When Mexican journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas arrived in New York City in November 2011 to accept CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, he and his staff had already suffered a grenade attack on the offices of their weekly, Ríodoce. Weeks after receiving the award, they were the victims of a denial of service (DOS) attack that would take the publication’s website offline for days. The death threats against Javier in reprisal for his reporting on organized crime and corruption continued until his brutal murder today in his home city of Culiacán, but he refused a life in exile or a life without journalism. “To die,” he said in an interview with CPJ, “would be to stop writing.”
In the midst of a particularly bloody and tragic period for the Mexican press, they must now endure the loss of one of the bravest and most beloved of their resilient pack. Javier combined the grit of the most battle-hardened reporter with the elegiac soul of a 19th century Romantic poet. Reporting from the dangerous state of Sinaloa, home of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman’s notorious Sinaloa Cartel, Javier exemplified a generation of journalists who woke up in the last decade to find they had become war reporters in their own backyards. Reporting on a story that Javier wrote in his CPJ acceptance speech had made him and his countrymen the “murderers of our own future” was a duty he felt deeply, and ensured he remained uncowed in face of the constant threats.
And somehow, in the midst of all this bloodshed, his pen found a way to make sense of the senselessness. As the then-researcher for CPJ’s Americas program in November 2011, I had the honor of first translating his acceptance speech and then interpreting it live with him on the stage of the Waldorf Astoria ballroom, and even in rehearsals I could not once get through it without tears. After lamenting a future Mexican generation whose “DNA is tattooed with bullets and guns and blood,” he wrote that while once his “withered soul” had found shelter only in words, the press freedom awards represented a “light house on the other side of the storm, a safe harbor beyond the squall” where he could feel “less alone.”
Two days later, he and his wife Griselda came and celebrated their first Thanksgiving with my family in Brooklyn. He sat at the seat of honor at the head of a table of 30 strangers and consumed his turkey and stuffing with gusto; he charmed my 92-year old grandmother with his humor despite the fact that neither spoke the other’s language. When it came time for the annual tradition of going around the table and sharing that for which we were thankful, Javier, eloquent even when improvising, explained to my family how happy he was to be alive and his will to “carry on breathing,” as he’d said in an earlier interview, when so many of his colleagues had been lost. (At the time, CPJ had documented the cases of at least 27 Mexican journalists who had been killed in reprisal for their reporting. Now there are at least 40, with dozens more missing or murdered in less clear circumstances.)
At the end of the night, I walked Javier and Griselda to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, where they marveled at the skyline and shrieked in horrified delight when they realized that the subway ride that had delivered them there from Manhattan had taken them under the river. It was a freezing night, at least in comparison with Sinaloa, but despite his shivering Javier seemed reluctant to leave. Finally he embraced me before turning once more to stare at the Manhattan skyline, which glittered across the river like thousands of tiny lighthouses. Then he turned on his heels, took his wife’s arm, and walked away.