On May 15, 2017, the Mexican journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas was assassinated in Culiacan, the capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa. In broad daylight, masked gunmen dragged him from his car and shot him in the street. Valdez Cárdenas was an internationally known journalist, writing for the Mexico City-based La Jornada as well as the regional weekly Riodoce, which he co-founded.  He was the recipient of numerous prestigious awards for his coverage of narco-trafficking and organized crime and their frequent connection to the Mexican government.

The week following the death of Valdez, I learned from his friends and colleagues about a different resumé that stretched far beyond international accolades. Professor Everard Meade, Director of the Trans Border Institute at the University of San Diego and long time friend and colleague of Valdez, spoke of the bright and charismatic personality that was Javier. He was a leader in his field, a mentor to many young journalists, and very giving with his time. Dr. Meade distinguishes Valdez as not merely a crime reporter covering the drama of the drug war, but as a chronicler exposing and documenting the complexity of humanity in a conflict featuring the life experiences of a wide range of victims and survivors.

In an interview with KPBS, Dr. Meade explains this important distinction, saying, “It’s not about high politics, it’s not about extravagances, the money, the weapons, the crazy crimes of the drug war, it’s about ordinary people’s experience of this unprecedented, now generation-long experience with violence.” Valdez’ book, Levantones: Historias Reales de Desaparecidos y víctimas Del Narco (The Taken: True Stories of the Sinaloa Drug War) narrates the individual stories of single moms, taxi drivers, teenagers and restaurant owners, and the complexity and humanity of their experience living life amidst the Drug War in Sinaloa.

Photo: Neilsen Book Services Limited, 2012.

Photo: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017.

Coincidentally, on the morning Javier was murdered, I had confirmed my reservation to travel with the Trans-Border Institute the following weekend to Culiacan, Sinaloa, to take part in the Diplomado en la Educación de la Paz Aplicada (Certificate Program in Applied Peace Education) held at the Tecnologico de Monterrey.

I have to admit, even now as I write I am cringing, because I don’t want this post to be yet another narcissistic or exoticized story of either “White Girl Saves the 3rd World” or “Cool White Girl Goes to Hang Out in El Chapo’s Neighborhood.” If anything, especially not speaking Spanish, I was really in the way. For this reason, I have been struggling with how I can and/or why I should write about Javier’s death. As a student who doesn’t speak Spanish, I was given an extremely rare opportunity to visit Culiacan and learn from activists and community leaders on the ground who are building peace in the heart of the Drug War. In the wake of Javier’s death, their peace work is even more fervent, the Diplomado more timely, and my experience even more valuable, which is why my writing must be that much more responsible.

I’m embarrassed to say that when I heard of Javier’s murder, and found out our student trip was still on, I got nervous. Without a proper investigation (that most likely won’t come), it is difficult for any of us to draw the very specific connections that led to his assassination. I’ll admit, my assumption of Culiacan was very wrong. I pictured more of a rural, poor, small city, than a very big, booming metropolis to be the center of the Sinaloa Drug War. This is important because my fear limited my understanding of the complexity and humanity of the situation. My fear quickly limited my view of the Drug War to an aggrandized Hollywood version that positions violence as “far away” and those caught in it as the “other,” as people with lives very unlike my own.

This “othering” limited me from envisioning the humanity of the activists, journalists and students that I would soon meet and understanding the complexity of their lives. The humanity of the people who would soon welcome me with hugs and kisses, even though I couldn’t greet them in Spanish, was lost amidst my fear and my broad-brush perception of the Drug War. My perceptions were the same perceptions that Javier Valdez worked to deconstruct. The reminder of his life’s work is why I know I can and need to write about my experience in Culiacan. I have the right to write.

Title slide from the last class of the Applied Peace Education Curriculum on Art and Technology. (Photo: Dr. Everard Made)

The Seminar in Applied Peace Education was taught over the course of the semester by Professor Meade in Culiacan. I attended a similar semester-long seminar held in San Diego, CA, which included community leaders working with veteran, immigrant and refugee groups.

During the Seminar on Saturday, June 20th, Professor Patrick Timmons spoke as a guest lecturer on freedom of expression in Mexico. He reminded the students that the death of Javier Valdez was not an isolated incident, but one of many resulting from the failure of the Mexican government to protect the lives of journalists. This failure is arguably a violation of international Human Rights Law and the Right of Freedom of Expression as provided by the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Mexico has signed and ratified. According to the aforementioned KPBS segment, Valdez is the sixth journalist to have been killed in Mexico since early March of this year.

Students in the DIplomado en la Educación de la Paz Aplicada listen to a lecture by Dr. Patrick Timmons (Photo: Trans Border Institute)

The Applied Peace Education Seminars in San Diego and Culiacan, as well as my experience working with the Global Dialogue Center at St. Lawrence University, taught me that peacebuilding is often about creating the space for people to get together, in the same room, to build relationships, combine efforts and collaborate. Strong networks of personal relationships build community resilience. When students come together to learn about peace education, they have a chance to make these personal connections.

When I asked one prominent Culiacan activist what the Seminars meant to him, he responded by saying the Seminar was the first time leaders from local government, universities, the Chamber of Commerce, and the media and communications sectors have all been together. “Before the Diplomado, we were all separate efforts,” he said. “No one wants to go by themselves.” When we left on Saturday, seven different groups of community members had committed to meeting monthly to tackle specific issues in Culiacan and develop peacebuilding projects of their own design.

Traveling to Culiacan to take part in the Diplomado en la Educación de la Paz Aplicada taught me that in order to build peace we have to get close to the situation, connecting faces and stories to a place. This is what Javier Valdez did. Only by doing so can we understand the shared humanity that exists between us and those caught in conflict in regions that seem far away or disconnected from our lives. Instead of seeing the “Drug War” as a whole in “far away Mexico,” I will see the faces of all the new friends I met, who welcomed me with open arms. I know that I was able to have this experience because I was traveling with an American academic institution and that most are not afforded this safety. However, we must actively open our hearts to making new connections, to share and write about them.

New friends of the Diplomado stand for a group photo. (Photo: Trans Border Institute)

I am blessed that my right of expression is protected. The journalists and activists and students of the Diplomado are not guaranteed that protection. They are not guaranteed that they will not be targeted for speaking out against the government or Narcos. They are not guaranteed that they will not be killed for speaking against the impunity surrounding the murder of their friend Javier Valdez Cárdenas.

As Americans, we can not take this freedom for granted. Journalist Katherine Corcoran in an opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle, reminds us that freedom of the press is an essential tenet of a healthy democracy and that aggression towards journalists and media members should be taken very seriously. Journalists are the ones who safeguard against government corruption. Journalists keep us safe!

As active citizens we must exercise our right of expression. We have the responsibility to write and share what we see. By doing so, we can collectively amplify our voices to protect journalists and break the cycles of impunity that leave their perpetrators free. Javier Valdez Cárdenas was a brave and self-sacrificing man. So are the students, activists and journalists of Culiacan, Sinaloa. Let their strong voices be supported by ours.

Stencil used during a vigil for Javier (created by Natalia Reyes and Michael Lettieri).

Special thanks to the Trans-Border Institute for bringing me along to Culiacan. Thank you to Professor Ev Meade, Professor Alejandro Meter and Professor Patrick Timmons for their inspiration. Finally, I am especially grateful to my classmates Elizabeth Moedano, Kait Dugan, Susy Escobedo and Blake Harper for their translation help.