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[Don't Quote Me]
A conversation with Al Giordano

On the eve of his return to New York City to answer a libel suit brought by Banamex executive Roberto Hernández, Narco News Bulletin publisher/editor/correspondent Al Giordano took part in an e-mail exchange with the Phoenix’s Dan Kennedy. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

DAN KENNEDY: Why the Narco News Bulletin? You’ve done good work writing for the Phoenix and the Valley Advocate, and hosting a talk-radio show in Western Mass. Why did you want to go off completely on your own, and why did you want a cover a topic — the war on drugs in Latin America — that everyone knows is important but that few people really care about?

AL GIORDANO: Dan, first let me say that it is a pleasure to be interviewed by you again. The last time you interviewed me, in 1993, you were the news editor at the Phoenix, looking to hire a new political reporter. I hope this interview goes at least as well.

I’ll answer your lead question with what the lawyers call a leading question: if “few people really care about” how the US government is waging the war on drugs in Latin America, then why is Narco News getting an average of 20,000 to 25,000 hits per day after just one year of publication?

When Narco News began publishing on April 18, 2000, we began with an opening statement (http://www.narconews.com/opstate1.html). We posited that if the American public was “poorly informed” about the drug war in the larger América (we are speaking of the América with an accent), it was because we the public are burdened with a “poorly informing” US media.

I had spent three years — 1996 to 1999 — pretty much away from the journalism business, except for three freelanced stories in the Boston Phoenix, written from Latin America. During that time I learned Spanish, stayed in various indigenous communities, and walked with social movements.

We said in that opening statement that many Latin American journalists were doing a better job than their US colleagues in covering the drug war, and vowed to translate their work, which we did and continue to do. We said there was an unreported drug-legalization movement in Latin America that would soon shake the foundations of US drug policy. Many folks didn’t take us seriously, but I’ll return to that point momentarily because they sure take us seriously today. We said that Mexico was particularly key to this movement-in-formation because it has a unique power to stand up to the impositions of Washington. And we said that a “war on drugs” implies that things eventually go “boom,” and that the military war was coming to Latin America because of the wrongheaded US-imposed prohibition on drugs.

Since then, immediate history has unfolded and found Narco News was correct on each of these points. Let’s take a quick tour through a few parts of our América, one year into Narco News:

— Colombia: Washington has now revealed its bellicose agenda with the Plan Colombia $1.3 billion military intervention in the Andes. And a real antiwar movement is building in North America, not to mention throughout Latin America. You’ll see manifestations of that later this month, when 20 heads of state hold their “Summit of the Americas” event in Quebec City from April 20 to 22. The action will be in the streets — à la Seattle, Prague, Davos — and it will fall heavily upon the US-picked chairman of the Organization of American States, former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria, who has betrayed his own people by backing Plan Colombia. Put on your seat belts.

When Plan Colombia was first ratcheted up by the Clinton administration, it might well have become the “wag the dog” scenario: war as re-election strategy. We actively set about to close the spaces that Washington had to manipulate this scenario, with no weapons in our hands other than words and facts to break the information blockade. In August and September of last year, Narco News conducted daily online press briefings on Plan Colombia — shadowing and exposing the lies coming out of the State Department, diffusing various “Tonkin Gulf”-type provocations based on official disinformation. And we went right after the linchpin of the plan: Colombian paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño, documenting how US officials tolerate his drug-trafficking activities and calling to task the US reporters who wrote about him while withholding the basic fact on this war criminal: he’s a narco-kingpin (http://www.narconews.com/nmonth0900.html). Now, the US correspondents have to mention his drug-trafficking history. They didn’t always do that beforehand.

Bush, like Clinton, keeps looking for an opening to escalate the shooting war in Colombia. They’re very persistent, but so are we, and so is the antiwar movement at home and abroad. They may yet escalate it, but it will not happen in silence. Nor is the European Union going to support a military solution: we’ve been translating the news from overseas as well. Thus, the resistance in Latin America and in Europe to this bloody drug-war plot now has voice inside the US. And it will continue to be seen and heard for as long as Narco News is around.

— Bolivia: The country was paralyzed by two months of social unrest last autumn by coca growers and indigenous, labor, and water-rights groups. The nation was literally shut down by road blockades between its farming regions and its cities. La Paz, the capital, ran out of food. It should be no surprise that the “reporter” who controlled all the English-language news coverage in the US from that country — AP Bolivia correspondent Peter McFarren — resigned in disgrace after we exposed last October that he was part of the problem: a lobbyist, powerbroker, and socialite in La Paz who had a secret, undisclosed financial link with an $80 million water-export project, that is to say, with the narco-regime of President Hugo Banzer. And for 18 years McFarren had posed as a “journalist” — US newspapers called him “Mr. Bolivia,” the go-to guy for coverage of that country. The Washington Post credited me with the story of his downfall. It wasn’t me! I credit my sources: members of the social movements in Bolivia who responded to my questions about McFarren, whose coverage of events in Bolivia was pure fiction. Bolivian Civil Society came forward with the information that led to this shocking story. My only real role was having gained the trust of those movements by the work that I do; they took care of the rest.

And now, thankfully, there is a kind of “McFarren syndrome” among US correspondents down here, and that’s a good thing. The days are gone when they could operate without scrutiny. Their coverage is still dreadful, but now they are at least forced to write about stories they could have ignored previously. Narco News is a real pain in the ass to the impunity that US correspondents used to have here. And we’ve only just begun to fight.

— Uruguay: The president of Uruguay, Jorge Batlle, became the first American head of state to call for legalizing drugs. He did it in front of a slew of US correspondents last autumn at a Latin American presidents’ summit in Panama. Nobody in the US press corps reported this major story. So Batlle, nobody’s fool, did it again, in Mexico City, in front of US correspondents, at the December 1 inauguration of Mexican president Vicente Fox. The US correspondents all withheld the story from their readers! The only foreign agency to touch it was EFE, a wire service from Spain. Narco News wasn’t there at either of those events, but we saw it one day while doing a routine monitoring of Uruguay press reports, and voilà!, on December 22 we ran with the story (http://www.narconews.com/heroyear2000.html). Clifford Krauss of the corrupted New York Times, caught with his pants down in Buenos Aires, had to file a quick news brief the very next day to cover his bruised rump. Ha! I just have to laugh. The drip, drip, drip of the facts is coming out, and these phony “journalists” act like it’s Chinese water torture. It’s not torture: it’s authentic journalism!

By the way, Dan, you’ll note that I prefer the term “authentic journalism” to “alternative journalism.” I refuse to be a mere “alternative” to something that is corrupted, tired, and worn out. Those guys in the big national dailies, the wire services, and the TV networks are imitating an authentic journalism that once existed. We who are the real thing should not relegate ourselves to being just an alternative. We are the real thing! When a fedora hat comes back into style, as my granddad, who wore one, said, it’s not an alternative hat. It’s the original!

— Peru: Another surprise, to some, from the past year: the fall of President Alberto Fujimori and his enforcer, Vladimiro Montesinos. Both of them were set up, supported, and covered in their atrocities by US policy — including CIA involvement in protecting their role as major narco-traffickers. On January 1 of this year, Narco News published a story by Peter Gorman — a High Times editor who has spent many of the past 18 years in Peru — explaining why Washington had turned against the regime it once had controlled. Gorman wrote that the US government turned against Fujimori and Montesinos not because of their cocaine trafficking, but because Fujimori had spoken against Plan Colombia (http://www.narconews.com/gorman1.html). After that story, Gorman received a visit from US Embassy representatives at the riverside bar he owns on the Peru-Colombia border. They admitted that his Narco News report was accurate but told him that they were not happy with what he wrote, and demanded to know his sources. Gorman declined to reveal his sources, but he wisely got out of Peru. And he published another story on Narco News, based on sources he interviewed: that the US has contracted mercenaries on a pay-per-kill basis to assassinate rebels and farmers who flee from Colombia and Peru once the shooting starts with Plan Colombia (http://www.narconews.com/iquitos1.html). Gorman is a very brave journalist who has done his homework in the field, and I’m proud to publish him on Narco News.

