Johan Ordonez / AFP / Getty Images

Reporting on corruption proves deadly in Guatemala

Local media in drug-ridden Suchitepéquez silenced after spate of attacks on reporters

GUATEMALA CITY/MAZATENANGO — A month and a half after a deadly attack on two of his colleagues, Marvin Túnchez, a reporter for local cable channel Óptimo 23, has a very tangible reminder of the day he narrowly escaped death: a bullet beneath his skin that protrudes on the right side of his chest. 

Túnchez speaks in a monotone and matter-of-fact way about the attack that left him with multiple fractures to his right arm. It was around 12:30 p.m. Despite the intense midday heat that characterizes Guatemala’s southwestern coast, the main square in Mazatenango, a small city about 100 miles southwest of Guatemala City, was buzzing with activity.

Local reporters had gathered in front of the town hall to cover an International Women’s Day celebration organized by the municipal authorities. He was searching for a file in his cellphone when he heard two gunshots.

“I ran and hid in the governor’s office,” he said, recalling the events of that day. “I had no idea who was shooting or who had been shot. I couldn’t move my right arm, but I didn’t feel pain.”

Minutes later an employee from the governor’s office told Túnchez that his colleagues, Danilo López, a correspondent for Guatemala’s largest national newspaper, Prensa Libre, and Federico Salazar, a correspondent for Radio Nuevo Mundo, had been shot dead. They had been standing 30 feet from him.

Within half an hour, the alleged gunmen, Sergio Cardona and Artemio Ramírez, were arrested by the police after they fled the scene on a motorbike and sped through a roadblock on the road leading to the municipality of Cuyotenango.

Investigators believe the attack was aimed at López, who had repeatedly reported death threats from the mayor of the nearby municipality of San Lorenzo, José Linares, and the former mayor of Mazatenango, Manuel Delgado, in July 2013.

López had published a series of investigations into how the Linares administration, which belongs to the Partido Patriota, had spent $361,000 on nonexistent public works.

Prosecutor Ángel Ramírez, however, insists that as long as the investigation is still in progress, none of the 20 mayors in the department of Suchitepéquez, which includes Mazatenango, can be ruled out as suspects, since it is not unheard of for local politicians to orchestrate attacks and pin the blame on political opponents. 

Increased threats

López and Salazar are among six local reporters killed since 2010 in Guatemala, a country that was ranked 125th out of 180 countries in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index. Four of the reporters killed were from Suchitepéquez.

The number of journalists reporting threats, according to the attorney general’s office, jumped from 25 in 2010 to 74 in 2014. Observers fear that the violence will intensify during the run-up to the September elections as local drug trafficking cartels seek to infiltrate the parties leading the electoral race.

Because of its location on the Pacific coast, Suchitepéquez is one of the points of entry for cocaine shipments taken into Guatemala from Colombia and Ecuador for transport north to the border with Mexico, said prosecutor Aldo Chapas.

Additionally, a number of clandestine airstrips used by cocaine smugglers have been located in the municipalities of San José la Máquina, San Antonio Suchitepéquez and Champerico, and in March two clandestine laboratories used for the production of amphetamines were dismantled by police in San José la Máquina and San Antonio Suchitepéquez.

The authorities have identified three rival organizations in Suchitepéquez: one that controls the cocaine shipments entering the country through the coastal areas and two that control the transportation of drugs destined for the Mexican border and the United States.

Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla has blamed one of these organizations, known as the Oajaca family, which allegedly has ties to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, for the attack on López and Salazar.

The Oajaca family owns practically every gasoline station in Mazatenango as well as approximately 500 acres of palm plantations that have allegedly been used to conceal clandestine airstrips.

The clan is so powerful that it even owns the land where one of the local police stations stands.

Like other Guatemalan drug families such as the Lorenzanas, in the eastern department of Zacapa, the Oajacas employ about 150 people as farm laborers on their plantations.

Regardless of whether they support the clan, most of the locals in Mazatenango remain silent for fear of reprisals.

Resorting to self-censorship

On March 25, the Interior Ministry launched Operación Ojo de Halcón (Operation Falcon’s Eye), a high-profile raid on 14 properties known to belong to the organization. But no one was captured, and no drugs were confiscated.

A group of local media outlets posted on Twitter, “No local TV stations covered Operation Falcon’s Eye,” fearful of reprisals from the Oajaca family.

Fear of the cartels is not the only reason most locals in Suchitepéquez live under a self-imposed curfew, not daring to leave their homes after 8 p.m.

In recent years, carjackings and extortion associated to the presence of gangs, particularly in the municipality of Chicacao, have increased.

Three days after López and Salazar were killed, 20-year-old cameraman Armando Villatoro, who worked for Servicable, a local cable TV station owned by mayoral candidate Uri Maldonado, was shot dead.

Prosecutors believe the attack was a reprisal against Servicable after a gang member who allegedly extorted money from the station was arrested by the authorities. However, the authorities have ruled out any connections with the attack on López and Salazar.

A plaque marks the spot in Mazatenango’s main square where López and Salazar were gunned down. More than a month and a half after they were killed, Prensa Libre and Radio Nuevo Mundo have been unable to find new correspondents in Suchitepéquez.

Túnchez and his family have been granted permanent police protection, and a police vehicle regularly patrols the area surrounding local media outlets. But local reporters question the effectiveness of these measures and have stopped covering any stories related to drug trafficking or corruption.

“Our only option is self-censorship,” says Fridel Mejicanos, a local reporter for national radio network Emisoras Unidas.

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