Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Inside the murder of Javier Valdez

Chivis Martinez Borderland Beat Thank you TuFren from Esquire by Ioan Grillo

"While it is unknown how much of a part, if any, the López story in Ríodoce played, Bohórquez told me he regrets having published it. 'I think we made a mistake in interviewing Dámaso,' [Dámaso López Núñez] he said. 'They were in a bad war, a war to the death, and we got in the middle of it.'....Ioan Grillo


n January 19, 2017, less than twenty-four hours before Donald Trump was sworn in as president, a plane landed on Long Island carrying a prized cargo: Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel. After escaping from prison twice in Mexico, he’d been recaptured and extradited to the United States to face seventeen charges, including trafficking cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and crystal meth. If, as prosecutors claim, his operation netted $14 billion, he will be the biggest trafficker the Drug Enforcement Administration has helped bring before an American judge. His trial is set to begin the first week of November in federal district court in Brooklyn.

Back in Guzmán’s home state of Sinaloa, in northwest Mexico, rival factions fought for control of his empire. Squads of sicarios, or hit men, shot at one another with AK-47’s and AR-15’s in the very heart of neighborhoods around the state capital, Culiacán, sending residents fleeing for cover. A group of local reporters, led by the weekly newsmagazine Ríodoce, braved the bullets to cover the mayhem.

Veteran journalists Javier Valdez and Ismael Bohórquez founded Ríodoce in 2003. Its name derives from the local geography: Sinaloa has eleven rivers, and “River Twelve” intended to be its current of information. The spirit of the magazine was set by Valdez, who wrote with a
colorful and crazed pen, mixing street experiences with sparkling metaphors. His favored subjects were the unseen faces of the cartel wars: the members of brass bands who played ballads to men in crocodile-skin boots and women with diamond-studded fingernails; children on dirt roads who dreamed of being hit men; crying mothers whose sons had been murdered.
In the wake of El Chapo’s arrest, most Sinaloan news outlets reported only the basic facts of each bloody development: how many people were killed in a given shoot-out, how many bullets were fired, who was arrested. But Ríodoce aimed to explain the power struggle driving the cartel’s splintering: Two of Guzmán’s sons, known as the Chapitos, led one faction, while Dámaso López, a prison warden who helped Guzmán escape the first time, in 2001, and became his right-hand man, led another.

As the fighting raged in February, a man phoned the offices of Ríodoce and asked to speak with Valdez. Declining to give his name, the caller claimed to have important information. Responding to such a call was risky in Sinaloa, home to dozens of kingpins besides El Chapo. But Valdez, rarely shaken, agreed to meet.

Wearing his trademark panama hat and chunky glasses, set against a pinkish complexion that earned him the nickname Guero (a slang term in Mexico that roughly translates to “Whitey”), Valdez met the caller in a car parked nearby. The man, a lieutenant of López, passed him a phone that was connected to his boss. López said he had not betrayed El Chapo, whom he “loves and admires,” as Valdez would later report. But López criticized the Chapitos: “They are sick with power.”

Valdez was confronted with a tough calculation. Over two and a half decades, he’d reported from deep inside Sinaloa’s narco world. Traffickers speak to journalists for any number of reasons: to boast, or to confess their sins, or to expose a rival network’s inner workings. Usually Valdez’s sources were low down the chain of command, and he protected their identity with anonymity. But to print the words of a higher-up by name would mean raising the stakes, potentially pulling Ríodoce into the fight. In the end, Valdez chose to run the story; the information, he decided, was of great enough public interest for him to take the risk.

Before the issue was released, however, he received another call, this time from a representative of the Chapitos. Valdez suggested they meet at his favorite haunt, a cantina near Ríodoce’s offices called El Guayabo. At the meeting, the Chapitos’ envoy said that the interview with López, whom his bosses considered a cartel insurgent, could not be published. Valdez replied that it was too late; thousands of copies of the issue were already printed and set to go on newsstands the following day. While this was true, Valdez was not in the habit of letting the cartel or anyone else decide what could run in his magazine.

The next morning, as the delivery trucks made their rounds, Chapitos affiliates followed, buying every copy. Though the story did run on Ríodoce’s website, few copies made it into the hands of the public.

Valdez had faced down intimidation before, but now the risk felt more acute. He reached out to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit that promotes freedom of the press worldwide, to discuss relocating him and his family.

