Wednesday, April 13, 2016

"The Killing Fields" was my signature project

There are certain aspects of the investigations that led to the El Paso Times news series "Death Stalks the Border" and the books "The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women" and "Cosecha de Mujeres" that can be disclosed to the broader public. The key editors who were key to the success of the newspaper series were Bob Moore, Dan Williams and Mary Benanti.

As time goes on, I will share more behind-the-scenes details, to include my meeting at Landry's  El Paso with two intriguing people, Mexican journalist and author Isabel Arvide, who was arrested in Chihuahua, and Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, a high-ranking Mexican federal attorney general official, who was killed in a 2008 plane crash in Mexico City.
Here is a backgrounder that was prepared for me several years ago about the project:

The cotton field murders site
Behind the “Killing Fields: Harvest of Women”

Diana Washington Valdez is a courageous career journalist who has dedicated her life to serving the public through her work. Her news articles, books, blogs, essays and collaborations with documentaries have given a resounding voice to the powerless.

She is known internationally for her investigative work focusing on the notorious death spree of women that began in 1993 in Juarez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso, Texas. Her book “The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women” was published 2006 by Peace at the Border and released in 2007. An earlier version of the book in Spanish was published in 2005 by Editorial Oceano as “Cosecha de Mujeres.” The expose uncovered high-level corruption related to the women’s murders, the Juarez drug cartel and Mexico’s “dirty war.”

This journalist faced serious threats from corrupt police and prominent people (and a narrow escape from arrest in Mexico) because of her newspaper investigation into the murders. She responded by expanding her investigation into a book, by writing articles for foreign language media and blogs and by collaborating with numerous documentaries.

Sandy Gonzalez, a former Drug Enforcement Administration official in El Paso, told German filmmaker Klaus Wollstein that “Diana’s life is in danger” due to her investigative work. Frank Evans, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation official, called her “a witness to the truth.” Her groundbreaking and meticulous reporting produced extensive exclusive material for her newspaper and for other books and blogs.

Her investigation into the women’s murders uncovered corruption at the highest levels of the government. The book caused such a sensation that it was sabotaged in various ways during its initial release. A Mexican official asked the U.S. government to conduct an inquiry into her book “because it contained information that was confidential” to the Mexican and U.S. governments.

The book was blocked from a South American country, but the journalist arranged to make it available online for free of charge, although it meant sacrificing book sale proceeds. 

FBI agents were present at one of her book signings in El Paso, Texas, and revealed to her later that the drug cartel planned to send people to the event to confront her. The FBI said the cartel people showed up, looked around but left the bookstore without approaching her.

Ms. Washington Valdez was the first also to publicly link members of the Carrillo Fuentes drug cartel to some of the women’s murders, and to expose how similar murders were occurring in other parts of Mexico and in Guatemala, where the same cartel and their associates operated. Dr. Stanley Krippner, a psychologist in California with intimate knowledge of the Juarez crimes, attributed a decrease in some of the murders to her expose.

In 2007, a powerful citizen of Mexico repeated a previous threat against Ms. Washington Valdez and a colleague. Once again, instead of backing off, she decided to continue informing the rest of the world about what was taking place in Mexico. She also extended her work and cooperated with two important documentaries about the deaths, one in English (“Border Echoes”/shown in Hollywood) and one in Spanish “Bajo Juarez”/shown at international festivals). She has traveled to more than 30 cities and to others countries to speak about the murders and disappearances. And, she has written articles and essays for magazines and journals in other languages.

Her stunning series “Death Stalks the Border,” published by the El Paso Times in 2002, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and received a Texas APME First Place Award. It was the first journalism anywhere in the world to develop significant lines of investigation and expose the extensive corruption that impeded the official investigations in Mexico. The series went online in English and Spanish, and was read by people around the world, which eventually attracted others to the border to conduct their own research - journalists, academics, students, artists, musicians, among them. Even today, people who read the series and her books are amazed that one reporter could carry out such a vast project single-handedly. Her 2007 book was hard-hitting and went beyond the series.

Her reputation as a seasoned and respected journalist prompted Spanish-language news media and a book publisher to invite her to publish with them. La Jornada newspaper and Proceso magazine also published articles by her. She received a national journalism award in Mexico for her reporting on the murdered women; her nomination was submitted by Mexican media.

Due to the expertise she developed, Ms. Washington Valdez was asked to brief a U.S. congressional delegation led by U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis (D-California), which traveled to the border to look into the slayings. Human rights investigators and law enforcement officials on both sides of the border consulted with Ms. Washington Valdez for her knowledge about the crimes. She was also asked to provide testimony for an asylum hearing in Texas for a mother of one of the Juarez victims.

[Prepared by Suli Berg]

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