|English | Español||March 24, 2017 | Issue #67|
The Dangers of Journalism 101
Journalists who don’t run with the pack routinely face difficulty and danger
By Peter Gorman
I’m taking the medicine because on my last trip to the Peruvian Amazon I picked up a boatload of nasty flesh eating bacteria that ate a good portion of my right calf. I mean a pound of flesh or more. If all goes right, I’ll just need a couple of skin grafts to complement the two operations I had during a two week stay at a local hospital and by end of November I should be good as new—or good as a 62-year-old reporter with no insurance and $80 grand in hospital debt can be.
I got the infections, called Arco by the locals on the Ucayali River, while taking a group of mostly middle-aged tourists out to the deep jungle for just over a week. It’s something I do a couple of times a year, partly because I love teaching people about real life in the Peruvian Amazon and partly because I like to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the region politically. Recently, for instance, oil companies got together to convince Ollanta Humala, Peru’s president and a man who was alleged to have some character, that it would be good to reopen up the huge reserve on the Ucayali to new oil exploration—something that would utterly devastate the region. By chance I was there when the oil company representatives sent speedboats up every river in the region inhabited by even a single indigenous family to call for a meeting in the river town of Jenero Herrera to discuss how much money the oil companies would hand out to the indigenous in return for an okay to drill in the reserve. The companies promised speedboats to take the local leaders to Herrera for the meeting, where they would be plied with aguar diente—cane liquor—presents, money and so forth.
What the oil companies also did—on the same weekend as the meeting in Herrera—was to invite the elders from every indigenous group in the region to come to Iquitos in traditional dress to dance and be photographed for a Peruvian Tourist Office event.
Which means that there were no headmen/elders at the meeting about opening up the Ucayali reserve for oil exploration. And since it was all arranged properly, the headmen and women and elders who went to Iquitos to show their traditional costumes had no idea that there was a meeting about selling off the reserve’s oil rights that same weekend.
In that particular case, there was enough opposition to the oil company’s proposal that it was put on the back burner for the time being. How long that “time being” will last is anyone’s guess: Probably only until the oil companies come up with another scheme to try to convince Humala and the authorities in Loreto state that there is a good deal of money to be made by ripping open the reserve.
In a country like Peru there are endless opportunities for journalists who keep their ears to the ground: There are new medicines being found, water and mineral rights being sold out from under the people to whom they belong, archaeological sites being discovered monthly. If you’re a journalist and you find yourself there—or in Bolivia or Colombia or Venezuela or Brazil or almost anywhere in South America—you almost can’t help but run into good stories on a regular basis.
But you will also be putting yourself into some level of harm’s way when you cover those stories. That’s a given. You want to cover indigenous protests in southern Peru? You’re certainly liable to be tear-gassed at least. You want to talk with the oil company representatives and call them out on the Ucayali reserve scheme? They’ll flat out physically threaten you.
Journalists who cover cutting edge material, the politics of repression or wars or covert operations have always been at risk. It’s part of the job and part of the joy of the job. The risk, the danger is all part of the rush that makes some journalists work. Others, those who thrive at writing obituaries or covering PTA meetings, find their joy in other ways. But the photojournalist swimming with white sharks to get that perfect picture, or the writer who heads into Darfur when everyone else is running away from Darfur, well, they are daring, ballsy, fearless and they humble someone like me. I’ve been in a number of risky positions but it was often the result of circumstance rather than choice: When I got to Lima for the first time in 1984 I knew I was headed into a civil war zone, but I had no idea that I’d actually be in one, getting gassed daily, having police strip search me on the streets of the Plaza d’Armas, or ducking into doorways to avoid gunfire. In New York once, doing what would have been the first major story on crack from an insider’s point of view, I found myself forced to make a choice to be beaten—probably very badly—by a dozen or more members of an angry wolfpack of teens that took me for an undercover cop or running into a gun battle on Times Square holding my right hand as if it was a pistol while I screamed “Police! Drop your weapons!” (By luck the real police appeared while I was still a half-a-block from the gunfight and they had real guns and got everything under control before I was faced with the decision to chicken out and run away.)
Those escapades pale in comparison with journalists who’ve faced real danger. Just this week, Matthew Schrier, a freelance photographer who was held and tortured by Syrian Islamists since December, managed to escape his captors; a young female photojournalist was gang-raped in Mumbai, India, and Liu Hu, a journalist in China was detained by police after accusing a senior official of being negligent with his public duties.
Every week journalists put their lives on the line to get the real story, the one the journalists who stay in the hotels and chat over Beefeater martinis always miss. The crew at Narco News is a good example of a team of reporters covering events that could frequently cost them their freedom or lives. But if you are a real journalist, and if the story appears, it’s hard to turn away, despite dangers. In the early years of NarcoNews.com, I owned a joint called the Cold Beer Blues Bar on one of the toughest ports in Iquitos, Peru. It was the only place in the whole city where you could get ice cold beer, good food and listen to blues music on my second hand stereo.
