Impunity for the murder of journalists is hardly a new phenomenon in Latin America, but the ambush-style killings of four Paraguayan journalists in a year and a half has stirred domestic and international outrage and plunged an already beleaguered government into crisis.
The most recent killing was that of Pablo Medina, 53, an investigative reporter for the country’s leading daily, ABC Color, who was gunned down on the afternoon of Oct. 16 while returning from an assignment in Canindeyu department near the Brazilian border, a hotbed of marijuana cultivation and drug smuggling. He was shot four times in the chest and face with a 9-mm pistol and once with a shotgun by two men on motorcycle wearing camouflage fatigues.
One of his passengers, Antonia Almada, 19, also was hit and died en route to a hospital. Her younger sister, Juana, escaped unhurt.
Suspicion focused immediately on the mayor of the town of Ypehu, Vilmar “Neneco” Acosta, scion of a politically connected family suspected of large-scale marijuana cultivation and trafficking, as the intellectual author of the ambush. Juana Almada identified one of the gunmen as Acosta’s brother, Wilson. The two brothers are subjects of an Interpol warrant and are believed hiding in Brazil, where Vilmar Acosta has dual nationality and, reportedly, political friends.
Medina, who had worked for ABC since 1998, had received numerous death threats for his reporting on drug trafficking in Curuguaty department and had been under police protection for a time. His brother Salvador, a radio journalist, was murdered there in 2001, apparently by drug traffickers. His murder remains unsolved.
President Horacio Cartes, elected in 2013, decried the murders of Medina and Almada and told journalists, “I feel like we’ve all been killed.”
His government came under intense domestic and international pressure to bring the killers to justice. The Paraguayan Journalists Union, Catholic Church, Inter American Press Association, Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and the director of UNESCO all demanded action.
A major break in the case came with the arrest on Dec. 8 of Arnaldo Cabrera, Vilmar Acosta’s driver. Reportedly embittered that he had been abandoned in a remote area without money or weapons and fearing for his own life, Cabrera confirmed that Wilson Acosta was one of the gunmen and that the other was the two brothers’ nephew, Flavio Acosta.
Cabrera said Vilmar Acosta planned Medina’s death in July, at his birthday party, surrounded by family. He claimed Acosta wanted revenge because Medina’s reporting had led to Vilmar Acosta and his father, Vidal, being convicted and imprisoned in 2011. Medina had reported that human remains were buried on the Acostas’ ranch. Investigators unearthed three skeletons.
Ironically, when Medina was gunned down, he was working on a story about pesticide contamination in local soybean plantations, not marijuana trafficking.
“It was a tragic event that has affected us very much,” said ABC reporter Natalia Daporta in an email. The paper carries daily updates on developments—or lack of them—in the investigation.
Public protests, a rarity in Paraguay until the recent advent of social media, erupted after Medina’s death, prompting the Congress in November to launch a 45-day investigation, which has been shrouded in secrecy. The lower house also impeached two Supreme Court justices on suspicion of having been overly lenient toward drug traffickers, and forced the resignation of a third. The justices had been instrumental in overturning a ban on Vilmar Acosta’s running for mayor because of his dual citizenship, and they released him from prison two days before he was elected mayor!
Medina had dubbed Congresswoman Cristina Villalba the drug dealers’ “godmother” and alleged she was Vilmar Acosta’s protector. Villalba admitted Acosta had telephoned her after Medina’s death to proclaim his innocence. She volunteered to acquiesce her legislative immunity to be investigated if requested by a judge; no judge has yet requested it.
Paraguayans, and international journalism organizations, are now watching to see how seriously the government seeks to extradite the Acostas from Brazil, whether the investigation will uncover their collusion with governmental officials and, if so, whether anything will be done.
“CPJ is encouraged by the initial progress made by Paraguayan authorities in the murder of Pablo Medina and Antonia Almada,” commented Carlos Lauria, Americas program coordinator for CPJ. “But authorities must now ensure that all those involved in the crime, including the mastermind, are brought to justice.”
Brazilian Attorney General Rodrigo Janot pledged on Dec. 16 to make every effort to capture the suspects.
Paraguay, a landlocked country of 6.7 million people with an area the size of California, has a long history of dictatorship and corruption. The country was ruled by the autocratic Gen. Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 until he was overthrown in 1989. Its nascent democracy has been unstable, and two presidents have been impeached and removed. Transparency International ranks Paraguay the third most corrupt country in Latin America after Haiti and Venezuela. It has long been notorious for smuggling operations, first of stolen automobiles and contraband cigarettes, and in recent years of guns and drugs.
ABC Color, founded in 1967 by businessman Aldo Zucolillo, is the dean of the country’s press. It was closed during the last five year’s of Stroessner’s regime for its overly aggressive reporting of public wrongdoing. It sells about 29,000 copies daily through street-corner kiosks.
There are now only two other dailies: Ultima Hora, which was closed for its aggressive reporting and biting editorials and cartoons for 30 days in 1979, and the younger, business-oriented La Nación. All are published in the capital, Asunción.
There are a handful of privately owned television stations with news operations, which are more reactive than proactive. The country’s most influential medium remains radio.
Thus, it is no surprise that the other three journalists slain since 2013 were all radio journalists.
Marcelino Vásquez, director of the radio station Sin Fronteras (Without Borders) in Pedro Juan Caballero on the Brazilian border, was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle on Feb. 6, 2013.
Fausto Gabriel Alcaraz, a reporter for Radio Amambay in Pedro Juan Caballero, was shot 11 times, also by two men on a motorcycle, on May 16, 2014.
Three weeks later, on June 9, Edgar Fernández Fleitas, an attorney who hosted a radio program called Ciudad de la Furia (City of Fury) for Radio Belén in the southern city of Concepción, was shot to death at his office. A suspect was arrested later that month, but the motive was unclear.
For decades, the so-called Tri-Border area where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet has long been a lawless zone frequented by smugglers, Nazi fugitives and Islamic terrorists. Its subtropical climate, fecund soil and porous borders have made Paraguay Latin America’s second-largest marijuana producer after Mexico.
Robert Buckman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of communication and SPJ chapter adviser at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Buckman worked at the U.S. Embassy in Paraguay from 1977-79, when Stroessner was cracking down on the press’ attempts to report on corruption. He visited the offices of ABC Color during a trip to Paraguay in 2013.