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Reporting with bodyguards on the Paraguayan border

Journalists demonstrate on Paraguayan Journalist Day in 2013 beside a memorial commemorating the death of journalist Santiago Leguizamon
Journalists demonstrate on Paraguayan Journalist Day in 2013 beside a memorial commemorating the death of journalist Santiago Leguizamon

REUTERS/Jorge Adorno

This piece was originally published on cpj.org on 27 April 2015.

Like a riveting lede to one of his stories on cocaine smugglers and crime bosses, Paraguayan journalist Cándido Figueredo makes a dramatic first impression.

When Figueredo meets a visitor from CPJ in his hometown of Pedro Juan Caballero, located on Paraguay's eastern border with Brazil, two bodyguards with submachine guns occupy the back seat of his pickup. Trailing his vehicle is another pickup filled with police agents, and in front two police motorcycle escorts lead the way to Figueredo's home and office. Sixteen surveillance cameras monitor his one-story house; on the journalist's desk lies his trusty Browning pistol.

The protection is warranted. A veteran border-beat reporter for ABC Color, Paraguay's largest newspaper, Figueredo faces constant danger. Gunmen have twice riddled his house with bullets. He has lost count of the many death threats he's received. He has lived flanked by police bodyguards since 1995 and, because of the complicated logistics of moving around the city, he rarely leaves home.

"It's like living in jail," Figueredo, 58, tells CPJ.

But the tight security has kept Figueredo alive in one of the most dangerous regions in Latin America for journalists. Pedro Juan Caballero and other Paraguayan border cities have become havens for smugglers of everything from cocaine and marijuana to cigarettes and electronics. There are widespread allegations of collusion between local politicians and drug smugglers, some of whom react violently when they come under scrutiny from the news media.

For example, on October 16, 2014, another border reporter for ABC Color, Pablo Medina Velázquez, died after four gunshots and a coup de grâce shotgun blast to the face. Medina had received numerous death threats in response to his reports on cocaine and marijuana trafficking on the border. His assistant, Antonia Almada, was also killed.

State prosecutors said that the prime suspect in the murders is Vilmar Acosta Marques, the mayor of the border town of Ypehú, who remains at large. Medina had linked the mayor to cocaine trafficking in some of his stories; according to news reports, Acosta in 2010 had threatened the journalist in a cell phone message, saying: "Watch what you write ... everyone knows you."

Acosta is reportedly in hiding and has not publicly responded to the murder accusation.

In Pedro Juan Caballero, two journalists have been gunned down in the past two years. One of these homicides--the May 18, 2014, killing of radio journalist Fausto Gabriel Alcaraz Garay--was directly related to the reporter's work, according to CPJ research.

All told, CPJ research shows that five journalists have been killed for their work in Paraguay since 1992, including Medina's brother, radio journalist Salvador Medina, who was murdered in 2001 after denouncing political corruption.

As a result of factors ranging from botched investigations to official misconduct, none of the masterminds behind these killings has been convicted or imprisoned, judicial officials told CPJ. In the Medina case, public prosecutor Nestor Cañete was removed from the investigation for allegedly having intervened on behalf of Acosta in previous criminal cases, according to news reports.

CPJ interviews conducted in Pedro Juan Caballero in September have revealed that widespread impunity adds to the sense of danger and vulnerability and has led to widespread self-censorship among reporters covering the Paraguay-Brazil border.

"There are lots of things I do not report on," Raúl Ortíz, the host of a news program on local Radio Oasis, told CPJ. "I am very prudent because I fear for my life."

Through it all, Figueredo has managed to break important stories on drug cartels and political corruption and has emerged as one of Paraguay's most respected journalists. But he is also acutely aware that with one false move he could join the list of the dead.

"This is a place where the perfect crime exists," said Figueredo, whose smartphone ringtone is set to the foreboding theme from "The Godfather." "The state just washes its hands. The most that will happen is, they will give you a bodyguard."

At first, the enlarged color photos of the pine forests, mountains, and fjords of Norway decorating the walls of Figueredo's one-story house in sunbaked Pedro Juan Caballero seem a bit incongruous. Figueredo explains that after marrying a Norwegian woman he moved to her homeland in 1973 and found work in a steel mill. However, the marriage fell apart, and Figueredo was, by then, anxious to return to Paraguay, where dictator Alfredo Stroessner had finally been ousted after 35 years in power.

He was in for a shock. Although similar in size and population, Paraguay seemed like the polar opposite of safe, orderly, and prosperous Norway. Paraguay is South America's poorest nation and one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International. It has long served as a transit corridor for Andean cocaine on its way to Brazil and Europe and is now Latin America's second-largest producer of marijuana after Mexico, according to InSight Crime, a think tank that tracks organized crime in Latin America.

Appalled by the lawlessness of his hometown, Figueredo gravitated toward journalism and was hired as a border correspondent for the re-launched ABC Color, the Asunción-based daily newspaper that had been closed between 1984 and 1989 by Stroessner. In the early 1990s, Figueredo says, the new atmosphere of press freedom encouraged reporters to start digging deeply into issues of organized crime and political corruption.

