Orus Villacorta: “The president of El Salvador responds to our questions with mockery”

Clara Zid, November 2020

Orus Villacorta Aguilar, codirector of Revista Factum.
Photo Factum/ Salvador Meléndez

If you search for the word “corruption” on Revista Factum, more than 500 results appear, demonstrating the commitment of these Salvadoran journalists to ethics and responsibility. In exchange, they are met with police harassment, threats of attacks on their offices, cyber-attacks, communications espionage, inspections by the Treasury, as well as vetoes and discredit from the government. Orus Villacorta Aguilar, co-director of Factum, ensures us that “all of these attacks do not discourage us”.

Revista Factum was born in October 2014 by three journalist friends: Orus Villacorta, Héctor Silva and César Castro Fagoaga. Silva is currently separated from the online magazine, and the team has grown to eleven staff members. Their initial declaration of intent remains fully valid today: “It is not only about talking on what does not work, but about making it a permanent topic of conversation”.

This journalistic approach is vital for a society in need of different sources of information, in a country where “anti-democratic practices routinely undermine the rule of law and there’s corruption, social violence, extreme poverty, organized crime, inequality and lack of transparency from the part of officials who control the three branches of the government”, explains Villacorta.

Investigating presidential scandals

According to the Barómetro de Corrupción Global (Global Corruption Barometer), 93% of the population of El Salvador considers government corruption to be a serious problem. “It is enough to review the corruption scandals and the criminal links associated with the last seven presidents of the republic”, explains Villacorta. All of the scandals have been widely reported by Revista Factum.

César Castro Fagoaga (left), editor in chief of Revista Factum, conducts a live broadcast.

One that stood out from the rest – later to be known as one of the biggest embezzlement in recent Salvadoran history – was led by Elias Antonio Saca (president 2004-2009), who diverted $300 million from public funds. Another president, Mauricio Funes Cartagena ( 2009-2014), was accused of misappropriation of $351 million. In 2018 Revista Factum published a series of audios that demonstrated that these two former presidents conspired to attack political adversaries, manipulate the Attorney General’s Office, and buy wills.

Factum also has compromising information on the current president, Nayib Bukele Ortez. In September 2019 they published a report on how a company investigated for alleged money laundering gave almost two million dollars to Bukele when he was mayor of San Salvador.

The consequences of reporting

The hostility of the Bukele government against Factum is evident and materializes in harassment campaigns, primarily in social networks: “Through intense propaganda campaigns, Bukele maintains high rates of popularity in the country and from the confidence that this support gives him, he has used his propaganda machine to stigmatize the voice of journalists and media that question him, including ours,” explains Villacorta.

“The harassment of Factum’s journalists escalated to alarming levels from 2019, with the arrival of Nayib Bukele to the presidency”

This harassment is carried out from anonymous accounts in social networks that publish false content to sully the prestige of the magazine. A network of related or directly government-controlled media also participates in these campaigns. “The harassment of Factum’s journalists escalated to alarming levels from 2019, with the arrival of Nayib Bukele to the presidency of the republic,” says Villacorta.

The animosity has reached the point where no one from the government responds to Factum’s requests for information and the magazine has even been banned from presidential press conferences. Finally, because of the international repercussion they were allowed back to the press conferences but, says Villacorta, “on the few occasions when we managed to ask questions, the president responded with mockery and false accusations on our media”.

Salvador Meléndez, Revista Factum photographer, in an interview with the head of the Policía Nacional Civil.

Factum’s investigations do not end with the criminal activities of the heads of state, they have also looked at the network of corruption installed in the Attorney General’s office, the illicit enrichment of candidates for deputies to the Legislative Assembly, and how state institutions have been infiltrated by the corrupt.

“The magazine began to receive death threats from anonymous people”

Another front is found in institutional violence, explains Factum’s codirector: “In August 2017 we published how an elite group of Salvadoran police, the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC), was involved in homicides, sexual aggressions against minors and extortion. For three months we monitored two WhatsApp chat groups composed of more than 40 police officers who revealed internal communications and extermination groups crimes within the police”. These groups are members of the Armed Forces and the PNC who organize themselves clandestinely to exterminate members of the “gangs” that control much of the country’s organized crime.

The investigation led to the arrest of the officers involved, but there were no convictions. What did occur were reprisals, explains the journalist: “The magazine began to receive threats, some of them death threats from anonymous people“. The Procurator for the Defense of Human Rights ordered protective measures for the journalists and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) resolved a precautionary measure in favor of Revista Factum.

In October 2019, the various attacks on Revista Forum were joined by a Denial of Service (DDoS) attack against their website. Thanks to common allies, the magazine was introduced to Qurium, who quickly migrated the site to Virtualroad.org and mitigated the DDoS attack. In 2020, Qurium and Revista Factum published a joint investigation on the DDoS attack from 2019, that placed the origin of the attacks to Raúl Antonio Torres, a systems engineer serving at the Universidad de Oriente. Torres was suspended while the university was conducting an internal investigation, and was later forced to leave the University.

International pressure and support

“Having the opportunity to know that your news site is in safe hands, is something that gives us a peace of mind we need to be able to face other obstacles”, says Villacorta. “The experience we have had during the past year of receiving Qurium’s services has been very gratifying. Apart from Secure Hosting, our team has also received mentorship on digital security issues. Every time we need technical support, we are attended in the best possible way and without delay” he adds.

“We are continuing to do the journalism we believe in, despite all the obstacles”

Despite years of threats and attacks, they see lights at the end of the tunnel: in October 2020 a commission was established in the Legislative Assembly to investigate the complaints of independent media, such as Revista Factum, El Faro or Gato Encerrado. Three Factum journalists were summoned to explain what they were going through. The commission ended up recommending the president and his officials to stop the attacks.

At the same time, more than 500 journalists from different parts of the world sent a letter to the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR to communicate their rejection of the attacks from the president of El Salvador against these media. Factum’s co-director is clear about the future: “We are going to continue doing the journalism we believe in, despite all the obstacles”.

To do this, Factum takes various security precautions, emphasizing on their internal communications. Likewise, explains Villacorta, “we follow processes and protocols that serve to inform instantly if any of our journalists are at risk”. About the police, he says, “they do not enjoy our trust, we have evidenced cases that discredit them with extreme seriousness when it comes to protecting us”. This forces Factum, he says, to seek “support from international organizations that watch over the respect of human rights. We believe that it is through this international pressure that the abuses of the journalistic profession decrease in intensity”.

Revista Factum is hosted with Virtualroad.org since 2019, and participates in the Igloo program 2019-2020.