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In May, Mexican journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas was pulling his red Toyota into a street in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico, when two hooded gunmen stopped his car and shot him 12 times, executing him in broad daylight.
Photos from the crime scene show Valdez lying face down, alone, his trademark Panama hat in the street beside him. In what his colleagues believe was symbolic of the writing that led to his murder, Valdez was shot in the forehead and in each of his hands.
Valdez wasn’t a traditional investigative journalist who regularly spotlighted links between organized crime and government officials. He was more interested in chronicling the ways in which brutal violence tore at the country’s social fabric and affected the lives of ordinary people. And he spent nearly as much time with the victims of that violence as he did its perpetrators, looking for small gestures of hope and humanity often overshadowed by the macabre spectacles of death.
To most of the world, Valdez was the fifth journalist killed this year in Mexico – where at least 106 journalists have been killed since 2000. And in a country where an estimated 175,000 have died, and another 28,000 forcibly disappeared over the same time, it’s nearly impossible to separate violence against the press from the cloud of violence that envelopes everyone.
But Valdez wasn’t a mere statistic to Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. To Meade, Valdez was a colleague and friend. Before Valdez was killed, the two worked together on “The Taken,” which Meade edited and translated into English. The book is a collection of stories of those who were abducted – some of whom eventually returned, some of whom didn’t.
In a tribute to his friend, Meade wrote:
“Javier was killed for reporting on drug cartels and their connections to powerful political interests, and the courageous individuals who continue this work feel utterly abandoned and vulnerable.
But like much of the violence of the drug war, his assassination was an act of terror aimed at suppressing any kind of dissent rather than specific pieces of compromising information or individuals. The only antidote to the crippling fear and isolation that an atrocity like this produces is to tell precisely the kinds of stories in which Javier specialized — stories that showcase our common humanity, that reduce the distance between victims and perpetrators, reporters and readers.”
Valdez was privately troubled by threats against his life, which he reportedly told colleagues in the weeks leading up to his death seemed increasingly serious. But if Valdez felt pressure to stay quiet, he didn’t succumb to it.
I recently sat down with Meade to talk about Valdez’s work and what lessons it offers. In a wide-ranging interview, Meade sketched a picture of the violence that’s consuming Mexico, how it’s changed over the past three decades and the ways in which the United States has fueled both the consumption of drugs and the weapons used to inflict violence.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How has the nature of violence changed over the past two or three decades in Mexico?
Everard Meade: If you go back to the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, drug cartels killed investigative journalists and people doing human rights reporting. It happened. But they targeted people who had information they didn’t want made public. It’s very simple. The logic was: ‘Look, what we’re doing isn’t legal, so we have to keep it secret. If you’re going to reveal this information, we’re going to kill you so that information doesn’t become public.’
The other reason they use violence is contract enforcement. You stole our three truckloads of weed, we can’t go to the police, so we use violence as a deterrent. But that’s a classic mafia; it’s no different than what happened with bootleggers during Prohibition here.
If you look now at the use of violence, they’re not actually trying to keep secrets anymore. The only people who are trying to keep secrets are elected officials, because it’s inconvenient to them if they’re outed as a drug trafficker.
But in general for the narcos, their incentive is the opposite. Their incentive is to make themselves look ferocious. Look at narcotube, or look at what they do when they leave these narcomantas or dismembered bodies all over the place. Which they all do, and they’ve done it for 10 years. It’s become normal. That’s not what they did in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In the ‘80s and ‘90s they used the pozolero to dissolve the bodies in acid. Why? To get rid of it. It was about hiding evidence. It was about secrecy. Now they’re using violence to strategically terrify people into doing their bidding. … And that means that they can be much less selective about on whom they enact that violence. Because, if you’re really just trying to terrify everybody into doing your bidding, you need the body. But it could be any body. It can be someone who doesn’t pay extortion money. It can be a journalist. It can be some other public official. It could be somebody that you accuse of being from a rival drug organization, and it doesn’t really matter if they actually were. That’s the really crazy thing about it. … And that’s what makes this so hard to figure out why they did it, what the motive is.