It was the kind of joint that ex-pats and adventurers loved: Just getting to it meant passing through a gauntlet of dozens of dock workers who’d spent the day carrying twice their weight up a steep, muddy slope and rewarded themselves with aguardiente (grain alcohol) laced with kerosene and a few pipes of pasta, unrefined coca base ubiquitous in Iquitos as it makes it’s way down to Colombia to be refined into cocaine. Both it and the aguardiente were nasty stuff and arguments and fights were regular sights outside my windows and doors—and they frequently spilled inside. The regulars included well-intentioned environmentalists, loggers, dope dealers, riverboat captains and a host of ex-pats on the run from something. The regulars also included a lot of U.S. special forces, DEA and a couple of CIA and other, even more mysterious types—people whose job it was to keep an eye on the dope dealers, loggers and the rest of my regulars.
At the time, from 1998-2001 primarily, the US had several safe houses in Iquitos. There was the Coast Guard safe house, which housed special forces guys who were training Peruvian river coast guard in interception of river craft; there was a Marine safe house, a Green Beret safe house, an Air Force safe house, and a DEA safe house with a rotating crew of agents who’d been sent to the armpit of Iquitos from the U.S. to straighten out their acts before they’d be allowed to return to Philadelphia or Boston or wherever they initially worked and messed up.
Everyone of those soldiers, spies and agents knew I was a journalist. They all knew I’d worked for High Times magazine for years. They all knew that if they got drunk and told me what they were up to that I’d write it up and send it out to Al Giordano at Narco News and it would be read by tens of thousands of people within days. So the smart ones kept their mouths shut about their assignments. But some of them, after a dozen quarts of beer and a couple of shots of local whiskey on the house, just couldn’t help themselves. And they wound up producing a few good stories that I believe saved a lot of innocent lives. When the US Army decided to build a secret base in Peru—not far from Iquitos and right on the Colombian border—to contain Colombia’s FARC rebels (the base in Manta, Ecuador was public knowledge but the base outside of Pevas, Peru was not), well, Narco News published the story and that killed that project. When a team of former Navy Seals came into Iquitos to clear a section of the Putumayo River and then planned to kill every man, woman and child who fled into the river when US and Colombian jungle forces attacked the FARC and pushed them south—a secret plan ready for implementation by the time the former-Seals (read: mercenaries) arrived in town—well, all it took was one of that team to get drunk and explain the mission to the bartender—me—at the Cold Beer Blues Bar, and up it went at Narco News. Which killed that mission and had me threatened by some serious US personnel. When the famous missionary flight was shot down outside of Pevas—a small town 90 miles downstream of Iquitos with no internet or phone service at the time—well, Narco News published the story that the shoot down was a set up to bolster then-new-President George Bush’s position that there were lots of drug planes in the Amazon. And since Narco News got it right, Mike Ruppert pushed it to the point to where then-US Rep. Cynthia McKinney called for and supposedly got a moratorium on the long-standing US drug plane interception program in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador.
As a side note, though Narco News didn’t publish it, this reporter was later asked to prove that the program was still in effect, and did, which led to the dismantling of a CIA operation based in Lima.
I mention those few stories—and there were others—to present the idea that sometimes stories that carry inherent danger simply fall into a reporter’s lap and there’s nothing the reporter can do in good conscience but verify and report them—even at the risk of personal injury. And there was plenty of risk. My business suffered when the US made my bar off limits to all US personnel (an order ignored by some of the special forces and nearly all of the DEA agents, at risk to their own positions and careers). But my family was threatened, I was roughed up a couple of times and was later told—though I could never verify it—that some people at Langley were considering simply disappearing me for being alarmingly annoying. Still, even in the face of threats, what reporter worth his salt could ignore those stories when the facts presented themselves right across the bar?
For this reporter personally, stories I write for the local alternative weekly in Fort Worth are sometimes slightly terrifying. Once a year for the last couple of years I’ve been asked to make several border crossings into Mexico to gauge the tenor of the drug war just across the border. Sometimes writing stories about the dangers of fracking for natural gas—and with Fort Worth being the epicenter of urban drilling, we’re at the front line there—has brought threats. More frightening has been doing a series of stories on corruption in my county, which has led to several fairly high political resignations and the firing of several local jail guards and other county personnel who’ve threatened my kids, my ex-wife, and my own house with firebombing. But the corruption was so thick when I moved to Joshua, in Johnson County, in 2002 that it would have been a crime to ignore it. And writing about it, despite the potential danger, has led to some long overdue changes in the way things are done here. As a reporter you have to make the choice to either do those stories with your full heart or simply run away from them. And when you learn the truth and then are able to verify that truth, well, running away doesn’t seem to be an option—given that running away or ignoring the story will mean people suffer at the hands of those in positions of power.
