Central America: where journalists pay the ultimate price for doing a good job

Central America and Mexico, a region rocked by still-rising levels of violence and instability, can be deadly places to report the news. In July 2015, three journalists were murdered in Mexico in a single week.

Honduras and Guatemala have also experienced an “alarming uptick in murders of, and attacks against, journalists in recent years,” reports the Committee to Protect Journalists.

El Salvador, which has recently surpassed Honduras as the country with the highest murder rate in the world, reported eight instances of aggression against journalists in 2013, according to the Association of Journalists in El Salvador.

In 2014, that number climbed to 28. In April 2015, Luis Alonso Rosa López, a sports reporter for Monumental Radio, was assassinated. And in the summer of 2015, at least three journalists working for the El Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro have received dozens of threats on their life for their reporting.

Since its founding in 1998, El Faro has positioned itself as a fearless critic of the violence and malfeasance of the region, with long, in-depth and detailed exposés on crime, corruption and daily life throughout Central America.

On 22 July 2015, El Faro journalists Roberto Valencia, Daniel Valencia Caravantes, and Óscar Martinez – internationally-acclaimed author of The Beast and director of Sala Negra, an El Faro project focused on uncovering the causes of Central American violence—published a particularly explosive story uncovering the police massacre of eight people, including two minors. The same day, in anticipation of the backlash, Martinez and Valencia fled the country, and Caravantes relocated to a different part of El Salvador.

The official police account of the eight deaths was that the victims were killed in a shootout, but in The Police Massacre in San Blas, Martinez, Valencia and Caravantes report a very different scenario.

One of the victims, 16-year-old Sonia Esmeralda Guerrero, the authors write, “died from a single gunshot wound to the mouth,” and the evidence surrounding her body was tampered with. “It’s impossible for the gun to have turned itself around between photographs,” a forensic expert explains in the piece. “They [the police] probably fabricated this scene.”

Another of the victims, 17-year-old Ernesto Hernández Aguirre, was not carrying a firearm, “but he ended up with around 20 shots to his body.” Since the massacre, one of the principal witnesses has been found murdered: “The bones of his skull were crushed, as well as his face and teeth. He died from asphyxiation and as a result of machete slashes.”

I’ve known Óscar since 2011 when my partner, Daniela Maria Ugaz, and I began translating his book, Los migrantes que no importan, which was published in English as The Beast by Verso Books in 2013.

We’ve since become friends and have worked together on other projects, including a newly translated collection of dispatches from Central America, A History of Violence (also forthcoming from Verso), and various articles, such as his report on the child migrant crisis, which was the cover story for The Nation in August 2014.


Stirring up controversy

As Óscar practices the sort of immersive journalism that puts him on the top of hurtling cargo trains, in rural towns run by corrupt narco mayors, and in seedy brothels where women are trafficked, it would be hard for a friend or family member (he has a wife and a young daughter) not to be scared for his safety.

Óscar is certainly no stranger to stirring up controversy: in May 2015 he uncovered the intricacies of extortion that pervade central San Salvador, in which, “five cliques of the Mara Salvatrucha gang and a sector of the Revolutionary wing of the Barrio 18 gang run the Centro” of El Salvador’s capital city.

For this and other pieces, Óscar has come to expect a certain level of harassment from the authorities. And yet the string of aggressions that have come in July and August 2015 brought new levels of fear.

The first death threats came after the publication, on 2 July 2015, of Aquí ya no caben más: Mátenlos (There’s Not Room for Anybody Else: Kill Them). The article describes Óscar’s visit to a police station, during which officers brutally beat and possibly murder a few uncharged suspects.

Óscar only came across that story because he had been preparing to meet a few of his sources for a different article when he learned that they had been arrested. He went to the police station to try to get them out of jail. As he was waiting, he witnessed the beatings. The officers, he explained to me, showed no compunction in punching and kicking the men in full view of the waiting room where he was sitting.

In the article about the incident, Oscár describes Salvadoran police “arresting everything that looks like a gang member.” He also details how what the police did that day constitutes torture: “The skinny 911 cop kicked [an arrestee] two more times. In the ribs. Crack. In the face. Crunch.”

