Gustavo Gorriti: “Democracy in the world is in its greatest moment of crisis since the 1930:s”

Clara Zid, March 2023

Gustavo Gorriti

Gustavo Gorriti is a warrior of investigative journalism. You can tell by the beauty of his texts that he would make an excellent essayist, but this farmer and judo player decided to go down other paths. “Paths that few journalists would go”, he explains.

On the day of the interview a deep crisis was sweeping over Peru. In yet another episode of the recent escalation of attacks from the extremist group ‘La Pestilencia’, right-wing groups threw garbage in the entrance of the news room at IDL-Reporteros, where Gorriti is the director. Days later the same group harassed him at his home, with threats and insults.
The attacks prompted support both from a delegation of fellow journalists and the embassies of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

You have investigated terrorism, drug trafficking, political and economic corruption. How did it all start?

“In February 1982, Enrique Zileri, director of “Caretas”, asked me to take on an investigation into a feared drug trafficker. I asked him for a couple of days to think about it, because I had a clear idea of what it meant and also wanted to discuss it with my girlfriend and my daughter.”
But the decision came promptly.
“I knew I was crossing the river and there was no turning back. My life has since been in danger several times and at risk many more. It was clear to me that I was taking on an even more dangerous life that would stay with me.”
Gustavo faced the challenge as a citizen would face his country’s call to arms in a time of war.
“The difference was I was conscripted for life”, he says.

What precautions do you take?

“I have my formula: strategic boldness and tactical caution, and that has worked very well.”
But for people in Gustavo´s position there is also the reality of casualty. And death.
“As in war, that concept is always there. Understand that. No matter what you do, it´s there.”

What does it consist of?

“When we reported on the internal conflicts (The war between the Peruvian government and Sendero Luminoso, the terrorist group that kept Peru in suspense in the 80´s and 90’s), the first thing was to react quickly, to know where you were and what to do. But at the same time let other people know as little as possible and thus be as unpredictable as possible in terms of movements.”
There were other times when it was essential for Gustavo’s team to let the military know where they were going so that there would be no excuse that they didn’t know about it.
“Another thing I did a lot was to make sure I was accompanied by journalists from countries with influence in Peru.”

How did that help you?

“I asked journalists from countries with embassies that were well aware of what was going on. If the Peruvian security services knew they knew, no dirty tricks could be played. If a British or American journalist was involved, their embassies would quickly find out what had happened.”
The arrangement was also a bonus for the foreign journalists, Gustavo says. “They would otherwise not have been able to do that kind of reporting”.

When Fujimori’s coup d’état took place in April 1992, you were kidnapped.

“As soon as I was arrested, my wife jerked out the phone-book and started calling”

“I had a contingency plan that foresaw many things. And if I was taken I had written a note to my wife: immediately call this person, and this person, and this. It included people in the country and abroad. People who were able to immediately reach their governments, foreign journalists, colleagues who would sound the alarm. But also important sources within the country”.
In the case of a detention or disappearance, the first 24-36 hours are decisive. So quick reaction was necessary.
And as soon as Gustavo was arrested, his wife started calling the list.

At the time you were the correspondent of “El País” in Spain.

“I had told El País that if my dispatch didn’t arrive as planned it meant that I had been arrested. So there was also a very quick reaction from them in Spain and from my American colleagues who also behaved very well. The Spanish and American embassies were mobilized. In short, it all worked and was totally unexpected for the coup plotters.”

How did you reach so many important people?

“I had just published my book on Sendero Luminoso, which had brought out a lot of things that were completely unknown. There were may requests for talks and interaction with sources, so that was useful.”
Then there have been other moments of tension in Gustavo’s professional life. President Ernesto Pérez Balladares of Panama requested that he was expelled in 1997 and he then locked himself in “La Prensa´s” news-room and refused to leave.
“That also sparked an international campaign, and in the end they had to let me stay in the country.”

In this campaign you were supported by Hillary Clinton, John Le Carré, Vargas Llosa, Reporters Sans Frontières, the Inter-American Press Association, the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The CPJ awarded you the International Press Freedom Award in 1998 which honors journalists who have shown courage in defending press freedom.
What is the importance of this kind of recognition?

