Investigative reporter and editor Javier Valdez Cárdenas was fatally shot on May 15, 2017, near the editorial offices of Riodoce, the investigative weekly he co-founded in 2003 in the northern Mexican city of Culiacán. He was 50 years old.
According to news reports and statements by Sinaloa state Attorney General Juan José Rios, Valdez was shot around noon, shortly after he left the offices of Riodoce. Unknown assailants blocked his way, dragged him out of his car and shot him at least 12 times. Valdez died shortly after. The attackers fled in his vehicle, which was later found abandoned not far from the scene of the crime, state and federal authorities told CPJ in the days following the murder. They also told CPJ that Valdez’s laptop computer and mobile phone had been taken.
Riodoce magazine focuses mostly on organized crime, corruption, and regional politics.
Valdez was also the correspondent in Sinaloa for La Jornada, a Mexico City-based newspaper, and gained widespread national recognition for authoring a series of books that chronicle the Mexican underworld and the victims of Mexico’s drug war. He was a 2011 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award.
As one of the few investigative magazines in the state of Sinaloa, Riodoce and its reporters have been a frequent target of threats and sometimes of violence, according to news reports and its reporters. Sinaloa is the home state of some of Mexico’s most notorious drug lords and the base of operations of Sinaloa Cartel, one of Mexico’s oldest and most powerful drug trafficking organizations. Since its inception, the magazine’s fearless reporting, has often placed it at odds with powerful criminal and political interests, according to media reports. In 2009, a grenade was thrown at one of its editorial offices, but no one was hurt, according to news reports.
Javier Valdez told CPJ in March 2017 that he was concerned for his safety. His newspaper La Jornada reported one day after his murder that he had received anonymous death threats since February, without specifying their nature. Several reporters who knew the victim well and who spoke with CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation could not confirm the threats. They did, however, say that the situation in the state had become “tense” after the January 2016 arrest and extradition to the United States of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” the alleged founder of the Sinaloa Cartel. Guzmán’s extradition has been widely cited in media reports as the immediate cause of a surge in violence in the state.
Ricardo Sánchez Pérez del Pozo, the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE), told CPJ in May 2017 that his office had taken charge of the investigation, with support from the Sinaloa state prosecutor’s office. He emphasized to CPJ on several occasions that the victim’s work as a journalist was the principal line of investigation.
At a press conference on April 24, 2018, police named the alleged accomplice to the 2017 murder as 26-year-old Heriberto Picos Barraza alias “El Koala,” and said that Valdez was killed for his reporting. Heriberto’s arrest was announced by Mexican Interior Secretary Alfonso Navarrete on Twitter the day before.
Two days later, FEADLE told the media that a second suspect, Luis Idelfonso Sánchez Romero, alias “El Diablo,” was found murdered in Sonora in September of the previous year. Sánchez Romero was identified by federal authorities as one of two men who shot and killed Valdez.
On June 6, 2018, the office of the federal attorney general announced that a third suspect and the alleged second triggerman, Juan Francisco Picos Barrueta, alias “El Quillo,” had been arrested, according to news reports. El Quillo was already in prison in the northern state of Baja California, awaiting trial for different crimes, the reports said.
On January 24, 2020, FEADLE announced that it had issued an arrest warrant for Dámaso López Serrano, alias “El Mini Lic,” a former high-ranking member of the Sinaloa Cartel. According to FEADLE, López Serrano had ordered the murder of Valdez over his reporting on the turf war he and his father, Dámaso López Nuñez, alias “El Licenciado,” had waged against the sons of former Sinaloa Cartel head Guzmán Loera. López Serrano himself surrendered to U.S. authorities on July 27, 2017.
On February 28, 2020, a federal court in Culiacán sentenced Picos Barraza to 14 years and eight months in prison, after an abbreviated trial, similar to a plea bargain, as CPJ documented at the time.
On June 17, 2021, Juan Francisco Picos Barrueta was sentenced to 32 years in prison for his participation in the murder, according to a statement by Propuesta Cívica, a legal nonprofit that represents Váldez’s family during the trial proceedings.
Mexican federal authorities had not filed a formal extradition request for López Serrano, according to Propuesta Cívica Director Sara Mendiola Lenderos, who spoke with CPJ shortly after the verdict against Picos Barrueta.