Alma Guillermoprieto
Nieman Class of 2005

UnknownGuillermoprieto writes about Latin America for The New Yorker, and for the New York Review of Books and other publications. In 1982, while working as a stringer for the Washington Post, she became one of only two reporters (the other was the New York Times’ Raymond Bonner) to break the story of the El Mozote massacre, in which the Salvadoran army slaughtered nearly 1,000 unarmed villagers. Guillermoprieto briefly worked as the South America bureau chief for Newsweek but realized that she “really needed to have the freedom to write the things that I think are most important and most of the time that isn’t news.” She said, “I like to take my time and chew things over and look at what happens after the news. That was very hard to do as a staffer at a news magazine.” Her books include The Heart That Bleeds: Latin America Now; Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America; Samba (as a girl, she trained in dance); and Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of Revolution. She has received a MacArthur “genius” grant and a George Polk Award, and in 2003 was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. At the invitation of Gabriel García Márquez, in 1995, Guillermoprieto taught the inaugural workshop at the Fundación para un Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano, a Colombian journalism institute that García Márquez established.

Recommended reads:

• A Hundred Women,” The New Yorker, September 2003. Excerpt:

I went to Chávez’s tidy middle-class home in Juárez late one afternoon to rummage through a few of the boxes of files she keeps in her study. The press clips made it clear that the victims were for the most part maquiladora workers, high-school students, and shop clerks. They were invariably young: the largest cluster of victims were between fifteen and twenty years old, and they were slender, dark-skinned, dark-haired, and pretty. Their most important characteristic, however, had to do with race and class: dark-skinned, long-haired young girls waiting at a bus stop or emerging from a factory are likely to come from families that are poor and nearly defenseless in a bureaucratic, overloaded, and user-hostile legal system. I found a dearth of credible suspects in the clips, or even police sketches of possible assailants, but there was a numbing quantity of photographs of victims’ relatives, holding banners and demanding justice in endless marches and demonstrations, or denouncing the offensive treatment they had themselves received at the hands of the police—the jokes, the laughter, the obscene insinuations about the victims’ secret lives. When I left her study, Chávez, a petite, even-tempered, and self-possessed woman of seventy, was in the living room in a favorite chair, nursing her daily treat of a whiskey-on-the-rocks. Since she began keeping track of the murders in Juárez, she has counted ninety-six “feminicides,” or sexual homicides—women whose deaths didn’t seem to be part of a larger wave of killings by husbands, pimps, gigolos, neighbors, stepfathers, and the like. The bodies of the victims—strangled or beaten to death, often raped and, sometimes, hideously mutilated—are found in the desert days or months after the girls fail to come home. Their faces are often disfigured, the skulls crushed. The autopsies sometimes reveal that they were kept alive for days before being killed. “You know, when I first started looking into these murders, and I found out how these girls had died, I didn’t sleep for days,” Chávez recalled. “I kept thinking about how, in their final hours, they must have prayed for death.” She pondered for a while. “I thought that it was just a question of getting the information out, so people would know what was happening, and then it would stop. I thought it would all be over after a few months. And now it’s ten years later and nothing has changed.” 

• “Salvadoran Peasants Describe Mass Killing; Woman Tells of Children’s Death,” Jan. 27, 1982; the Washington Post. Excerpt:

The 15 houses on the main village street had been smashed. In two of them, as in the sacristy, the rubble was filled with bones. All of the buildings, including the three in which body parts could be seen, appeared to have been set on fire, and the remains of the people were as charred as the remaining beams.

Several small rural roads led away from the village to other groups of houses that collectively are known as the Mozote community. We walked down one, an idyllic path where every house had a grove of fruit trees, a small chicken pen and at least one beehive. Only the fruit trees were intact; the hives were overturned, the bees buzzing everywhere. The houses were destroyed and looted.

The road was littered with animal corpses, cows and horses. In the cornfields behind the houses were more bodies, these unburned by fire but baked by the sun. In one grouping in a clearing in a field were 10 bodies: two elderly people, two children, one infant–a bullet hole in the head–in the arms of a woman, and the rest adults. Although local peasants later said they had buried some of the bodies in the area, the guerrilla youths acknowledged they had asked that the corpses be left until someone from the outside could be brought to see them.

• The Heart that Bleeds, a collection of New Yorker pieces from Latin America. Excerpt:

On January 31st, the Pepes made their debut by blowing up the country home of Escobar’s mother. Days later, they set fire to his wife’s country home and also to his prized collection of antique cars (including a Pontiac that he bought apparently under the false assumption that it had once belonged to Al Capone). In March, they killed Escobar’s most respectable front man, and also kidnapped and shot — but did not actually kill — one of Escobar’s lawyers: an autopsy revealed that he had died of fright — a heart attack — moments before being shot. In April, they killed Escobar’s cleverest lawyer. In June, they kidnapped and shot one of his brothers-in-law. The Pepes’ determination and modus operandi inspire great respect — so much that I feel moved to conceal even the name of the city in which I met with a gracious, amusing antique dealer who has an intimate knowledge of the drug trade and close friends among the Pepes.

This is the inaugural installment of our Featured Fellow series highlighting Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling. The series honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 in September.

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