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Guatemalan journalist wins Nieman prize

GUATEMALA CITY – In Guatemala, where sticking your neck on the line for a story can mean losing it, how did investigative journalist Claudia Méndez get herself noticed by Harvard University, but not killed on her own doorstep?

This week, Méndez, 34, who hosts an influential current-affairs chat show, will swap her life in Guatemala for a year in the U.S. For more than a decade, she has been a crime reporter at Guatemala’s first independent daily, El Periódico, exposing the kinds of twisted stories that Hollywood’s finest would struggle to dream up. But she’ll soon be sitting in a Harvard library, thanks to a coveted fellowship.

The Nieman Foundation at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., is a big deal for journalism, and has only been awarded to two other Guatemalans in its 73-year history. Why didn’t the rational fear of working as a journalist in one of the world’s most violent countries get between her and the headlines that got her this award?  The answer is that an extraordinary combination of faith, charm and optimism seem to have made her untouchable.

Méndez was just 23 when she found herself sitting in cramped prison cells interviewing army officers accused of brutally murdering a prominent bishop.

Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi had just published a report that blamed the army for 93 percent of the 200,000 deaths and disappearances during the country’s long civil conflict. Rattled by Gerardi’s revelations, army officials murdered the bishop and framed a host of unlikely suspects. The bizarre case, documented in Francisco Goldman’s “The Art of Political Murder,” was to plague Guatemala’s weak justice system for years. But early on, Claudia interviewed a key suspect, Col. Byron Lima Estrada. He told her that he would take fellow officers down with him if they didn’t share the blame, betraying the military’s code of honor.

It was an extraordinary message for Claudia to pass on, and Goldman believes that interview later provided a “roadmap” for the prosecutors, without which they would never have reached the conviction of the military officers.

So how did Méndez, fresh out of journalism school and with more experience as a hotel receptionist than in covering a beat, pull it off? “I was the only one who asked for the interview,” she said. But Goldman said that despite being a formidable journalist, Méndez is a “sweet, nice and winning person,” and that helped her get the tough guys to open up.

Méndez says her personality is not part of any strategy, although she admitted that men tend to warm up to her faster than women. Still, she said, “I don’t go around thinking that because I’m a woman this will happen or they’ll tell me this.”

 Intentional or not, Méndez has charmed her way to the center of some of Guatemala’s cruelest scandals, when others have chosen to stay on the surface. In 2006, The New York Times praised the way the army took control of the turbulent Pavón prison outside of Guatemala City. Méndez dug deeper.

“The official line was that some prisoners started a fight, so they had to be killed,” she said. But with 3,000 army and police troops and government officials pitted against the seven prisoners who turned up dead, “the facts just didn’t add up.” Méndez found autopsy reports revealing that the prisoners had been tortured and likely executed. To her, it was obvious that the government had staged a violent attack on targeted inmates to regain power of a prison they’d allowed to spiral out of control. “That was a truth that needed to come out,” she said. Méndez was the only journalist to sift through the events at Pavón, and despite her numerous reports, The New York Times never retracted its version of events.

Did Méndez realize she was walking into the lion’s den with her questions? Her editor certainly did – he started accompanying her to interviews and warned her not to put her name on the stories. Méndez said she was frightened by her editor’s reaction and realized that everyone involved already knew who she was. She hadn’t anticipated the magnitude of the case when she began, but “you start pulling at threads and everything unravels.” She said she would have covered the story even if she had understood the risks.

This startlingly calm determination and apparent fearlessness come from her Evangelical Christian faith, she said. But despite faith and the optimism it lends her, the time Méndez has spent in Guatemala’s court rooms has shown her what a struggle seeking justice can be. In court, she said, “you stare impunity in the face.”

So she was astonished when earlier this month four former soldiers were convicted of killing more than 200 people in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre (TT, Aug. 2). Until that case, not one member of the army had been held accountable for the crimes committed during the war. Now, the four men each face more than 6,000 years in prison. It is a fitting punishment despite Guatemala’s 98 percent impunity rate for homicides.

Méndez began covering the case when it was put forward in 1998, following glumly as more than 40 injunctions delayed it for over a decade. Like many, she never believed the case would make it before a judge. On hearing the verdict she was awed that her country had made it happen: “I was just incredulous to see this going through our courts.”

The case has filled many Guatemalans with hope that the country may be getting back on track. But in less than a month, the next elected president likely will be career military man Otto Pérez Molina. Accused of war crimes by the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, Pérez Molina and his campaign promise of “mano dura” (iron fist) against crime have observers worried.

Last week, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court rejected a presidential bid by Sandra Torres, the country’s left-leaning former first lady, leaving the ruling party without a candidate (TT, Aug. 10). Torres divorced President Álvaro Colom in April in order to sidestep a constitutional prohibition for a president to run for re-election or be succeeded by a member of his own family.

Méndez warned that the outcome of Guatemala’s Sept. 11 elections could send her country into regression. “We need to look at this. In the voting booths people [will] choose an army general. The last ruling general was in the 1980s, and now we’re back to that, but this time through democracy,” she said. She’ll be watching the outcome from a Harvard library.

CORRECTION: In the original article, the Nieman award was written as Neiman’s Prize.

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