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The Guatemalan daily El Periódico and Fundación MEPI have published an exposé of corruption in the current Guatemalan government. The story, with information and documents gathered during the first year in office of president Otto Perez Molina and vice president Roxana Baldetti, detailed a multi-million dollar web of corruption in a country where 50 per cent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day.
After the story was published on 8 April, the newspaper was immediately the hit with a cyber attack, according to El Periodico’s publisher, José Rubén Zamora. The website went dead and nobody could read the story for a few days. Readers who did manage to access the website had their computers infected with a virus. The attack was the latest salvo against the daily, which focuses on exposing government corruption. Zamora said it was the sixth attack against its website in the last year. He said each attack had occurred after the newspaper published investigations into corruption in Molina’s government. Zamora said that they have been investigating the attacks — which have been coming from a neighbourhood in Guatemala City. “We will pinpoint the exact area soon”, he said. The Inter American Press Association wrote a letter to Guatemala’s government expressing their concern over the attacks.
According to Zamora, officials have pulled government advertising from the newspaper, and constantly harass independent advertisers who work with the daily. In the last two decades, Zamora has been at the helm of two newspapers. His first paper was Siglo Veintuno, which he left after disagreeing with his co-owners over the paper’s robust coverage of corruption and government abuses. He has been target of kidnappings and death threats, and even had his home invaded by armed men in 2003, who held his wife and three sons hostage for several hours at gunpoint. Zamora won the Committee to Protect Journalists Freedom of the Press award in 1995, and in 2000 was named World Press Freedom Hero by the International Press Institute.
I asked Zamora why he continues to put his life in danger with government exposés:
Ana Arana: You knew the danger with this story, why did you want to publish it?
José Rubén Zamora: It is indispensable to stop the corruption and self-enrichment by the Guatemalan political class. They forget that our country is overwhelmed by misery, malnourished children, and racism. Guatemala is a country without counterweights or institutional balances to protect it from abuses. That is why to write about these stories is our obligation. If we did not focus on these issues, why should we exist?
Our stories are written so Guatemalans get strong and do not accept abuses of those in power. We also do it to get information on corrupt practices and human rights violations in Guatemala out in the international community.
AA: What is the real problem in Guatemala?
JRZ: I think there is an excessive concentration of power and money, and a serious penetration of organised crime, especially drug trafficking organisations, in spheres of power.
AA: Do you fear any further attacks against the newspaper?
JRZ: Yes, I expect them to harass us through taxes, and to engage in defamation campaigns to discredit the newspaper. Sources close to the Presidency have said that the government is trying to organised a commercial boycott that could take the newspaper towards bankruptcy.
Oscar Ramirez wants to open his own business. He wants to learn air conditioning and plumbing. He is dreaming big. “I don’t want to work for someone else all my life,” he told me last week.
His dreams are basic. Just a few weeks ago, Oscar and his wife Nidia were undocumented immigrants living in the shadows in Framingham, Massachusetts, with their four US-born children. It all changed last week, when the United States government granted him political asylum.
Last year, Oscar’s future and his past were colliding. He was afraid of being detained by US immigration authorities, and he could not go back to Guatemala after he learned he was a child survivor of a 1982 military massacre in the Guatemalan village of Dos Erres. Now Oscar has a chance to help end a culture of impunity in Guatemala, where 400,000 people were killed in a civil war, and where freedom of expression continues to be under threat.
In May 2011, Guatemalan prosecutors told Oscar they believed he was not the man he thought he was. He learned his late father was not his real father. He had another biological father. He also learned that the man he thought was his father, Lt. Oscar Ovidio Ramirez, a former Guatemalan military commando officer, had abducted Oscar as a three-year old. He did that after participating in a three-day raid on the village of Dos Erres that left more than 200 men, women and children dead. Oscar’s biological mother, who was pregnant, and his eight brothers and sisters were killed in the raid. He also learned that Guatemalan authorities considered him living evidence that could help advance the investigation against surviving members of the military commando who raided the Dos Erres village and killed innocent people they suspected of being leftist guerrillas.
