On a bright Tuesday morning in Guayaquil, photographer Daniella Vacy and reporter Yadira Yesca slid out of a small four by four vehicle and headed towards the entrance of the police morgue. Staffers at Extra, a popular Ecuadorian tabloid, Vacy and Yesca were making their morning round, looking for bodies. An earlier visit to an unattended traffic death morgue had failed, but she swore there was a body inside. “They always turn on the window fans when there’s a corpse,” she said.
Approaching the police morgue, Yesca carried a few copies of that day’s issue of Extra; handing a copy to the guard, she walked through the front gate and into the head medical examiner’s small, dimly lit office, waiting for him to hang up the phone. I do not recall the doctor speaking beyond a few noises of assent. “Are there any dead?” Yesca asked, with practiced disinterest. There were two.
We walked around to the front of the building, out of Guayaquil’s tropical heat and into the cool place where bodies are kept. Vacy, barred by law from entering, stayed outside. A young boy was splayed across the table in a pool of blood, gunshot wounds puncturing his body. Yadira gave the corpse a cursory look, jotted down a few notes, and headed for the door. That, maybe, would be one of the day’s big stories.
Outside of the morgue, the dead boy’s family gathered on the sidewalk, discussing the crime—how the boy was shot dead by members of his girlfriend’s family, angry that the working class boy was dating their middle class girl. Vacy circled around and photographed them, close, while they spoke. The shots were poor substitutes for actual photographs of the body. But, for now, they would have to do.
In August 2008, Ecuadorian Interior Minister Fernando Bustamante issued new regulations intended to crack down on Extra and other newspapers that made a practice of publishing lurid photographs of corpses. He ordered police to keep dead bodies, whether on the street or in the morgue, from being photographed by reporters. The government, claiming that it acted to protect victims’ privacy, emphasized that the order regulated public servants rather than private photographers. But the move was a clear, if indirect, attack on the widely read and controversial daily. Officers who violated the order and let photographers close to an exposed body would be punished.
More than eight months later, the covers of Extra still feature photographs of corpses, regularly adjacent to photos of bikini-clad women. Extra staffers concede that the new regulations have made their job a little tougher. But they say that their dedication to getting the photos, coupled with a network of citizen informers who call in tips, ensures that they often arrive before police, who can be less than diligent in securing crime scenes.
Henry Holguin, Extra’s longtime editor, rejects accusations that the paper exploits misery and death. In fact, he says that Extra is the only Ecuadorian paper that truly belongs to the little people, offering them a shot at justice in a highly unequal country long plagued by police and government corruption, abuse and incompetence. Politicians, he says, are simply embarrassed by the country’s high level of violent crime—and would prefer that it be swept under the rug. “They are more against the people who write about and photograph the murders than the murderers themselves,” Holguin told me.
Extra and other Latin American tabloids differ from their U.S. and European counterparts in their focus on the crime reporting called the cronica roja, or red chronicle. Extra prioritizes blood and gore over the celebrity intrigue that graces the covers of our National Enquirer or the UK’s Daily Mirror. Photo spreads of women in bikinis, like the ones that appear each week in the “Sexy Monday” section, are an important but secondary draw.
It is, by far, the country’s most popular newspaper. Among critics, the paper inspires derision sometimes inflected by class condescension; supporters range from professing a simple epicurean joy to strongly identifying with the tabloid’s more inclusive social realism. For many Extra readers, the paper offers a view of society more closely hewn to their lived experience. While “serious” newspapers report on dramatic events with removed dispassion, Extra represents violence and scandal as those proximate to such events perceive it—that is, sensationally.
“Readers aren’t looking for political or economic information from Extra,” says communications professor Fernando Checa, author of a book about the paper and director of the Quito-based International Centre of Higher Studies in Communication for Latin America (CIESPAL). “They want to read what the paper offers: violence, sports, celebrity gossip, and erotic stories.”