MEXICO CITY – Javier Valdez, a veteran reporter who specialized in covering drug trafficking and organized crime, was slain Monday in the northern Mexico state of Sinaloa, the latest in a wave of journalist killings in one of the world's most dangerous countries for media workers.
Valdez is at least the sixth journalist to be murdered in Mexico since early March, and the second high-profile reporter to be slain in the country this decade after Regina Martinez Perez, who was killed in 2012.
Valdez was shot dead in the early afternoon in the state capital, Culiacan, near the offices of the publication he co-founded, Riodoce. State Prosecutor Juan Jose Rios visited the scene and said authorities were investigating all possible motives, including that the killing could have been due to Valdez's work, though he gave no details.
The federal Attorney General's Office also said it was investigating.
Riodoce reported that Valdez was driving about a block from its offices when he was intercepted by gunmen. Valdez was also a correspondent for the national newspaper La Jornada, which reported that he was pulled from his car and shot multiple times.
President Enrique Pena Nieto condemned the killing and said he had instructed federal prosecutors to support local authorities investigating "this outrageous crime."
"I reiterate our commitment to freedom of expression and the press, fundamental for our democracy," the president tweeted.
Valdez was a nationally and internationally recognized journalist who authored several books on the drug trade, including "Narcoperiodismo" and "Los Morros del Narco." The former is a look at the relationship between journalism and organized crime, and the latter chronicles the lives of young people swept up in Mexico's underworld.
Jan-Albert Hootson, Mexico correspondent for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said Valdez and Riodoce were known as a rare source of independent, investigative journalism in Sinaloa.
"And for that same reason, he and his magazine and his co-workers were always under threat of violence," Hootson said.
According to CPJ, in 2009 unknown attackers threw a grenade into the Riodoce offices days after it had published an investigation on drug trafficking. No one was hurt.
By the group's count, some 40 journalists have been killed in Mexico for reasons confirmed as related to their work since 1992. An additional 50 were slain during the same period under circumstances that have not been clarified.
Sinaloa state has long been a drug trafficking hotbed and is home to the Sinaloa Cartel headed by notorious kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who is in a New York prison awaiting trial on multiple charges. Experts say Guzman's arrest last year and extradition in January have led to upheaval in the area as rival factions war for control of the drug gang.
"Living in Sinaloa is a threat, and being a journalist is an additional threat," Valdez once said in an interview with the CPJ, according the group's website. "We learned how to live in times when bullets are flying around us."
Hootson said he last spoke to Valdez about three weeks ago and Valdez said talking about the security situation in Sinaloa remained perilous.
He described Valdez as a warm, friendly man, well-liked by other journalists who frequently sought his help to navigate and understand the complex, dangerous state.
"His door was always open. ... Everybody always deferred to his knowledge," Hootson said. "And in that sense, it's a huge loss for everybody."
In a report released this month, CPJ noted that most killings of journalists go unpunished in Mexico. It added that even when there are convictions, they are often limited to the immediate killer and do not clarify the motive.
"By not establishing a clear link to journalism or providing any motives for the killings most investigations remain opaque," the report said. "This lack of accountability perpetuates a climate of impunity that leaves journalists open to attack."
Valdez's murder came less than two weeks after a CPJ delegation met in Mexico City with President Enrique Pena Nieto and other top government officials.
Last Wednesday, the federal Attorney General's Office replaced the head of its division responsible for investigating journalist killings. Ricardo Sanchez Perez del Pozo, a lawyer with a background in international law and human rights, took over the post.
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed to this report.