— Mexico: Okay, my answer is getting long, but we’ve only been through four countries! Next stop on this tour: Mexico. Here we are reaching the crux of the matter. “The speed bump on the road to the New World Order,” as the late philosopher Terence McKenna defined Mexico in a Phoenix interview I did so many years ago. You might even have edited that interview, Dan! Mexico has a grand power before the United States, based on its border proximity. Washington can, when all is said and done, invade almost any country militarily or destroy a nation’s economy with an economic blockade. The history of more than a century in this entire hemisphere is a history of this domination, of Mexico included. Thus, it has been a history of fear, of disregard for human rights, and a history of imposed policies, among them the prohibition on drugs.

The first thing I concluded after walking thousands of miles with the indigenous movement and other social movements in Mexico, after becoming fluent in Spanish and talking to thousands of Mexicans from all walks of life, is that there is no ideological support for drug prohibition here. There is opposition to the violence, the corruption, and those who engage in it. And there is, of course, the desire to protect children from drug abuse. But nobody is under the illusion that the drug laws accomplish that. It’s commonly accepted that the drug war is a war to be waged to please the gringos, to stave off the punishments of Washington. The second thing I concluded is that democracy in Mexico is very dangerous to the US-imposed policy, including that of drug prohibition — no wonder Washington propped up single-party rule in Mexico for 71 years! So what has happened over the past year in Mexico?

The end of one-party rule with the election of Vicente Fox.

The imminent victory of an armed indigenous movement out of Chiapas and the passage of constitutional reforms to recognize indigenous rights in the San Andres Accords. Did you ever read the San Andres Accords in English? No? No newspaper has published them? I’m shocked and stunned! Narco News published them last December, as Fox was inaugurated (http://www.narconews.com/mextransition2.html). Did you know that the San Andres Accords, when made law, will restore the rights of all Mexico’s 56 indigenous ethnic groups, 10 million people, to the ritual use of sacramental plants that are currently illegal under the drug war? Did you know that the accords will restore local indigenous systems of justice that do not imprison drug offenders, and yet have had more success stemming drug abuse and narco-trafficking than any other society in the Americas? Narco News readers do know that.

The Mexico City police commissioner, Alejandro Gertz Manero, called last May for a “Holland-style drug policy” in Mexico (http://www.narconews.com/hollandmexico.html). It was Narco News that translated his words to English and sent them worldwide over the Internet. Oh, and what’s Mr. Gertz doing today? He’s now the public-safety czar for the Mexican federal government (http://www.narconews.com/mextransition3.html).

Mexico’s secretary of state, Jorge Castañeda, Colin Powell’s counterpart, is a long-time backer of drug legalization (http://www.narconews.com/mextransition1.html).

The chief of the federal police, Miguel Angel de la Torre, is now a legalization backer (http://www.narconews.com/pfp1.html).

So are Mexico’s leading human-rights leaders and journalists (http://www.narconews.com/concha.html).

And just recently, as the Zapatista Army for National Liberation made its final gambit to force the federal congress to listen, at long last, to the indigenous movement — on the same day, Mexican president Vicente Fox said that he, too, favors drug legalization (http://www.narconews.com/splinters.html).

So, Dan, that’s the quick tour. We could also go to Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, the Caribbean, and Oh Canada and see that US-imposed drug policy is becoming increasingly isolated. Narco News doesn’t take credit for any of this: these are the democratic impulses of all América. But if you speak English, you wouldn’t know these facts if not for Narco News. A year ago we said, Hey, check it out, something is happening here, something historic, that will turn the tables on the failed policy of drug prohibition, and very few journalists or officials took us seriously. They’re taking us seriously now! Enough so that the narco-system — the real powers that benefit from the drug war, from money launderers to narco-lobbyists in Washington — are trying to silence Narco News. We take that as a sign that we are on to something.