"There was no in-depth coverage of these issues under Stroessner. It was impossible," says Anibal Gómez Caballero, who hosts news programs on Radio America, as well as the cable station Gosi TV in Pedro Juan Caballero, "but, afterward, there was huge competition for stories and scoops, and that raised the profile and the prestige of journalists in Paraguay."

But the backlash was immediate. In 1991, Santiago Leguizamón, the border reporter for the now-defunct Noticias newspaper and the owner of a local radio station, was shot dead in Pedro Juan Caballero. Leguizamón, who often focused on drug trafficking, was the first journalist murdered in the post-Stroessner era.

"In this way, the mafia was sending an order to the news media: silence," a 2012 news story in ABC Color observed on the 21st anniversary of the death of Leguizamón, whose murder remains unsolved.

Figueredo received his first death threat in 1995, just four months after he was hired by ABC Color. He has lived and worked in the presence of a rotating crew of police bodyguards ever since. Figueredo says that criminals "will think twice about shooting you if you are with the police," because killing a law enforcement officer could lead to a major security crackdown and disrupt smuggling operations along the border.

Still, his bodyguards haven't deterred all attacks. Gunmen first shot up Figueredo's house in 1997. A more serious attack came in 2003, when his house was hit by 14 bullets. One of them was stopped by a picture frame in the kitchen; another bullet lodged in a book Figueredo had brought back from Norway. Thirteen years later, sunlight streams through three bullet holes in Figueredo's front door.

In 2012, Brazilian police informed Figueredo of an intercepted phone call in which a Paraguayan fugitive, Barón Escurra, discussed plans to kill Figueredo in retaliation for his stories about Escurra's involvement with clandestine airstrips. The most recent death threat, Figueredo says, came in May.

To avoid making himself an easy target, Figueredo avoids going out. He and his current wife, Patricia Bellenzier, have almost no social life. They watch DVDs at home and cook their own meals in a large kitchen furnished with an extra freezer and bread, ice, and espresso machines. They often take meals with their guards, with whom they converse in Guaraní, the widely spoken indigenous language of Paraguay. The only time they really relax, Bellenzier says, is on periodic trips to Asunción.

Figueredo's daily routine involves working the phones and monitoring the Internet, radio stations, and a police scanner. He also relies on stringers and photographers, as well as on Bellenzier, a psychologist, to gather material at crime scenes. He will venture out with his guards for important interviews but tries to do most of his work from the office.

There is much to investigate.

Drug smuggling is the lifeblood of border cities like Pedro Juan Caballero, a city of 115,000 people that sits just across the street from the Brazilian town of Ponta Porã. Moving contraband across the frontier is simple because there are no immigration or customs controls. As you drive around these twin border cities, it can be hard to tell whether you're in Paraguay or Brazil.

Other factors are making the border even more dangerous.

Paraguay's anti-drug chief, Luis Rojas, claims that Pedro Juan Caballero and other border towns have become operational centers for Brazilian criminal groups such as the First Capital Command (PCC), Red Command (CV), and Amigos dos Amigos. Because there is no extradition treaty between the two countries, Brazilian criminals often hole up in Pedro Juan Caballero, and Paraguayan bandits frequently hide in Ponta Porã, law enforcement officials tell CPJ.

"Here, the narco-traffickers are in charge," said José Carlos Acevedo, the mayor of Pedro Juan Caballero, in an interview with CPJ at City Hall. "They are a parallel power. They decide if you live or die."

In addition, many Paraguayan politicians have been accused of protecting drug traffickers in exchange for payoffs and other favors. For example, it has been alleged in Paraguayan news reports that Congresswoman María Cristina Villalba, known as "the Queen of the North," was a close friend of Acosta, the fugitive mayor accused of killing Medina, and helped him escape--an allegation that she has denied.

"The drug traffickers give money to politicians for favors and protection. They also buy off the police," Katia Estela Uemura, a public prosecutor in Amambay state who focuses on drug trafficking, told CPJ. "When the anti-drug police do a mission, they don't say anything to the regular police, because they will tip off the narcos."

In writing about these issues, Figueredo regularly rubs shoulders with criminals and corrupt politicians and police agents. But, as he wryly noted: "You're not going to get information from priests."

Such figures will sometimes seek out reporters to smear rival trafficking organizations, deny allegations, or justify their actions. Figueredo recalled a massive police dragnet in Pedro Juan Caballero set up to capture a cocaine smuggler. As a way to poke fun at inept authorities, the smuggler arranged for Figueredo to interview him at a ranch just outside the city.

The ethics of such encounters can be tricky. Figueredo has been offered vehicles, cash, and other perks from criminals seeking favorable coverage or promises not to write about them. Drug traffickers have also accused Figueredo of demanding payoffs in exchange for not publishing stories about them, accusations that the journalist denies.

"If they can't pay you off, they try to attack your credibility," Figueredo said. He added that the politicians he sometimes writes about often go on local radio and claim that Figueredo is gay.

