The Policy of El Palo

By Waisbord, Silvio | Hemisphere, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Policy of El Palo

Waisbord, Silvio, Hemisphere

On January 25, 1997, the charred body of news photographer Jose Luis Cabezas was found inside a burnt car in Pinamar, a fashionable Argentine resort town. The murder sent a chill down the spine of Argentines, for it resembled the infamous methods of the death squads that roamed the country when the juntas ruled and rekindled memories of the "dirty war" waged by the last military dictatorship. Cabezas had been kidnapped, handcuffed, tortured, shot point-blank and set afire inside the vehicle. The corpse was unrecognizable; investigators used Cabezas's car keys, watch and dental records to identify it.

The event became a symbol of violence against the press and a rallying cry for journalists in Latin America. Demonstrations were organized to petition the government to investigate and prosecute the individuals responsible for the murder. Cabezas's picture and the slogan "Don't Forget Cabezas" became ubiquitous on billboards and signs in public buildings and newsrooms. Although almost 900 physical or verbal attacks against journalists were recorded in Argentina between 1989 and 1997, this case crossed the line of the limits of expected violence. The savagery of Cabezas's executioners not only was a reminder of the worst years of state-sponsored violence, but also jettisoned the conviction that the killing of journalists ended with the collapse of the authoritarian regime in Argentina, under whose rule nearly 100 journalists were reported murdered or disappeared.

The Cabezas murder is one of the latest examples of the persistence of anti-press violence in Latin America. The shift from authoritarianism to democracy has neither put an end to violence against journalists nor brought justice for its victims. Out of 27 reporters killed worldwide in 1997, 10 were in Latin America, including four in Colombia, three in Mexico, and one each in Argentina, Brazil and Guatemala. During the last decade, scores of journalists have been intimidated and assaulted, and 122 have been murdered or "disappeared." Domestic and international organizations have mobilized to petition full investigations, and the Organization of American States (OAS) created the office of the press rapporteur to report abuses. Yet, the perpetrators of anti-press violence have rarely been prosecuted. As in the Cabezas case, judicial investigations lag and become trapped in a web of political interests.

What drives anti-press violence in Latin America, and what does it say about the current state of freedom of expression in the region? Is the problem related to the difficulty of guaranteeing respect for human rights? Of is it a manifestation of larger dynamics of political violence that underlie the region's political history?


Anti-press violence is, arguably, merely another manifestation of the widespread violence that has long plagued Latin America. In a region dominated by violent politics, it would be surprising if the press were not a target of attacks. It is no coincidence, then, that there have been more lethal attacks against journalists in countries where historical levels of violence continue unabated. According to the records of international and domestic organizations, the situation in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru is significantly worse than anywhere else in the region. A death toll of 133 journalists between 1978 and 1997 has made Colombia in particular one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world, although the situation has improved somewhat in the 1990s: 18 journalists were killed in 1986 during the heyday of the Medellin cartel-related violence, compared to five in 1997. Also in the 1990s, 15 murders of journalists have been documented in Mexico and 20 in Peru.

In these countries, anti-press violence does not seem to be isolated from broader political conditions. Violence has characterized Colombian politics for much of the country's modern history.

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