But he ultimately decided against it. Moving would displace his wife, Griselda Triana, also a journalist, and their nineteen- year-old son, Francisco, who lived at home. (Their twenty-four-year-old daughter, Tania, who’d recently married, lived nearby.) As weeks passed, the threat seemed to dissipate. In a video from his fiftieth-birthday party in April, Valdez joyfully plays drums in a band. His shirt reads, life begins at fifty.

On the morning of May 15, Valdez and Bohórquez met at the Ríodoce offices. They went over story ideas, sales numbers, pension plans. Afterward, Valdez left to buy chicken he planned to share with his wife for lunch, and Bohórquez went to the bank. As Bohórquez returned, he spotted a crowd standing near a body on the street. At first, he thought it was the victim of a hit-and-run. Then, as he told me, “I saw the hat and the shoes, and I thought, Oh,’s Javier.” Around 12:00 p.m., Valdez had been shot twelve times near the offices of River Twelve.

hat I remember most about Valdez is his voice, the clear, lilting warmth of his Sinaloan accent, whether he was dropping barrio slang or speaking of the people whose lives he’d seen ruined.

I met him in 2008, the first year Mexico’s cartel violence shot up to catastrophic levels. The battle was especially brutal in Culiacán, where El Chapo’s men fought those of Arturo “the Beard” Beltran Leyva, a friend turned enemy, in reckless public shoot-outs. Before I flew in from Mexico City, where I’ve lived since 2001, a colleague told me that to really understand the situation in Sinaloa, I should speak with Valdez. He told me to meet him that day at El Guayabo. When I arrived, he was at a table in the back, a bottle of whiskey set in front of him. We talked deep into the night about everything from the drug war to class politics in Mexico and in my native Britain. As he became animated, his smile spread so wide that his face curled around it. On the way to my hotel, we drunkenly sang along with Amy Winehouse.

I saw Valdez sporadically over the years, often at gatherings of the small circle of journalists who covered trafficking across Latin America. At a 2009 seminar on journalism and the drug trade in Mexico City, he described how Francisco, then ten, had asked if he was scared. “ ‘I am scared,’ I told my son. ‘But I feel what I do has value.’ ” It wasn’t just that he accepted the risks and tolerated the fears—he felt he didn’t have a choice. As he told an interviewer in 2011, “To die would be to stop writing.”

hen Valdez began reporting, in 1990, there were far fewer cartel murders than there are today. Mexico was effectively a one-party state for most of the twentieth century; its leaders turned a blind eye to the police, who both partnered with traffickers and tried to control them. In 2000, once the opposition took the presidency, a multiparty democracy was hatched. Corruption didn’t wilt; it flourished. Security forces with conflicting alliances engaged in interagency firefights, while narco kingpins recruited armies of sicarios from the slums in a struggle for power that continues today.

In this environment, a core of independent-minded journalists, Valdez and Bohórquez among them, committed themselves to covering the violence and malfeasance more aggressively than before. The two men founded Ríodoce to pursue the news in Sinaloa that they felt was all but ignored. They were perfect partners. Both men were civic-oriented leftists from the area. Bohórquez had been a dockworker and a militant union organizer before going into newspapers. Valdez was born in 1967 in a working-class barrio in Culiacán. As a kid, on delivery rounds with his postman father, he was riveted by the types of colorful figures he’d later profile. In college, he studied sociology, dressed like a hippie—long hair, woven shirts, seashell necklaces—and became a leftist activist. When, at eighteen, he ran for Congress on the platform of an obscure revolutionary party (despite being underage for the office), his campaign slogan was “Cholos sí, chotas no,” or “Homeboys yes, police no.” He began writing in college, inspired by the barrio culture in which he was raised, and never stopped. “We got on naturally,” Bohórquez told me. “We had similar ideas.”
Whereas Bohórquez favored investigative hard news, Valdez was drawn to character-driven reporting with literary flair. They initially set out to cover politics and social struggles. But it quickly became clear that organized crime was Mexico’s central issue, and Ríodoce was at ground zero to witness the rise of the most powerful cartel in the country.

The roots of the region’s drug trade date back to the late nineteenth century, as Chinese migrants began planting opium poppies in the Sierra Madre mountains. When the U. S. passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914 to regulate the sale of opium, the roughly six-hundred-mile Sinaloan drug route into the States was born, expanding over the century to supply whatever mind-bending substances the American market demanded. El Chapo led the cartel in the early aughts, its golden years, as they displaced their Colombian counterparts to become the richest gangsters on the planet.