“The most important thing is that it gives you a high profile which improves safety, mine and that of the reporters, and thus supports the journalistic work.”

“It’s of course gratifying on a personal level to receive distinctions, but one should not have them as a goal in ones work. One should focus on getting the best possible story.”

Which story do you remember most vividly?

“In the 1980s it was covering the war, Sendero Luminoso, corruption, drug trafficking, human rights atrocities at the highest levels. Then, in the nineties, I focused on investigating the mafiosi, the dictatorships of the Fujimori and Montesinos rule. That was a very uphill and lonely time.
Then five years in Panama: the country was the “Phoenicia of Latin America”, and a good part of the investigation focused on corporate financial matters and traps linked to that.
It was a challenging time with the authorities on his heels all the time.
“Every good investigation immediately meant that the national prosecutor would start criminal proceedings against me.”

“Corruption, especially in countries that have traditionally had it for generations, creates really very complex ecosystems”

Police deployment in Lima

And then comes the part about IDL-Reporteros.

“We have done a lot of investigations, and it has been intense.”
But Gustavo’s work has created impact. The Lava Jato The largest corruption investigation in Brazil’s history implicated members of the state-owned oil company Petrobras, politicians (including presidents of the Republic) and businessmen from large Brazilian companies (Operation Car Wash) and Lava JuezLava Juez was a corruption and influence peddling scheme in Peru uncovered by IDL-Reporteros. They received thousands of wiretap recordings of judges selling favors to politicians, businessmen and drug traffickers (White Collars) are two examples. “These cases changed the country”, says Gustavo.

Few corruption cases change a country.

The Lava Juez investigation mobilized a very strong counter-offensive that continues.
“I thought that we had reached a turning point in the fight against corruption, and that we were on the way to achieving a much cleaner society. But suddenly I found out that we had returned to the swamp of corruption and that there were many lessons to learn.”

What lessons?

“The main one is that corruption, especially in countries where it has been present for generations, creates complex ecosystems and that one or two blitzkriegs are not enough to eradicate.”
“A set of conditions needs to be in place and it’s a much longer, much more complex process then I first imagined. But not impossible by any means.”

Has corruption increased globally?

“No, but it has changed a lot. It has become more difficult to hide the origin of corrupt money. Despite the progress that has been made, democracy in the world is in the greatest moment of crisis since the 1930:s, and this counter-offensive by dark, anti-democratic forces, in coalition with the corrupt power brokers, has led to waves of disinformation, immense verbal violence, in many cases followed by physical violence and the growth of authoritarian regimes.”

What is the current situation in Peru?

“The biggest challenge is to defend democracy. As imperfect and precarious as it has been, it turned out to be the longest in our republican history. It’s now facing very real dangers of authoritarian degradation, most likely ending in a far-right government, confronted in turn by a primitive and anti-democratic left.”

How would you describe the way IDL reporteros are financing themselves?

“I have been fighting for a financing-scheme since the beginning of the century and in the end I ended up with only a couple of foundations supporting us.”

“If you do good investigative journalism, you devote your life to a kind of perpetual war”

Have you thought about charging for content?

“It’s very clear that we have to move towards charging for our work. But I also believe that there are certain types of human activities, such as art, that will be difficult to sustain by market forces. They will need subsidies. I believe that research is one of them. The point is to be able to receive clean money without conditions.”

What do you say to those who come to IDL-Reporteros to become investigative journalists?

“That it’s a lot of work, very arid. And that if you do good investigative journalism, you are devoting your life to a kind of perpetual war. This is a decision that should only be made after deep thoughts where you examine how you would deal with some of the worst-case scenarios. And there are some really frightening scenarios.”

“I tell them stories of the many admired colleagues who took investigative journalism forward but paid a terrible price for it. Right now I’m thinking of Javier Valdez, who was such a magnificent writer and because of the smallest thing. And with a digestion-problem among those foul gangsters over there, they simply ordered to kill him.”

“I tell them that it’s extremely honorable, after giving it serious thought, to say no. But if you take the plunge, there’s no turning back. And that they have to strive to keep the highest standards.”

“And that it’s worth doing.”

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