Óscar Martínez is the co-founder, coordinator, and reporter for “Sala Negra” (Black Room), the investigative unit that covers gang violence for Central America’s first online-only newsmagazine El Faro (The Lighthouse).
After working as a freelance reporter in Mexico, Martínez joined El Faro in 2008 to help carry out an in-depth investigation of Central American migration across Mexico. For two and a half years, he followed migrants as they traveled north and documented the abuses they suffered, including mass kidnappings, rape, human trafficking, and massacres. The reporting project, first featured on El Faro‘s website under the name El Camino (The Road), was eventually published as a book in 2013 under the title The Beast, the nickname for a network of freight trains that crosses Mexico. Migrants often cling to the back of these trains as they make their way through some of the most lawless and violent towns in Mexico.
In 2011, Martínez co-founded “Sala Negra,” which quickly gained a reputation for conducting hard-hitting investigations into extrajudicial killings by police, one of the most taboo subjects in El Salvador. He told CPJ that with the high level of violence in El Salvador, many people see criticism of the police as siding with the gangs. In August 2015, Martínez and a colleague were forced to leave the country for three weeks after receiving repeated death threats for an investigation into the murder of eight alleged gang members by the police.
Martínez has a special security system including panic buttons at his house, and he has said that he worries about taking his 3-year-old daughter to public parks. Still, he told CPJ, “I don’t think we’ve suffered yet even 1 percent of what those who we write about suffer.”
CPJ has documented threats against El Faro, including in 2012 after the newspaper published an article describing an organized crime network in the northeast part of the country. A few months after the story ran, the website’s staff members reported being followed and photographed by unidentified persons. The founder and director of El Faro, Carlos Dada, told CPJ at the time that he suspected police were following the staff to identify sources mentioned in the article. The minister of security, retired Gen. David Munguía Payés, told CPJ he had no knowledge of anyone following El Faro staff members and that no such order had come from any government office.
Martínez won the Fernando Benítez National Journalism Prize in Mexico in 2008 and Human Rights Prize at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University in El Salvador the following year. He won the WOLA-Duke Book Award for The Beast in 2014. His second book, called A History of Violence, was released in March 2016. In July 2016, Martínez was also awarded the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, which honors journalists for their outstanding coverage of the Americas.
The text of Óscar Martínez’s acceptance speech, as prepared for delivery, is below.
I’m grateful to CPJ for honoring me with this award. I’m grateful to them for raising their voices for journalists in the most crucial moments. What they do protects.
I am grateful to my family, for always being a refuge in the storm. Let me tell you a story.
In July 2015, El Faro published a story titled, “The police massacred in the San Blas ranch.” We fulfilled one of the missions of investigative journalism: to show that the official version is often false. They said that, during a confrontation, an elite police unit killed eight gang members. Eight bodies were left scattered on a ranch in an impoverished corner of the country. Two of them did not have guns, one belonged to a 16-year-old girl.
We showed that they lied. It wasn’t a successful confrontation. It was a massacre. Not all of them were gang members.
El Salvador is today the most murderous country in the world. We had a savage war for 12 years and, since 1992 when we signed an end to it, we have had a very violent peace.
My newspaper understood what it meant to accuse the police of a massacre that a large part of the population would applaud. El Faro took us out of the country on the day of publication. Men in civilian clothes searched for us in our homes.
The key was a witness. Consuelo, a humble 48-year-old woman, a woman who doesn’t know how to read or write, who survived the hard labor on the coffee ranch in spite of missing one arm. She heard how her 20-year-old son Dennis, an employee on the ranch, begged the police to let him speak. Then she heard a gunshot.
Dennis died from a single shot that passed through his head from top to bottom.
While we were abroad Consuelo continued in her house of mud. We published her name. We decided it would protect her and force the state to look out for her security. Four months after the publication, Consuelo received death threats and fled.
The case is now in trial. After this massacre, another 33 cases of police execution are under investigation. Consuelo remains in hiding. She decided not to abandon the country.
Some of our sources have been brought to court, threatened, killed. And yet, when we ask them whether they are sure that they want to risk speaking, they say it is worth it.
They ask me if journalism brings change. Again and again, I reply that at a slow, indecent pace, yes, it does. The moral force of people like Consuelo is what keeps me going. This woman demanded only one thing: tell the story. Tell it well.
Covering these issues is a painful exercise. Frustrating. And it will continue being so. It puts us at risk and our families at home will suffer this burden. But we don’t owe this work to ourselves alone in this room. We owe it to people like Consuelo. This maddening job offers us the possibility that the truth of a poor farmer can trump the truth of a lying government.
Here in front of you all, I repeat that I should never forget that. Thank you.