Kicking Down the Door at the "House of Death"

This is Lalo, the man to whom the U.S. government paid $260,000 to act as an informant -- and the man believed to be responsible for at least one murder, if not many more.
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The cover story in this week's issue of Unfair Park is based largely on court documents and internal government memos, most of which can be found at The NarcoSphere, an online project of the Narco News bulletin. Unlike other publications that have covered the House of Death story, Narco News has not ignored the story's most interesting, and important, aspect -- the well-documented way in which Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, as well as the Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Attorney's Offices in El Paso and San Antonio, have tried to cover up how an informant on their payroll participated in and witnessed murders at the House of Death. In fact, Narco News, and reporter Bill Conroy in particular, have driven the story since The Dallas Morning News first broke it in 2004.

Narco News is not supported by advertising, and most of its reporters (many of whom have other jobs in journalism) work on a volunteer basis. Its mission, in the words of its publisher, Alberto M. Giordano, is to report "on the drug war and democracy from Latin America" and to "stoke the Authentic Journalism renaissance." I recently caught up with Giordano (via e-mail) to talk about the House of Death story, his definition of Authentic Journalism and the impact blogs like his are having on the way news is covered.

You guys have been all over this House of Death story from the beginning, giving it its name even. How big of a deal do you think this story is?

It's very serious when the U.S. Justice Department is found to have protected a drug-war informant that was committing serial murders under its watch. And then to see how far the DOJ, Homeland Security, the FBI, the DEA, the Attorney General and others have gone to cover-up the story offers a textbook example of how your government works (or doesn't work).

Authentic Journalist Bill Conroy has driven that story from day one. He broke it on Narco News and he has kept pulling the thread, revealing that the US government has never been serious about the drug war: that it's only a pretext for other agendas, and in fact the State is complicit in drug trafficking and protecting some who do it even as it spends billions of tax dollars on eliminating their competition.

One of the lesser-sung triumphs of Conroy's House of Death story came after Homeland Security agents went to his home and his office, threatening him, his family and even his boss at another newspaper (Conroy does all his work on Narco News on his free time, and he's never asked for or been paid anything for it). And when Conroy refused to back down and offer up his sources to save himself, it raised a lot of eyebrows inside US law enforcement agencies. What has happened since is truly amazing: a great many honest law enforcers, unhappy with the institutionalized corruption of the federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, concluded that Bill Conroy is one of those rare journalists that can be trusted, hell or high water, to protect his sources.

That's when the spigots opened even wider, and the number of federal whistleblowers grew exponentially. And now more than ever all kinds of important but closeted documents find their way to Bill Conroy. And this has led to other stories and series about similar injustices throughout the US law enforcement complex, especially along the US-Mexican border.

It's another example of how journalism, when authentic, works hand-in-hand with the public -- in this case, honest law enforcers tired of the BS, prejudice and mistreatment imposed on them from upstairs -- to get the story out there.

The thread is still being pulled and week after week Conroy's reports expose that things are seriously wrong inside the U.S. war on drugs (and its war on immigration) and its agencies. Impressive is that he's not Woodward and Bernstein with the backing and budget of The Washington Post to expose Watergate in the '70s. He's one journalist with the backing of a low-budget online newspaper, but the story is playing out very similarly to that of Watergate. It will end with heads rolling from high places. The Post, the NY and LA Times...they don't do that kind of work anymore. If anyone wonders where that kind of spirited investigative gumshoe reporting went, well, here it is. That, too, is what we mean by Authentic Journalism.

Why do you think the major American press (networks, NYT, etc.) have not picked up on the story?

Because the House of Death story doesn't bring them upscale consumers to show off to advertisers: in sum, it doesn't make them money. It also pisses off the "official" sources at all the law enforcement agencies. When big media reporters upset those guys, the sources dry up, and they're no longer spoon-fed the easy stories. Finally, there is just plain resentment. Here is Bill Conroy, evidently and obvious to all, being a better reporter than they are, and he's not even getting paid for it. They've gotta feel pretty humiliated about that, no?

How would you assess the way commercial media, especially in the U.S., covers the so-called War on Drugs?

The same way every working and poor member of the public assesses it: It's crap. The Commercial Media and its reporters serve the "official" sources that guide their stories. In 1990 I wrote a cover story for Washington Journalism Review (now American Journalism Review) titled "The War on Drugs: Who Drafted the Press?" That was 17 years ago. The situation was pathetic then and it is more so now.

