“My guards are almost family": threatened journalist who has been living under 24-hour protection for 20 years

Journalist Cándido Figueredo lives with his wife, and seven guards armed with machine guns, in what he likes to call “my prison.” With a mixture of irony and regret, Figueredo describes his house, which also serves as a branch of Paraguay’s largest newspaper ABC Color. For more than 20 years, Figueredo has lived with a 24-hour security escort, the only way to continue working as journalist in the dangerous city of Pedro Juan Caballero, on Paraguay’s border with Brazil.

Death threats –a result of the journalist’s investigative work on drug trafficking and organized crime in the region – are part of the routine. At least one call a month, in the most peaceful times.

For security reasons, Figueredo seems to live under house arrest. He hardly leaves the house, only in cases of great need. “I have worked for 21 years and 8 months for the newspaper ABC here on the border, of which 20 years and three months have been under police guard. The regional newsroom [his house] and my car have been shot at more than two times,” the reporter told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

Despite the attacks and threats, Figueredo said that in early September, the National Police of Paraguay threatened to withdraw his protection. Currently, the seven guards take turns defending the house, but there are always two men and a woman ready. “My escort is almost family, they have already spent more than 10 years with me,” he said.

"We have a policy to help them to study, to know their family. Once a month we invite everyone to come to dinner at the house and talk. This is also a way for us to have more security," the journalist said. Trusting the guards does not, however, exclude Figueredo from carrying his own gun. The journalist, who lived for 15 years in Europe, thought he would never have a gun.

"We are a product of the environment we live in. In the situation I'm in, the environment in which I live, I have to have weapons, because at some point, no one will want to die for me. I may be alone face-to-face with the drug dealer who wants to kill me and there is the right of every human being to defend himself," he said. Between each sentence, the journalist repeated an appeal: "God give me the strength and help that I will never use that weapon." So far, Figueredo’s wish has been granted.

However, the threats continue. They have become so frequent that he is not reporting them to the paper. “If I talk about them, they publish it. And publishing all the time about yourself is a little boring,” he explained with boredom in his voice. Figueredo thinks people have no interest in knowing about the threats he receives. “Him again, him again,” he said, imitating supposed readers.

So when the phone rings at his home and he hears: "prepare your coffin" or "you will not make it to Christmas," Figueiredo increases his security protocols. "It may be that some threats are only jokes of some drug dealer who wants to play a battle of nerves and thinks [I am going to bug him].’ But again it may be serious, right? So I'm looking after my own life, taking my own security measures."

In this process of “looking after his life,” Figueredo was increasingly moving away from a normal life. Today, his wife leaves the house very little, and when she goes to the supermarket, she needs to be accompanied by armed guards. When he leaves his ‘prison-newsroom,’ he is escorted by two guards with machine guns.

Even with these restrictions, Figueredo manages to maintain an intense pace of work. Most interviews are done by phone or in person, at home. Other times, he sends photographers to the site and Figueredo is in charge of the writing. Only in very special cases does he leave the house for an interview, and on those occasions, the security protocols are studied and prepared beforehand. “If a murder happens on the street or there is a large seizure of drugs, I go out, but there are already a lot of police around,” he said.

But the impact on the couple’s daily life is huge. “I do not participate in life. I’m not going to a birthday, to a wedding. I have no social life. The joy of going to eat pizza on a Saturday night, this does not exist for us.” Figueredo only has a break from imprisonment when he travels by car to Asunción, which is more than five hours away from Pedro Juan Caballero. There, he visits the newspaper’s central newsroom, walks the streets and eats in restaurants. Still, he is always vigilant. “I am in Asunción for three or four days, then I go back to prison,” he said.

On a trip to the U.S., Figueredo realized that he invariably sat facing the door in all the restaurants so that he could watch the people who entered. “My wife said: ‘Here there is no need, be free.’ But it’s hard…It’s been more than 20 years. If you look in the Guinness [Book of Records] I must be there, because I don’t know any journalist who lives like this.”

