|English | Español||March 25, 2017 | Issue #32|
Meet Alex Contreras Baspineiro
Narco News and Authentic Journalism Sign a South American Bureau Chief
By Al Giordano
Alex Contreras with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez
When, last December, the Civil Society campaign to save Narco News hit warp speed and it was clear that our readers would not let this international online newspaper die, we began to plot our comeback.
That’s when Mexican journalist Luis Gomez, in La Paz, Bolivia, who for the past two years has served as our Andean Bureau Chief, and I, took inventory of our mission, our growth, our needs, at the vast talent pool of Authentic Journalists and scholars we have assembled, and determined that we wanted and needed a South American Bureau Chief: But who?
We wanted to free up Gomez to do more investigative reporting, and to finish a book he started on last October’s uprising in Bolivia. But to fill Gomez’s big shoes in his other tasks – among them he’s been the assigning editor and coach of our Spanish-language reporters, spokesman to the international media, chief English-to-Spanish translator, and, often, diplomat and representative of this journalistic war machine to the world – presented challenges, to say the least.
Gomez and I quickly reached the same conclusion: Alex Contreras is the Authentic Journalist for the job.
The first I heard of Alex Contreras was in November 2002, when his application arrived for one of our scholarships to the School of Authentic Journalism. “This concept of ‘Authentic Journalism,’” Contreras wrote to us, “is what I have been seeking for a long, long, time.” His resume was the deepest of all our applicants: At age 38, he’d been a daily newspaper reporter, authored four books, hosted daily radio programs, written scripts for television documentaries, directed our friend Oscar Oliveira’s “Primero de Mayo” school in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and his reporting style, his coherence with words, shone from every sentence. His application moved immediately to the top of the pile and remained there. I was also impressed that he had already been imprisoned three times for practicing journalism: this was a man with obvious courage and social conscience. He was named one of our seven Full Scholarship winners. And I met him, for the first time, on the Yucatan Peninsula in February 2003, at the first session of the J-School.
During those ten intensive days of reporting and studying Authentic Journalism, Alex swiftly emerged as senior scholar in more than mere seniority. A big brother and coach to so many of us – students and professors – it fast became clear that in addition to being an ace journalist, Alex is, also, a leader of men and women. Sharp, articulate, with a hard nose for news, he was generous in helping less experienced students investigate and write their reports, and an equal to our most experienced maestros during the presentations and discussions. After the J-School, he received various of our graduates as guests in Cochabamba, and opened the doors of the coca growing Chapare region to them.
Although Contreras had large responsibilities as a father, husband, teacher, and journalist in his daily life, he set the gold standard, over the next ten months, for participation in this project. Without ever asking for payment or fee, Contreras authored 22 original reports for Narco News during our final ten months of 2003, including his historic, and exclusive, report last April from the first-ever face-to-face meeting between Bolivian Congressman Evo Morales and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas.
The recruitment and hiring of Alex Contreras to our fulltime news team, in addition to its obvious advances to our mission of reporting on the drug war and democracy from Latin America, also sends some messages that are important to us… that we actively seek to advance and promote our scholars and graduates… that journalistic labor donated to this project is and will always be rewarded… that Narco News is, at heart, a meritocracy, where talent rises… And it sends another important message, too:
Last October, in the same week when we announced that Narco News would have to suspend publication due to a lack of resources, at the time, to maintain the safety net for our journalists who do a sometimes dangerous job, Bolivian authorities illegally detained Alex Contreras at the Viru Viru International Airport in Santa Cruz, where he was returning from a reporting mission in Venezuela, to report on the sudden popular uprising in his own Bolivia. We promote Alex Contreras today, also, to send a message to the authorities and to the U.S. Embassies throughout our region (because Bolivian authorities do not detain journalists without Embassy authorization): That any attack on any of our journalists is considered an attack upon us all… And if they single out our journalists for persecution, well, they will only succeed, again and again, in provoking the promotion of that journalist to a still more influential role in our América.
Returning to Alex Contreras, I think that the influence he will have will be important on the merits. As Luis Gómez remembers, “Alex began his extraordinary labor as a reporter by convincing the editor of a weekly magazine to cover the historic “Land and Liberty March” in Bolivia, in the late 1980s.” Contreras didn’t just report on the march. For days he shared life on the road with the marchers (miners and farmers), a standard that has always marked his style of journalism: always among the people, listening to them, sharing his points of view and daily life as one among the many. Because he’s not a mere “desk reporter,” his colleagues in the Bolivian press corps gave him, in 1980, an award titled “Heroic Journalist.” Those, we believe, will all be ingredients of great value for the readers of Narco News.
On Monday, January 25th, in his city of Cochabamba, I sat down with Alex to offer him this position. He enthusiastically accepted and, as if the heavens themselves endorsed his decision, his cell phone rang. It was Congressman Evo Morales, between flights, calling from the Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima, Peru. (Contreras is the coca grower leader’s biographer.)
Alex and I spent the following days reporting the stories that now appear, or are about to appear, in Narco News. We also located the campus locations for the July-August 2004 session of the School of Authentic Journalism, and secured important institutional, journalistic, academic, and grassroots support for what will be our largest session ever. Soon we’ll announce the exact dates and locations, and invite journalists from throughout América and the world to apply for the (still to be announced number of full and partial) Authentic Journalism Scholarships.
But first, we have work to do, as Authentic Journalists, reporting the immediate news to you. Please join me in welcoming Alex Contreras Baspineiro to the fulltime News Team. Narco News now counts with one of the great journalistic talents of our hemisphere as your, and our, new South American Bureau Chief.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism