Alone, one small paper in Mexico covers the drug wars

By Drake Bennett and Michael Riley

A bus drives by a house in Culiacán pocked with bullet holes


Early on Sept. 5, 2010, Ismael Bojórquez, editor of the newsweekly Riodoce, in the Mexican city of Culiacán, learned that a man in his 20s had been found dead of bullet wounds in a white Lamborghini. Murders of young men are common in Culiacán, the capital of the state of Sinaloa and the seat of power of the cartel of the same name, but this one was different. The victim, Bojórquez heard, was the son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa cartel and the most powerful drug kingpin in Mexico. Two and a half years earlier, when another of El Chapo’s sons was gunned down by the rival Beltrán Leyva cartel, it ignited a bloody war — 387 people were killed in Culiacán in three months. In a way, El Chapo (Spanish for “Shorty”; Guzmán is 5'6'') and his empire are the main subjects of Riodoce, one of the only periodicals in Mexico that seriously investigates drug violence.

Bojórquez, a compact man with a thin moustache and a broad, angular face, immediately drove to the crime scene. It was on a street called Presa Azúcar, in a residential part of town. To his surprise, there was no body, and no car — only some blood on the asphalt, scattered shards of broken glass, and pieces of a car bumper. He took a few pictures and went to a police post about 200 meters down the street, but the officers there said they didn’t know anything and referred him to the district police commander. When Bojórquez called on him, the commander said he couldn’t talk about it. The state’s attorney’s office, too, said nothing. “Officially, nothing occurred,” Bojórquez recalls. “Officially, he wasn’t even dead.”

Riodoce’s staff started calling around; they have sources in law enforcement, in the state and local government, and others who are linked in various ways to the cartels. Bojórquez’s original source, it turned out, had been wrong. The car was not a Lamborghini, it was a Ferrari. And the victim wasn’t El Chapo’s son but a different narco scion, Marcial Fernández. His father, Manuel, was an ally of El Chapo’s, and a brutal man known alternately as “El Animal” and “La Puerca” (“the sow”).

Riodoce’s reporters also learned about a strange altercation that had taken place at the crime scene: As the police and a few onlookers were standing around Fernández’s bullet-riddled sports car waiting for the coroner to arrive, several heavily armed men drove up. They leveled their weapons at the police, took Fernández’s body, and drove off. When two news photographers showed up, the police told them nothing had happened, then left. Later that night, the armed strangers returned and towed the Ferrari away, leaving only the broken glass and blood that Bojórquez found after sunrise.

None of this made the news at first. Fernández had been killed at 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, but by the end of the day Monday there was no coverage of the shooting. Like many of the killings in Culiacán, Fernández’s death had been declared off limits. “The police kept quiet, the government kept quiet, but the press kept quiet as well,” says Bojórquez. One of the photographers who had been on the scene left town, fearing for his life.

According to Reporters Without Borders, 80 Mexican journalists have been killed and 14 others have disappeared since 2000. In Juárez, on the country’s northern border, the city’s biggest newspaper, El Diario, has had both a police reporter and a photographer murdered in the past three and a half years. The editor of El Mañana, in Nuevo Laredo, was stabbed to death in 2004, and two years later assailants sprayed gunfire and tossed a grenade into the newspaper’s offices, badly wounding a veteran reporter. Riodoce had its own grenade attack in 2009, although no one was hurt. Mexico last year beat out Iraq as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists in the rankings of the International Press Institute, and the first death of 2012 took place on Jan. 6, when a reporter from La Ultima Palabra, in a suburb of Monterrey, was chased down in his car and shot to death.

“Crimes against journalists occur with impunity at the local level,” says Jorge Zepeda Patterson, the former editor of El Universal in Mexico City. “We are losing our capacity to say what’s happening to our country.”

The attacks are meant to cow Mexico’s media, and they have succeeded: Today the vast majority of the nation’s newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV stations do not cover the bloodshed. Especially at the local level, news outlets will, at most, reprint official press releases about arrests and killings. In the worst areas, the narcos even have press handlers — unidentified voices on the other end of the phone warning a reporter not to cover a shooting, or giving the order to write about the “message killing” of a rival.

