California Forum

The failure of rule of law, not just bullets, caused journalist’s death

Reporters in Mexico City document and demonstrate against the killing of journalists after the killing in May of Mexican journalist Javier Valdez. The murder has been broadly condemned by foreign governments, the international press and human rights organizations, and has forced President Enrique Pena Nieto to promise better.
Reporters in Mexico City document and demonstrate against the killing of journalists after the killing in May of Mexican journalist Javier Valdez. The murder has been broadly condemned by foreign governments, the international press and human rights organizations, and has forced President Enrique Pena Nieto to promise better. The Associated Press

A Mexican journalist named Javier Valdez was shot and killed last month.

Valdez chronicled the drug world of Sinaloa in books and in stories for his newspaper, Riodoce. He did so bravely and for years.

He was gunned down about noon on May 15 in his native city of Culiacan, capital of Sinaloa. Masked men accosted him as he was getting into his car not far from his newspaper. To make it seem as if robbery was the motive, they took his car, ditching it not far away.

Javier was a burly panda-bear of a guy with a trademark Panama hat. I met him in 2014. I found him thoughtful and generous. I saw him again in February. He was a grandfather by then. We had breakfast to talk about things in Sinaloa. In the meantime, I had provided a promotional quote to the English-language version of his book “Los Levantados” – “The Taken” – because, despite knowing him only casually, I admired the work he and Riodoce did consistently.

In the month or so since Javier’s death, we’ve heard the calls for the Mexican government to do more to protect journalists, to end the impunity with which the underworld rules parts of the country. I echo those calls.

The rule of law has been achieved in relatively few countries and times through history. It is precious beyond value and little good comes without it. No real economic development, no great technological innovation, no slow march of prosperity.

But they feel hollow. For what ails Mexico isn’t only lack of political will. It is certainly that, but it is also a systematic neglect of local government that goes far back in the country’s long history.

The rule of law has been achieved in relatively few countries and times through history. It is precious beyond value and little good comes without it. No real economic development, no great technological innovation, no slow march of prosperity. No public safety, no civic life.

I lived in Mexico for 10 years and while there I concluded that the rule of law grows from culture and a host of attitudes that give rise to prolonged investment in public infrastructure and government. That’s because, it seemed to me, rule of law is accomplished through facts on the ground, through seemingly small things working well.

It is at the local level, especially, where the details of infrastructure must function for the rule of law to function. These include courts, prisons, police. For them to work, there must be civil service, decent public-employee salaries and training. I believe there must also be parks, working street lamps, storm drains, clear title to property, and much more, for people to feel that local government is where they can find solutions to problems. When they feel that, they feel that their government works for them.

Most of this, at the local level of government, is what Mexico lacks or has neglected. Weak local government is endemic to Mexico and is the country’s Achilles Heel. No true development, or true equitable income distribution can happen, I believe, while Mexican local government remains crippled, unfunded, without much ability to tax, and lacking in a civil service.

Now, superimposed on that civic weakness, and growing from it, has been the venomous presence of drug traffickers who know this is true and have lost any discretion they once displayed. What allowed them to go from hillbillies to national security threats in the span of a few decades is the lack of rule of law and all that I mention above.

Thus Juarez tallied 3,000 murders a few years back while El Paso counted only 20 or so. On one side are strong civic institutions and well-motivated law enforcement of various stripes working together; on the other, infrastructure has gone begging due to corruption, lack of budget, lack of accountability, no tradition of competent local governance, and thus a general belief that local government isn’t worth the time.

So even with the political will to find the killers of Javier Valdez, investigators would be hampered by the lack of tools that their counterparts in other countries take for granted. Or the lack of open courts or safe prisons where his assailants might find justice.

There is no way to make good on calls for better investigations without a mighty strengthening of the local and regional public institutions that go into such investigations. And there will always be a sea of young men willing to do these crimes while local government is unable to truly plan for, and build the infrastructure to foster, equitable economic development.

It is one of the sad, maddening facts of Mexican life that amid the carnage that has spilled from the weakness of local government, there is still no movement to transform city management, municipal power and responsibilities.

Like politics, all justice is, at its root, local.

As we examine all the reasons brave people like Javier Valdez have fallen, Mexico needs to look to its local government and build up its local institutions, its capacity, its ability to protect its citizens and to find justice for them when it cannot.

Ensuring that would be the greatest tribute to a brave man.

Los Angeles-based journalist Sam Quinones lived in Mexico for 10 years and is the author of three books of narrative nonfiction. His latest, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, is now out in paperback.

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