Figueredo says that he ignores the slurs and tries to use his access to shed more light on the criminal underworld. He recalls receiving a phone call from Brazilian drug lord Fernandinho Beira-Mar, who complimented the journalist on a story he had written because, unlike most news accounts about the trafficker, Beira-Mar said, it was accurate. Beira-Mar asked how he could repay Figueredo, who, in turn, asked for and received an exclusive interview at a Brazilian prison.

"You have to use them," Figueredo said, "and not let the drug traffickers use you."

For all the dangers and deprivations of his work, Figueredo acknowledges, he holds a privileged position among border reporters. He is a staff writer with a steady paycheck and counts on the strong support of Paraguay's most prestigious newspaper.

However, similar status did not save Pablo Medina, the ABC Color reporter killed in October, and the vast majority of Figueredo's colleagues are even more vulnerable because they are poorly paid part-timers with little, if any, journalistic training, according to law enforcement officials.

"Cándido reports on corrupt police officers and businessmen and he names names, and that has led to threats. But at least he has the backing of ABC Color," observed José Gabriel Valiente, a criminal court judge in Pedro Juan Caballero. "Most journalists here are on their own, so the forces of organized crime have no fear about attacking them."

In addition, many journalists produce stories and sell ads for the radio and TV programs they work for. Their watchdog role can be compromised if they accept ad money from public institutions. And unscrupulous reporters sometimes demand payments from politicians, business people, and drug traffickers in exchange for ignoring or playing down scandals, criminal activities, and other bad behavior.

"There are serious journalists here, but there are many others who extort people," said Pedro González Ramírez, the governor of Amambay state, which surrounds Pedro Juan Caballero. "When a journalist starts talking about an issue, and totally focusing on that issue and nothing else, it is probably because the person he is reporting on didn't give him any money--and then the reports stop and people say that the journalist was probably paid off."

Such unethical behavior can lead to retaliation. But Figueredo and other reporters also blame politicians who own several local media outlets and use them to attack their rivals. Journalists working for these media outlets, in turn, can become identified with the politics, causes, and pet peeves of these politician/station owners--putting them at greater risk.

A prime example is the May 16, 2014, killing of Alcaraz, 28, who co-hosted a morning show on Radio Amambay called "De frente a la mañana" ("head-on in the morning"). He was returning home from work when two unidentified assailants on a motorcycle shot him 17 times, according to local press reports.

Radio Amambay is owned by the family of Mayor Acevedo, whose brother, Roberto Acevedo, is a federal senator. The Acevedos are political rivals of Gov. González, whose family owns Gosi TV. The politicians often use their stations to lash out at each other, according to Gómez, the Gosi TV host who used to work for Radio Amambay. These rival political clans, Gómez says, have frequently accused each other of being in the pay of drug traffickers.

"We bought the station to defend ourselves" from attacks from Gov. González and other politicians, said Mayor Acevedo during an interview at City Hall.

Shortly before he was killed, Alcaraz had been denouncing several drug traffickers by name on his morning program. Figueredo, Gómez, and other reporters told CPJ that Alcaraz was probably instructed to do so by the Acevedo family. Samuel Valdez, the public prosecutor investigating the case, says Alcaraz was likely targeted in retaliation for his denunciations and that his killers "were sending a message" to the Acevedo family.

But in an interview with CPJ, Sen. Roberto Acevedo, who was wounded in an assassination attempt in 2010, denied that he ordered Alcaraz to denounce drug traffickers by name. He said that Alcaraz was responsible for his own statements and that, because of the danger, Acevedo had often warned the reporter to back off.

"Gabriel did not realize the powerful interests he was touching," Acevedo said.

The Alcaraz killing remains unsolved. Valdez said that in such high-profile cases it is nearly impossible to persuade witnesses to testify because they fear for their lives. Another problem, he said, is that prosecutors and judicial police agents are often abruptly transferred when they begin investigating local power brokers suspected of criminal activity.

Asked by CPJ what would happen to her if she went after a prominent politician in Pedro Juan Caballero, Uemura, the anti-drug prosecutor, stated bluntly: "They would try to fire me."

Under these conditions, hard-hitting reporting would seem an almost impossible task in Pedro Juan Caballero and other Paraguayan border towns. But 19 years after publishing his first ABC Color story, Figueredo still takes great delight in scooping his rivals and denouncing wrongdoing.

"There is no alternative," said Figueredo, who admits that he would be bored reporting from a more sedate city such as Asunción, "so I can't bang my head against the wall."

Ortíz, the Radio Oasis news show host, told CPJ, "We don't want to be spectators to all this violence. We want to be protagonists of change."

Like Ortíz, Figueredo has become more cautious. To avoid standing out, he will often wait for a corruption scandal or a drug bust to become prominent in the news cycle before denouncing the involvement of local politicians or traffickers.

But Figueredo also knows that, as it did for his colleague Pablo Medina, his luck could run out. He points to his Browning pistol and declares that he will not go down meekly. Then he recalls a recent conversation with a drug trafficker who had threatened him:

"I told him: 'If you are going to try to kill me, I will put a bullet in your head first. I am a journalist, not a saint.'"

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