Murder Ballads

Despite new restrictions, bodies still pile up in Ecuadorian tabloid

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.”

For readers, Extra communicates reality, or versions thereof, in a broadly drawn and thus legible way. Stories are dramatic, casting real-life characters as archetypal heroes and villains, narrating a popular moral order. “He Died in the Motel and Revived at the Hospital!,” published on August 13, 2008, led: “Unfaithful husband and brother dies twice while making love with his sister-in-law. His heart stopped in the Las Palmas motel, but it began to beat at the morgue. At the hospital, everything ended.” The story condemns, but savors a sense of divine justice; at the end, it invokes the popular wisdom that bad guys get what they deserve, saying “nothing is hidden in life, and just at the moment that they gave into sin, his heart deceived him.”

Omar Rincón, director of graduate studies in journalism at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá and a media critic for the Colombian daily El Tiempo, has studied sensationalist press throughout Latin America. Sensationalist media inarguably have a penchant for hyping social ills and stereotyping marginalized social groups—in Ecuador, Afro-descendents, indigenous people and Colombian migrants are regularly blamed for crime, backwardness and subversion. Nonetheless, the motivation behind the learned class’s perfunctory disdain is, for Rincón, suspect. “It is a rebellion of the popular classes to mock the prudent classes, the celebrities. It is a rebellion of popular expression, melodrama, magic, mysticism; it’s a form of expressing oneself in the public sphere,” he says.

Editor Henry Holguin boasts that Extra is the common man’s paper and rejects accusations of poor journalistic practices. “Every death, every corpse, everything we publish is absolutely confirmed and absolutely true,” he said. Although his critics call him a sensationalist, he wears the term as a badge of honor. “The sensationalists don’t lie and the yellow journalists do.”

Holguin, a short, stout Colombian veteran of Latin American tabloids, is bursting with energy and provocative anecdotes. His friendliness is unnerving. Fernando Checa, with a mix of admiration and concern, calls him a “guru of sorts.”

He has long been drawn to scandal. As a city councilor running for mayor in Cali, Colombia, he says that he survived nine assassination attempts. The last attempt, in 1987, left him shot multiple times, an attack he was lucky to survive. “I’m like a railroad map all over, with the scars,” he said. “Five centimeters taken off of my arm, two meters less intestine.”

Rincón chuckled when I asked him what he knew about Holguin. “He’s super famous in Colombia from when he worked at [the tabloid] Cromos. He invented stories, but they were great.” He recounted the story of a rare and vicious Amazonian creature that Holguin discovered, la machaca. The only cure for the animal’s bite was to make love within twenty-four hours. Decades later, the story is still a hit, having inspired several salsa and merengue songs and a popular expression, Me picó la machaca (the machaca bit me).

Holguin says that he has apologized numerous times for making the story up. In an e-mail, he enigmatically pledged that la machaca was an isolated incident of make-believe. But Rincón says, and Holguin acknowledges, that the lie was a marvelous one: “The reader wants stories, stories that have a certain verisimilitude to the realities that we live. In Latin America, we live in the jungle, the Caribbean, in magical stories. These are the stories we want to see.”

By 1988, Holguin was looking for a new home, and promised Extra owner Galo Martinez Merchan that he could turn his paper around. The magic formula, of course, was dead bodies and soft-core pornography.

At the time, Extra was a small local paper in the coastal city of Guayaquil, offering a standard fare of reporting on politics, business, and sports. Under Holguin’s leadership, the paper’s circulation increased from an estimated 17,300 in 1988 to 112,602 in 1990. By 1999, Price Waterhouse certified that Extra had a circulation of 190,000. The paper now reaches from coastal villages to the Andean highlands and the Amazon rainforest, claiming a circulation of 200,000—including thousands of copies, Holguin says, put on daily flights to immigrants in New York, Spain, and Italy. By any measure, the paper is Ecuador’s most sold.

I spent two days with Extra’s three-person reporting teams, visiting Guayaquil’s morgues and crime scenes. As I shadowed teams across the city, it was remarkable to watch how eager people were to speak with Extra and play a part in the reporting, as though they were walking into the pages of a book they had been reading all of their lives.

