The drip, drip of stories about violence and murder in some parts of Latin America comes down the daily newsfeed, numbing the average reader.
For instance, just this past May, El Salvador suffered its highest murder rate since the end of the country’s civil war 23 years ago. And for June the statistics so far are just as alarming, an average of 24 homicides a day. But this grisly flash of news—what journalists in the region call the nota roja—doesn’t give the wider context.
There’s another story to be told here beyond the numbers: how Latin American journalists are affected by the violence they cover and how, in turn, their coverage is creating a cultural acceptance of violence.
A select group of scholars who had convened in San Juan, Puerto Rico late last month for the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) conference discussed those questions as they relate to Central America and the Southern Cone.
At the session, anthropologist Ieva Jusionyte from the University of Florida—drawing from a theme in her recent book, Savage Frontier: Making News and Security at the Argentine Border—focused on the “triple border,” the relatively lawless intersection of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. It’s a region known for smuggling, money laundering and violence.
One of Jusionyte’s key points is about the climate of fear that journalists must navigate as they work. But that fear comes not just from the criminals, but also from the extra-legal violence meted out by police in their attempts to keep crime in check. The result has been self-censorship among traditional journalists, who have learned to work within what they consider safe boundaries. The journalists know that a step over the invisible line could lead to them being targeted for violence or worse: disappearance and death.
Jusionyte traces the climate of fear back to the oppressive and heavy-handed state security promoted by the Argentine government during the years of the Dirty War (1974-1983). During that era, journalists came to accept the limits on what they could cover; those who raised uncomfortable truths could simply disappear, with the body turning up later, or they could be arrested and tortured.
Even 32 years after the military’s exit from power, the sense that journalists are expendable or inconvenient, especially in rural zones like the triple border, continues among lower power brokers.
At the same meeting in Puerto Rico, political scientist Michelle Bonner, from the University of Victoria in Canada, compared Argentina’s culture of violence to Chile’s. In both countries, she found that when journalists questioned the iron-fist tactics of the state to control crime they became vulnerable to reprisals. As a result, journalists learned to look the other way when the state employed extra-legal tactics against criminals. Similar to Argentina, the culture of violence employed in Chile during the era of the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) made these tactics much more acceptable, an acceptance that continues to this day.
One of the organizers of the session, anthropologist M. Gabriela Torres from Wheaton College made the point that media complicity with authorities also creates a cultural blindness when it comes to matters of femicide. Torres’ research looks at the media portrayals of women killed during Guatemala’s long civil war (1960-1996).
Torres argues that the photo record from this period shows that women’s corpses often displayed a more violent and brutal end than men’s corpses. This visual representation has numbed Guatemala to violence against women since—building on a cultural insensitivity to women’s rights.
The hundreds of thousands that marched in a number of Latin American countries earlier this month—especially those in Argentina—in defense of women’s rights would agree that there is a deeper current of chauvinism that accepts even casual violence against women—and that ultimately supports femicide.
This cultural backdrop raises an important question. How do citizens—domestically and internationally—turn these patterns of threats and violence into policies and measures to address the underlying cultural and legal biases implicitly and explicitly contributing to the levels of violence today?
Individual governments may decry the tactics of violence when the criminals use them, but tend not to do so when they are used by the police, the military, or powerful corporate interests. Nor are they willing to confront the deep roots of bias and chauvinism that are tied to a broader culture of violence and exclusion.
Acknowledgement that the problem exists not just in its most obvious form (murders) but also in a culture of intra-social violence and biases they reveal is a first step. But it also requires looking at the distorted power and cultural legacies of authoritarianism in the region and the freedom and capacity of a free and independent media to expose those imbalances and their own restrictions. It’s a tall order. And it starts from expanding the limits of self-censored journalists to explore and reveal the truth of abuse.