Against all this, Riodoce stands out — a small paper, in the hometown of Mexico’s most powerful cartel, that insists on writing about the drug violence. There are other places, online and in print, where Mexican readers can go to find body counts or pictures of blood-spattered crime scenes, but Riodoce prides itself on its investigative work, on trying to ferret out the stories that neither the cartels nor the government want told. As news outlets all over the country have censored themselves in the face of lethal ultimatums, Riodoce’s reputation has grown. Today it’s read far beyond Culiacán, by cartel analysts, government officials, fellow journalists, and drug traffickers themselves. Last year one of the paper’s columnists and co-founders, Javier Valdez, won the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award, along with journalists from Pakistan, Belarus, and Bahrain.

“The work that they do is amazing, they make us all proud,” says Marco Santos, managing editor of Noroeste, one of Culiacán’s two dailies. “They’re like a lighthouse.”

The Tuesday after Marcial Fernández’s killing, Riodoce posted an article on its website titled “Fuerte Es el Silencio,” or “The Silence Is Deafening” — an account of the killing and a condemnation of the information blackout that had enveloped it. The next print edition, the following Sunday, also carried the story. The article carried no byline. Although it was written in breathless prose, a Riodoce trademark, it was a carefully edited piece of work. The staff debated whether to identify the victim — an important piece of information, but writing about the families of leading narcos was one of the red lines that even Riodoce does not cross. In the end they printed Fernández’s name, citing “unofficial sources,” but gave no information about who he was: nothing about his father, nothing about why he could afford a Ferrari or why someone might want to kill him. It was, as Bojórquez describes it, a “sanitized version.”

Only months later did the full story come out: El Animal, arrested for drug trafficking, told federal police that he had heard that the killing had been a case of mistaken identity. El Chapo’s son, the intended target, owned a white Lamborghini. El Animal’s son’s Ferrari was also white, and a Beltrán Leyva hit squad, mistaking one car for the other, had ambushed the younger Fernández on his way home from a late night out. Today, Martin Gastelum, a spokesman for the state prosecutor’s office in Sinaloa, still has nothing to say about the events or Riodoce’s account. “I cannot confirm or deny anything,” he responds. No one has been arrested for the murder, but a few weeks after it occurred the Beltrán Leyva boss rumored to have been responsible was kidnapped by El Chapo’s men, and a video of his torture and killing was posted to the Internet.

On a warm, clear Tuesday morning in February, Riodoce is holding its weekly editorial meeting in its office two floors above a dental practice. While the paper now employs 14 freelancers, its founders are still the only full-time editorial staff, and the meeting comprises the four of them and the accountant, Milagros García, a young woman in rhinestone-studded jeans. She stays only for the first few minutes, leaving after her report on the paper’s finances: In January the paper made $15,200 from newsstand sales and $21,100 selling ads.

For a shoestring operation like Riodoce, that’s plenty. The paper’s print run averages 5,000 copies. Each week Bojórquez makes the call on how many copies to print: It tops out at 7,500 but can be as low as 1,500. The staff doesn’t track their online readership; as Bojórquez says, that’s one of their failings as businessmen.

Next, Bojórquez brings up the question of whether to switch to a new Web hosting company. Until recently, the paper’s website was hosted by California-based DreamHost, but the company has requested that Riodoce take its business elsewhere after hackers crashed the paper’s website in November. Increasingly, Mexican journalists reporting on the drug wars have sought protection in the cyber realm — the widely read blog Borderland Beat has no physical offices to bomb and keeps the names of its contributors secret — but the cartels find them anyway. In September, Los Zetas, a cartel renowned for its ruthlessness, beheaded an editor of Primera Hora in Nuevo Laredo because she had been blogging about drug crime under a pseudonym.

Cyberattacks are new territory for the cartels, however. Asked who was behind the hacking, Bojórquez shrugs — it might have been the cartels, or it might have been someone in law enforcement, angry about one of the paper’s corruption investigations. It might have been the Mexican wing of the hacker collective Anonymous, which had earlier called on news outlets to stop reporting the details of cartel message killings: murders meant to intimidate rivals or authorities that often involve notes left beside mutilated bodies.

