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MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A Mexican journalist renowned for his coverage of organized crime was gunned down on Monday in the lawless state of Sinaloa, the fifth reporter killed in recent months in the country as authorities struggle to contain resurgent bloodshed among warring drug cartels.

Javier Valdez was shot and killed when assailants opened fire on his car in the state capital Culiacan, according to RioDoce, the local media outlet he co-founded and where he continued to work.

Valdez also contributed dispatches to the national daily La Jornada and last year published a book about the dangers facing journalists who report honestly on the rampant crime and corruption gripping Mexico.

The news of Valdez's slaying shook Mexican journalists who have already been alarmed by a spike in attacks against the press this year. Last weekend a group of reporters said a large group including children bearing semi-automatic weapons took their equipment while they covered unrest in the state of Guerrero.

Mexico is one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist, with the vast majority of attacks on the press unpunished. [nL1N1I5283]

Mexican and foreign journalists paid homage to Valdez on social media, describing him as a courageous writer and generous friend whose killers must be brought to justice to deter future slayings.

"Tears in my eyes, hearing of the murder of Javier Valdez Cardenas in Culiacan, one of the best writers and journalists of Mexico," British author Ioan Grillo said on Twitter.

Photographs from Sinaloa showed Valdez's body in the middle of a street, the brimmed hat he often wore lying among a dozen yellow markers for bullets.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and the U.S. ambassador to Mexico condemned Valdez's killing.

A special federal prosecutor's office tasked with crimes against freedom of expression said it had started the procedure for opening an inquiry and was sending a team to collect evidence.

"The state must respond to these circumstances," said Sinaloa prosecutor Juan Jose Rios at a rowdy news conference. Journalists shouted questions asking what would prevent them from being next.

The special prosecutor's office rarely opens probes into journalists killed, leaving the job instead to local authorities, according to watchdog journalism group the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The CPJ awarded Valdez its International Press Freedom Award in 2011 for his prolific coverage of drug trafficking and organized crime.

"Javier's murder is an attack on independent journalism not just in Sinaloa, but in Mexico as a whole," said CPJ's Mexico representative Jan-Albert Hootsen.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito, Anahi Rama and Frank Jack Daniel, writing by Mitra Taj; editing by Sandra Maler and David Gregorio)

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