Nine years ago a colleague and I had dinner in Culiacán, Mexico, with local journalist Javier Valdez. At the time, Mexico was locked in of some of the bloodiest narco-violence in its history. Culiacán – the capital of Sinaloa state, home to the powerful drug cartel once run by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán – was ground zero.
Valdez and his newspaper, Río Doce, were the city’s most respected chroniclers of that mayhem. We sought him out after we’d spent the day watching paramedics drape one narco-murder victim’s corpse after another, usually next to bullet-pocked SUVs.
Valdez’s journalism delved beyond the Mexican drug war’s carnage and into its currency. That is, the reality that the Sinaloa cartel’s surreal profits were so deeply laundered into local businesses and institutions that “if the government really tried to shut that down, it would wreck the economy,” Valdez told us.
“People here complain about the narco problem during the day,” he added, “then go to bed with it at night.”
Río Doce’s reports made Valdez unpopular with both criminals and capitalists in Culiacán, and not surprisingly he’d received death threats. As we ate at an outside table that evening, I asked him if he felt safe dining in the open like that.
“Nothing will happen to me if I’m sitting with American journalists,” he said. “If anything happened to you guys the police would have to seriously investigate it, and the cartel bosses don’t want that headache.”
Valdez was in the company of no such shield on Monday – when gunmen dragged him from his car just blocks from the Río Doce offices and murdered him with a dozen shots.
He was the sixth journalist killed in Mexico since March. Almost 100 have been killed there in the past quarter century. Few of those cases have ever been solved because, as Valdez suggested, Mexican police are notorious for not seriously investigating the murders of Mexican journalists.
So a big question, sadly, is whether most people in Sinaloa will care all that much about the Valdez atrocity.
But we in Florida should. Why? Because the thousands of overdose deaths here from drugs like heroin are the reason Gov. Rick Scott just had to declare the state’s opioid crisis a public health emergency. And most of the heroin consumed in the U.S. is peddled by Mexican drug mafias, especially El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel.
Scott’s overdue declaration gives Florida access to $27 million in badly needed federal substance abuse treatment funds. That rehab money is more effective at reducing drug consumption than increases in drug interdiction budgets are.
Consider that when Scott became governor in 2011, two-thirds of the state’s arrests were drug-related and its annual corrections bill had skyrocketed from $170 million in 1980 to $2.5 billion. Yet since 2007, as Florida spends more to lock up drug dealers and users, the state has still seen an eightfold rise in the number of heroin-related deaths per capita.
The best way to reduce heroin fatalities is to reduce heroin demand via more aggressive addiction treatment. It’s also a key way to reduce journalists’ murders in Mexico. Without the billions they make each year trafficking smack into the U.S., Chapo’s amigos can’t buy the weapons they use to terrorize states like Sinaloa. They also can’t buy the police, who then give los narcos carte blanche to kill eminent reporters like Javier Valdez.
As for other drug war strategies that don't involve mass incarceration, Florida should also consider why Mexican cartels have been ramping up heroin shipments to the U.S. It’s because they need to make up a growing revenue shortfall for their traditional cash crop – marijuana.
And what’s causing Mexican marijuana's decline? The legalization of marijuana in U.S. states like Colorado, according to cannabis growers in Sinaloa – who are seeing a dive in the prices they get. In other words, competition works.
A Quinnipiac University poll last year found that a majority of Floridians themselves now favor the recreational legalization of pot, which is hardly the deadly drug heroin is. That means the issue is likely to hit the ballot here sooner than later.
And when it does, I hope Florida takes more time to think about Javier Valdez than Sinaloa will.