Invisible, persecuted and in exile: How journalists are resisting in Central America

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Undercover, persecuted or in exile: How journalists are resisting in Central America

Three journalists from Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala provide a first-person account of what it’s like to continue reporting on reality despite the authoritarian onslaught in the region and the criminalization of their work

El País

To continue reporting on the ground in Nicaragua, an anonymous journalist has had to erase himself from the map: nobody can know what he does for a living, the stories he files have no byline, and he lives on permanent alert, fearing that a source will betray him or that the government will identify and go after him, just like it has done with around 200 reporters who have ended up in jail or gone into exile in recent years.

In El Salvador, a female journalist has been diagnosed with ailments related to “living under constant persecution.” Because of her work she has been spied on, robbed, and made to feel threatened. And in Guatemala, an editor and radio host ended up in exile after legal cases were mounted against him in a country that has launched a campaign against critical voices, including prosecutors and judges fighting against corruption.

These three journalists all have something in common: faced with a reality that closes in on them, they continue to resist. Across Central America – which is experiencing a rise in authoritarian regimes that criminalize freedom of the press – reporters have become the enemies of power.

Three journalists told us what it’s like to work in the Nicaragua of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, in El Salvador under Nayib Bukele, and to report from exile about Guatemala, where the state powers appear to have a unwritten agreement to crack down on anti-corruption fighters and critical voices. In this challenging environment, the internet and social media have become allies in these reporters’ fight against censorship. (The testimony provided by the Nicaraguan journalist is anonymous for security reasons.)

Nicaragua: Writing while ready with a packed suitcase to flee Ortega’s regime

Anonymous testimonial: “Officially I don’t even exist”
Periodistas abandonan su país debido a las amanezas
Idalia Candelas

Under the table where I usually write, I have my suitcase packed. I keep it there, touching my feet, in case I ever receive a call one day (I hope to receive it in time) alerting me to the fact that the Nicaraguan police want to arrest me, as has been the case with at least 10 journalists and media executives who have been imprisoned since protests against the regime broke out in April 2018, or that one of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo’s operators is out looking for me. Most of my colleagues who have been convicted were accused of “spreading false news” or “betraying the homeland” – two pieces of legislation passed in 2020 to criminalize critical voices.

In my suitcase there are some spare clothes, personal hygiene products, a computer and my most important documents: passport, vaccination card, and a document from the hospital that proves that I’m a chronically-ill patient who suffers from hypertension and heart disease. If I’m ever captured, at least I will have proof that I need my daily pills, since several political prisoners have denounced that they don’t receive the medicines they require in prison. I think – or I want to believe – that having my suitcase ready can save me a few minutes, that it will help me if I have to hide in a safehouse for a few days, or if I definitely have to flee Nicaragua, crossing the border through blind spots so as not to be jailed, as did 185 Nicaraguan journalists who have gone into exile since 2018. Just last week, a source confirmed to me that a new group of 11 journalists was in the process of fleeing the country.

I’m not a criminal or a fugitive from justice. I’m one of the few journalists left in Nicaragua, trying to tell the story about what is happening here from within, on the ground. But I’m also aware that, at some point, I could be accused by the institutions whose job it is to impart justice in this country, but which are, in reality, controlled like puppets by the presidential couple. There’s even the possibility that they will strip me of my citizenship, as they did with some 20 journalists in February of this year. As a Nicaraguan journalist, this is my reality.

Since I first started working in the media about 10 years ago, my career in journalism hasn’t been easy. Back then, we had problems regarding freedom of expression and information that were similar to what was being experienced by colleagues in the region. But as a result of the 2018 protests – when the regime perpetrated a massacre against the citizens who took to the streets to demand the resignation of Ortega and Murillo – the journalists who covered and documented these crimes suddenly became adversaries, targets to be attacked.

Harassment against journalists has intensified over the last year. In July 2022, police officers raided the homes of journalists from the newspaper La Prensa. The reason: they had reported on a group of nuns being expelled from the country. It was simple coverage of one of the many attacks against the Catholic Church, another one of the regime’s targets. According to the official narrative, the massive demonstrations of 2018 were “an attempted coup” concocted by the bishops, the United States, entrepreneurs, a few NGOs and dissident Sandinistas. According to official propaganda, within this supposed scheme, independent journalists are dedicated to spreading fake news to manipulate public opinion. This has reached such a point that the statements of politicians or citizens in independent media or international news outlets have been collected as evidence, to be used in trials against dozens of political prisoners.

