MEXICO CITY – Just as each batch of the weekly newspapers was dropped off at newsstands around Culiacan, men quickly bought them up as they followed the delivery trucks along their routes.
It occurred twice during one week in February, first with Riodoce, a paper known for its investigations into the dark corners of Sinaloa state's criminal underworld, and two days later with the upstart La Pared (The Wall). Both papers carried cover story interviews with a drug lord. The men politely scooping up the papers after paying for them allegedly worked for the drug lord's rivals.
La Pared has since closed shop. Riodoce's editors continue fighting, though more carefully in the belief that the incident foretold the May 15 murder of the paper's co-founder Javier Valdez.
Valdez's killing spurred an outcry unseen previously during the frequent murders of Mexican journalists. It has drawn together competing media outlets, foreign governments, the international press and human rights groups in a call for justice that President Enrique Pena Nieto has promised to address.
For Sinaloa state, the killing signaled a frightening turn seen elsewhere in Mexico where cartels are willing to fight for headlines as well as for territory. It remains unclear if the slaying of one of the country's most respected journalists will become a tipping point in the battle against impunity.
"Justice for all those responsible, to the very end, that's the only way we will be able to talk about a watershed moment," said Carlos Lauria, Americas representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The person who found Valdez dead from 13 gunshots in the street with his signature Panama hat still on was his friend and Riodoce co-founder Ismael Bojorquez.
"We had never interviewed a drug lord, we did it now and it cost us big," Bojorquez said.
The subject was Damaso Lopez — nicknamed "El Licenciado," a title for college graduates — who was once Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's right-hand man. After Guzman was recaptured in January 2016 — he's now awaiting trial in New York — Lopez moved to take control of the Sinaloa cartel's territory in a fight with Guzman's sons. Culiacan's press was caught in the middle.
"Chapo's sons found out that we had interviewed Damaso and they pressured Javier (Valdez) to not publish the story," Bojorquez wrote in his column Monday. "But we refused the request." Then they offered to buy the entire print run, a proposal Riodoce also rejected, hence the operation following the delivery truck.
After La Pared's papers were bought up, its editors were contacted on behalf of Guzman's sons and told to run a new edition of 15,000 copies with a story criticizing Lopez, said a former staff member, who insisted on speaking anonymously for safety reasons. It was the paper's last edition.
That was a new chapter in the local press' relationship with the cartels. Local reporters said that previously, emissaries might lobby against publishing a certain photo or mentioning someone in a story. There was a habit of writing stories in a style similar to the narcocorrido songs that gave their subjects an almost mythical air.
The attempts didn't always work and in the worst moments, the Noroeste, El Debate and Riodoce newspaper offices were attacked with gunfire or grenades — violence that was followed by government inaction.
But Guzman's extradition to the U.S. marked a change in the rules that existed under the old school drug lords. Members of the next generation, known as "narcojuniors," have shown themselves more impulsive and violent. They also seek a higher profile and apparently headlines as well.
The rapidly expanding Jalisco New Generation cartel has added another volatile element to the mix. And the January arrival of Gov. Quirino Ordaz of the Institutional Revolutionary Party also has heralded a new wave of violence exacerbated by the end of a "drug peace" that his predecessor allegedly reached with Guzman by turning over control of the police.
Bojorquez said he is sure Valdez's killing was related to his friend's work even if it was something written a long time ago. "The authorities have to investigate that," he said.
The Sinaloa state prosecutor's office is investigating the case with the federal Attorney General Office's special prosecutor for crimes against free speech. Of the 114 journalist murders the government has recorded since 2000, that special prosecutor's office has investigated 48 since 2010, resulting in three sentences.
Journalists and human rights activists in Sinaloa have formed a group to monitor the investigation of Valdez's killing and demand that its findings be public.
What is known thus far is that Valdez's car was stopped in broad daylight several blocks from his office. After being forced out, he was shot a dozen times with two different guns. Still missing are his cellphone and laptop.
The authorities said the motive in the case could have been a Valdez's reporting or a robbery — an idea that press advocates vigorously reject.
In the meantime, local reporters are living in fear.
"We're very nervous, unsettled; we don't know what to do," said Marcos Vizcarra, a reporter for the newspaper Noroeste in Culiacan.
Bojorquez said if there is a silver lining to his friend's death, it is seeing journalists unite and push for justice.
"You can go break the windows at Los Pinos (Mexico's White House) and it won't be a big deal, but when governments feel international pressure they begin to act," he said.
Meanwhile, he said, Riodoce will continue its work, following Valdez's reporting on how drug trafficking affects society.
"I want it to be clear: We don't give a damn who is running the criminal world," Bojorquez said. "We're not fighting with any drug lord. For us drug trafficking is not a cause, it's a phenomenon that exists and we treat it journalistically in terms of its consequences on the economy, on culture, on politics, on the government, on the police. And in these areas we are going to continue working."