Getting Into Trouble, and Out of It

Gustavo Gorriti, Grant Awarded 1992

Gorriti in Vizcatan, Peru © 2008 Oscar Medrano/Caretas

Over the last three decades, Gustavo Gorriti’s relationship with the Committee to Protect Journalists has been pretty simple. He does everything he can to get into trouble. We do everything we can to get him out of it.

As a reporter covering the conflict between the government of Peru and the “Shining Path” rebels, Gorriti carried out investigations into the misdeeds of a cashiered army officer, alleged spy, and narco-lawyer named Vladimiro Montesinos. In 1990, Montesinos was appointed intelligence adviser in the new administration of President Alberto Fujimori.

On April 5, 1992, Fujimori dissolved Congress and started rounding up his political enemies. That night at 3 a.m., after the streets around Gorriti’s home in Lima were cordoned off, heavily armed commandos dressed in civilian clothes climbed over an external wall. A second team banged on the front door and took Gorriti into custody. Gorriti had imagined just such a scenario, and had a plan. His wife, Esther, immediately called the Committee to Protect Journalists, human rights groups, and the international media. Gorriti was released after two days. He credits the quick global response with saving his life.

Gorriti and his family soon relocated to Panama where he took up a position as associate editor of the national daily La Prensa. The newspaper had been founded to confront the dictatorship of Omar Torrijos, so the editors were accustomed to pressure and controversy. La Prensa’s publisher Juan Arias Zubieta promised Gorriti free rein, but perhaps without fully comprehending what this might mean.

Gorriti assembled an investigative team, and promptly pursued the most sensitive stories in Panama. The country was awash in corruption, much of which implicated senior government officials including President Ernesto Pérez Balladares. An agent of the Colombia-based Cali Cartel had even contributed $51,000 to the Pérez Balladares election campaign, Gorriti reported. When Gorriti’s work visa came up for renewal, Panamanian authorities balked.

Gorriti refused to leave the country. He holed up in La Prensa’s newsroom, sleeping on a cot and daring the authorities to launch a raid. From CPJ’s office in New York, I helped organize an international campaign that included statements from luminaries and op-eds in major newspapers. The government backed down.

Gorriti also accused the country’s attorney general, José Antonio Sossa of his own entanglements with criminal organizations. Sossa launched a series of legal actions seeking to prosecute Gorriti under Panama’s notorious “gag law.” In September 1999 a CPJ delegation traveled to Panama to meet with President Mireya Moscoso and express its concern. The gag law was repealed three months later.

In 2000, Gorriti returned to Peru, not as a journalist but as an adviser to the presidential campaign of Alejandro Toledo. I was not thrilled with this arrangement because I felt it could compromise Gorriti’s standing as an independent journalist. But he was hardly the first journalist to make a foray into politics. Gorriti argued that the best thing he could do for Peru was to ensure the political defeat of Alberto Fujimori.

In fact, once Toledo prevailed, Gorriti went back to being a journalist, and a highly critical one. Meanwhile, Fujimori is in prison, convicted and sentenced in 2009 for a series of grave human rights abuses, among them the raid on Gorriti’s home. Montesinos is also in prison, having been convicted of some charges with many others still pending.

In 2003, I asked Gorriti to undertake a clandestine trip to Cuba on behalf of CPJ to meet with the families of dissident journalists who had been arrested in a sweeping crackdown. His detailed report formed for the basis for a decade-long advocacy campaign that eventually won their release.

Since then, Gorriti has gotten in some additional journalistic scrapes and tussles. But Peru is a different country today, and trouble is harder to find. That means we’re in less regular touch, and in fact the last time I saw Gorriti was in August during a vacation to Peru, when our families gathered in the upscale Lima neighborhood of Miraflores to eat crêpes.

I’ve known many investigative journalists who are driven by anger or righteous indignation. Frankly, they can get tiresome. Gorriti stands out because he is driven by joy. I have powerful memories of the almost child-like glee Gorriti exudes when he is on a journalistic crusade. If Gorriti has taken tremendous pleasure in afflicting the powerful, I’ve taken nearly as much pleasure in helping him do it.

Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Email to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterGoogle+