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.