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‘Where I work … it is dangerous to be alive’: A slain Mexican journalist’s prescient speech

Javier Valdez is the fifth reporter to have been killed in Mexico in recent months. (Video: Reuters)

“Where I work, Culiacán, in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, it is dangerous to be alive.”

That's what Mexican journalist Javier Valdez said not too long ago, in 2011, when he accepted an International Press Freedom award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Not only did Valdez work in one of the world's most dangerous countries for reporters — he also did some of the most dangerous work, covering crime and corruption in one of Mexico's most violent states.

“To do journalism is to walk on an invisible line drawn by the bad guys — who are in drug trafficking and in the government — in a field strewn with explosives,” he said at the time. “This is what most of the country is living through. One must protect oneself from everything and everyone, and there do not seem to be options or salvation, and often there is no one to turn to.”

On Monday afternoon, he was fatally shot near the offices of the newspaper he founded, Riodoce. He is the fifth reporter killed this year in Mexico, and his death comes just one day after about 100 assailants attacked seven national and international journalists covering a security operation in the state of Guerrero. They were on the highway that leads to Iguala, where 43 students from a teacher training college vanished in 2014.

Riodoce, which Valdez founded in 2003, focused almost exclusively on crime and corruption. The reporter was an expert on drug trafficking and organized crime, subjects he covered extensively in his books. It was a dangerous enterprise, and Valdez had come under attack before. In 2009, assailants hurled a grenade into the Riodoce newsroom.

Valdez, who also worked as a correspondent for the national newspaper La Jornada, specialized in chronicling the human toll of the violence in Mexico. In a story from 2014, he described the pain of realizing that your child has been kidnapped:

Raúl felt like his eyes were filling with shattered glass. The tears didn’t beg permission. They began to fall. They ran down his skin. One of his children had been kidnapped. The police said it was an abduction. But he knew instantly that they were going to call to ask for ransom.
His cell phone rang. It rang to the tune of El palo verde. Its macabre sound during this tragedy made him feel ashamed. His sixteen-year old son. The middle child. He saw his wife bowled over, brought low, sat in an armchair with the pain of rushing salty tears drying her out.…
He hit the green button on the Motorola and let out an imperceptible tremulous hello. Look you son of a bitch we have your kid. He pointed the phone at the boy so that he could let out the terrified cry of dad. He asked for money in exchange for letting him go and he explained where and how to drop it off.… He cried again. He begged him not to hurt his boy.
He got the money together and he delivered it. He didn’t tell the police because he was afraid. They are one and the same his wife told him. It’s not worth telling them. He waited and waited and waited. He hadn’t had news of his son for two days. On the third day they found his dumped body. Covered in bruises and holes. Colorless. Wasted. Eyes half shut.

He also documented the extraordinary violence rocking his home town, with children routinely killed. The violence, he reported, had become “banal,” so common that young people would gather at crime scenes to take pictures and post them to social media.

“This is cheap, easy death, crouching at two paces, near at hand, behind the corner, death not for having or not having a connection to narcotrafficking, but for living in a region wracked with violence and impunity, where crime is a routine and fear is no longer a novelty,” he wrote in 2015. “Culiacán, where it is dangerous to be alive, where everything is the same, except that on the skin of this northern region, a few steps from the Pacific and at the edge of the abyss, there are more bloodstains, scars, and crosses on the side of the road.”