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May 22, 2023

Remembering Javier Valdez

It has been six years since journalist and International Press Freedom Awardee Javier Valdez was murdered in a brazen act of violence in downtown Culiacán, Sinaloa. For the past five years, on the anniversary of the crime, journalists and activists around the country have organized events to honor Javier’s legacy, celebrate his work, and demand justice. Nowhere are these commemorations more significant than Culiacán, where his deep connection to the community continues to shape how he is remembered.

Yet such memorialization is fraught. Across the country, efforts like Defensores de la Democracia have sought to preserve the work of murdered journalists, annual journalism prizes bear the names of Javier Valdez and Miroslava Breach, and organizations like Propuesta Civica offer accompaniment for the families and sponsor events to create public pressure for justice. These important efforts nevertheless face a persistent challenge: no matter how ardent the initial cry of “no se olvide,” we will not forget, sustaining the rituals of memory is difficult, and over the years turnout often dwindles.

This is why Culiacán’s civic activism around remembering Javier Valdez is so striking and important. Rather than revolving solely around journalists or journalist protection NGOs and the persistent demand for justice, events here rely on support from a local community of activists who continue to mobilize. That they have done so consistently is notable. This year’s gathering occurred at a mural, painted last year, near where an earlier mural honoring Javier had been painted shortly after his murder. On one wall nearby, a stencil demanding justice for the crime—likely several years old—was still visible. These participatory, and sometimes transitory, forms of popular memorialization contrast with the static more “official” memorial, a bust of Javier tucked next to a “Recuerdos de Culiacán” souvenir booth behind the cathedral. They are also harder to sustain, precisely because they require mobilization beyond a small group of activists.

The reasons why this engagement has persisted are, in many ways, unique. Javier was a fixture of Culiacan’s society whose personal relationships help explain why turnout remains strong: as one source told us, “He affected a lot of people.” Perhaps more important than his personality, though, was his dedication to social movements. Javier had supported, encouraged, and documented the efforts of nascent civic groups in Culiacán, accompanying not only victims but also artists and others whose projects ran counter to dominant narratives of organized crime and violence in the city. One participant remembers how, after eavesdropping on a meeting of youth organizers at Bistro Miró, Javier commended them: “lo que están haciendo es realmente chingón,” what you’re doing is truly great. When the group held their first event, he was the only journalist there to cover it. Those collectives that Javier encouraged helped forge a culture of activism that emphasizes solidarity and memory—whether the cause is forced disappearance, femicide, or the murder of a journalist. As a result, those who showed up on May 15 to paste posters honoring Javier around downtown Culiacán included not only friends and colleagues, but also others whose involvement is less easily explained by personal connection.

At a moment when Sinaloa seems synonymous with fentanyl, the memorialization of Javier Valdez is also a reminder that society is not passively accepting of the situation. It is no coincidence that participants included members of Iniciativa Sinaloa, an NGO focused on fighting corruption through improved transparency and accountability, as well as feminists who have called out violence against women and representatives of LGBTQI+ groups who fight for inclusive spaces. Denouncing official omissions in Javier’s case and demanding the preservation of his memory goes hand-in-hand with larger efforts to challenge both the State and the state of affairs. For many, his murder is the turning point.

Such demonstrations still run against a wide social current of indifference: the 40 or so people pasting the posters experienced occasional hostility and frequent stares from onlookers.  But the act of participation, the bonds forged and reaffirmed in the act of commemoration, the meaning attached to the action of memory, represent something significant.

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