By Everard Meade
One month ago my friend Javier Valdez Cárdenas was dragged from his car and executed in broad daylight in Culiacán, Sinaloa. Colleagues from across the globe are marking the anniversary by reflecting on Javier’s work and reporting on threats to the freedom of expression in Mexico, where more than 100 journalists have been murdered since 2000.
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But like much of the violence of the drug war, his assassination was an act of terror aimed at suppressing any kind of dissent rather than specific pieces of compromising information or individuals. The only antidote to the crippling fear and isolation that an atrocity like this produces is to tell precisely the kinds of stories in which Javier specialized — stories that showcase our common humanity, that reduce the distance between victims and perpetrators, reporters and readers.
Javier wasn’t really a crime reporter or even an investigative journalist, nor was he primarily an expert on drug trafficking. He was a cronista or chronicler, who wrote about living under a cloud of violence. Long before other journalists abandoned the body counts and narconovelas at the cupola of political and mafia power in favor of more nuanced reporting, he was showing us the experiences of beauty queens and taxi drivers, beat cops and restaurant owners, single moms and bored teenagers.
His regular column malayerba, or bad weed, and most of the stories that Javier wrote profiled individuals or families, and he collected and edited these vignettes into volumes that showcased the experience of the drug war from the perspective of particular social groups: women, children, the displaced, the families of the kidnapped and the disappeared, and most recently, fellow journalists.
The individual narratives often bleed uncomfortably from the first into the third person, from the containment of quotation marks and observed behaviors into the unspoken thoughts and feelings of the people he covered. But, they also radiate the kind of messy humanity that allows the reader to honestly empathize with the characters he reveals — to experience their fear, rage, and grief, but also their pride, vanity, and desire.
Javier begs us to question the smile on the face of a teenage assassin, who is killed after he can’t stop bragging about his first hit, to see the pain and sickness behind it, to see him as a person, not a zombie. He asks us to laugh with a woman who wonders if she shouldn’t give up her diet, after watching an armed commando struggle to kidnap her corpulent neighbor, to be patient with her frayed sensibility. He shows us unlikely romances, impossible career choices, and stonewalling bureaucrats, all shaped by the omnipresent reality of the narco, and its exaggeration of the human weaknesses we all share.
The point is not to water down our notions of justice, but rather to search for a kind of justice capable of accounting for a collective trauma, something that’s more about peace than punishment.
The people to whom Javier dedicated most of his time — the families of the kidnapped, murdered,
and disappeared — clamor for justice. They want to see the perpetrators and their protectors held accountable. But, what they want first and foremost is a basic acknowledgement of the wrong done and the harm caused, something they can say out loud without fear of reprisal, something they can share with a community so they can grieve and heal and rebuild. Documenting the collective nature of their suffering, pushing back against the crushing fear and isolation that violence imposes, is Javier’s gift to them. He showed them that they are not alone, and they are not mere victims, either.
Javier revealed many small acts of courage and solidarity that never made the headlines or the crime blotter — a bus driver who helped a kidnapped man to get home, a young woman who shouted a warning to a stranger about to be jumped by hit men, an older brother who traded himself to kidnappers in exchange for his little brother’s life, and municipal employees who went on strike to save a colleague from corrupt officials who had targeted him for murder.
Telling these kinds of stories helps to undo the isolation and moral compromises that terror imposes –pretending not to hear or see someone kidnapped in order to protect your children, ignoring a cry for help out of fear for your own life, or looking the other way during a robbery or extortion so that you won’t be targeted. They remind people of their capacity to do good and be good.
Javier knew that this kind of work is a community effort, and he was a unique colleague and mentor, who hated the spotlight, and often rebelled against polite (or pretentious) conventions, but never missed an opportunity to decry injustice or to defend his colleagues.
Writing about his friend and fellow journalist Alfredo Jiménez Mota, who was forcibly disappeared and murdered in 2004, Javier reminded us how he used to extend his hand and say: “no me dejes abajo” (don’t leave me hanging), a beautiful metaphor for the solitude and danger of reporting on the drug war. With his signature phrase, Jiménez Mota was looking for the validation and camaraderie of a handshake, but also begging not to be left alone or behind.
Javier admitted imagining that Jiménez Mota might just reappear one day and knock on his door and say “hey cabrón, no me dejes abajo.” He was trying to do justice to the memory of his friend — showing the courage and spirit of a guy who was a little awkward, a little crude, and more than a little inconvenient to the powerful and the corrupt.
Now Javier Valdez Cárdenas is begging us “don’t leave me hanging,” and it’s our turn to do justice to his memory.
Everard Meade is director of the Trans-Border Institute at the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego. He recently edited and translated “The Taken: True Stories of the Sinaloa Drug War” by Javier Valdez Cárdenas, and coordinates a portfolio of peacebuilding activities in Culiacán, Sinaloa.
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