The fear is justified. Figueredo was born and raised in Pedro Juan Caballero that borders Ponta Porã, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. He is 60-years-old – “But I’m still beautiful,” he said, laughing. During this period, Figueredo saw several businesses flourish in the city: the smuggling of weapons, drugs, coffee, soy, fake whisky…the list is long.  “When I was a child, I saw that people did what they wanted here. It’s always been a violent border, a privileged place for the mafia.”

Only one street separates the two cities. Hundreds of kilometers of borderland, which facilitates escape. “In many stretches of land, there are no homes, only field. If a man kills another, in one hour he is in another country, kilometers away. Even for the police it is difficult to reach, it takes two hours. It’s the perfect crime.”

Violence also affects journalists covering the borders. In Pedro Juan Caballero, at least two reporters have been shot dead since 2013, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “Attacks on journalists have increased a lot here. We (journalists) are publishing a lot of things on narco-politics, and this is bothering a lot of people. And these people have a multimillion-dollar budget, they buy consciences, they buy journalist, judge, prosecutor, police. It’s hard when we rise against them,” he said.

In 2014, Figueredo lost friend and colleague Pablo Medina Velázquez, also a reporter for ABC Color. Medina was killed with five shots, one in the head, after having written several reports on drug trafficking in the region, according to CPJ. Pablo’s brother, Salvador Medina, was also a journalist and was killed in 2011 in the same region. In the case of Pablo, the State withdrew the police escort protecting the journalist a year before his murder.

So, when Figueredo was warned in early September that he would lose his police guard, the reporter was alarmed. According to the newspaper ABC Color, the spokesman of the National Police said, in an interview, that the escort could be removed. “Even the police chief of my own town told me that the order had come from the interior minister. It was a way for the minister to send me a message,” Figueredo said.

He said the measure is retaliation for a series of interviews the newspaper published with the Brazilian trafficker Jarvis Chimenes Pavão, imprisoned in Paraguay. “The Interior Minister was the most affected because the interview said that there were officials (from the ministry) who asked for the collaboration of the imprisoned mobster to buy intelligence equipment, and to negotiate and pay the ransom of a young person who had been kidnapped,” Figueredo explained.

The journalist also said he was not the author of the reports, but was responsible for negotiating with the lawyer of the trafficker, for two months, an interview in prison. Figueredo had interviewed Pavão previously, as well as several famous traffickers, and decided not to participate in the report. It was also a precaution, to prevent exposing himself again.

“I knew the minister was behind it, he is involved with the mafia. And at any time we are going to prove it. But, in order to not have more problems, the newspaper’s director said: ‘It’s better that you don’t show up.’ I am sufficiently locked up in my house,” he said. Still, according to him, the authorities found out about his actions – “my telephone has always been bugged."

Faced with threats, Figueredo visited the U.S. ambassador in Paraguay and ABC Color published content pressuring the government. CPJ, which granted Figueredo the International Press Freedom Award in 2015, also expressed concern about the journalist. “We made a lot of noise and the government backed off. Also, I had a court order for the escort. I went to the court again to renew the protection,” he said.

Despite all these restrictions to his work and personal life, Figueredo does not intend to leave journalism, for now. First, because he doesn’t want to: he is still not tired, he explained. Second, because he believes in the importance of the profession: “I want to still be working in Paraguay. We have to change the country, we have to continue to push the topic, the mafia. There are narco-politics like never before here. The drug traffickers are financing campaigns, supporting politicians. And many are candidates. This is dangerous.”

The third reason is that journalism keeps him stuck, not only at home, but in the profession.

"It works like a shield. If I retire, they would love it. Because the mafia never forgets, they will always want vengeance. So, I believe that I will keep working as long as I have strength.

Before concluding the interview, I thanked Figueredo for the conversation. He, to my surprise, said “Thank you all.” For the journalist, the articles published abroad send a clear message to those who want to get rid of him. “They show that we are not alone, we are watched by colleagues from other countries. I hope they think: ‘Better not mess with him, because it will create problems,’” Figueredo said. “So think of us, write about us.”

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.