As the meeting moves into editorial matters, the four discuss articles they have on the boil. Two of the writers, Alejandro Sicairos and Javier Valdez, are working on stories on corrupt judges. Valdez says the judge he is looking at has raised suspicions with her lavish lifestyle. Asked by investigators how she could afford her large house, multiple cars, and designer wardrobe, she said she bought them with casino winnings. Then Valdez brings up a tricky situation he’s having with a source in the local police who is offering to let him “borrow” a recently arrested cartel member and interview him — Bojórquez is afraid the officer is essentially asking Valdez to interrogate the man for the police. “We have to keep the relationship very clear,” the editor says, as much to himself as to anyone else.

Full-bellied and mordant, with a bristling gray buzz cut, Valdez is the paper’s star. In his weekly column, Malayerba (Bad Grass, a play on the marijuana trade that is the origin of Sinaloa’s cartels), he writes about the survivors of kidnappings, the relatives of the disappeared, the casual cruelty of the cartels, and the way violence insinuates itself into everyone’s lives in Sinaloa. A Dashiell Hammett devotee, he writes in a film noir style, heavy on recreated dialogue and dramatic description. In one recent column he tells the story of a young man who sees his cousin mistakenly killed by a sicario, a cartel hit man — the cousin is riding in a car with the intended target. (Reading Riodoce, one is struck not only by the viciousness of the cartel’s killers but also by their incompetence.) The sicario also happens to be the young man’s childhood best friend. In another column, Valdez describes how a local teacher, caught up in Sinaloa’s culture of lethal retribution, asks a narco he knows to torture a man for him after a heated traffic argument.

For Valdez and his colleagues, the real subject is a society deformed by the drug wars: The region’s tomato growers use trucking companies run by the narcos, and commuters keep one eye out for expensive cars and luxury SUVs that speed without license plates through the streets. Politicians take money from the cartels, the military rounds up and brutally interrogates young men, and prominent businessmen grow rich from laundering drug profits. “I’m involved in drug trafficking,” says Valdez, “because I live here.” As the news meeting winds down, it becomes clear what he means. Valdez is organizing a local roundtable co-sponsored by the Committee to Protect Journalists. He proposes renting out space for the event at Culiacán’s Hotel Lucerna. Bojórquez, however, objects. He points out that an investor in the hotel has been linked to the cartels, and it wouldn’t do to hold an event for Riodoce in a narco-owned establishment.

The rules under which Riodoce works are foreign to most journalists; the paper operates in a nebulous area between self-censorship and freedom. In covering drug violence at all, its writers and editors are taking a grave risk, but it is a risk they see as manageable. Over years of covering the cartels, Bojórquez and his staff have developed a set of guidelines that they believe afford at least some protection. Riodoce doesn’t write about the families of narcos, nor does it write about the legitimate businesses that the cartels run or contract with unless that information is already public. And it does not publish details about the drug trafficking infrastructure — the routes used to transport drugs or the locations of safe houses, airstrips, or training camps. When police in Culiacán recently stormed two houses that belonged to El Chapo’s ex-wife, it was the first time her real estate holdings had appeared in the pages of Riodoce — even though the paper’s reporters, like every journalist in town, had known about them for years.

“We never write off a subject entirely,” Bojórquez says. “We have never stopped a story because it’s too dangerous. We always say we’ll write about this or that, but how are we going to do it? Up to what point are we going to investigate it? What exactly are we going to publish? It’s always in those terms. It’s a question of finding the line.”

Finding the line can be difficult. In 2010, El Diario de Juárez published an editorial on its front page addressing the cartels after the murder of Luis Carlos Santiago, a 21-year-old photography intern at the paper. “You are at present the de facto authorities in this city,” the editorial read. “What is it you want from us? What is it you want us to publish or not publish? Explain so that we can respond.”

