SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — The infiltration of northern Honduras by drug traffickers has not only turned the country into one of the world’s most violent. It’s also made life hell for local journalists trying to cover the mayhem.
At least 30 reporters have been killed since 2003, according to the Colegio de Periodistas de Honduras, the national press group. Of this total, 14 were murdered in just the past two and a half years. These are astounding numbers for a country of just 7.5 million inhabitants.
“Everyone feels vulnerable,” said Mavis Cruz, director of the news program Noticias a la Hora, which airs on San Pedro Sula’s Radio Libertad. “There have been so many abuses against journalists and there is almost total impunity.”
The killings of reporters are part of a broader nationwide crime crisis brought on, in part, by political instability following the 2009 removal of the president by the Honduran Congress — not to mention weak government institutions and the growing importance of Honduras as a hub for traffickers shipping Colombian cocaine to the United States.
Authorities estimate that several hundred tons of cocaine pass through the country each year with hyper-violent Mexican cartels pushing out their Colombian counterparts to dominate the business. Meanwhile, Honduran youth gangs provide the trafficking organizations with gunmen who can intimidate and murder for bargain prices.
“Well-funded transnational criminal organizations combined with local gangs are destabilizing the country’s democratic institutions and making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world,” wrote James Boswell in a recent study on Honduras published by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Political instability feeds violence against journalists
Fueling the chaos is political instability in the wake of a June 2009 military-backed action that ousted left-wing President Manuel Zelaya. After the coup, many foreign governments cut off aid to Honduras while the fight against organized crime was pushed to the back burner as the new government focused on consolidating power and gaining international legitimacy, Boswell wrote.
Today, Honduras registers the highest murder rate in the world — 82 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Caught in the crossfire are many reporters.
Journalists say that those involved in the drug trade — including corrupt politicians and police officers — target reporters to intimidate and derail the press from its traditional watchdog function. The killers receive further encouragement because they are almost never brought to justice, says the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
The most recent murder of a Honduran journalist was also the most shocking.
On May 9, the body of Ángel Alfredo Villatoro, 47, a prominent host and news coordinator of HRN, one of Honduras’ most popular radio stations, was found on a sidewalk. Villatoro, a friend of President Porfirio Lobo, had two gunshots to the head, was dressed in the uniform of a special operations police unit and had a red handkerchief covering his face.
“Honduran authorities must fully investigate this crime and bring those responsible to justice,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. He warned that “the deadly cycle of violence against journalists and impunity for these crimes is endangering freedom of expression in Honduras.”
Reporters shying away from difficult stories
Indeed, precisely at the moment when Honduras most needs an aggressive press corps to investigate organized crime, news coverage has been neutered. Reporters don’t dare probe deeply into drug-related murders and extortion schemes for fear of retaliation. Newspapers are filled with sensational crime stories that are just a few paragraphs long and say almost nothing about the possible motives for shootouts and killings.
The San Pedro Sula-based Tiempo daily newspaper shut down its investigative unit in 2009 due to the growing risks. Yet even routine reporting can be lethal. Photographers are sometimes targeted after taking pictures of crime scenes or police lineups, while reporters have been threatened simply for covering legal cases involving traffickers.
“In the courthouse we are almost face-to-face with delinquents. They look at us, laugh and sneer. So we can’t even go to public hearings anymore because we are exposed,” said Tiempo reporter Juan Carlos Rodríguez.
“That means we have to do journalism-lite, like covering local artisans or tourism,” he said. “We can’t investigate anything about drug trafficking. We can’t write the truth. The only way you can tell the truth in Honduras is through a novel.”
Rodríguez and other reporters often request that their bylines be removed from their stories.
“Before, reporters were proud to say: ‘This is my work,’” added Karina Interiano, who anchors the Notiseis TV news program in San Pedro Sula. “Now, they no longer want to attach their names to their stories.”
The killings of reporters are not all drug-related. Some of the deaths are due to personal disputes while others are tied to the rise in political violence following the 2009 ouster of Zelaya, which also polarized the media with some newspapers, radio and TV stations supporting the coup and others coming out against it.
Given the dangers, some Honduran reporters are thinking of getting out. Rodríguez, the Tiempo reporter, said he may abandon journalism for a job in finance.