When Horacio Cartes assumed the Paraguayan presidency in 2013, many hoped that his term would signal a change in the nation’s politics.
Fernando Lugo had been ousted from the top position the previous year in what was widely considered a congressional coup and the nation received international condemnation for subverting democracy. Just over twenty years after the region’s longest dictatorship returned to democracy, another coup had threatened the small land-locked country. A political newcomer who made his fortune in tobacco, Cartes ran on a platform of change and promised to root out corruption and increase investment in the nation’s failing infrastructure.
Now, more than a year into his term in office, substantial fault lines in this platform have emerged. Cartes is suspected of money laundering and involvement in the nation’s drug trafficking trade, but equally troubling is the recent rise in the murders of journalists, largely carried out with impunity.
Paraguay’s constitution provides for freedom of expression and the press; however, recent events have shown the dangerous reality underpinning this rhetorical guarantee. In response to the killings of two journalists last year in cases that allegedly involved the participation of organized crime, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a report in April 2014 calling on Paraguay to prevent and investigate when groups violate journalists’ freedom of expression — and to punish the perpetrators.
It appears, though, that Paraguay has not followed through on these recommendations, as three more journalists have been murdered since the report was made public.
In May, radio journalist Fausto Gabriel Alcaraz was gunned down near the Brazilian border. He worked at Radio Amambay, and through his reporting, he denounced drug trafficking rings that were rampant in the region, at times openly accusing people by name. He was shot seventeen times, and his murder was widely seen as a warning by organized criminal structures to convince other journalists not to talk about the drug trade.
In June, this message was reinforced when journalist Edgar Pantaleón Fernández Pleitas was killed in Concepción. Assailants entered his his home and shot him. Like Alcaraz, Fernández Fleitas openly criticized local judicial offices for corruption and their links to drug trafficking. And again, investigations appeared to lead nowhere and failed to result in punishment.
Then, just this month, a third journalist, Pablo Medina, and his assistant were killed in an ambush in northern Paraguay after criticizing the production of marijuana.
This last event has set off a firestorm within the country. Journalists protested against government impunity in the face of these cases, and asked for more comprehensive investigations into Cartes’ political party, the Colorado Party, and the drug trafficking trade. While Interior Minister Francisco de Vargas vows to provide police protection for some journalists, many reporters are not confident that this will stop the crimes.
Furthermore, the increase in murders jeopardizes the willingness of reporters to continue to reporting on crime in the face of such violence. On the one hand, this most recent murder has spurred protests for deeper investigation into the political links between the Colorados and organized crime, while on the other, journalists fear a wave of self-censorship.
All three cases exemplify the danger in reporting on these issues in Paraguay and the continued risks journalists face by doing their work. The 2014 World Press Freedom Index ranks Paraguay at 105 out of 180 nations, largely due to the impunity that still surrounds many of these murders. Amnesty International Paraguay also launched a campaign “reporting should not cost their lives,” and condemned the state for failing to investigate and punish the three crimes.
While Cartes has made positive steps forward in advancing a freedom of information act and a law to return land to the indigenous community, freedom of the press appears to be very much in jeopardy, as does any true progress in his administration’s handling of drug trafficking and organized crime.