Riodoce has yet to issue such a direct appeal, relying instead on its sources in Sinaloa’s criminal underworld to monitor how stories are received there — corrupt police with cartel connections, businessmen who can make a call or two. When its coverage is received poorly, Riodoce pulls back. “You know what not to write in order to keep writing,” Valdez says. It’s an inexact system, of course, and it has not totally protected the paper: The grenade attack, which took place on Sept. 7, 2009, at around 2 a.m., remains unsolved, like most violent crimes in Mexico. There are plenty of potential suspects — the list of people the paper has angered is long.

Even Riodoce’s admirers can be skeptical about some of what it prints. Alejandro Hope, a former director of international affairs for CISEN, Mexico’s intelligence agency, sees the paper as an invaluable source of information, but cautions that it “can be sort of conspiratorial in worldview. For them everything can be explained by the goings-on of Chapo Guzmán, whether he’s fighting or making peace with someone.” And it is difficult to confirm Riodoce’s accounts. The paper grants anonymity to most of its sources to protect them and get them to talk, and cartels do not sit for interviews with the press. The office of Sinaloa’s governor, Mario López Valdez — whom Riodoce has charged with being in the pocket of the Sinaloa cartel — did not return repeated phone calls asking for comment.

Asked about the accuracy of his reporting, Valdez suggested we speak with one of his sources. One afternoon, in the rear of a dark cafe off of a plaza in downtown Culiacán, Valdez introduced us to a graduate student in his mid-20s, the basis for the Malayerba column about the young man whose childhood friend kills his cousin. As in most of his columns, Valdez changed or obscured certain details — the exact relationship between the student and the murdered relative, the cartel that controlled the town where the hit occurred. But the student confirmed the story in all important respects.

“With Riodoce, you see the truth,” Valdez’s source said. “Other papers wrote that two malandras [scoundrels] had died, but Riodoce showed that one of them wasn’t a bad person.” Sinaloa’s drug economy dates to the late 19th century, when Chinese workers brought over to build Mexico’s railroads planted poppies for opium. The state sits on the western edge of the country, about two days’ drive from the U.S. border, between the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Gulf of California. Its fertile coastal plain is Mexico’s breadbasket — huge farms there grow tomatoes, squash, sugarcane, rice, and wheat — and its mountains are ideal for the industrial cultivation of marijuana and poppies. Sinaloa met the explosion in American demand for marijuana in the 1960s, followed by heroin in the 1970s.

By then, Culiacán, a city of a few hundred thousand, was averaging two to three drug-related murders a day — local papers had taken to comparing it to Al Capone’s Chicago, “with gangsters in sandals.” Journalists were targets. In February 1978, a crusading investigative reporter named Roberto Martínez Montenegro was shot in the head as he sat in his car, the third journalist killed in five months. Martínez was at his death already an anomaly; most of his colleagues were far less willing to cause trouble. Many were on cartel or government payrolls, others were simply rattled by the threat of violent reprisal. There were subtler forms of control, too. Then as now, the government provides much of the advertising revenue for most Mexican newspapers — the pages are full of ads for state agencies and political parties. And then as now, Mexican journalists complain that government officials are quick to pull ads in response to stories they don’t like.

Nonetheless, investigative journalism did survive in Culiacán, especially at Martínez’s old paper, Noroeste. Bojórquez began working there in 1992, eventually rising to become the managing editor in charge of the entire reporting staff. Valdez, a member of Bojórquez’s investigative team, wrote a column called Con Sabor a Asfalto, or, loosely, Tales from the Street. Sicairos was the paper’s political columnist, known for colorful barbs and deep reporting. The three were popular with readers, legends in the newsroom, and feared and disliked by many in Sinaloa’s political class.

In 2002, the paper decided that the investigative work the three specialized in was too expensive, and sharply cut back on it. Bojórquez left on Sept. 6, 2002; Valdez and Sicairos, the following day. Joined by Cayetano Osuna, an old school friend of Bojórquez’s who had also briefly worked at Noroeste, they put together a plan for a competing newspaper that would publish the sort of stories that their former employer would not.