When Ríodoce published front-page exposés on Sinaloan kingpins, issues would rapidly sell out. “There was a journalistic conviction that it is an important issue,” Bohórquez said. “But also, I have to be honest...the fucking subject sells.”

In his popular weekly column, “Mala­yerba”—“Bad Herb,” slang for marijuana— Valdez profiled people on the edges of the Sinaloan narco world. In one entry, titled “Soy Narca,” he chronicled the rise and fall of a waitress turned cocaine dealer. Vadez described a sale to a client. “ ‘I’m a narca,’ she told him boastfully. She took him to the parking lot and opened the door of the trunk: bags of white powder, ordered from one side to the other, by kilo, half kilo, bigger bags, and small doses for individual consumption.” But after failing to pay her cartel “tax,”  she was abducted and thrown into the same trunk to be taken to her death. “ ‘Soy narca, Soy narca,’ ” Valdez wrote. “It was the echo from the trunk.”

In 2009, he published his first major book, Miss Narco, containing profiles of women caught up in the cartel life— beauty-queen girlfriends, drug mules, money launderers. “The skin of the Western Sierra Madre has blood in its pores,” Valdez wrote. “The memory of villages burned, families running terrified, men robbed, mutilated, and killed, women of all ages submitted to sexual abuse.

Hours before Miss Narco went to the printers, an unknown assailant lobbed an explosive device at the Ríodoce offices. Valdez wrote an email to the book’s editors, his dry wit on display: “Hello editor friends, maybe you haven’t heard— because you are always in a fucking rush, your heads in texts, screens, procreating books...they threw a fragmentation grenade at the ground floor...I am fine, as are all my colleagues, complete, without scratches, cracks, or acne. I live and drink, fighting, writing, and dreaming.”

Miss Narco became a best seller in Mexico. At the same time, Ríodoce gained international recognition, winning a prize in 2011 from Columbia University for outstanding reporting in Latin America. Young journalists flocked to the magazine, drawn to its commitment to a free press and by the opportunity to learn from its cofounders. “Javier had a gift that few achieve in writing,” says Miriam Ramirez, a reporter who joined the staff in 2013. “You felt part of his story...He was a model, an example.”

As the narco war worsened with each passing year, Valdez’s work became darker. His 2012 book, Levantones, described in chilling detail some of the thousands of people who disappeared without a trace at the hands of the narcos, as well as the irreparable wounds such losses opened in their loved ones. It was Valdez’s first book translated into English; The Taken, as it was called, came out just months before he was killed.

n investigation opened shortly after Valdez’s death, handled jointly by Sinaloan state agents and FEADLE, headed by Ricardo Sánchez. Sánchez, thirty-seven, worked for the International Criminal Court prior to taking his current post just days before Valdez was shot. He told me he wanted to turn around the perception that his office is ineffective by aggressively pursuing the killers.

Confidence in Mexico’s ability to protect its journalists was shaken when, in June, less than a month after Valdez’s death, The New York Times published an explosive story that top Mexican reporters were being watched through their cell phones. Although it was not proved that the government was behind the espionage, federal officials admitted to having purchased the state-of-the-art spyware, called Pegasus. For most journalists covering drug cartels or corruption in Mexico, the spying scandal came as little surprise. There is no evidence that Ríodoce was being tracked via Pegasus. But in my communications with Bohórquez and Valdez over the years, they’d warned me that their email or calls could be compromised and that I should be careful about what I said.

Meanwhile, the staff of Ríodoce, led by Bohórquez, became especially assertive in reporting on Valdez’s death and pressuring authorities to deliver justice. Their offices, guarded for a time by two police officers, became a sort of activist headquarters in search of the truth. The space filled up with posters and pamphlets that read, bullets won’t silence me. The building was draped with a three-story banner bearing Valdez’s likeness and the word justice beneath it. In late June, Mexico’s interior secretary and the head of the army made a surprise visit to Culiacán to discuss the security situation with local officials. When a press conference was announced, Ramirez, the young Ríodoce reporter, suggested that she and her colleagues bring banners. After the men walked into the room, lined with cameras, thestaffers stood directly in front of them with signs that said, justice: javier valdez. Footage of their protest dominated that evening’s news across Mexico.

Months passed with no news about the Valdez case. But in April of this year, almost a year after his murder, federal police in Tijuana arrested the suspected driver in the shooting, whom they identified as Heriberto N. (Mexican police do not release the full names of most suspects.)