KENNEDY: What are the logistics involved in producing Narco News? I’m not looking for your actual physical address, but how do you live? Do you have any income — grant money, donations, and the like? What kind of traffic do you get?

GIORDANO: I speak in the first-person plural about Narco News because it is participatory journalism. It seeks to involve Civil Society — the citizenry — of all countries in seeking the truth. As we said on our first day of publication — it’s posted on our front page (http://www.narconews.com) — we’re conscious that our truth is not the only truth. It is our truth, but it needs your truth, and everyone’s truth, in movement, “to make a bigger truth.”

So Narco News is a “we,” but it’s also a “me.” Narco News is my work of authentic journalism, and it’s still a work in progress. You’ll note that we haven’t written our closing statement yet. Narco News is to me like a painting is to a painter, and you’re all here in the studio. Sometimes I even add you, the reader, to the painting. It’s really a kind of book that I invite the public to read over my shoulder as I type. I want the reader to comment, to help me improve upon it. The public has responded very well to this concept. There is a bond between my readers and me that I did not have when writing for newspapers. It’s direct and immediate. An e-mail from an anonymous person can change the course of a story. And I get a lot of e-mail. Sometimes I get hundreds of e-mails in one day.

You’re not looking for my address? Dan, you could auction it off! It was funny to see the overpaid lawyers of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld in Washington trying to serve me with the legal papers for the lawsuit they’ve filed on behalf of the Banamex bank against Narco News, Mario Menéndez, and me. A reporter called them one day last December. The lawyer — a humorless slash-and-burn artist named Tom McLish of Akin, Gump — begged the reporter, “Do you have Al’s phone number? Do you have his address?” And for weeks on end, despite all the hundreds of people who know my physical location, nobody ever turned me in.

There’s a very funny attempt to help poor McLish on Barry Crimmins’s Web site (http://www.barrycrimmins.com). It’s titled: “Where’s Al?” Of course, there is no law that required that I stop what I’m doing to answer to them. I made my point about that, and I didn’t want to leave my Mexican colleague, authentic journalist Mario Menéndez, alone to face these good-for-nothing Keystone Lawyers and their frivolous lawsuit. So in February I finally waived service and entered the case voluntarily. That was my plan from the start, but one has to walk to his own rhythm in this world, not the pace imposed by the greedy grabbers. My friend Bruce Berman, now of Save the Harbor in Boston, used to tell me that I should have business cards that say nothing more than “Ask Around” as my address. I think he was making fun of me. But it’s still funny. Jesus, if we can’t laugh, we’re already dead. Officially, my address is “from somewhere in a country called América.” I wasn’t thinking about sleazy lawyer-lobbyists when I began signing all my Narco News writings with that address. I was more concerned about corrupt governments and white-collar narcos coming after me. Besides, it’s not as if the whole world can’t find me by e-mail — narconews@hotmail.com.

Part of it is also a tip of the Mao cap to Subcomandante Marcos, who has signed many communiqués “from somewhere in the Lacandon jungle.” My work is derivative as can be of his work. I admit that. Why? Because his work works! Winning is a priority for me. And it’s also a tribute to Simón Bolívar, who said, “the name of our country is América,” which is the motto of Narco News.

