The Road to Mérida: Interview with Al Giordano, publisher of Narco News 1/17/03

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A few years ago, veteran US journalist and Abbie Hoffman protege Al Giordano pulled up stakes and disappeared south of the border "somewhere in a land called América." After a couple of years learning the language and the culture, Giordano reemerged as founder and publisher of Narco News (http://www.narconews.com), an online newspaper reporting on the drug war and democracy from Latin America. Giordano and Narco News quickly made a name for themselves as a hard-hitting, scoop-generating investigative organ.

Narco News is probably best known for its victory against Banamex and its owner, Roberto Hernandez, who unsuccessfully sued Giordano and Mérida newspaper publisher Mario Menéndez for libel over their publication of stories linking him to the cocaine traffic. But Narco News has also specialized in scrutinizing the reporting of the mainstream media on Latin American issues and has played a key role in the removal or resignation of mainstream journalists in Mexico, Bolivia and Venezuela for conflicts of interest that shaded their reporting. Giordano and Narco News are cosponsors of the Out from the Shadows conference. DRCNet conducted the following interview by e-mail on Thursday:

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Week Online: Why are you devoting your time and resources to the Out from the Shadows conference in Mérida? What do you see coming from it?

Al Giordano: As a journalist covering the drug war and democracy from Latin America, I've had to do a lot of traveling and go up a lot of mountain and jungle roads to get the news. It's been wonderful, its the life I chose after all, but it takes a lot of time and all my resources to do the job. As soon as DRCNet began working toward this first-ever drug legalization summit in our América, I got very excited. You know what I thought first? Oh boy! Now all these eyewitnesses, leaders and critics of the drug war are going to be coming down those country roads and assembling in one place. It's a journalist's dream event!

It would take me years to travel to all the places the participants are coming from: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela, just to name some of the places where real news is happening on my beat, are all big countries with many powerful voices and eyewitnesses to the disaster of the US-imposed war on drugs. The thought of having them together, in Mérida -- a warm and sunny city I love on the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico -- for four days in February fills me with joy. To be able to witness the historic days when the coca growers of the Andes meet indigenous leaders from Mexico, and all the other kinds of people who are coming -- legislators, law enforcers, union and religious leaders, and an army of Authentic Journalists! Plus, many old friends from the United States, Europe, Canada and the countries I've already reported from are coming. It is going to be fascinating to see them all cross-pollinate and launch strategies and collaborations together in many cases.

Big things happen when good people meet in February in Mérida. It was in February 1999 that I met Mario Menéndez there, when I was covering the Clinton-Zedillo drug summit. From that was born a continuing collaboration that made, among other things, Narco News, an Authentic Journalism renaissance, and a landmark Free Speech decision in the United States possible. The land of the ancient Maya is conducive to that sort of encounter. Now, multiply that two into twenty or two hundred of the hemisphere's most courageous truth-tellers, social fighters, drug war critics and journalists, all together, and it's kind of like: Nitrogen, meet Glycerine; I place my bets on these people to move the hemisphere and the world. And other colleagues and I will be there to report it.

There's no doubt in my mind that what is about to take place will be historic, a turning point, where we the people -- and the people includes journalists -- place the US-imposed drug prohibition policy into check, if not checkmate. It is time for the United States government to walk its talk on democracy. Civil Society in Latin America already fights daily for authentic democracy: including the right of each nation and people to determine their own policies regarding drugs and all other matters that meet their distinct human needs in each region. Well, if we're for democracy, we have to get out of the way. And if we're gringos, we have a responsibility to make our government live up to its slogans of democracy and freedom.

I am coming to Mérida mainly to listen, and to help other journalists, particularly young journalists, to understand the tremendous significance of what is happening here. If you come, and you listen to the Latin American voices, you will not just hear the standard complaining that plagues so many conferences on so many issues. You will hear solutions, from the ground-up, from lands where real progress is being made. You will also hear some very distinct ways of thought about how political change is made in the face of powerful and violent vested interests than the limited political discourse in the United States. There are strategies and movements occurring in places like Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela, among others, that if applied within the US, you could collapse the drug war and the illusory set of myths that prop up this obsolete policy.