Of course, a million drug war prisoners in the United States don't advertise on the mass media. They don't exist in Commercial Media's version of "democracy." Neither does every young person harassed and persecuted because he or she dress differently, or because of the music they listen to, or because they are poor, or black, or Chicano or gay or hillbilly or redneck or maybe have a tattoo or a piercing. The drug war is the big excuse to persecute them as scapegoats for what the bankers and money launderers do to society under a prohibitionist drug policy. And the Commercial Media doesn't touch the real kingpins, because they own the companies that advertise. They also cut checks to the Republican and Democratic parties and get invited to White House dinners.

But after all these years of investigating "the narco" I can say with certainty: They are the real narco-trafficking bosses. The media, though, focuses only on the user or low-level dealer or paints the organizations that transport the stuff as "cartels," which they are not. A cartel, by definition, sets the price and the market, like OPEC does with oil. Those aren't the ones doing that. The real cartels are headquartered on Wall Street, in Washington, and in the other centers of finance and power.

What is your definition of Authentic Journalism?

Por Esto! on the Yucat�n peninsula uses the phrase "periodismo autentico." I found the words -- "Authentic Journalism" -- that better fit my own vision of what it is that I have tried to do all these years. It says: We're the real practitioners of this work. And the Commercial Media is the alternative, the less real thing.

That was in 1999. In 2000 I started publishing my work on the Internet, at Narco News (www.narconews.com). And I found out, very fast, that I was not alone. From that came a much larger movement, now with 300 journalists and co-publishers across the American hemisphere that view this work not as a business, but as a calling, as our way of participating in our society and its struggles. From that also came the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, which has trained more than 100 journalists in Mexico and Bolivia from throughout America.

We don't seek to "reform" the Big Media or "make it less bad." We seek to replace it by doing better and more honest work, divorced from the profit motive and its inherent corruption. Seven years into the project, it is evident that the shift is underway. Public credibility -- our only capital -- is with projects like ours now, not with the Commercial Media.

Have your reporters ever been threatened because of their stories relating to the drug war, either by government officials or criminal elements?

Narco News, Mario Menendez and I were sued by Banamex -- the National Bank of Mexico -- in the New York Supreme Court in 2000: that was the most celebrated case. And we won. I've already spoken about the attacks by U.S. government agents on Bill Conroy. Additionally, Narco News reporters have been detained by police or military in Cochabamba and the Chapare region of Bolivia, in Oaxaca, Mexico, in New York City, and elsewhere and we have always worked overtime and successfully to get them out. We did that without a dime of support from the Commercial Media's institutional "press freedom" organizers, which only exist to protect the corporate "journalists." We did it ourselves with the network of journalists and citizens we have organized.

What sort of precautions do your reporters then take to protect themselves?

Somebody always stays behind -- and out of the conflict zone -- to be a kind of "ground control" for reporters in dangerous locations. He or she keeps in constant contact with the reporters. Copies of passports and visas and contact numbers are kept in safe places. Lawyers are on call 24/7 to go in and get protective orders or win the release of those unjustly imprisoned, and we study the laws of each country where they work. I have a reputation among our team as "going ballistic" whenever any of ours have been threatened or detained. All other work stops until our reporter is free and safe again. We make a lot of noise when that happens. It has so far worked to shame the authorities into releasing them. There are many other precautions that each individual reporter in the field takes, and we go to considerable effort to only send in people who are prepared and not reckless. I don't wish to explain what those precautions are because why give those who want to silence a reporter a roadmap of his or her safety precautions. Suffice to say, we've done some pretty innovative things, most recently in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, a truly dangerous place for a reporter these days.

And, finally, considering how many journalists have died covering these matters, why have your reporters chosen to cover these topics, when doing so could put their lives in danger?

We report on social movements in which entire populations place themselves in the exact same danger. In that context, we don't see ourselves as doing anything particularly special or heroic. We simply share the risks with thousands who are not reporters but like us are human beings and want a better society. If journalists are to be part of society -- and not some stuffy out-of-touch caste that considers itself above it -- we have to assume those risks. Anyone who won't do that has no right to call himself a journalist. Any news organization that doesn't allow its journalists to do that is inauthentic and they should ask not for whom Authentic Journalism tolls... it tolls for them. --Jesse Hyde

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