So the proverbial Narco Newsroom is wherever I travel, my laptop and me. It’s all done off a laptop. I got a grant from the Angelica Foundation to buy the first laptop, and ran it into the ground in one year. They gave me a second grant last fall, and that’s the laptop that produces Narco News today. I’m taking better care of this one, I hope. Narco News has virtually no financial overhead. The annual rent is $270 per year, and that’s for a super-fast and very reliable server at Voxel.net (http://www.voxel.net). Those are really good and ethical people at Voxel.net, too — I really recommend them. Poor McLish sent them a letter, but they wouldn’t censor Narco News. So not only are they technical wizards, but also moral ones. That was a very key moment. That’s when the tables turned on the lawsuit against us, and the defense became the accuser, and the accuser began to hide. Poor McLish won’t even give a direct interview to the press anymore; the best you’ll get out of him is a faxed statement — and now the Drug War itself is going on trial. I’m sure you’ll ask me about that shortly.

Narco News accepts no advertising. We’ve had offers of up to $2000 a month to put a single ad banner up on our site. I refuse. Why? What’s the point? I can support Narco News with my other work as a journalist, a translator, and a researcher. The real point of Narco News is that any citizen can do better journalism than many journalists, that free speech means you don’t pay. The idea is not to make money! It’s to make an argument, and to defeat a bad policy.

So I sell occasional stories — in the past month, to the Phoenix, to the Nation, to the Evergreen Review literary magazine — and I do translation and analysis work on drug policy. But there is a separation between church and state. None of my newspapers or clients has any say over Narco News, nor are they responsible for its content. It’s my child. The words are my children. Would you share custody of your children even with people of the best intentions? To a point, I suppose, but in the end, it’s your kid, and you’ll keep custody. More writers should think of their words as their children. They wouldn’t be nearly as careless about their work.

KENNEDY: A few years ago, when you were still at the Phoenix, we had several discussions about your philosophy about editing. As I recall, you had reached the point where you actually opposed editing as a matter of principle. Could you expand on that? Also, if there is something inherently wrong about an editor shaping the words and thoughts of a writer, why isn’t it wrong (or is it) for a writer to shape the words and thoughts of the people he writes about? What is the journalist’s obligation?

GIORDANO: Ha! An editor’s view of Al’s policy on editing! Dan, you’ve been on the writer’s side of the barricades for a number of years now, and welcome home! Let me recruit you here. (But be careful! You may end up agreeing with me, leave your career, end up homeless and broke, wander in the jungle for four years, and then resurface again writing freelance articles for the paper you left!) But it is a war, the relation between editor and writer, and it has to do with power. What I have proposed is more balance in that power relationship.

In my 1997 work, “The Medium Is the Middleman: For a Revolution Against Media,” I devoted an entire chapter to the written word and the editing process. I quoted Paul Goodman on this question of editing. “Format,” he said, “is a style imposed on the literary process that is extrinsic to it.” I guess I’m really talking about format — and too much of editing today is a matter of imposing format upon the writer and the reader.

I suggested, in that work, that there may even be a role for editors, and suggested a new title for that craft: the “immediator.” That is to say, someone whose role is not to mediate the relation between writer and reader, but to “immediate.” Someone not to impose format upon the writer, but, rather, to work for the writer to help him and her say what we want to say. I do think it would be an interesting newspaper that let the writers hire the editors. You used to edit me, Dan. I would hire you. You have these qualities. So does Clif Garboden, who has edited my freelance pieces for the Phoenix. But then dammit, Dan, you went and rejoined the ranks of the writers, and, now let’s play nice, I just didn’t have that chemistry with your successors. Or they didn’t have it with me. Honestly, I don’t even remember the last kid’s name, but he lasted about three stories with me. And here I am, still kicking, albeit from the outside kicking in. (If those last sentences get through whoever edits this interview, well, okay, the revolution is winning, and not just in Mexico!)

But let me talk about “The Medium Is the Middleman,” and make up for my bad manners by giving the Phoenix a scoop that will interest the readers of your excellent music critics. That pamphlet was the worst career move I ever made. And it was the best human-being move I ever made. I just let it all spill out there: years of working for the media, in print, on the radio, on TV, on the Internet. Five thousand copies were circulated in English, and then it was translated into Spanish — “Los Medios Son el Intermediario” — and it was better received south of the border.

