An open letter from a Guatemalan reporter on living life under the gun
Long before I became a reporter for elPeriódico de Guatemala, the careers of many of my country’s journalists had been terminated. Some abandoned the newsroom for less complicated jobs; others vanished from their desks and typewriters—only to show up in the morgues as victims of political violence, as one more desaparecido on the long list of casualties in Guatemala’s civil war.
Just type these five words into Google: periodistas asesinados conflicto armado Guatemala. The search engine will retrieve hundreds of thousands of pages. It is the same with any search, you might say. But there is a difference: This is not a search for the right restaurant or hotel. These are pages about reporters assassinated during the civil war that ran from 1960 to 1996; this is the history of journalism in my country.
Sometimes a search will show you what you don’t want to know. For example, in April 2000 a Spanish journalist was about to travel to Guatemala to work as a trainee for Prensa Libre, one of the country’s largest newspapers. When she showed her family the paper’s website, the computer screen showed the latest breaking news: A photographer had just been shot down while covering a violent demonstration. The journalist’s mother begged her not to travel to Guatemala, but she did, and a breaking news piece about her death is how we, her Guatemalan peers, heard about that story.
While I was researching assassinated Guatemalan journalists, I found a site that compiles facts and figures I’d never seen all in one place. I learned that during the 36-year Guatemalan civil war, 342 journalists were assassinated and 126 were illegally arrested or disappeared. That averages one attack on the press per month, consistently, between 1960 and 1996. The statistics come from the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, a group of the victims’ relatives. There was no investigation into any of these deaths, nor has there ever been a trial for the case of a journalist who disappeared during that time.
Peace accords were signed in 1996 at the end of the civil war, and after that Guatemalan journalism became a different story. The dark days faded into the light of a new era when a generation emerged from universities and filled the newsrooms with young reporters: men and women in their 20s who faced the challenge of starting their careers while they were writing a new chapter in the history of their country.
But since the peace accords were signed, there have still been threats. There have been illegal raids on the houses of several journalists. There have been calls meant to frighten journalists into silence. There have been advertisers that vanished from our pages and, in an economy as small as Guatemala’s, one advertiser sometimes speaks for ten businesses.
Freedom of expression is still vulnerable from all perspectives, even if it is hard to compare the number of journalists who have been killed or threatened during the last 16 years with the number of deaths during the war.
Cerigua (Center of Informative Reports on Guatemala) is an alternative news agency that runs Observatorio de los Periodistas (Journalists Observatory), a project focused on freedom of expression for the press. Ileana Alamilla, director of Cerigua, explained to me that since 2003 the observatory has worked to compile and make public every case of a reporter’s violated freedom of expression in Guatemala: a total of 394 from 2003 to 2010.
That figure includes verbal and physical aggression, attacks, threats, harassment, persecution, intimidation, defamation, reporters harmed by bullets, and even allegations from reporters of attempts to limit their access to information. The hard number comes later: Out of those 394 cases, the number of assassinated journalists is 20.
What has not changed in Guatemala since the war is the judicial system’s response. Rarely do any of the crimes Cerigua documents make it to court for a trial. Impunity is severe here and sends a radical message: An unpunished crime is a crime that never happened.
The civil war may have ended, but another armed conflict has arisen: the battle against the traffic of illegal drugs. Guatemala is located in such a strategic position that the U.S. State Department estimates that at least 75 percent of the drugs distributed in its territory are trafficked through Guatemala. We can argue about the figures, but the signs are clear.
I began to write this letter a few weeks after the massacre of 27 peasants on a farm in La Libertad, Petén. Days after that, a young district attorney was slaughtered in Cobán, Alta Verapaz.
All of these victims were beheaded.
ElPeriódico is based in Guatemala City. You must travel four hours to get to Cobán and eight to get to La Libertad. But fear traveled faster after the killings and, like a dark and heavy blanket, covered the newsrooms of the capital city. I won’t ever forget the face of the youngest reporter in elPeriódico, who also happened to cover the police. He came to my desk that day and said, “I’m not going to sign those stories. Please take out my byline.” His reasons were obvious: I saw miedo, the fear in his face. He seemed so vulnerable. Shy and funny, young and skinny, with long hair that draped over his forehead. Still a college student who’d been at elPeriódico for four months, he covered one of the more violent cities in Latin America.
I thought it normal for him to ask for his byline to be removed, being so young. But the next day when I read the daily papers, I was shocked to see that none of the journalists in Guatemala had signed their stories. Not even the follow-up stories related to the massacre were signed.
One of the oldest and largest papers also decided not to include any of those events on the cover. Instead, the killing of the prosecutor was a secondary note on page 10.
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.
It was not company protocol to text the journalist during her trip; it was a safety measure designed just for the occasion. Although, recently, while I was working with Greg Brosnan, a documentary filmmaker for London’s Channel 4, I learned that my improvised methods could quickly become protocol.
Brosnan was working on a very sensible documentary about violence in Guatemala that explains how this tiny country found itself in the middle of a voracious drug war. I was hired as his contact person in Guatemala, and soon the time came when he had to travel to the “red zone” of Petén and Cobán to interview people about the beheaded attorney and peasants.
I stayed behind in the capital, but I had to be in contact with him. There were two specific hours during which I definitely had to speak with him and then email his headquarters to report that he was fine. Of course I called him more than I was supposed to.
I fear the day that I call a journalist and get no answer, and I ask myself: Is this the way we should practice journalism in Guatemala?
I still sign my articles. I keep saying to myself and others that I will recognize when there is a threat ahead. But I am not the only one in danger; today many Guatemalans leave their homes in the morning, praying to return alive at night, and wonder when this culture of violence and fear is going to end.
Claudia Méndez Arriaza is a reporter for elPeriódico de Guatemala and the recipient of a 2012 fellowship to study the politics of emerging democracies at Harvard. Excerpted from Sampsonia Way (Sept. 2011), a publication of City Asylum Pittsburgh devoted to free speech and creative expression. www.sampsoniaway.org