None of them had run a business, and while their vision was a weekly with a small staff, even that would cost more than they could put together on their own. Bojórquez suggested selling shares to the public. La Jornada in Mexico City had done something similar when it was founded in 1984; so had El Sur de Acapulco. The four journalists drew up the paperwork to sell 2,000 shares at 1,000 pesos apiece. They went to their friends and relatives, to businessmen who weren’t linked to the cartels, to university professors. And despite their ambition for an independent newspaper, they went to political parties as well — the National Action Party (PAN), at the time Sinaloa’s opposition party, was happy to put in money. Still, by the time the founders had exhausted their list of potential buyers, they had sold only 150 shares. Some friends balked when it came time to actually pay. Other potential donors said they had been told by the then-governor not to support the new paper.

With less than a tenth of the capital they had planned on, the four decided to go ahead. “We had confidence in ourselves,” Bojórquez recalls. “We also didn’t have much choice. We had to make a living.” Riodoce’s first edition came out Feb. 3, 2003, with a cover story about the political exile of Francisco Labastida, once the state’s most powerful politician, whose loss to Vicente Fox in the 2000 presidential election ended 71 years of unbroken rule by the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Riodoce’s name is a reference to Culiacán’s 11 rivers: The paper would be the twelfth, a torrent of information and analysis. For its first two years, however, Riodoce was constantly in danger of drying up. There wasn’t money to hire anyone, so the founders wrote everything and went without salaries for months. Gradually, the paper built a readership with its exposés of the links between government and organized crime — one early cover story explored the underworld connections of a former mayor of Culiacán, Jorge Chávez Castro, who had been murdered in his home. Another focused on a corrupt local police chief and the several mansions he had accumulated despite a meager public servant’s salary. People started buying Riodoce at street corner newsstands, convenience stores, and tortilla shops. The paper sold steadily in the state capitol building.

“We just wanted to do good journalism. But to everyone else, it was new, it was audacious, and it was frightening,” Valdez says. The paper published investigation after investigation despite the fact that 80 percent of its ads came from government institutions and their employees — state and local government, the local public university, public sector unions. Early on, Riodoce’s willingness to take on its biggest advertisers was largely a matter of the founders’ willingness not to pay themselves. In recent years, though, it has been helped by the fact that an unusually large proportion of the paper’s revenue comes not from advertising but from newsstand sales. That provides a cushion against the inevitable dips in ad money that follows exposés of official corruption.

There is a fierce debate in Mexico over what is to blame for the explosion in killings since 2006 — how much is due to President Felipe Calderón’s decision to deploy the military against the cartels, how much is cartel turf warfare, and how much the two feed off each other. “Before, the drug trade was done through organized corruption. You had direction from the top down; you had money from the bottom up,” says Edgardo Buscaglia, an expert at Columbia University on Mexican organized crime. “Suddenly that gets replaced with organized violence.”

Whatever the causes, the bloody turn in Mexico’s drug wars became Riodoce’s main story. As the violence climbed, the paper’s competitors wrote less about it, and the new weekly became a lone voice. And more cartel stories brought more readers. For Riodoce, reporting on the narcos was a crusade, but it also became a business strategy. Each week’s edition goes on newsstands on Sunday. “Whether we sell out by Monday all depends on the front page,” Bojórquez says. “It’s drug trafficking that sells.”

Alejandro Hope, the former intelligence analyst, says he goes to Riodoce’s website every day, along with that of El Diario de Juárez — despite the killing of two of its staffers, it also continues to investigate the cartels. “They’re publishing information you can’t find anywhere else,” he says.

No one in Culiacán believes things are going to change for the better anytime soon. For the time being, Riodoce will keep trying to find the line between what it wants to write and what it can. Among the grandiose things journalists say about themselves is that their job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable — the line is from the American satirist Finley Peter Dunne. Mexican journalists, even at a paper like Riodoce, cannot do that. They can perhaps annoy the cartels, but they cannot afflict them. The cartels have cornered the market in affliction.

Bojórquez, as much as anyone else, is aware of the limits of what he does. “Up to this point, despite the risks, I believe that there are conditions under which we can do this work, and with the small hope that things will get better,” he says. “It’s really a hope in that hope, because the truth is I don’t see a way out for the country in the short term. But you have to bet on something.”


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