There is a story about “The Medium Is the Middleman” that I have never told publicly before. It has to do with the singer Jeff Buckley (1967-1997). Jeff was my friend. And after he died so tragically (Buckley drowned in the Mississippi River in Memphis), I didn’t want to join the long line of opportunists trying make a career move out having been associated with him. Jeff’s death was, for me, the last straw. Want to know why I went to Chiapas “to die or to be reborn,” as I later wrote in the Phoenix? It was Jeff’s death. There are people who knew this then. I was really crushed. On his last night in New York, before heading to Memphis, we were together until dawn, when he left for the airport. That was the last time that I or anyone saw him in New York. Penny Arcade, his good friend, and John Wilson were there, too, bidding him goodbye as he left at 7 a.m.

Now it can be told, because somebody wrote a kind of dual biography of Jeff and of his father, Tim Buckley, and part of this untold story appears there. Also I think the Phoenix, so important to the Grand Pooh-bahs of the music industry because it has more college music consumers as readers than any other paper in the nation, is the right place to tell this story. And Sony can go fuck themselves, let the chips fall where they may. I don’t know who told the biographer this story, but it can only be one of two or three people, because it wasn’t me, and few knew. I was in Mexico by the time the biographers descended upon Jeff’s thousand new “best friends,” and I was really sick over his death.

Anyway, here goes; the secret history of Jeff Buckley and the road to Narco News:

Jeff had read “The Medium Is the Middleman,” and we discussed it at length. He applied my critique of the media industry to the music industry, and we had the exact same conclusions. Sony, in the spring of 1997, was giving him real problems over whether he could choose his own producer. He wanted Tom Verlaine (http://12.11.184.13/alt1/archive/music/reviews/01%2D04%2D96/dylan%5Fsmith%5Fsidebar.html), the virtuoso guitarist, to produce his album, and Sony wanted to impose another editor — um, I mean producer. So we had a common story. And we also had big plans for how to explode this idea upon the public psyche. Jeff had a lot of spectacular terrain and also a voice of five octaves — if you know about music, you know how rare that is. And he had an intelligence that not enough people saw because he was also physically very beautiful. But his mind was razor sharp, electric. He had a mind, let’s say, of six octaves.

Jeff turned my book into a song, titled “The Sky Is a Landfill.” The concept of the song was that the media turned the airwaves into a garbage dump. Arcade called it his “magnum opus.” Let me find the passage from this biography . . . okay, here it is:

“Nonetheless, Jeff, Verlaine, and the band managed to nail preliminary versions of four songs. One of them, an anthemic wall-toppler called ‘The Sky Is a Landfill,’ was inspired by ‘The Medium Is the Middleman: For a Revolution Against Media,’ an anti-media tract by writer Al Giordano.”

That’s from the book Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley, by David Browne (HarperEntertainment, 2001).

Jeff also said — and I don’t know if this is in the biography, I haven’t found it yet in Latin America, but it is published on one of his fans’ Web sites:

“I don’t write music for Sony. I write it for people who are screaming down the road crying to a full blast stereo. There is also music I make that will never ever be for sale. This is my music alone, this is my true home, from which all things are born and from which all my life will spring untainted and unworried, fully of my own body.”

So you can see why we got along. This was the stuff that was churning in Jeff when he went for his final swim. Whatever demands Sony was placing on his album were eating him alive. And then he had an accidental death, swimming with his boots on. He never came to shore. But I took my memory of him to Mexico. And one night, weeks later, in the highlands of Chiapas, I was alone in the dark, crying over his death, I mean, sobbing, and keeping silent so no one would hear. And an old man named Don Andrés found me there in the dark and sat down next to me (http://12.11.184.13/boston/news%5Ffeatures/top/documents/00669432.htm). I was busted. And although he was three times Jeff’s age, Don Andrés somehow filled part of that loss for me. And he took me on four years of study, a learning that continues today, and that probably prevented me from going swimming in the Usamacinta River with my boots on. And every time I see Don Andrés, which is often, I think of Jeff. I think Jeff would like that. Don Andrés has a life of five octaves of struggle.

