Death by Byline
(Page 3 of 4)
In what country is a prosecutor beheaded, his body left with a written threat at the entrance to the governor’s office, and the story buried on page 10 in the country’s oldest paper?
The prosecutor had been part of a team that seized an important shipment of cocaine. The beheaded peasants were working on a farm owned by a key contact of a criminal organization.
During the raids that followed the killing of the prosecutor, authorities found huge signs printed on blankets. Besides the usual threats and explanations for the killings was a warning to the press: “War is not with the press, so let’s take it calmly. Cut out the bullshit before the war is against you.”
Former journalist Carlos Menocal, now the interior minister of Guatemala, organized a meeting to explain the actions his team was taking toward managing the violence in Guatemala. I found myself talking to veteran reporter Silvino Velásquez and asking him to compare the behavior of the press during the war with our conduct during this new era of drug trafficking. “Éramos más valientes antes,” he said: “We were braver before.” I asked what he meant. After he thought it over, he explained that in the ’80s, newspapers never would have demoted an important story to page 10.
When I asked him what the consequences were for journalists back then, he said that he lost 25 colleagues. I thought to myself, that would be like losing the newsroom of elPeriódico. I don’t want that. No story is worth a life. No story.
At the end of the session, Menocal addressed us all and said, “Watch out. Things are going to get worse, and our lives are in the middle.” No longer speaking to us as interior minister, Menocal was talking as a journalist. He made it clear when he said, “I know that not all of you have life insurance; it’s important that you buy it.”
As a safety precaution, I monitor reporters when they are away from the office. In November, a journalist from my team took a trip to find out why a man facing charges of transporting tons of cocaine to the United States had 200 peasants demonstrating to support him and reject his imprisonment. When she visited his farms, she found that the demonstrators were his employees. During her trip, we exchanged text messages constantly. Every time she moved from one place to another, I had to know about it.
Her work became a great piece that explained how the absence of “the rule of law” or “the State”—abstract terms that mean so much—made it easy for some men, like the subject of her story, to gain a social base. If a man has given his community a school, an ambulance, a health center—if he gives money to the mothers of children dying from hunger—then it’s easy for him to become a popular man loved by the people, and it’s logical that people will protest if the person who represents salvation for them is imprisoned.