Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Impunity's Rare Defeat

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Impunity's Rare Defeat

Article excerpt

A surprise arrest in Peru for the 1989 slaying of Todd Smith underscores how rarely killers of journalists face justice

The probable war with Iraq has a number of newspapers training correspondents to work safely in that hostile area. Its dangers are undeniably fearsome, with such exotic possibilities as nerve gas and biological agents adding to the usual hazards of warfare.

Yet, U.S. reporters are more likely to face violence as they work alone or in improvised groups covering nations in Latin America, where a passel of drug traffickers, guerrillas, death squads, and even uniformed government officers have all declared local and foreign journalists as legitimate military targets.

And in contrast to an Iraqi war zone likely to play as a continuing reality TV show, when journalists are killed in Latin America, their deaths often remain obscure -- and their killers more often enjoy impunity, with little investigation, let alone prosecution.

A rare exception played out in Peru last month when anti-terrorism police arrested Pedro Roberto Villacorta for the 1989 torture and murder by strangulation of Todd Smith, a reporter for The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune. A Tribune story by staff writer Jim Sloan reported Peruvian and U.S. authorities believe Villacorta was the one who actually killed Smith when the reporter was abducted by seven Shining Path guerrillas as he waited to fly out of the jungle of the Huallaga Valley.

Smith was a 28-year-old who was covering a local government beat for the Tribune when he arrived in Peru Nov. …

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