And sometimes when this narco-lawsuit in New York becomes a drag, or something else bugs me, I think, ah, if only Jeff were here. He’d be so proud that these assholes were suing me. But that’s a benefit concert for the defense that can’t happen. I’ll bring his memory to court with me. You can take that to the narco-bank.

KENNEDY: I read Michael Ruppert’s “Courage” essay (http://www.copvcia.com/courage.htm), which lists what he thinks are your biggest triumphs with the Bulletin. But I’m curious to know what your own take on that would be. What have been the high points of the Narco News Bulletin?

GIORDANO: The highest point was the release of four indigenous prisoners from the Cerro Hueco penitentiary last month in Chiapas: Norberto López Rincón, a great-grandfather framed on drug charges, and also David Hernández Hernández, Mario Diaz Gómez, and José Hernández Dias. It’s these lower-profile things that move me: concrete results, a difference made in somebody’s life. Four men, innocent, persecuted, framed, and tortured on drug charges because they were indigenous in Chiapas. I interviewed them in April 1998 at the prison. I think I’m the only journalist ever to have interviewed these men during their four to six years behind bars.

I tried so hard to get a magazine to publish their stories. All the national editors of New York told me the same thing: Chiapas is old news and nobody cares. It was burning me up that I could not find a place in the national US media to let these men tell their stories. Within two months of publishing Narco News I wrote a nine-part series on the drug war in Chiapas (http://www.narconews.com/chiapaspart1.html). The ninth part of the series was the story of these men (http://www.narconews.com/chiapaspart9.html). I repeated their stories last December, leaning heavily on the Fox administration to release them (http://www.narconews.com/amnesty2000.html), because drug crimes, in Mexico, are exclusively federal crimes. And although the new governor of Chiapas, Pablo Salazar, did his part in releasing all state political prisoners, these federal prisoners in Chiapas were languishing in prison and nobody in the Mexican or international press was doing anything. But the Fox people read Narco News too. And I put their stories as a high priority throughout my coverage of the events in Mexico. The Fox administration finally commuted their sentences.

Two more of these men — Rafael López Santíz Conseta and Gustavo Estrada Gómez — are still in prison as we conduct this interview. It’s an outrage that they are not out yet. These men are being played like peace-talk trading cards by the government. I expect to see them out shortly. If they are not out soon, I will provoke a greater scandal. I am capable of almost anything to get these men out. They never belonged in jail. Rafael is especially important: he’s the most tireless social fighter of them all, a schoolteacher and Tojolabal Indian who has devoted his life to struggle. And he is dying of a skin disease without medical care in prison. They are killing him. That’s your US-imposed drug war in Mexico. It is the murder-in-process of Rafael López Santíz Conseta. And Fox can say whatever he wants about drug legalization, but while he holds Rafael and Gustavo hostage, I have a hard time believing his sincerity. But I swear upon my dead: we will get them out.

KENNEDY: What is the most difficult aspect of producing the Bulletin?

GIORDANO: Having to represent myself in a frivolous narco-lawsuit because I don’t have the funds to hire lawyers to do it for me.

The lawsuit is already interfering with my First Amendment rights. It is taking half my time away from the work I love, which is producing Narco News.

The other difficult part is that there is a policy of drug prohibition. Narco News was born to disappear. It will only disappear when the drug war is repealed. If there are forces that want to silence me, I suggest that their only way to do so is to end the policy of prohibition. They can’t expect to declare “war” and not generate soldiers against them.

KENNEDY: You covered the recent Zapatista motorcade for the Phoenix and for the Nation. What do you think is next for the Zapatista movement? Do you think the Fox government can accomplish what its predecessors could not? I did notice that Fox is a personal friend of Banamex’s Roberto Hernández.

