Friday, August 22, 2008

The disappearance of José Rubén Zamora

The car of José Rubén Zamora, the founder of three of Guatemala's most important newspapers - El Periódico, Siglo Veintiuno and Nuestro Diario - was found abandoned early this morning in Guatemala City. I found out the news from a member of Zamora's family as I was trying to set up an interview with him for later today in connection with an article I am writing on the grupos clandestinos, criminal organizations that represent perhaps the greatest threat to Guatemala's fragile state and an end to the culture of impunity that has dominated here for so long.

My arrival in Guatemala City last evening marks my first return to this beautiful and terribly troubled land since the fall of 2003, when I spent several months here reporting on the presidential candidacy of Efraín Ríos Montt, a former military dictator who seemed in danger of winning the highest office in the land through means fair or foul. Ríos Montt, whose government Amnesty International estimated killed over 10,000 indigenous Guatemalans and peasant farmers during a single four-month period in 1982, was eventually defeated by former Guatemala City mayor Óscar Berger, who has since been succeeded by Álvaro Colom.

Despite the change in governments and the increasing marginalization of Ríos Montt’s Frente Republicano Guatemalteco political party, the threat posed by the grupos clandestinos and other parallel powers, many composed of both former and active-duty members of the country’s security services deeply enmeshed in a web of drug and weapons trafficking and human rights abuses committed during Guatemala’s long civil war, continues and in fact appears to have expanded and deepened in the five years since my last visit.

I sat and spoke with Zamora in his office at El Periódico one fall day in 2003, and listened to why he had found it necessary to make his newspaper a forum for detailing the links between government figures and the country's criminal underworld. His decision came at no small risk, as he well knew, as earlier that year, he had been held captive along with his family as a dozen armed individuals brandishing the identification of a government ministry and the national police stormed his home, stripped him, and beat his two teenage sons.

Zamora, who was awarded the 1995 International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the 1994 Maria Moore Cabot Prize, vowed to me that day that “"I will continue on in Guatemala.”

Hours have passed since José Rubén Zamora’s disappearance, without word or ransom demand, and Guatemala’s brave civil society is understandably plunged once again into a fearful and tense time, as has so often been the case here.

My hope is that José Rubén Zamora, one of Guatemala’s greatest lights and a fearless champion of press freedom, will be returned to his family and his desk at El Periódico to continue on with his brave work. Dark forces seek to keep the free press in Guatemala from operating, and to continue with the stranglehold of impunity over the country. It is my solemn hope that they do not succeed.

Update 22 August 2008

The Prensa Latina agency is reporting that José Rubén Zamora was found, unconscious but alive, in the city of Chimaltenango, 50 kilometers west of Guatemala City.


Mira said...

Michael, I am really sorry to hear this news about this brave man whom you knew. It doesn't look good, does it? Either for him, or for Guatemala.

ale said...

Those tense months leading to the elections in 2003 were a grim reminder of the power Ríos Montt and his people still hold. Like we say in Spanish, "aún queda mucha tela qué cortar." You probably already read "The Art of Political Murder" by Francisco Goldman. To seek the truth in Guatemala is often still a death sentence.