​Notepads, Guns, and Cocaine: The Isolated Life of a Paraguayan Journalist

Cándido Figueredo Ruíz's work paints a chilling portrait of organized crime and political corruption in Paraguay.

Dec 8 2015, 8:00pm

Cándido Figueredo Ruíz in midtown Manhattan, New York, near the headquarters of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Photo by the author

Journalist Cándido Figueredo Ruíz woke in a panic, windows shattering all around him. Automatic weapons fire was raining down on his house. The bedroom of his Paraguay home was riddled in lead. One bullet struck his bed, centimeters from where he'd been sleeping moments earlier.

It was about 3 AM.

"I threw myself under the bed and I prayed to all the saints," the seasoned reporter said in an interview with VICE on a recent visit to New York. "It looked like that shooting would never stop. I was terrified."

When it was all over, Figueredo was unscathed by the rapid fire drive-by even though 35 bullets had punctured his home. This was the mid 1990s, the first time Paraguay's drug lords tried to murder Figueredo for stories he published about them. The man's work paints a chilling portrait of organized crime and political corruption in Paraguay, offering a glimpse into the perils and consequences of documenting South American drug lords.

Figueredo was born and raised in Pedro Juan Caballero, a small city near the Brazilian border, where he's still based. In 2003, the journalist discovered traffickers were purchasing funeral homes for the purpose of concealing and transporting cocaine in corpses. His investigation forced police to take notice. The smugglers lost thousands, perhaps millions.

Figueredo's house was promply shot up again.

Five journalists have been murdered in Paraguay since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists; some of the killings were reportedly orchestrated by politicians. Out of 180 countries, the World Press Freedom Index ranked Paraguay 109th this year. It's a state of affairs that requires many journalists to censor themselves to survive.

"Paraguay, like many countries in Central America, are countries where journalists are facing very, very serious and real risks," said José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch's Americas Division. "Every time that they work, they expose issues related to abuse of power, human rights abuses, corruption—those are very dangerous activities for any journalists in those regions. Most journalists that investigate these types of issues suffer threats on their life."

But the constant danger hasn't been enough to keep Figueredo away from his craft.

"I always wanted to do journalism," said Figueredo, who was visiting the United States to accept an award from the CPJ. "I didn't study journalism. I didn't have that opportunity because I was born in a family that was poor, but I have the virus of journalism in my blood."

It's a burden he bears selflessly with hopes of one day catalyzing change in Paraguay.

"My city was always controlled by the mafia," he said. "When I was a kid I went to school very early in the morning and we encountered bodies of people that have been killed. Everybody knew who were the masterminds of those crimes, but nobody dared to give their names because they were afraid. Anyone could be killed. I wanted to expose these people."

His home in Pedro Juan Caballero is like an army bunker of sorts, equipped with 16 cameras and seven police-trained bodyguards—armed with submachine guns—who patrol the place on a 24-hour basis.

Photo by Luz Patricia Bellenzier, courtesy of the Committee to Protect Journalists

Unless it's reporting-related, Figueredo rarely goes outside. And neither does his wife Luz Patricia Bellenzier , a psychologist, who can barely practice her profession. Haunted by countless—possibly hundreds—of death threats over the years, Figueredo has lived under police protection for decades now.

"My house is the regional newsroom," he said. "But it looks more like a police station than a newsroom. Police are everywhere. I feel totally isolated. We are never alone, only when we are in our bedroom."

Figueredo brandishes firearms for protection almost as routinely as most journalists tote notepads. It's a remote and paranoid existence—except for the company of his bodyguards.

"Sometimes, I like to have a glass of wine and cheese [in my home]—but if I'm going to do it, I have to in front of all the policemen. I won't be able to be in my underwear," he joked. "And it's going to be very expensive for me to feed all of them."

Figueredo disclosed that he earns about $1,200 each month working as a correspondent for ABC Color, one of his country's largest national dailies.

"He lives like a prisoner—he can't go out to restaurants, he can't have a normal social life," said Carlos Lauria, senior program coordinator for the Americas at the CPJ, which monitors press freedom conditions around the world.

Pedro Juan Caballero, where Figueredo's based, is a narcotics corridor, rife with cocaine smugglers importing product coming from Colombia and Bolivia. Its sleepy backdrop make for an ideal port of entry and exit. Paraugay is also a cannabis machine, and one of the largest producers of weed in the world. For drug runners on either side of the border, Pedro Juan Caballero is the smuggling superhighway, the ultimate gateway to South America.

"[Paraguay] is a lawless place—it's very violent," Lauria explained. "There's smuggling of everything, plenty of drug traffickers, [and] politicians who work in collusion with organized crime. There are very few reporting on these issues. It's almost impossible to be a journalist without facing risks in this area."

In November, Brazil extradited Vilmar Acosta Marques, the former mayor of Ypejhú, who fled Paraguay last year for allegedly plotting the slaying of journalist Pablo Medina Velázquez , a colleague of Figueredo's at ABC Color. While at the wheel of his vehicle, the reporter was shot four times in the face and chest by two masked gunmen on a motorcycle. Medina was documenting the country's thriving cannabis industry.

In 2012, Brazilian police learned of a cross-border criminal conspiracy to murder Figueredo through wiretap surveillance on a phone call placed out of a heavily-guarded prison in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The man is wary—but resigned—that any moment he could be assassinated. Yet he continues to poke and prod at Paraguay's seedy underworld, unmasking the gears of drug-related organized crime layer-by-layer, even if it beckons his demise.

"One day at a time," Figueredo said calmly. "Of course I'm afraid one day they could get me. If I said, 'No,' I'd be lying. I'm fully aware they can kill me whenever they want. I hope they don't."

Dorian Geiger is a Canadian multimedia journalist, photographer, filmmaker, and freelance crime contributor for VICE. He's based in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter.

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