With Javier Valdez, did you kill him for what he did? Or did you kill him because he’s really well known and you want to silence everybody? Who knows.
Obviously the direct suppression of journalists is one reason why we’re not hearing more about this. Why else is there?
There’s direct suppression, there’s the shrinking of newsrooms, then there’s also the fact that it’s really difficult to report on a lot of these. Reporting on the disappeared is really tricky. Look up Fernando Ocegueda, for example. He heads the group United for the Disappeared in Baja California. People have written stories about him. His son was disappeared in 2007. He’s one of the victims of this guy, ‘El Pozolero’ Santiago Meza, who disappeared the bodies in acid. Disgusting, horrible stuff. And Ocegueda has been fighting for very, very basic things. He wants to have a memorial. They know the names of people whose bodies Santiago Meza disposed of. And he wants to have a little plaque and memorial at the site. He wants them to actually acknowledge the case files and that they’re open investigations. The problem is that in those cases, the chances of them moving forward are very low. So it puts reporters in a spot, because what’s the story? …
That was part of the genius of people like Javier Valdez. He split up what he did in his daily journalism from what he did in his books. And in his books he really spent a lot of time with victims and survivors. He grouped a few dozen of them in each of the books into kind of categories of the experience. He did a book on women, he did a book on children, he did a book on orphans, journalists. …
That was his way of figuring out a way to make a coherent narrative that wasn’t just ‘This is awful. This is terrible.’ That doesn’t give some kind of hope, or some kind of sense, something you can put some analytical teeth into and pull a history out of.
I think there’s probably too much focus on journalists. That’s too narrow. … If you put it into the context of activists who’ve been killed, they are all over the place. Female activists, 44 have been killed in the last two years. Global Witness says 33 environmental activists were killed from 2010 to 2015. These are all different ways of counting them. If you look at local mayors and municipal officials, who actually who often write stuff in the local newspaper, there’s 82 of them who have been killed from 2006 to 2016.
So if you start putting together people who want to be part of the public sphere, and are not actually involved in formal politics at the state level, those are people who are most under assault. …
And if you put that in the context of anybody getting killed, the elephant in the room is that there’s no expectation of justice. That’s true for journalists, but it’s true for anybody. The impunity rate in Sinaloa for murder is about 98 percent. About 98 percent of murders don’t produce an indictment or a conviction.
With such an astonishing impunity rate, how is it possible to distinguish who is responsible for the murders and who is responsible for stopping them?
It’s really difficult because in many cases you can’t find who the trigger man is. If you look at Manuel Buendia, he was someone who covered drug trafficking, wrote that the CIA was involved, and called out a lot of people. In 1984, when he was assassinated in Mexico City, there was a huge outcry.
But the agency that was tasked with investigating the murder was the same agency most likely responsible for the crime. And they did, in fact. Under the next president, five agents were convicted, went to jail, and didn’t get out until 2009. …
Javier was shot down at noon! People saw it. They’ll figure that story out, eventually. The question is: Will we ever learn the motive completely, or who gave the orders? The reality is probably not. And that’s the hard part in most of these cases.
It’s incredibly inexpensive to order somebody killed. In this case, people suspect that it was someone directly connected to (drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s) sons, who were angry about bad press and good press for their rivals.
It’s also possible that they did what they always do, which is that they let it known they wanted him killed. Then any one of the armed crews goes and does it because they want to move up or they want the money.
This is what makes it so tough to disentangle these things, and it’s a constant struggle for journalists who try to cover this stuff, because they get tips and propaganda all the time that are part of factional struggles between organized crime groups. It might be a tip for a story that would be embarrassing to the rival cartel.
When you hear journalists saying, ‘I feel alone, I feel vulnerable’ – and Javier said it a lot – they feel vulnerable because they see a colleague killed and they know nothing is going to happen. But they also feel vulnerable because they’re trying to manage all this information that they get, and trying to know who they can trust and who they can’t trust.
Is there a line that journalists know not to cross, or certain things they know not to write about?