Sánchez told me they had been following the suspect for some time but waited to make the arrest until they’d built a solid case that would hold up in court. Police had tapped his phone and, with technical help from the FBI, followed his network of contacts. Six weeks later, prosecutors indicted one of the two suspected shooters, who was already in a Mexicali prison on firearms charges. The other had been murdered in the state of Sonora in September. Sánchez, whose office has helped bring twenty-three warrants against suspects in reporter killings since he took over, told me that evidence indicates the assassins’ cell was under the control of the López faction of the Sinaloa Cartel. Furthermore, prosecutors don’t believe that it was a single story by Valdez but rather the culmination of his coverage that led to the hit. “It’s the theory of the case,” Sánchez said, “that this series of events, the way of reporting this conflict between two organized-crime groups, generated the order and the execution of Javier Valdez.”

While it is unknown how much of a part, if any, the López story in Ríodoce played, Bohórquez told me he regrets having published it. “I think we made a mistake in interviewing Dámaso,” he said. “They were in a bad war, a war to the death, and we got in the middle of it.”

On May 15, on the anniversary of Valdez’s death, gunmen executed radio and television reporter Juan Carlos Huerta in the swampy southern state of Tabasco. Two days later, Griselda Triana, Valdez’s widow, joined the families of other murdered journalists in Mexico City to view a documentary on the subject called No Se Mata La Verdad, or The Truth Shall Not Be Killed. As brutal images of the killings flashed on the screen, the room filled with sobs. Afterward, Triana addressed the crowd. “When you don’t live the tragedy of losing a journalist, you think this is an evil that will just happen to someone else, to someone else’s family but not to yours,” she said. “In the end, we are a big family of victims in this country.”

At the screening, Triana described to me how her life had been destroyed by her husband’s killing, how every day was a struggle, how she had taken leave from work amid the pressure. Shortly after his father’s death, Francisco Valdez wrote him a letter. “Where are you, father? I look for you everywhere, in every space, in every object you touched. I look for you in my dreams, but I don’t see you. I don’t see your face, your big and worn body, half a century old. Half a century that you fought for many, gave what you had, delivered the most human of you to us.” He finishes, “Don’t doubt that I will talk to my children about you. I will tell them how brave and badass you were.”

On the sidewalk a few yards from the spot where Valdez was shot dead, a stone cross adorned with white roses, carnations, and ribbons has been placed in his honor. On a post next to the cross, someone has stuck a comic by the artist Avece, whom Valdez used to raise a glass with at El Guayabo. The first panel reads, “They wanted to shut you up. . .” and shows Valdez’s corpse amid the bullet casings. The next frame shows his spirit, wearing his panama hat and spectacles, rising from the road, clutching his journalist notepad. He wanders to the Washington Monument, the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, where gaggles of protesters hold banners that say, giustizia per javier and justice for javier. The final panel reads, “...and now your voice is everywhere.”


  1. Hey Tu Fren...what a great read! thank you

  2. That’s a great story. Good job

  3. What an outstanding article. TY for posting

  4. Good stuff. The truth comes out no matter who they kill.

  5. That's a wholesome story!

  6. I've read articles about valdez after his murder, this Grillo offering is far and away the best-thank you for posting

  7. This was a great read.. Thank you.. and before any of the trolls come out and say this or that thanks BB for all u do.. el chapo snitched guy.. gracias

    1. If Chapo was just Mayos little biatch and a decoy for police to chase why are his sons so powerful? Also this article says he was supreme leader of CDS yet there are other articles here on BB saying differently.

  8. I’m a little confused maybe someone can clarify. So damaso’s men appear to be behind the killing, even though he agreed to give Damaso an outlet to get his message out? Doesn’t make sense but then again a lot of things often don’t RIP to this great journalist

    1. Agree is kinda stupid to think that damaso got mad at him after the big favor he did

    2. I'm not sure but I think they also published chapitos letter about not ambushing the military.

    3. Although if im not mistaken Damaso was already arrested when Javier was killed, if he was I don’t think killing a journalist was on his list of priorities

  9. loved the article, thanks!

  10. Thank you for this awesome post. Reading this realy touched me.

    He would have struggled with himself if he did not bring the damaso story.

    R.I.P. Javier

  11. Great article! Thank you!

  12. Pleaseeeee anybody or chivis??? could you please direct me to the article he wrote for damaso I would gladly appericate it! And even more so if it's an English translated article.

    1. here you go translated... learn to use the search bar at top left corner

  13. Beautifully written.


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