One evening, I was driving around with Extra reporter Vicente Chonillo and his photographer, Cristian Vinueza, when we got a call about a suicide. It took us nearly an hour to get to the scene in a slum far from the city center, described as “near a radio tower” in lieu of a street address. As we got closer, people simply pointed us in the right direction, knowing, in a state of bizarrely organic collaboration, exactly where the truck with Extra emblazoned across the front doors wanted to be.

But the police had beaten us there.

We stood before a shell of wooden frames, absent a roof or walls. We were told that the man’s wife had left him the day before, and he had begun to disassemble his house. At some point he gave up, and hung himself from a rope tied to the rafters. The police had cordoned off the front section of the house, and Vinueza quickly appraised the situation, finding a spot from the rear of the house from where the man’s feet were visible. Given the new rules, Extra must get a photo before the body is covered underneath the coroner’s tight, white carapace. Vinueza took a few quick, ultimately unsatisfying photos.

Although police had ostensibly secured the scene, a neighbor approached to suggest a vantage point from an adjacent property where a clear photo of the corpse could be taken. Vinueza returned to the front of the house, where Chonillo was speaking to neighbors. He showed me a photo of the man hanging, rope still around neck. But Chonillo wanted an image of the shrouded body’s exit, too, and they waited for the stretcher to be wheeled out of the deconstructed house, down a dirt road to a waiting coroner’s vehicle.

While dozens of people crowded in to get a look at the moving corpse, Vinueza climbed a hill where the neighborhood’s children had gathered. Above the fray, he got a few more shots. I was struck that only he and the kids had known where to go. On our way back to the car, people gathered around to ask when the story would be published. We drove back towards the highway, on our way to interview the prominent owner of a local brothel. Chonillo hoped to pitch him a framing of sex lord as entrepreneur. He would, it turns out, be excited about the chance to rehabilitate his image. Chonillo said that he was unsure whether or not the suicide would make it into tomorrow’s paper. “We only publish suicides on slow days,” Holguin had told me. The story never ran.

While Extra has continued to deliver what readers want, the new restrictions have changed things for the paper’s writers and photographers. Photographers say that they have to work just a little bit harder to get around the somewhat more vigilant police force. Checa said that Extra had incredible access before the 2008 rules, especially in Guayaquil: “The reporters had total access from the Guayaquil National Police. They could photograph the corpses whenever they wanted. They could even come in and set up a scene to make it look more dramatic.” He said that they once re-hung a suicide victim for a photo. (In an e-mail, Holguin hotly denied the charge.)

The government’s motivation in strengthening rules on the public visibility of dead bodies is unclear. Commenting on the new regulations, Education Minister Raúl Vallejo was quoted in the Guayaquil daily El Universo as saying that the cronica roja “is in and of itself a degradation of humankind. Death and pain are personal. I believe that to commercialize them is an attack on decency.”

Extra and its defenders say that the government is simply distracting the public from domestic economic and political controversies. But many countries do not allow photographers into morgues. Omar Rincón says that he is not aware of such restrictions in other Latin American countries, although he had not heard of Ecuador’s before I told him about it. While he acknowledges that tabloids can have a less than constructive social impact, he calls the government’s move wrongheaded: “If reality is violent and pornographic, then the sensationalist papers have to see it as such.”

While Checa mocks elite criticism of Extraand its readers, he agrees with the new rules, saying they are a reasonable measure to protect the privacy of victims and their families. Yet aside from requiring a higher level of investigative creativity and a faster reaction time from reporters and photographers, Extra’s work and sales continue.

After interviewing the dead boy’s relatives and eliciting the story behind the murder, Daniella Vacy and Yadira Yesca left the police morgue and drove to the scene of the crime. The neighborhood was unsurprisingly poor for Guayaquil—the city is spectacularly impoverished. We approached a bloodstain on the gravel street. Neighbors approached to recount their story of and proximity to the murder, helping Yesca reconstruct the geographic layout of the previous day’s violent encounter. Vacy began her rapid-fire, point-blank photography, inducing a somewhat confused response from a few of the neighbors. They seemed like they did not want to be photographed, but pinned between Yesca’s soothing, friendly voice and Vacy’s impersonal, mechanical consistency, the women were unsure of how to avoid it, and so relented and continued the interview.

Vacy then found one of the bullets on the ground, near the bloodstain, picking up where police incompetence left off. I was shocked that the police had missed the evidence; Vacy and Yesca were unimpressed. Thursday’s page two blared: “They killed him for dating a preppy girl!”

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Daniel Denvir is a reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.