Now, it's true, I've gotten very involved with this, contacting the people we've interviewed on Narco News from these corners of América, inviting them. This is, frankly, the first organizational effort I've done in a long, long time. I don't belong to any organizations. I don't attend meetings of groups except as a reporter. This being an event sponsored by the Autonomous University of Yucatán, it's an academic conference. I don't mind participating in education, particularly for a gathering in which so many younger people are involved.

WOL: You are holding the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism in conjunction with the conference. What is that all about?

Giordano: Well, this is how I first got involved with the summit. After DRCNet announced the event, and I thought about the number of stories that will come out of this gathering, I thought, "oh my, I can't eat every gourmet dish at this banquet. I'm going to need some help!" That's where the School of Authentic Journalism was born. We're going to be in veteran journalist Mario Menéndez's city, where his staff and family and friends, of course, have a lot to teach, and I already knew some very outstanding journalists and educators coming or already nearby, so the base corps of professors was already going to be there.

And I am frankly desperate for help at Narco News. It's no longer just a guy with a laptop. We've also got Luis Gómez, our Andean Bureau Chief, who is in Bolivia covering the coca growers' blockades this week. And now we've got Dan Feder, our Associate Publisher and Webmaster. And Narco News is lookin' good. But the story and the readership are already too large even for three of us. We don't even sleep anymore. Imagine having to cover two October elections in Brazil, a November election in Ecuador, a new coup attempt in Venezuela in December, a new coca crisis in Bolivia in January and the Mérida Summit in February... and at the same time organize a School of Journalism! But it's the latter project that, I hope, will vastly expand our network of collaborators on the news reporting end of immediate history.

Vale la pena, as we say South of the Border.

I get a lot of mail from young journalists. They are of course horrified at the corporate media industry's behavior and they ask smart questions and have plenty of fresh ideas about how to bypass this borg and go directly to the people. And so I contacted all of them, and put out a call far and wide announcing six scholarships for a ten day workshop in Authentic Journalism. The thing then just kind of took off. 125 journalists filled out extensive applications, and after reading them and seeing so much talent, I kept finding ways to include more than six students. Doing a lot with a little is our credo anyway. Our student body is now 26 scholarship winners. A grant from the Tides Foundation made that possible. There were frankly other extremely talented and qualified applicants who we just don't have room or resources to include.

So now we have the reporting corps for all the aspects of the Mérida conference. These students are going to work hard during the Summit. Each will have assignments to cover certain panels, or interview certain voices, or write about certain angles.

Here's an example: When one of our scholarship students, Noah Friedman-Rudovsky, he's coming from Brooklyn, saw The Week Online's interview with Dr. Jaime Malamud-Goti, the former Argentina Attorney General last week, he mentioned how much he admired Jaime's book, "Smoke and Mirrors," about the drug war in Bolivia.

Noah's one of our more experienced students. He's 26, has lived in Bolivia, speaks good Spanish, has covered the coca wars in the Chapare, the mine workers in Potosí. He's also a very talented photographer. One review of a show he did in New York compared his black and white work with that of the Brazilian legend Sebastian Salgado, and I'm inclined to agree. And since he's read Jaime's book already, he now has the assignment to interview him in depth for our Merida coverage on Narco News. Now, that's going to be an interesting story. In your interview with Jaime he said he might surprise himself by what he has to say. Well, Noah's coming in knowing his work and his heroic history in Argentina already. He's the right reporter for the job.

I'm sure Noah will do other reports as well. Multiply that by 26, and then send these reports global over the Internet, in English and in Spanish, and suddenly a lot more people than the summit attendees are going to learn a lot. I'm going to learn a lot reading that interview, all those interviews.

We had a particularly large and talented bunch of applications from Brazil. I think that reflects the hope of the younger generation in the giant country to the South. They know the drug war and they know media. They've got the raw talent and they're developing their craft of journalism. That's convenient, because Brazil, with its new and popular government headed by a drug war critic, is going to need a lot of authentic reporting starting this year as its drug policies evolve. My professors are as eager to work with these youngsters from all the lands as I am. I think this is the only J-School that charges zero tuition, pays students to come, and where the professors work for free and pay our own way for the privilege of ushering in Authentic Journalism's next generation. Everybody seems happy with that model. Oh, and did I mention: no grades and no report cards. Fear and profit are not the operating principles of this J-School: we've banned both.

WOL: What is your position on legalization?

Giordano: I favor the legalization of all drugs, including those I have never wanted to use. The drug war infantilizes society, it treats sovereign human beings as children in need of supervision. It causes a lot of damage to people and the environment. It makes authentic democracy impossible. The toll on human rights, peace and the Amazon must be stopped. It's urgent. We document those abuses non-stop on Narco News. But this is a newspaper that was born to die. If the real kingpins of the narco-trade -- the governments, the banks, the money launderers, corrupt officials and corporate interests -- are getting more and more troubled by our reporting, I have a very simple solution for them: Legalize drugs, match your rhetoric on democracy and freedom with deeds, and there will be no need for Narco News anymore. And I'll go back to being a guitar-player. Do we have a deal?

WOL: Under a legal, regulated drug market, many people currently earning a living in the trade -- from drug-farming peasants in Latin America and Asia to inner city street dealers in the US -- would presumably see their opportunities decrease. Have you given any thought to that? Has anyone?

Giordano: The real money isn't at the level of the farmers -- who are paid very poorly for their product, abused, arrested, eradicated, shot at -- or the street dealers -- also paid very poorly for their product, abused, arrested, imprisoned and shot at. The real money is in the laundering. That's who will get hit: the big bankers and financiers, and the politicians they prop up.

The end of drug prohibition would free up society's resources so that we could have more schools and less jails, so farmers could grow food instead of poppy, and democratic participation would rise vastly for the simple fact that soldiers and police will no longer be able to take change agents out of action by planting drugs on them: a long tradition South of the Border, and something that happens North of the Border, too. With the pretext to stamp out social movements gone, the priorities of governments would have to change.

I think the goal goes far beyond causing governments to change. I think -- and this is where the indigenous autonomy movement and the economic libertarians have a lot to talk about with each other -- that Latin America's current movements are showing us a way to make the State -- governmental, economic or mediatic -- irrelevant to vast sectors of daily life and get it out of the business of repression, simulation and wars, including drug wars.

Once the poor and the workers are empowered to participate without repression, their needs become better addressed. Then your peasant farmer and inner city youth will, in fact, have their lives improved with more opportunities, not less. But the super-wealthy white collar narcos, they're going to take the hit. And that's only fair: they collaborated in bringing us this problem. They're not entitled to make the rest of us pay for their greedy and inhuman disaster.

WOL: Narco News is well known to DRCNet members for your coverage of the drug war in Latin America and your victory in the Banamex libel case, but you've been up to more than that. Recently, for example, you have devoted significant coverage to the effort to unseat Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Why is Venezuela important to Narco News readers and have you expanded your mission, or is the attention to Venezuela an extension of that mission?

Giordano: Almost from the moment that we launched, in April 2000, our method of drug war reporting, it became clear that we were not just covering a "single issue." A drug legalization movement was whispered but not yet shouted in Latin America back then. And it only becomes voiced under democratic conditions, free of fear. And it only becomes heard outside our own readers and networks when the audience of Authentic Media expands or when the large commercial media outlets cease ignoring. Efforts to cause both are necessary. We found, in terms of English-language coverage of Latin America, a Bosnia of bad journalism. (Perhaps that's unfair to Bosnia, but you know what I mean.)

So we had to do various things simultaneously: Report on the drug war, protect and defend the democratic conditions that make its debate possible, and expose the misdeeds of the media, which has been like shooting fish in barrel. These correspondents for commercial media down here never had any scrutiny in English before on the scale that we've given them. And we've noticed that the mere act of scrutiny and exposure causes much media to have to do a better job themselves.

The attempted coup last April, and again in December, in Venezuela, had it succeeded, would have set back the clock in Latin America 30 years, and brought back the fear factor that haunted the hemisphere for the late 20th century. Few were covering the story as it truly occurred. It was a compelling moral responsibility not to sit back and do nothing while the democratic conditions were being erased. And so we jumped in. I didn't sleep last April either. Then something happened: Narco News readership doubled almost overnight, and has doubled again, largely because people who wanted more accurate news out of Venezuela began tuning in, and the drug war reports then, coincidentally, have a wider readership.

Now, I do get two kinds of letters very commonly. The first is typically from North Americans who, like us, favor legalization. Some consider themselves libertarians. And they want to know "what does Venezuela have to do with the drug war." I mean, coca doesn't even grow in Venezuela, right? And an educational process has been underway. And I think by now many of those good people now see that the fate of the Latin American legalization movement's chances is absolutely affected by whether Venezuela's democratically elected government survives or is removed by military, economic or media coup.

And then I get another kind of letter: From the pro-democracy reader, who came in mainly to read the news from Venezuela, who says: "How can you call for legalizing drugs?" And an educational process has ensued there. And as these two kinds of people begin to dialogue and read of each other's positions, a very politically aware kind of citizen is being born. The two issues -- democracy and drugs -- are not separate. You can't pull them apart. And now the opponents of prohibition and the opponents of imposition -- as we can see most concretely in Bolivia right now -- are forging a whole new social movement that is rocking this hemisphere. This is where the energy comes from that is going to be like a supernova a month from now in Mérida.

WOL: Given your experience in Latin America, are there areas where you think North American drug reformers are naive or not getting the big picture?

Giordano: Let's not say naive or phrase it negatively. Let's just say that all of us from the developed world have a tendency for some very rigid ways of viewing and doing things that are socialized into us from birth. We're all naive about some things and masters of others.

Let me instead phrase it this way: The North Americans have a common interest with the South Americans. I'm speaking of people here, not governments. The governments are in the way and we have to move them out of the way. The corporate media is in the way, too, because it has served to prevent dialogue or understanding between different cultures. It has merely inflamed ignorance and fear. And as we've seen in the US, it took an educational process for the economic libertarians to finally build alliances with the civil libertarians and give the US drug policy reform movement two wings -- right and left -- to fly. And that's when we started winning referenda and making clear progress.

Now this process is underway on a larger hemispheric level, where there are even wider differences in approaches and opinions on economic issues, on how we define democracy (top down? or bottom up?), on what precise drug policies different communities want, there has to be a respect for coalition. But what happens is wonderful to watch: a grudging respect soon blooms into an excitement, an education, and new ideas and effective strategies that come when diverse people work together. It gets everyone "thinking outside the box," as they say. And just as you have gringos like me in Latin America who feel truly at home, and Latin Americans who have migrated to the North and appreciate things about the United States that most of its citizens take for granted, you begin to fall in love with what you once feared. And the world is born anew.

My work is no more or less complicated then that of any other Yenta: I've fixed you all up on a date, and it's going to happen in Mérida, and I'm also trying to stay out of the way enough to give it the space to happen. I'll have something to say at the conference, but people have heard enough from me already. Other voices are coming "out from the shadows" now. So I'll be somewhat cloistered at the J-School, working with our students, getting this story reported.

A couple of favors I'd like to ask from the attendees:

May my readers forgive me in these weeks for not being as responsive as you're accustomed to via e-mail with all your queries and questions. My e-mail box is overflowing to capacity a lot and sometimes mail is bouncing. That's probably going to get worse for the next four weeks as we finalize the plans for these events. It's involving a lot more work than meets the eye. Prior to the conference, the amount of news on Narco News may temporarily decrease. But once the summit gets going it will exponentially increase.

May my journalist colleagues seeking interviews with Narco News in Mérida talk to Luis Gómez. He is our spokesman at the Mérida Summit. He's a Mexican journalist who lives in the Andes and you already know him by his stellar reports from Bolivia, Brazil and Ecuador this year. Now you're going to meet him in person. Luis, in addition to being a top shelf journalist, is a very articulate, fun and knowledgeable guy. He has better people skills than I do. He will be the voice of Narco News. He knows many of the leaders attending this event from South America that you're going to want to interview. He's going to be the voice and face of Narco News at this event. I won't be giving the interviews.

And finally, may the conference attendees, particularly so many of my old friends, excuse the reality that makes it necessary for the School of Authentic Journalism to be a closed shop. We have no more room for students. And we have an enormous reporting job to pull off over those four days. Only students, professors and staff will have the laminates to enter our closed campus facilities, near the conference. It's an autonomous operation. There's not physical room for additional people to "monitor" the courses. If you haven't been asked by me to be a student or a faculty member prior to coming to Mérida, we're not taking new ones there. I'm sorry about that: we are going to do part of our program publicly with a journalists' panel at the Mérida Summit, and there will be a party at some point hosted by Narco News, the J-School, and our friends at Salón Chingón, to which our readers and friends will be invited and where we can kick back and celebrate together. Of course, some of our faculty members will be giving presentations at the conference, too. I'll be introducing Mario Menendez at a plenary session. But mainly we have a lot of reporting to do for all the readers back home who can't be physically present.

You folks who are attending and participating in the conference are going to be the stars of this show. We're just the reporters. Help us, and especially our 26 students, do our jobs. Whatever message you bring to Mérida, say it well, and we'll make sure you're heard all over the world. And see you at the Narco News party. I'll be introducing another member of our news team, briefly, there: that old Dobro guitar that the narco-bankers failed to win in the "Drug War on Trial" case. Because it looks like the drug war may be over before many people think, and that there will soon be a new generation of Authentic Journalists doing my job better than I do, and so I have to start practicing for my next career.

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Issue #272, 1/17/03 The Road to Mérida: Interviews with Participants in the "Out from the Shadows" Campaign | The Road to Mérida: Interview with Dr. Francisco Fernandez, Anthropologist and Former Rector of Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán | The Road to Mérida: Interview with Al Giordano, publisher of Narco News | Bolivian Government Represses Coca Protests, Four Dead... So Far | Ed Rosenthal Medical Marijuana Trial Underway -- Judge Blocks Mention of Prop. 215, Has Trouble Seating Jury | Canadian Prime Minister Promises Motion on Decriminalization as Courts Continue to Chip Away at Marijuana Laws | Latin American Anti-Prohibition Conference, Feb. 12-15, Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico | Cumbre Internacional Sobre Legalización, 15-Dec Febrero, Mérida, México | Newsbrief: Souder Pushes Partial HEA Reform, Frank to Reintroduce Drug Provision Repeal Bill | Newsbrief: Racine Caves Before the Ravers | Newsbrief: MPP "War on Drug Czar" Continues -- State Reacts to Allegations | Newsbrief: 12 Dead in Brazil as Drug Police Raid Shantytowns | Newsbrief: Mexican Soldiers Bust Narcs | Newsbrief: Colombian President Seeks Iraq-Like Mobilization Against Traffickers | Newsbrief: Some Colombian Terrorists May Be More Equal Than Others | Newsbrief: Alaska Lieutenant Governor Disqualifies Marijuana Legalization Petition Signatures, Proponents Vow Fight | Newsbrief: Return of the RAVE Act | Newsbrief: Ecstasy Rarely Kills, British Study Finds | Alan Shoemaker Ayahuasca Legal Defense Fund Needs Support | Media Scan: Washington on Forchion, Cockburn on Rosenthal, Forbes on Walters, Szasz on Drug Medicalization, Bruce McKinney, GAO on DARE | DC Job Opportunity at DRCNet -- Campus Coordinator | The Reformer's Calendar
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