|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
WOL: What is your position
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
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
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
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.