Last July, when police officers searched for La Prensa reporters, they also went to the homes of journalists from other media outlets. This was the first time I packed my suitcase and went to live in other people’s homes for two months. I didn’t see my family and I refused invitations from friends. I couldn’t go anywhere. For Nicaraguan journalists, this was a watershed moment: now, we’re aware that even going out reporting can land us in jail.

I returned home when I felt like I could. This fragile feeling of security is an act of faith, like others that I cling to in order to continue reporting and living under these conditions. What frustrates me the most is not being able to do street reporting: going places, talking to people, interviewing public officials. In other words, doing my job without fear, and with sources also not afraid to express themselves. With justifiable reasons, fear has gripped everyone in Nicaragua, where a mere statement or mention in the media can land you in jail.

In recent months, I’ve been scared to consult sources who I don’t know well. I’m afraid that one of them may be a sympathizer of the Sandinista Front – the ruling party – and denounce me for being a journalist. I’ve continued reporting, but less and less and with much more planning. I take special precautions that I cannot detail here, because it would put the few remaining journalists in Nicaragua at risk. But I know that no security protocol is foolproof. On more than one occasion, due to the adrenaline of stepping out on the street, I’ve found myself in conversation with the wife of a police officer, with a retired soldier, or with a member of the Sandinista party. Luckily, the interactions haven’t gone any further – no one has ratted me out or denounced me for being a journalist. I don’t want to resign myself to doing journalism locked in a room, but I have to accept that it’s increasingly dangerous to go out. With each passing day, it gets more complicated to do my job.

I don’t know how many journalists are left in the country. Several of us who still remain have chosen to tell other colleagues – who we don’t really trust – that we’ve stopped working in this profession. We’re all alert and suspicious. A week ago, in a raid, some colleagues were captured. At that time I moved to a safe house, in case the authorities came looking for me too. But they never showed up, and that’s why I’m still in the country.

I think the most effective security protocol is to “disappear.” I’m referring to a measure that all Nicaraguan journalists have taken: no longer putting our names in the byline of our articles. We’ve stopped publishing our photographs and personal information on social media; we don’t share news that is critical of the regime, and we try not to attend – even virtually – any event that has been organized by journalism associations.

Initially, it was difficult to accept that I cannot travel to any journalism festival, nor to a workshop outside the country – even less so to receive any prize, because officially, I don’t even exist. I try hard to go unnoticed. Many critics of the regime are in a kind of national jail, due to the tight controls in place at the borders and the airport. Journalists are prohibited from leaving – our passports are taken away if we are identified by our profession. It’s the price we have to pay to still be with our families and meet up with friends every once in a while for a few beers.

Another security measure I have taken is that I never work in any office, after several media facilities were seized by the regime. I write in a room that has a window, through which I can see the roofs of neighboring houses. Through the window, in the afternoon, the sun shines directly onto the desk where I work, under which I keep my suitcase. These days, my city is experiencing a heat wave of more than 41ºC (100ºF), which prevents me from working in the afternoons. Despite the discomfort, my biggest concern is that I won’t get a warning call in time – I’m afraid that it will be too late by the time I realize that the regime’s operatives are about to raid my house. Being captured has been one of my most recurring nightmares in the early hours of the last few months, when I wake up with a start.

My family has internalized this fear so much that they suggested an emergency escape, which consists of climbing a ladder to get out a window and reach the neighbors’ roof. In one of those houses, the dwellers know that I could enter at any time, through a hole. It is a getaway just like the ones that Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord, used to make in the 1980s. I find it funny, and don’t see myself running away in the style of a narco movie.

But, as time goes by, I have the feeling that I am committing a crime by doing journalism. Because in Nicaragua, journalists are persecuted more vigorously than drug traffickers.

El Salvador: Reporting (and living) under constant persecution

By Julia Gavarrete (El Faro): “The wear-and-tear keeps intensifying and it’s one of the ways to keep us quiet”
Periodismo en Centroamérica
Idalia Candelas

I dreamed that they raped me. On that early morning in August 2020, I remember waking up, crying, feeling a deep oppression in my chest. I also remember the silhouettes, the struggles on my bed and the screams. Everything was very confusing; I felt unable to differentiate reality from the dream. That morning was the first time I wrote about this. In the middle of a panic attack, I took an old notebook and wrote everything down. I did it because I was trying to convince myself that none of this had happened.

On July 2, 2020, a few weeks before that dream, they broke into my house while I was at a press conference that the Ministry of Health gave at the National Palace. We were in full lockdown, due to the Covid-19 restrictions. When I came back home just a couple of hours later, I found my room in a mess. They had broken in, but the only thing of value they took was my laptop. I filed a report with the Prosecutor’s Office, asking the authorities to investigate, but no progress was ever made. The robbery triggered a series of recurring dreams. I felt that I had to protect my space even more, protect myself, but also all the people I love. Over and over again, I have dreamed that they’re breaking into my house. And, at the very moment when I’m trying to find out who the intruder is, I wake up.