Writing about a local abusive jail guard who later threatens to firebomb your home is something you expect going into the story. A reporter knows that he or she is vulnerable in that sort of situation and weighs the pros and cons of what might happen. An African-American reporter covering a private white supremacist convention would know he or she is taking a big chance. But not all big chances are visible. Sometimes things just get you by the throat and they come as such a surprise there is no way to avoid them.
Right now, for instance, I’m trying to work this right calf back to health. It’s been nearly two months so far and will be a couple of months more if I’m lucky. And I wasn’t even covering a hardcore story. As I noted earlier, I’d taken a group of people out to the deep woods. In the week prior to their arrival, while organizing the trip, I’d worked with an Anglo woman who’d been raped and robbed by a business partner, intervened with the oil company representatives of a couple of oil companies on behalf of some indigenous friends of mine and pitched in with several other things that never materialized into a story. It didn’t matter to me. The trip with my guests into the jungle would provide material for a new book on ayahuasca, the jungle medicine that works on physical, emotional and spiritual levels, and that was my focus. Anything else I ran into would be gravy.
Now I’ve got to make an admission here: Whenever I take a small group into the deep jungle I ask the Universe (use whatever name makes you happy there) to not let any of them get hurt. There are, after all, things like electric eels and anacondas and cayman in the waters where they swim and bathe. There are extremely poisonous spiders and lots of jergons—pit vipers—around. There are vampire bats by the hundreds and stinging ants and all sorts of things that can leave somebody truly messed up. On this last trip alone, for instance, one of my indigenous Matses friends came down with an unknown disorder that left him puking blood and needing emergency hospitalization and six liters of blood and as of now he’s still touch and go and still no one knows what kind of bug it was that got him. And we buried a friend’s child after she died from being bitten by a viper. So danger is everywhere. Which is why I ask the universe not to let anything happen to any of the guests—and then I add that if something bad has to happen, well, it ought to happen to me, since I can probably deal with it better than someone who’s due back at work in 12 days.
The universe, being generous, has thus far never allowed a guest to have anything seriously awful happen to them. On the other hand, I’ve been bitten by a bushmaster, had my intestines explode, had a spider bite so poisonous that it opened holes all over my arms and legs from which poured poison. And I’ve had some mysterious flesh-eating bacteria a couple of times.
With that experience, when I noticed on the day after I came back from the jungle with my first group—and about 10 days before I had a second group to take out—a familiar flesh-eating bacteria on my right calf, I didn’t pay it much mind. I started in on antibiotics and let a couple of members of my jungle team who are experts at jungle medicines clean the wound several times daily. But this time was different. The wound kept getting worse, and by the time I took the second group out I was injecting myself several times daily—into a semi-permanent IV pick—with antibiotics a doctor in Iquitos had prescribed. And my team was still washing the growing wound diligently with tree bark extracts and other known plant medicines that cured Arco.
Unfortunately, nothing seemed to work and by the time I returned to Iquitos part of my right calf had begun to turn gangrene. I stayed in Iquitos for two weeks getting treated several times daily, then returned home and sent some photos of the huge wound to a very good doctor friend of mine in Alabama. He told me to get to an emergency room immediately. “Don’t finish your coffee. Just go,” was his order. I did and within hours had the first of two operations. My leg after the dead skin had been removed looked like something you’d see in a Hollywood movie about shark bites. There was just not a lot there.
It’s on the mend now after a second operation and lots and lots of antibiotics. The doctors say I picked up an unusual combination of four separate flesh-eating bacteria, each of which is immune to most antibiotics, which is why I’ve got so much medicine running through me.
I have faith that this is not my time to lose my leg or life. I have that new book on ayahuasca to finish and I’ll have to be in Peru in the jungle to do that. My guess is that by January that’s where I’ll be.
If I’d have known this would happen, would I have still gone on that last trip? Even knowing there was no fantastic story to write? Of course, because the next time there might be a very important story to cover. And shying away because I might get hurt, or because somebody might firebomb my house would probably leave me more vulnerable than just doing the story and getting it out there.
Publisher’s Note: Back in the 1980s, when one could count the number of reporters doing serious investigative journalism to expose the so-called “war on drugs” on one hand, Peter Gorman was one of those pioneers. In 2001, when Narco News was sued by narco-bankers in the New York Supreme Court, Peter rallied to our defense, which was eventually successful, when so many others remained silent.
Now Peter is in some trouble: In response to the severe threat to his health and livelihood, directly related to his important work in the Peruvian Amazon, his friends and readers have launched a crowd-funded campaign to get him the medical help he needs to be able to walk and do field reporting again. It is still more than $5,000 dollars short of its goal. I am making a donation, and ask each of you to consider doing the same, by clicking this link. We all need this pioneering authentic journalist back on his feet again. – Al Giordano.
This story by Peter Gorman was supported by a grant from The Fund for Authentic Journalism.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism