Where No Newspaper(s) Had Gone Before

February 12th, 2015 · 3 Comments · Congress, Mexico, role of government

By Denise Tessier

Few in New Mexico likely noticed the obituary that ran in the Los Angeles Times this week (Feb. 9), but the tribute to former Times reporter Laurie Becklund is worth noting, both for her extraordinary contributions to international and domestic journalism but also for an unusual and pioneering connection to the Albuquerque Journal.

As the Times noted, Becklund’s many journalistic contributions included the fact that:

Her reporting took her to El Salvador where she partnered with Craig Pyes, then of the Albuquerque Journal. Through a former army major, they uncovered the roots of the dirty war being conducted by the Salvadoran military.

What was unusual about the El Salvador partnership between Becklund and Pyes in the early 1980s was that the two reporters worked together to investigate the death squads in that Central American nation, but for totally unrelated newspapers. This was not a partnership between Journal and the LA Times.

The editors of the two newspapers agreed to let the reporters work together during this dangerous period in El Salvador’s history – a highly unusual arrangement in the field of journalism – and they agreed to simultaneously publish the independently written stories Pyes and Becklund created from that reportage.

As noted in a previous post, reporters and editors from both papers found the arrangement difficult to understand, and there were grumblings among Journal reporters at the time about the long period Pyes was allowed to spend on foreign soil gathering information.

Much credit for recognizing the value of that endeavor goes to the late Gerald J. Crawford, then editor of the Journal, who agreed to let Pyes pursue the project and to collaborate with Becklund. Pyes attributes Crawford’s willingness to the fact that just a few years before, the Albuquerque Journal had reached beyond its comfort zone in allowing then-Journal Investigative Reporter Bill Hume to participate in the Investigative Reporters and Editors Arizona Project, an unprecedented endeavor that brought 38 reporters from 28 papers to Arizona to look into the car bomb murder of Don Bolles, a journalist killed while investigating organized crime and land fraud in that state.

As Crawford wrote in his 1984 letter nominating Pyes’ resulting El Salvador series for a Pultizer:

The Albuquerque Journal felt that an investigative effort – an unusual undertaking in a foreign country – could shed light on the death squads, their membership and their implications for the United States.

Millions of dollars in potential U.S. aid to El Salvador and the direction of foreign policy in Central America could be determined by what political leaders of the United States understand about the death squads.

Indeed, at the time, U.S. political leaders knew little about what was really going on in El Salvador. In fact, the reports brought back by Pyes and Becklund were disputed by the Reagan Administration, which maintained the right-wing government had nothing to do with the death squads, the murders of three nuns and a female Catholic lay worker, nor the assassination of Archibishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

Pyes has noted that at the time of his and Becklund’s reports, then-Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., hailed the reporting as “an outstanding example of investigative journalism…that described for the first time the rationale and actual operating procedures behind ‘death squad’ killing in El Salvador,” adding that then-Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., read Pyes’ entire series into the Congressional Record.

The duo’s on-the-ground, eye-opening reportage was validated years later, in 1993, by the United Nations Truth Commission.

Five years later, nearly two decades after El Salvador, Pyes went on to share a Pulitzer at the New York Times for an investigative series on drug corruption in Mexico, a collaborative process reminiscent of the way Pyes had worked with Becklund. In submitting the series to the Pulitzer committee, Times editors wrote:

In 1997, The New York Times decided to undertake something almost unheard of in foreign correspondence: a major investigative project on a foreign country, one vital to the United States’ security. The aim was to look systematically at the corrosive effects of drug corruption on Mexico, using the techniques of investigative reporting to develop stories from sources on both sides of the border.

The phrase “almost unheard of in foreign correspondence” is key here. Because as Pyes wrote in an email this week, the cross-border investigative method employed by the New York Times team covering Mexico was “using the methodology Laurie and I had used 15 years earlier on (the El Salvador) series.”

From Pyes’ 2010 article for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism:

The reports by Laurie and me were a unique form of primary investigation in a foreign country – a partnership between two reporters from unrelated papers. We also applied domestic reporting techniques to a remote and treacherous investigative challenge that other journalists either did not have the luxury to concentrate on, or had found insoluble. Except for “allegations” implicating (Major Roberto) D’Aubuisson, few knew the details of El Salvador’s killing machine until our stories appeared.

Our stories laid out, in the Salvadoran rightists’ own words, a vast plan to physically eliminate their political enemies and grass-roots activists based on “dirty war” techniques originally carried out by the governments of Guatemala and Argentina against rebellious segments of their own populations.

According to a remembrance by Kevin Roderick this week in the online LAObserved, Becklund graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism but also studied at Universidad Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City. Her courageous journalistic investigations south of border in fact started before her collaboration with Pyes in El Salvador. As Pyes noted in the Nieman article:

Laurie and I knew each other through reporting on the early stages of the U.S. involvement in Mexico’s drug war, where we had independently searched out the same sources in the mountains of Sinaloa.

Now, two years later, we were both in El Salvador, along with scores of other journalists who had come for the 1982 elections. But both of us had come with other ideas: to expose the death squads.

