Nov 11

Slaying Goliath – investigative reporting at the center of Bolivia’s drug trade

by in Bolivia

El Deber, one of Bolivia's most investigative and powerful newspapers, is located in the heart of Bolivia's | photo by brandon c janes iv

El Deber, one of Bolivia’s most investigative and powerful newspapers, is located in the heart of Bolivia’s growing drug trade, Santa Cruz de la Sierra | photo by brandon c janes iv

SANTA CRUZ DE LA SIERRA – The big story right now in Bolivia is the Aerocon plane that crashed last week in the northern amazon city of Riberalta, killing eight passengers including one eight-year-old girl.

What wasn’t immediately clear from the initial reports were the circumstances by which the victims died. Thanks to the work of journalists at El Deber newspaper in Santa Cruz – Bolivia’s most investigative newspaper – the truth soon came out.

An official investigation revealed that all of the passengers lived through the crash, which occurred during a storm at the Riberalta airport.

Later the victims were killed by flames and smoke from a fire, which started from explosions inside the downed plane, the newspaper reported.

Official statements from the Bolivian government have blamed the deaths on the pilot, who lived through the crash and subsequent fires. But El Deber’s reports point to another failure, that of the government neglecting to provide adequate fire safety at Riberalta and airports across the country.

The jungle airport, which serves a city of more than 100,000 and sees about 700 flights a month, has no fire truck, nor fire fighting equipment. First responders used mud and sticks to fight the flames.

Further investigations, which involved public information requests, revealed that among Bolivia’s airports that do have fire trucks, many are more than 35-years-old and in poor condition.

The newsroom at El Deber newspaper in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia | photo by brandon c janes iv

The newsroom at El Deber newspaper in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia | photo by brandon c janes iv

Bolivia’s other half

Leaving the dry Andean plateau of Potosí, Sucre and La Paz, I found a different Bolivia to the east, one lush and tropical, and centered around the balmy, jungle city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

There I could not get the interview that I had wanted – to speak with the reporters who broke the Areocon story – but I spoke with one of their colleagues, Alicia Bress Perrogón, an El Deber reporter with 2o years of experience in her craft.

We began talking about incident in Beni, the department where Riberalta is located.

“If there had been some sort of fire safety, at least one of the victims could have been saved,”  Bress said, as she walked me through the rows of Apple computers in the newsroom of El Deber’s central office on Santa Cruz’s second anillo.

The city of Santa Cruz is Bolivia’s most populous – around 1.6 million total population – and the center of the country’s quickly growing drug trade, due to its proximity to the long, open border with Brazil.

Traffic in the city is divided into five concentric anillos or rings. Day and night marked taxi cabs circle the rings offering shared rides around the city for around 2 Bolivianos, or 20 cents U.S.

Inside the first anillo, circling the city’s a principal plaza, several blocks of high-end clothing stores and jewelry shops sell merchandise at high prices. A men’s Polo shirt runs for about 650 Bolivianos, about $70 U.S. – a week’s pay for most Bolivianos.

But prices don’t matter so much here because, reportedly, the stores are only fronts for laundering drug money, a method I have heard is used in other drug trade centers, such as Salvador, El Salvador, or Panama City.

But this reporter, nor any I have met in Bolivia, is prepared to take on that beast.

When you cross that line

Javier Cosulich, international editor of Agencie Noticies Fides, explained to me the reasons Bolivian journalists are hesitant to develop investigative journalism in this country.

He said that in Bolivia, when you are investigating a politician or government employee for corruption, you never know to whom or to what he is connected.

“There are links between the public employees and narco-traffickers that we don’t know about, ” Cosulich said. “You may get to your car one day and find a bomb. No reporter wants that.”

The standoffish approach to reporting on both private and public enterprise, is one reason why Bolivian journalists have not suffered the fate of those in Mexico and Colombia, where murders of journalists is common.

“Since we aren’t investigating much there aren’t many journalists being threatened,” Cosulich said. “But the inability to investigate things does damage the society.”

Back in El Deber’s newsroom, Bress expressed a similar sentiment but that El Deber’s journalists were some of the first to start walking that thin line. With great caution.

The newspaper often withholds reporters names on bylines for reportages revealing narco-trafficing or corruption that could be linked to narco-trafficking.

“In a subject that we put the integrity of the journalist on the line or subjects of narco-trafficking or investigation of narco-trafficking it is best to preserve the identity,” Bress said.

“There’s always a risk and so we have to limit the information, but it is the work of the journalist to investigate these things.”

Alicia Bress Perogón, reporter at El Deber newspaper in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia | photo by brandon c janes iv

Alicia Bress Perogón, reporter at El Deber newspaper in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia | photo by brandon c janes iv

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