Javier Valdez: brave, brilliant casualty of Mexicos dirty war | Angus Macqueen

A chronicler of the drugs conflict who has become the seventh journalist murdered in the country this year

In what shape does bravery come? Is it constantly acting as if you can live normally when all around you is mayhem? Is it forging a unique journalistic language while working to the highest professional standards, when any misjudgment could cost you your life? Is it guiding visiting journalists through the lethal realities of your home with cheerful generosity, always knowing that they leave and you will be left behind? That was the bravery of Javier Valdez, the latest journalist to be killed in Mexico.

The symbolism was shockingly deliberate: Javier was shot 12 times at 12 oclock outside his place of work, Rodoce, which means River 12. The gunman used a silencer. Javier was left lying on the street in Culiacn with his signature panama hat still on his head. His murder was an act of terror in the battle for power that has followed the extradition to the US of Joaqun Guzmn, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, in January. There have been six other journalists killed in Mexico this year, joining more than 100 murdered since the turn of the century, but few as prominent as Javier. His killing tells us that no one is untouchable in Mexico.

Javier was 50, the co-founder of the newspaper Rodoce in 2003, the only remotely independent paper in Culiacn. Culiacn is the heartland of the Sinaloa cartel and the centre of much of the murderous drugs wars that have swept Mexico over the past decades. Other newspapers have largely withdrawn from reporting the war going on around them, intimidated into silence. Javier was determined in his regular column called Malayerba (Bad Weed) to ensure his readers got some insight into what was going on in their streets, workplaces and schools.

He was not your conventional intrepid reporter. Not for him the journeys up into the heartlands of the drugs lords to find his stories or openly confront the authorities. His beat was the bars and seafood stalls of Culiacn, the town where he was born and where he fought his way out of poverty to an education and a career. I first met him with my colleague Guillermo Galdos in one of the towns backstreet bars, where he was clearly as easy gossiping with the passing peanut-seller as he was talking government corruption with visiting international journalists.

Javier
Javier Valdez at the launch of his latest book in Acapulco, Mexico. Photograph: Bernandino Hernandez/AP

Stocky and portly with a rough goatee, he was a compelling presence. As we watched him interact with everyone around, downing rum or beer in prodigious quantities, we understood how he lived his world and found his stories. He was always fascinated by process. He would talk endlessly about the violence, about how you came to be murdered, how you planned a killing. When he understood how serious we were in our search for Joaquin Guzman, he generously passed on one of his best contacts within the Sinaloa cartel. Later, he was a wise counsel at the end of the phone when our journey got genuinely out of control. As his wife, Griselda, said at his funeral: He was the most imperfect of men but he had a heart the size of the universe.

He knew how dangerous his work was, but hated the thought that people might ever look back and ask why he hadnt written about the most important events going on the around him. Over the years he developed a style that was a unique sort of magical journalism: he rarely mentioned names or places or dates, but his reports were true, based on what he had been told. He became a complex symbol of honesty and integrity in a society that has been completely corrupted by the money and violence of the cartels.

His pieces, written in the vernacular of Sinaloa and the narco culture, gave readers access to a world that few others knew, let alone dared write about. His readership could easily understand what he meant and his potential enemies in the cartels and in the government could not quite feel exposed or compromised. (In another world, under communist censorship, the journalist Ryszard Kapuciski managed the same trick for the Polish News Agency.) Journalism became literature.

It was a continual high-wire act. He registered that the threat level had increased over the past months as he had been covering the battle to fill the lethal vacuum left by the extradition of Guzmn, over the huge drugs empire that he had left behind. Javier had published an interview with an envoy from Dmaso Lpez, Guzmns righthand man known as El Licenciado. He was seemingly in open conflict with Guzmns sons. This was then followed by the arrest of Dmaso Lpez just two weeks ago in Mexico City; such arrests are nearly always the product of betrayal of one sort or another. Was it a coincidence that Javiers last report was called El Licenciado, a classic piece about a boy who is first kidnapped and tortured, before himself turning into a monstrous murderer at the behest of the boss?

Javier was for the first time seriously thinking of getting out of Culiacn, at least for a while. In an interview with the Spanish paper El Pas three weeks ago, he said the situation was fucking hot. We outsiders marvelled at how he kept on working, hoping that his international profile would somehow protect him. Javier was more sanguine. One evening over a good series of drinks to celebrate one of his many awards from Columbia University, he had wondered if the prizes did not make him more vulnerable. His last book was on the dangers of being a journalist in Mexico, at the launch of which he said: The gangs will decide what day they are going to kill you.

Where did Javier go wrong in the end? Who did he offend? We should not wait for the results of the official investigation. They almost never come up with anything. What I do know is that his death matters. As a result, we will know even less about what is truly going on in this most terrible of wars. My colleague Guillermo described Javier last week as a romantic: He truly believed in the power of journalism. He died for it.

Angus Macqueen met Javier Valdez while making his documentary, The Legend of Shorty, on drug lord Joaquin Guzman

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/20/javier-valdez-murdered-journalist-mexico-dirty-war