Filmmaker who documented Salvadoran gangs is slain

New York, September 3, 2009–The bullet-ridden body of journalist Christian Poveda, whose new documentary on a violent Salvadoran street gang was scheduled for wide release this month, was discovered Wednesday afternoon just north of the capital, San Salvador, according to local and international press reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on Salvadoran authorities to thoroughly investigate the slaying.

Salvadoran police found Poveda’s body sprawled near his car on an isolated road in the town of Tonacatepeque, about 10 miles (15 kilometers) from the capital, according to local and international press reports. He had been shot in the face at least four times at close range. Witnesses told local reporters that they called police after hearing several gunshots. Authorities found an audio recorder and Poveda’s press credentials at the scene, local press reports said.

Poveda, a 52-year-old Frenchman of Spanish descent, had documented violence in El Salvador as a filmmaker and photojournalist over the course of three decades. Throughout 2008, he worked on a highly anticipated documentary about one of the country’s most violent gangs, Mara 18. During the filming of the documentary, Poveda lived with gang members for 18 months. Local press reports said Poveda had received death threats from angry gang members.

The documentary, “La Vida Loca,” had already been screened at international film festivals and was scheduled for wide release on September 30. It showed brutal killings, rites of initiation, and the judicial system’s ineffectiveness in combating gangs.

Tonacatepeque is controlled by Mara 18, local press reports said. At the time of the murder, Poveda was reportedly traveling from nearby La Campanera, a town controlled by Mara 18’s main rival, Mara Salvatrucha. Confrontations between the two gangs have been extremely violent, Salvadoran press reports said.

Local authorities are investigating Poveda’s killing, national police spokesman Hugo Ramírez told the local news Web site Elfaro. According to press reports, authorities are investigating Poveda’s documentary work as a possible motive. Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes issued a statement Wednesday condemning Poveda’s killing and calling for an end to street violence.

“This brutal murder sends a chilling message to journalists in El Salvador, where rampant gang-related violence is the most sensitive issue for the press,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “Salvadoran authorities must ensure that this crime does not go unpunished.”

A CPJ analysis published earlier this year found that journalists covering gang violence in El Salvador and other parts of Latin America had become targets themselves. Gang violence has become widespread in El Salvador, especially in the poor neighborhoods outside San Salvador, the analysis noted. Salvadoran journalists told CPJ that security concerns prevent in-depth reporting on the origins and causes of gang violence.