On April 23, Mexican authorities caught Heriberto Barraza Picos, also known as “El Koala,” in Tijuana.
He is a suspect in the killing of Mexican journalist Javier Valdez, a cofounder of Sinaloa-based magazine Riodoce renowned for chronicling the drug war and the effects of its violence, who was gunned down outside his office in Culiacan, Sinaloa’s capital city, on May 15, 2017.
Valdez’s killing was the sixth slaying of a journalist in Mexico in a two-month period, and it brought renewed attention to the threats journalists face in Mexico, one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media.
In the months since, conflicting accounts of the killing have emerged, underscoring the complexity of Mexico’s war on drugs and leaving many of Valdez’s friends and colleagues with doubts the case will be resolved.
Ismael Bojorquez, director of Riodoce, told InSight Crime a protected witness already in custody led authorities to Heriberto, thought to be the driver in the alleged plot.
They conducted surveillance on him, intercepting phone calls and linking him to other suspects, including Juan Francisco Picos Barrueto, allegedly a passenger in the car at the time of the killing who was arrested in August 2017, and Luis Idelfonso Sánchez Romero, the suspected gunman who was found dead in September 2017.
According to prosecutors, the killing was linked to a dispute between factions of the Sinaloa cartel, whose competition for power intensified after cartel chief Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was arrested in January 2016 and extradited to the US a year later.
Heriberto and the other two suspects in the killing were reportedly acting at the behest of Damaso Lopez Nuñez, aka “Licenciado,” who was once Guzman’s right-hand man but broke away and led a factionfighting to control the cartel.
Lopez Serrano’s son, Damaso Lopez Serrano, aka “El Mini Lic,” is reportedly suspected of planning the killing.
According to official accounts, the “people of Eldorado” — the Sinaloa town where Lopez Nuñez is from and likely a reference to his organization — took issue with Valdez’s work.
A witness told prosecutors that on one occasion he was with Heriberto and others and heard them discuss Damaso and the killing of the journalist. Part of the payment for the killing was a silver pistol with images of Lopez Serrano on the grip, according to Riodoce.
Valdez said prior to his death that he had been getting anonymous death threats since February, and Mexican officials have said that Valdez’s work was a principal line of investigation, though it’s not clear how that factored in.
Valdez wrote several stories about the factions involved in the dispute in the months prior to being killed, including a February interview with Lopez Nuñez, conducted through a representative, that Guzman’s sons tried to stop from being published. His last column, published May 14, was titled “El Licenciado,” a possible reference to Lopez Nuñez.
“I think that the path authorities are on in terms of solving Javier’s case is correct. I think they have taken the right route,” Bojorquez, the director of Riodoce, told InSight Crime. But Mexico’s high levels of impunity — 99.6% for crimes against journalists, according to press-freedom organization Articulo 19 — are cause for concern.
“We’re worried about being able to secure a prosecution and the sentencing of those who are responsible, and if there is the capacity or the will power to do so,” Bojorquez said.
According to Everard Meade, who collaborated closely with Valdez, the most recent version of events contradicts a previous theory, in which Guzman’s sons, angry over an interview with Lopez Nuñez that Valdez published, orchestrated the killing.
In the account presented now, members of Lopez Nuñez’s faction “were the ones who were unhappy with the interview, and therefore they ordered a hit on him because, basically, it misrepresented what they said,” Meade, director of the Trans Border Institute at the University of San Diego, told Business Insider.
Both theories are plausible, Meade said, but determining which one is accurate is complicated by the shifting dynamics of Mexico’s drug war and by broader political factors, like Mexico’s looming elections, which could lead authorities to stall the case or close it prematurely.
“If you look at the violence of the drug war, there are acts of violence that are very clearly strategic,” Meade said, “but there are plenty of other acts of violence that are pretty random and have to do with the fact that you have armed guys who get in personal beefs with people and lash out.”
Strategic violence, often for used for propaganda, “is one of the definitive aspects of the contemporary drug war in Mexico,” Meade said, demonstrating a shift from what he called the old drug war, in which criminal groups kept a low profile and largely limited violence to matters directly related to their business, and the new drug war, in which violence was employed more randomly or to serve broader purposes, like shaping public behavior.
“I think it’s equally plausible that this was some grand, strategic move to prevent this story from coming out, and/or that one of these guys took personal offense to their self-presentation in Riodoce and just got angry and decided to have someone killed,” Meade said. “That’s the reality of impunity in contemporary Mexico.”
The lack of information about the case, diverse sources of violence, and the dynamics of power in Mexico make it hard to ascribe a motive in Valdez’s killing or definitively name its perpetrators, he added.
“When Javier interpreted things like this … one of this his great insights was that if you look at a particular killing and the logic of it seems really transparent, the presumption that you should make is not that, ‘Well, that must be why it happened,'” Meade told Business Insider. “The presumption that you should make is that it communicated a message clearly, and you should look at who benefits from that message.”
By: Christopher Woody, Business Insider