It was a job perfectly suited for a pair of young, ambitious and quixotic journalists. The Reagan Administration continually (and dishonestly) said that the death squads were composed of independent rightists, unknown and unknowable, with no affiliation to government or army. We were to prove differently.

. . . At that time, the death squads were still operating openly, and more than a dozen journalists’ deaths had been blamed on them. Without claiming any false heroics, our lives were threatened by people we knew to have either financed, assisted or directly participated in the murders of other people as a form of political action. . . .

He went on that:

Laurie and I had agreed to take the time necessary to crack the story, and not publish it piecemeal. It was a journalistic choice, but also a matter of personal safety – to avoid alerting any of our dangerous sources of our intentions. We would each write our own independent stories, but we also agreed to share notes and get our editors to agree to a joint release date. The L.A. Times editors saw no precedent for such an arrangement. . . .

The Times foreign desk was run by an old school foreign editor with almost no investigative experience. The gulf between foreign investigation and foreign “correspondence” was, and still is, one of the widest in journalism.

Once the two reporters returned to the U.S. and had written their stories, the Journal actually ran more stories than the LA Times, according to Pyes.

Pyes noted that the Journal ran a week of Pyes’ detailed investigative articles, which were published from Dec. 18 to Dec. 22, 1983. (They were later reprinted in a booklet.)

The Times published only a few of Becklund’s stories, he said, revealing that “gulf” Pyes had noted between foreign investigation and foreign “correspondence.” Pyes wrote in 2010 that when Crawford was told which of Becklund’s stories were excluded, he “shook his head and said of his Los Angeles counterparts, ‘They’re cracked.’”

The Becklund reportage that did run, however, was chilling. As recounted in this week’s obituary in the LA Times, one of Becklund’s El Salvador articles began with this line:

They call it Door of the Devil, a craggy spot not far from downtown San Salvador where the earth ends, plunging into a sheer, mist-filled ravine.

A former police officer told Becklund the ravine was “always a little foggy. . .and there are these big rocks you can stand on top of to throw somebody over.”

Crawford wrote in his letter to the Pulitzer committee that Pyes and Becklund’s investigations “show that the squads in fact were underground assassination teams trained by international terrorists (and) that they received financial and political support from above-ground organizations with backing in the United States.”

Human rights lawyer Carolyn Patty Blum, who helped prosecute Salvadoran war criminals, including Archbishop Romero’s killer, posted on facebook this week that “Laurie and Craig’s work lived on in the cases we litigated seeking justice for the atrocities of 1980s El Salvador. Presente!

In his own facebook posting, Pyes said Becklund “was the best reporter I have ever worked with.”

The story of the duo’s reportage is timely not only because of Becklund’s passing. (She died Sunday at the age of 66 after living six years with metastatic breast cancer, and had spoken of the need for data research related to cancer at a talk last fall at Stanford University.)

It is also timely in that just two weeks before, the LA Times reported the death of Robert E. White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador from 1979 to 1981, saying he was “one of the first and most credible voices to criticize human-rights atrocities by a Salvadoran regime that the U.S. was backing. And it cost him his career as an American diplomat.” From White’s obituary:

. . . In an era before WikiLeaks, he wrote fiercely worded top-secret diplomatic cables to Washington, telling the Carter administration it had misjudged the conflict in El Salvador and was backing the wrong side: a corrupt government that portrayed itself as an important bulwark against communism. But the Salvadoran government’s self-description — not White’s entreaties —— was what Washington wanted to hear.

In the years following his dismissal by then-President Ronald Reagan, White became an active champion for bringing Salvadoran perpetrators of heinous crimes to justice.

The obituary recalled that White “became passionately connected to two of the most notorious cases in El Salvador’s civil war: the 1980 rape and murder of three American nuns and a female church lay worker, and the assassination of San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, shot by a sniper as he said Mass.”

And that’s the third timely aspect of this story: Just days before Becklund’s death, Pope Francis ratified the martyrdom of Archbishop Romero, paving the way for his canonization as a saint.

As the New York Times reported on Feb. 3:

At the beginning of the civil war in El Salvador, Archbishop Romero angered the country’s right-wing military government by calling on soldiers to disobey orders to murder political opponents. He also wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter pleading with him to cut off American military aid to El Salvador. The archbishop was killed by a right-wing death squad.

According to a 1993 United Nations commission, the murder was planned by former members of the security forces who had ties to Roberto D’Aubuisson, the former army major who founded the Nationalist Republican Alliance party, known as Arena. The party ruled El Salvador from 1989 until 2009.

Despite this convergence of timely events, Becklund’s passing was not noted in the Journal this week. Pyes said he notified the Journal but he was told the publication doesn’t do (non-wire service) obituaries about people who aren’t from New Mexico.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Diane Denish

    Thank you for this inspiring post. The
    ABQ Journal in its response continues to show why it is not a real newspaper — refusing to include a part of its history in the present. Convergence of events is what helps us understand our past and our present.

  • Diane Denish

    By the way …the Journal did have a short notice about David Carr. Hmmmm….

  • Denise Tessier

    Update: After this was posted, Pyes said he reviewed his old files and it was Domenici who entered the Journal El Salvador series into the Congressional Record, not Richardson. Richardson had read into the record an unrelated story Pyes did on Archbishop Romero’s assassination.

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