The case of Dos Erres is one of Guatemala’s first trials against military abuses in the 1980s, where military commandos and top officials have been sentenced to jail terms. Four commandos and one officer who participated in the murder and cover up were convicted to unprecedented long prison terms in the last two years, and charges of genocide are pending against former President Efrain Rios Montt.
The case has also involved US immigration authorities, who have extended a wide net and caught several fugitive former commandos who had moved to the United States. Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, a former Army lieutenant was extradited from Canada a few weeks ago and will stand trial in California for lying on his immigration application. Several members of the former commando unit that killed the villagers of Dos Erres are still at large.
Scott Greathead, Oscar’s lawyer, said Oscar can now focus on raising his children and participate in getting justice for his family. His biological father, Tranquilino Castañeda, who survived the massacre because he was away at the time of the military raid, met Oscar for the first time in May this year, when he traveled to the United States for a family reunion.
Also read Guatemala: What Happened at Dos Erres?
And listen to What Happened at Dos Erres? on This American Life
This week, a remarkable six-month investigation into a Guatemalan tragedy which took place 30 years ago was published and aired by ProPublica, Fundacion MEPI and This American Life. Finding Oscar: Massacre, Memory and Justice in Guatemala, dealt with violence and redemption in ways most stories cannot.
In 1982, a squad of army commanders stormed the tiny north Guatemalan village of Dos Erres and brutally massacred more than 250 men, women and children. Thirty years later a family torn apart by the horrific ordeal were reunited.
My organisation, Fundacion MEPI heard about the story first. But our partnership with larger organisations such as ProPublica and This American Life radio programme ensured this dramatic story reached a huge audience and had a huge impact on the small republic of Guatemala. We chose to tell the story in collaboration because an investigation on a Guatemalan massacre, reported and written by an investigative journalism project such as ours would not have received the amount of attention it deserved. We felt that only a multi-nation journalistic endeavor would do the story justice.
We were lucky that one of the people in the story, Oscar Alfredo Ramirez Castañeda, was an undocumented immigrant living in the United States, and his dramatic story would appeal to US news outlets. We were also lucky that unlike other stories about Guatemalan atrocities, there is a happy ending. Oscar, who was abducted and raised by a soldier who took part in the massacre, has now been reunited with his real father, Tranquilino Castañeda.
A key part of the story was the emphasis how today’s organised crime networks in Guatemala grew strong during the lawless 1980s, when anti-communist military officers discovered illicit ways of making money to fund their brutality. The truth is that even the recent arrival of the vicious Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas, was probably orchestrated by retired military officers. The story of Dos Erres links the carnage of the past with the impunity of the present, as even now those involved in the events at Dos Erres are still afraid to speak out.
We could not have completed our investigation into the story without the help and advice of Jose Ruben Zamora, publisher of the Guatemalan daily El Periodico. An unabashed defender of his country, Zamora’s tough editorial columns have angered dark forces in Guatemala for the last 20 years. He has done something that many of his fellow citizens fear to do — he has spoken out. He has paid dearly for his criticism: In 2003 his home was raided by armed men tied to active duty military officers, and his children and wife were tied up and harassed for several hours. In 2008, he was kidnapped and disappeared for a few days, found abandoned with signs of torture in a remote area.
Reporting on this story included delving into the heartbreaking memories of Don Tranquilino, and the dark secrets of two former ex Guatemala special military commandos known as Kaibiles, who confessed and are now protected witnesses. It was worth it.
Ana Arana is the head of Fundación de Periodismo de Investigación (MEPI), which was launched to promote investigations and work with journalists in the US, Mexico and Central America
Six TV stations have been forced to close in Guatemala, as a result of political pressure. Local stations in Mazatenango, Southern Guatemala were closed by Cable DX, after local mayor Roberto Lemus told the company he would not stand for criticism of his administration. TVI, which is managed by the Mayor’s nephew, is the only TV station now allowed to remain on air.