I’ve never believed that the robbery was a coincidence. Years later, in January 2022, we published a piece in El Faro that revealed that our investigative outlet had been the target of espionage by Pegasus – the Israeli software that is only sold to governments. After Citizen Lab [at the University of Toronto] and [the not-for-profit] Access Now analyzed the devices being used by me and my colleagues, they determined that 22 members of our newspaper had been surveilled by the spyware. We learned the exact dates on which those cyberattacks occurred. At that moment, I reaffirmed what I have always believed: nothing is circumstantial. The day my computer was stolen, my colleague Carlos Martínez was slandered by a webpage that is part of the media machine controlled by the ruling party, from which the government of Nayib Bukele churns out propaganda, launches attacks against independent journalism and defames reporters with impunity. The same day of the robbery, the Ministry of Finance also began an audit against El Faro – a process that the president has used to accuse the newspaper of money-laundering. Due to this institutional harassment, El Faro moved its administrative and legal structure to Costa Rica, due to the inadequate conditions in El Salvador. In an editorial, the outlet noted: “We are leaving so we can stay.” It is a decision that seeks to protect the kind of journalism we do.

There are many other media outlets that are resisting these attacks and threats; journalists who are documenting evidence of abuse of power, even when the authorities can intimidate us with a single tweet, by withholding our identification documents, or by using the rule of law as a weapon. Despite all of this, we continue to do our work.

Independent journalism in El Salvador faces a clear declaration of war. President Bukele, his government officials, his henchmen are intensifying their attacks and threats whenever journalism does its job, which is that of monitoring the decisions of those who govern us. The records kept by the Association of Journalists of El Salvador speak for themselves: there are consistently more and more attacks against journalists.

The government firmly defends that, in El Salvador, there is freedom of the press “because there are no dead journalists.” So, why doesn’t the government investigate who surveilled us with Pegasus spyware? This software was also found on the phones of journalists from other parts of the world around the time they were killed. The negligence of the government has led some members of El Faro to sue NSO Group in a US court. We simply want to know who is behind the espionage.

We know that, in El Salvador, we will never find answers, as the only ones issuing from the government come with reforms that legalize espionage and seek to expedite the tapping of communications. But there are many others being added to the existing legal framework in order to censor us, persecute us, accuse us and arrest us. The Legislative Assembly – controlled by Bukele’s party – recently approved a gag law that allows journalists and media executives to be jailed for up to 15 years if they broadcast messages from gangs that generate “anxiety” in the general public. While the government insists that no journalist has been imprisoned, it has the means to do so whenever it wants.

They say that, in El Salvador, freedom of the press is respected. However, the public spaces gained since the signing of the peace accords [which brought the Salvadoran Civil War to an end in 1992] are being censored. It’s useless to measure freedom of expression and of the press based on whether or not journalists have been murdered. We can clearly see how the government silences the voice of the citizenry, as people are frightened of being attacked on social media, or going to jail in a country where there is no more independence of powers and where a “state of exception” is applied against anyone considered to be a criminal, with no guarantees of a legal defense.

There will always be those who, despite everything, speak up and denounce abuse. This allows us to continue resisting the intimidating attacks and espionage to which we are subjected. I know that this has high costs: it damages physical and mental health, resulting in hours spent on medical visits and psychotherapy. Among colleagues, we share this feeling: that the wear-and-tear keeps intensifying and that it’s one of the ways to keep us quiet.

A few days ago, I visited my doctor. I did some tests to identify some health problems that I’ve been having. Everything seems to be fine, but my body says otherwise. For some reason, not even the lysine clonixinate, cyclobenzaprine, or tizanidine that I have been prescribed for over a year have had any effect.

“There is a direct effect to living under constant persecution,” the doctor informs me, explaining why he believes my brain is on high alert at all times.

Guatemala: From exile, telling the story of a country that criminalizes judges and journalists

Juan Luis Font, ConCriterio: “Every day, I host my radio show with the determination not to give in to those who would like to silence me”
Prensa centroamérica
Idalia Candelas

I went into exile on April 1, 2022. At the time, I refused to accept that it was a trip of no return. From France – my first stop – I felt the urgency to return to Guatemala to be near my mother, whose terminal cancer was advancing relentlessly. I’m 56 years old, and I’ve dedicated 33 of those years to journalism, as a reporter and media director.

