On May 15, 2017, famed Mexican journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas was walking towards his car in his hometown of Culiacán in the Pacific state of Sinaloa when gunmen pulled up beside him, ordered him to kneel and shot him dead with a dozen bullets.
The slaying of Valdez, who was internationally recognized for his fearless coverage of organized crime, brought a renewed wave of international condemnation of violence against journalists -- particularly in Mexico, which the International Press Institute recently described as "the deadliest place in the world to work in the media."
In the year since Valdez's murder, his case has highlighted Mexican authorities' struggle to thoroughly investigate crimes against press workers while also serving as a reminder of the dangers that come with reporting on crime and corruption in Mexico.
Although most cases of murders of journalists in Mexico go unpunished, there have been several recent breaks in the investigation of Valdez's killing.
For one, authorities have identified Damáso López Serrano, alias “Mini Lic,” as the intellectual author ultimately responsible for ordering the hit on Valdez, according to RíoDoce, the newspaper Valdez founded. Mini Lic, the son of Sinaloa Cartel leader Dámaso López Nuñéz, alias "Licenciado," is being held in a US prison as he faces drug trafficking and money laundering charges. The elder López is imprisoned in Mexico and may be extradited to the United States.
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Mexican federal police have also arrested two of the alleged material authors of Valdez's murder: Heriberto “N,” alias “El Koala,” the alleged driver for the murder plot, and Juan Francisco Picos Barrueto, alias “El Quillo,” who was allegedly a passenger in the car.
Shortly after El Koala's April 23 arrest in the border town of Tijuana, the charred body of the alleged triggerman, Luis Idelfonso Sánchez Romero, alias “El Diablo,” was found inside of a scorched vehicle in the neighboring state of Sonora, RíoDoce reported.
According to RíoDoce Director Ismael Bojórquez, information provided by a protected witness in Mexican custody led authorities to tracking down and conducting surveillance on El Koala. This surveillance eventually allowed authorities to intercept cell phone conversations and gather other evidence linking Mini Lic, El Koala, El Diablo and El Quillo to Valdez’s murder.
The reason for Valdez’s murder likely stems from his coverage of one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal groups, the Sinaloa Cartel. But the exact motive remains murky.
After cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was arrested and later extradited to the United States, a power struggle ensued between El Chapo’s sons and his former right hand man, Licenciado, over who would assume control of the criminal organization.
That war, according to Ríodoce, soon spread to the media. In the weeks prior to his murder, Valdez had published an interview with Licenciado. It's unclear exactly what happened next, but not long after getting involved in the internal Sinaloa Cartel dispute, Valdez was shot dead.
Authorities say that as a reward for the murder, the killers received a silver pistol bearing the images of Licenciado and Mini Lic.
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While friends and associates of the late Valdez are happy that there has been some progress toward solving his murder, they nevertheless have reservations about whether justice will ever be served for the slaying.
“I think that the path authorities are on in terms of solving Javier’s case is correct, I think they have taken the right route,” Bojórquez told InSight Crime.
Journalists in Mexico are increasingly facing violence from both the government and crime groups. But these cases rarely end in successful investigations, much less prosecutions. According to a recent report from the press freedom organization Article 19, crimes against journalists in Mexico have an impunity rate of 99.6 percent.
This has Bojórquez concerned about whether or not authorities will be able to secure a conviction despite the fact that those allegedly responsible for the crime are already in custody.
“We’re worried about being able to secure a prosecution and the sentencing of those who are responsible, and if there is the capacity or the willpower to do so,” Bojórquez told InSight Crime.
Indeed, Bojórquez admitted that Valdez's fame and the international attention generated by his murder likely put significant pressure on authorities to advance the inquiry into his death.
“I think that the impact of Javier and his work gave the Attorney General’s Office a sense of obligation to do a very detailed and rigorous investigation,” he said.
In that sense, Valdez’s case shows that the Mexican government can effectively investigate crimes against the press when it is sufficiently motivated to do so. And other recent cases show authorities can even secure convictions, especially with high-profile victims.
But the murders of numerous other journalists remain unsolved after languishing for years. This creates a chilling effect on coverage of crime and security -- two of the most important issues affecting not only Mexico, but the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean. Journalists willing to risk life and limb to cover such stories are few and far between.
Thoroughly investigating crimes against journalists and bringing perpetrators to justice is an important step toward ensuring the media can effectively cover these important issues. And in that sense, the arrest of suspects in Valdez's murder could be taken as a positive sign. But the Valdez case is also a reminder of just how far Mexico still has left to go in terms of protecting and promoting freedom of the press.