallies, "who might take license with the idea when the president says the press is the enemy and act on that declaration?"

"Certainly we would never condone violence," Priebus said. But the fact that violence against the press even came up in this context is chilling.

Nor do I take lightly the Trump supporters who don T-shirts printed with the words, "Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required." To some, it may be in jest. But given the events in the past few weeks in Mexico, and those journalists who have been lost to violence, I see how far it can go.

Reporting for this article, originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, was supported by the Alicia Patterson Foundation and the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame.



Click to view the video of Katherine Corcoran interviewing Javier Valdez.


Click to view the video of Katherine Corcoran interviewing Javier Valdez.