Later, another man was begging someone to “throw water on his face” (The men had been sprayed with tear gas.) A cop countered with an offer: “If you want, we can piss on you.” Desperate, the man cried back, “Piss on me, piss on me.”

In the following days Óscar received multiple death threats, all from anonymous sources, on his Facebook page and through e-mail. “Óscar Martínez ya se la comió, aténganse a las consecuencias,” read one threat, which roughly translates to: “Óscar Martínez has bitten the bullet, now get ready for what’s coming.”


Report and run

Meanwhile, Óscar, Roberto Valencia, and Daniel Valencia Caravantes were finishing their long investigation into the police massacre in San Blas. Taking precautionary measures, the three men left the country with their families the same day the story went to press.

More threats poured in after publication. “I hope to God to capture one of the damn rats working for this paper,” wrote one user on El Faro’s Facebook page.

I asked all three of the journalist where they thought the threats were coming from. Caravantes explained to me that after the termination of the government’s truce with gangs in March 2014, the police have taken a more hard-line stance: in April 2015, Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén acknowledged that police had killed 140 people in a single month. As most Salvadorans have been so fed up with gang violence for years, Caravantes told me, many welcomed “killing gangsters as their [government’s] new strategy.”

Thus – Caravantes walked me through the presumed logic – as El Faro journalists are criticising the police, they must be on the side of the gangs, which, incidentally, were recently declared by Salvadoran law to be considered “terrorist organisations”—a denomination which could lead to further military-style efforts to rout them out.

Asked directly, none of the three journalists discounted the possibility that some of the threats could be coming from police or from ex-police officers.

A week after Óscar had fled the country, El Faro received information from a confidential source that a hit was ordered specifically against him.

The next day a man on a motorcycle came looking for Óscar’s house, asking a neighbour where he lived. The man said that he had an appointment to repair his refrigerator. Óscar’s refrigerator, however, runs perfectly well.

El Faro has recently taken increased measures to keep him and his family safe. They also filed a report to the authorities, and El Salvador’s Organized Crime Unit has now opened a case and has assigned two prosecutors to investigate the threats.

El Faro’s own director, José Luiz Sanz, recently commented that: “The climate of pain and fear in the country explains the visceral reactions against the gangs and against El Faro’s exposé, but it is inadmissible that a journalist is threatened for doing his job well.”

Trying to steer the focus away from himself, Óscar made clear to me that these threats are not just a singular frightening incident, but “part of the greater rotting of our society.”


“Extralegal executions”

I asked Óscar what he felt when he walked down the street. “I don’t walk the streets much anymore,” he responded, admitting that the threats had begun to impede his work, as well as make “family life much more complicated.” (He was out of the country for less than two weeks; currently, all three of the journalists are back working in San Salvador).

What’s happened has “reaffirmed for me that this type of journalism is more necessary than ever,” Óscar said. “Journalism that doesn’t piss somebody off is probably shitty journalism.”

On 27 July the Human Rights Prosecutor of El Salvador, David Morales, commented on the El Faro article about the police massacre in San Blas: “I read the report carefully and find it to have a high level of credibility….” He added that the report “transcends the typical standard of journalistic investigations,” and described the deaths as constituting “extralegal executions.”

Last spring, as he was passing through Arizona, Óscar, Daniela and I had a few drinks at our kitchen table. He told us he was thinking of buying a gun. If he were to be attacked, he explained, he would pull out his gun and start shooting into the air. Better to be shot to death, his logic went, than to be tortured and suffer a slow death. He recently told me: “In a society like El Salvador’s, a gun doesn’t ‘gift’ you life. It ‘gifts’ you a certain type of death.”

Part of how we can keep him from having to resort to this sort of suicide-by-gangster (or maybe suicide-by-corrupt-cop), how we can help keep him and Roberto and Daniel and other journalists safe in Latin America, he explained to me, is to read their work.

Read it and share it and make sure that when the next journalist is threatened in Central America, or in Mexico, the would-be killers know that there will be consequences; that the truth will come out. For now that seems to be his best personal security plan: good journalism.


This is an abridged version of an article first appeared in The Nation, republished here with the kind permission of Agence Global.