In February 2021, the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity – under the management of Rafael Curruchiche, a prosecutor considered to be a corrupt and undemocratic actor by the U.S. government – began an onslaught against former prosecutors and judges who had prosecuted corruption cases in Guatemala. In October, thanks to a tip, I learned that an accusation was being prepared against me. Prosecutor Curruchiche had gone to a jail to take a statement from an imprisoned former minister of public works accused of different cases of corruption. The former minister claimed to have bribed me to obtain complacent coverage. He hasn’t offered a single piece of evidence to support his false accusation. In fact, my colleagues and I frequently published reports that revealed gross corruption in the Ministry of Public Works, from overvaluation of contracts, to supposedly dredged rivers that still overflowed despite the expensive work. Several of these journalistic investigations were the starting point for trials and convictions in Guatemala.

Faced with the accusation, I offered a full disclosure of my net worth and earnings, which included bank statements and credit card reports. The Prosecutor’s Office initially filed my case, but this was later revoked. Public prosecutors named me in at least four other cases as a suspect, but filed no charges against me. My situation is not unique. Michelle Mendoza, Sonny Figueroa, Marvin del Cid, Carlos Choc – all independent journalists – have also suffered similar persecution.

The Guatemalan justice system – which is currently co-opted – has also trapped José Rubén Zamora in an endless legal process. The founder of elPeriódico – a newspaper that I directed for 17 years – Zamora has not had access to a fair trial. He has had to change lawyers a dozen times. Four of his defense attorneys and three of the witnesses his defense team has called have been brought to trial.

The last time I spoke to Zamora was in May 2022, when he was still free. He urged me not to return to Guatemala. Ignoring him, I entered the country clandestinely. I hid in my own house for three months; I would go out at night to my parents’ apartment. I was broadcasting my radio show via Zoom while pretending I was abroad, using a VPN to hide the source of my transmission. On July 27, 2022, when Zamora was detained, I left the country again. My mother died two weeks after I left.

Since then, I have lived between the United States and Mexico, without requesting asylum or refuge. I refuse to think of a long period without returning to Guatemala. I do my radio show every day, determined not to give in to those who would prefer to silence my voice. Ours is a discussion program on the Guatemalan political reality. It’s raw and confrontational, because one of my colleagues is aligned with the groups that have all the power in the country. My two fellow broadcasters – like me – have not been paid since January. The patronage of Guatemala’s large capital groups shifted away as the fight against impunity and corruption progressed. State advertising only reaches those who are subservient to the government. In the meantime, I’ve agreed to work in an advisory capacity to cover my expenses. I also hope to get a study grant that will give me some stability. I’m working on creating a media outlet aimed at Central Americans living in the United States.

In my country today, there are two principal threats to journalism and independent justice. The first is retaliation for the actions carried out by the United Nations Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) between 2006 and 2019, which had the support of the Prosecutor’s Office at that time. The findings of the CICIG eventually led to the imprisonment of a president and a vice president, while resulting in accusations against some of the richest people in the country. It also coincided with an unprecedented judiciary-led collection of unpaid taxes. There were entrepreneurs who – after years of evading taxes – had to pay up to $100 million to the Treasury overnight.

In Guatemala, wealth is concentrated in the hands of very few people. One in two children suffers from chronic malnutrition, while the country lacks a public health or education system that can offer hope to the poorest. In a country of 18 million people, four million Guatemalans like myself have fled to the United States.

The political power – furious with the anti-corruption actions – ultimately expelled the CICIG, took control of the courts and other legal institutions and reinstated the attorney general who had been covering up the corruption. The latter has since removed the prosecutors who investigated mismanagement, preventing them from delving into serious accusations, such as the allegation that the incumbent Guatemalan president financed part of his election campaign with public funds. That same power is currently manipulating the electoral process to install a new representative of its alliance in the presidency later this year.

After the fallout from the CICIG’s findings, the second major threat in Guatemala is a concerted effort to stall the cases involving senior military officials – some of whom are linked to major capital groups – for serious human rights violations that were committed during the Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996).

The independent press – like the former prosecutors and judges who have been forced to leave the country under the threat of imprisonment – is being persecuted for bolstering these two processes, which are searching for justice and democracy and are detested by those who benefit from the old system. As for me, it’s hard to see myself doing anything other than journalism. I would be ashamed to keep quiet about what I understand and what I see, just as I am ashamed and hurt by the anger that my children feel towards our own country.


Project coordination and editing: Lorena Arroyo
Audiovisual coordination: Héctor Guerrero
Illustrations: Idalia Candelas
Design and programming: Alfredo García

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