20 years after the wars, journalists view archives as a way to make sense of Central American conflicts

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  • February 26, 2014

By Alex Wilkins*

A panel of journalists gathered Feb. 21 at the 2014 Lozano Long Conference at the University of Texas at Austin to reflect on their coverage of the Central American revolutions from the 1970’s to 1990’s. The roundtable discussion featured the raw accounts of the journalists and highlighted the importance of a new effort by the university's LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections to develop the largest collection of archives dedicated to the wars that took place in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.

The roundtable was moderated by Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas founder Rosental Alves and was comprised of six speakers that directly experienced and covered the wars including Robert Rivard, director of Rivard Report; Jean-Marie Simon, board member of the Guatemala Human Rights CommissionMercedes de Uriarte, UT journalism professor; John Burnett, National Public Radio correspondent; Donna DeCesare, UT journalism professor; and Joseph B. Frazier, former correspondent for The Associated Press.

“You had to be young and a little stupid to go do it,” Rivard said of covering the wars. Since his experience in Central America he has continued to document the civilian struggles during the revolutions and has also worked to seek justice for a journalist killed in Mexico through his book “Trail of Feathers."

A recurring theme in the discussion was the difference between how the wars were depicted in the United States and what was really happening. In countries where terror tactics were used as a form of information control and the only information provided was military propaganda, journalists often struggled to find sources willing to speak to them. The low number of journalists covering the region left many important stories untold.

Many of the speakers also said they found it difficult to continue covering Central America during the post-war period. "No one was interested in the post-war story. My editor thought I should go to Bosnia," said DeCesare, who continues to cover Central America as the violence shifts and changes form. DeCesare says in her recently published book "Unsettled" that she sees a lot of connection between the violence experienced during the wars and the more recent rise of gang violence.

Excluding the Library of Congress, LLILAS Benson now has the largest Latin American collection in the nation, including the recently acquired Digital Archive of the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive.

Now these archives are helping to fill in many of the holes left by journalists at the time. “The daily journalism we produced is a very incomplete version of history. We did the best we could, but I’m glad gatherings like this are trying to get it right finally,” Burnett said.

*Alex Wilkins is a student in the class "Journalism in Latin America" at the University of Texas.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.