If someone were to ask me, ‘Who is a high-risk journalist?’ I probably wouldn’t have put Javier in that category. Because in a lot of what he did, he didn’t use names. He often made up names. He wasn’t an investigative journalist either. He wasn’t doing Freedom of Information Act requests in Mexico and the U.S. and trying to figure out which narcos are funding the president. That’s just not what he did. He violated that a little bit later, when his friend was killed and he amped up the volume. But for the most part, he wasn’t that kind of journalist. Most of his time he spent with victims and survivors just narrating their stories, so they’re more historical.
So the short answer to your question is, yes, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty about it.
There are also times when somebody gets angry about how they appear in print, and they just decide to kill somebody. And when you have that kind of impunity, they can do that. The powerful people are not stupid, and they do a cost-calculus when deciding whether to kill someone. But even if they don’t do it, they don’t have full control about the people underneath them. If some mid-level guy has a beef and goes to kill someone, the only check on the behavior is whether it’s really inconvenient for the bosses and it might come back to haunt him. The cartel does have its own internal justice system, but they only deal with stuff after the fact.
There’s a big myth about cartels that they’re these huge organizations. They are not. They may have been in the 1990s, but they’re not now. They’re cellular. And the different cells don’t know each other. They have beefs all the time. Half of what it means to be a higher-up in cartels is negotiating beefs between all these armed groups that live in the same city and don’t realize they work for the same organization.
Are there cases where the violence has followed journalists onto U.S. soil – either American journalists or Mexican journalists fleeing violence?
That’s a really good question. And I think the quick and dirty answer is that American journalists really haven’t been targeted. At the end of the day, there are no American journalists who have been killed doing this work. Whereas 106 of their Mexican colleagues have been killed, foreign journalists just have not been targeted. It just hasn’t happened.
Because cartels do a kind of cost-benefit analysis?
Yeah, I think so. Often organized crime knows these foreign journalists are not on a beat. I think they have a low assessment of what foreign journalists can do to their enterprises. How many newspapers right now have a Mexican correspondent? Four? It’s tiny. So they’re not worried about them. And the cost to them would be really high, because they’d have to do some kind of house cleaning. They’d have to make it look like justice was done. I mean, it’s a pain in the ass whenever a foreigner gets killed.
Where does that leave you in terms of taking any meaning out of such suffering and violence?
Javier actually had a really great lesson for us. I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
I told you why so many journalists don’t do this work, and why it’s challenging. Javier showed us ways that you can. And they’re ways that overlap with a bunch of different disciplines. On the academic side, they can overlap with sociology or anthropology, ethnography, history or civic organizing.
But there’s also a therapeutic part. And that’s really sitting down and accompanying the victims and survivors and letting them talk about what happened to them, and then putting that into categories so people can make sense of it. … That feeling of solidarity and feeling that someone is listening, that’s important.
The other piece that Javier showed us is this: He spent as much time, or close to as much time, with people who are low-level perpetrators, or even sometimes higher-level perpetrators, as he did with the victims. And he just messed with the boundary between the two.
He showed us, ‘Look, this is a totally coercive and violent system. Most of the people who are pulling the triggers and torturing people and kidnapping – they had the same things happen to them. So they’re not uber-criminals or zombies, or a caricature of an extremist terrorist or robots that have been programmed to kill. They are actually people who were just brought into a coercive system. They have families and they have people who are threatened and they’re doing their own kind of moral calculus. They’re redeemable. And they suffer, too. …
The very long answer to your question, though, is if you want to talk about policy and other things, we’ve got to start working on that. On the one hand, much more basically, just accompanying the victims, actually getting their stories right, finding out what happened to them. And also showing the stories of the very heroic little things that people have done.
Javier was good at that, too. He tells a story from Juarez where this mother and daughter see a guy walking down the other side of the street, and a car coming from the other direction. They’re clearly going to head up onto the curb and jump out and take the guy. This mother and daughter are standing there seeing it about to unfold and they yell out a warning to the guy and he gets away. They’re taking their own lives into their own hands, but it’s the heroic thing. It’s the right thing to do.
Clarification: The description of Meade’s involvement in “The Taken” has been updated to more accurately reflect his contribution.