Guatemala City, Guatemala – Mobile phones started ringing last Thursday evening. Incoming text messages beeped and Twitter was abuzz. Everywhere people were saying that the notorious head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was rumoured to be killed in a shootout near the Mexican border.
Slowly, authorities started confirming bits and pieces of information.
Government spokesman Francisco Cuevas told national and international media that two rival drug-trafficking organisations had clashed somewhere near the Peten jungle, 400 kilometres northeast of the capital. Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla said teams were dispatched to recover the bodies of two casualties.
By the end of the night, Cuevas and Lopez Bonilla were at odds. The president’s spokesman continued to do on-air TV interviews saying the facial features of one of the bodies looked like El Chapo. He assured the Mexican government would cooperate in fingerprint and DNA analysis. At the same time, the interior ministry and military sources said it was residents of a nearby town that reported the physical resemblance.
But by noon Friday, authorities retracted. Not only was Guzman alive, but there wasn’t a crime scene or a body either. There hadn’t been a shooting; nothing was true.
The announcement fired up broad criticism, much of which targeted the Guatemalan government for confirming dubious rumours without sufficient evidence. Media critics, however, pointed out the inflated story reveals more about today’s journalism and what is considered news, rather than it does about officials’ credibility.
“When it comes to a sexy story – like Chapo’s life, or death, or even choice of breakfast cereal – misinformation can be not only unverifiable but irresistible,” said Erin Siegal, senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism in Tijuana, Mexico.
Stacking up the facts
Lopez said he received an avalanche of calls from local outlets, news agencies and international press shortly after 7pm Thursday evening. He was with the defence minister at the US ambassador in Guatemala’s home for a reception. All journalists without exception, he said, called to confirm similar information: a shooting that had taken place in Peten, two had died, and one resembled Guzman.
“Over the course of the next hours, we hope to confirm or deny if the world’s most prolific drug trafficker is one of the victims.”
– Francisco Cuevas, government spokesman
“The influx of requests was so overwhelming, both the defence minister and I began asking our internal intelligence sources and they confirmed that a rumour existed in the area,” Lopez said.
But a spokeswoman in his ministry told reporters Guatemalan authorities had requested the drug lord’s fingerprints to compare them to those of the man found inside the vehicle. She said Guatemala needed the cooperation of Mexican authorities.
Guzman is the most wanted man in Mexico. He is on the run since escaping prison in a laundry cart in 2001 after he was captured in Guatemala in 1993.
Forbes magazine estimated the Sinaloa drug cartel leader’s net worth at $1bn, and the US is offering a $5m reward for information leading to Guzman’s arrest. Recently, Chicago named him the city’s “Public Enemy Number One”, the first criminal to receive the moniker since US gangster Al Capone.
Lopez tried to clarify what happened. “When we spoke of DNA and fingerprint analysis, we were speaking in hypotheticals. Even the Mexican president called Otto Perez Molina [President of Guatemala] to discuss the situation”.
“Over the course of the next hours, we hope to confirm or deny if the world’s most prolific drug trafficker is one of the victims”, said the president’s spokesperson Francisco Cuevas on the night of the incident.
As international outrage broke out over which official was in the wrong, various accounts surfaced in Guatemala over how the rumour mill began. A political gossip column in the daily El Periodico newspaper even insinuated two inebriated reporters called Cuevas, who then took it upon himself to propagate the news.
Cuevas did not return requests for comment on the allegations.
Role of journalism
Others, like Ioan Grillo – author of the non-fiction book El Narco, which explores the underbelly of the multibillion dollar drug trafficking industry – say in similar cases authorities usually have previous actionable intelligence.
“With budget cuts and shrinking resources, newsrooms rely more and more on second and third-party information they can’t easily verify.”
– Erin Siegal, Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism
“Information can come from two sources, confidential informants like snitches or wiretaps. Sometimes it could be by accident but it is highly unlikely,” said Grillo. “In this case, I think an informant gave such information and authorities were too quick to come out with it.”
For Gustavo Berganza, executive director of the Doses Association specialising in media analysis in Guatemala, journalists should have been more sceptical when dealing with reports in remote areas that are difficult to independently confirm.
He said despite having a generalised culture of cynicism ingrained within Guatemalan journalists covering high-ranking officials, there is a tendency to place value on the authority of the person saying it, rather than what is being said.
“Pope Benedict XVI could call you to tell you that Adam moved his hand in the Sistine Chapel fresco and it’s a miracle. As a devout Catholic you could believe this to be true,” Berganza said to illustrate his point. “But as a journalist, the job consists of verifying the elements that could point to how veracious a claim is not a fabrication of reality.”
Siegal said the same is true of international newsrooms. “With budget cuts and shrinking resources, newsrooms rely more and more on second and third-party information they can’t easily verify.”
Kelly McBride, senior faculty of ethics reporting and writing at the Poynter Institute in St Petersburg, Florida, likened the sensitivity of the story to one reporting the death of Osama Bin Laden.
“When Osama Bin Laden was killed there was one tweet from Abbottabad that said that something sounded like an explosion. As journalists we have to have the ability to sort from eyewitness accounts from those who are simply repeating what they heard.”
For McBride, the role of journalists is no longer to create or break new information, but to “sort through information that has been pushed out into the ecosystem”.
“In the end”, she said, “early scepticism is never a bad idea.”