GIORDANO: First, it is Roberto Hernández and ex-president Ernesto Zedillo who created the impression that Fox and Hernández are such good friends. I am not yet convinced. I don’t know that Hernández has any friend that money can’t buy. And those kinds of friends are not friends. Time will tell whether the fact that they attended prep school together means there is a lasting friendship. A lot of that is just Hernández promoting his own celebrity and impunity.

As for the Zapatistas, I feel very confident. The key is the passage of the San Andrés Accords. If those peace agreements become law and indigenous autonomy is recognized by the Mexican constitution — and I see that as attainable right now in the Congress — the armed struggle will give way to democratic struggle. And the Indigenous National Congress, and the Zapatistas of Chiapas, and Subcomandante Marcos, will move on to a more global stage. The Zapatistas have offered the world a new way to fight. Narco News is just one small part of what happened to the Zapatistas. Without having learned from them, Narco News wouldn’t be possible. I remember writing about the Zapatistas in the Phoenix the first week of the rebellion. I am a Zapatista. And they don’t mind at all my saying so. Zapatismo, as a media virus, has now entered the journalistic profession. It’s unstoppable. It’s my life. And I love it.

KENNEDY: What do you think the future of the war on drugs will be under the Fox regime?

GIORDANO: I don’t see much change in policy in the short term. The pressure from Washington is so intense. There’ll be more announcements of record seizures, more corrupt officials caught in the act, but it won’t make a dime’s difference in stemming the flow of drugs, or the destabilization of the nations.

What can be hoped for is that the debate on drug prohibition will be opened in Mexico. The US embassy has been trying to keep the lid on that for a long time. It’s illegal, but the intelligence apparatus (that is to say, the CIA), with as many as 500 operatives on the ground in Mexico, is dedicated to spying on and neutralizing the drug-legalization movement in this sovereign country. So Fox’s statement in favor of legalization was a warning to Washington. This, while Bush hasn’t even appointed a drug czar! And I think that the Fox administration had to send a message to Washington saying, hey, we’re not going to fall into that same relationship you had with the former ruling party, the PRI. The drug war is about control, not about drugs.

So it was encouraging that Fox was smart enough to cut [CIA director George] Tenet off at the pass and mention the L-word. The challenge now is to turn it into a hemisphere-wide debate, out in the open. Washington knows that it loses a fair and democratic debate over drug prohibition. From our end, at Narco News, we see our job as translating and reporting the facts each time this suppressed debate pops up out of the box. And that may be somewhat helpful to the Latin American leaders, including Fox, since they know that now, finally, their words will be heard inside the United States beyond Langley and Foggy Bottom. Narco News is the lifeline between free speech in Latin America and Civil Society in North America.

KENNEDY: How does the Internet make it possible to do independent journalism in ways that would not have been possible pre-Net?

GIORDANO: That question kind of answers itself, no? It takes out the middleman! The writer can now communicate directly with the reader.

Dan, you’ve written some of the best analysis of this question, regarding the boom and bust of the dot-coms (http://www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/features/00/12/28/AMAZON.html). I share your conclusion: anyone hoping to make a fortune out of Internet news is going to be disappointed. But for those who “live off the land,” as you say — who speak because they feel they have something to say — these are the journalists who are kicking butt on the Internet.

The other part of this is how independent Internet journalism forces traditional news agencies, newspapers, broadcasters, and even commercial Internet news sites to adapt to not having a monopoly of control over the news. This is a real challenge for us at Narco News. As we said on our first day of publication, we are out to force stories onto their pages that otherwise would be ignored. And we have done that. And we do that. And we will keep it up.

KENNEDY: The flip side of the previous question: doesn’t the very freedom to do independent journalism make you (and others, from Brock Meeks to Matt Drudge) incredibly vulnerable to people who are willing to abuse the legal system in order to harass their enemies? In that sense, Roberto Hernández has every incentive to sue you regardless of whether there are any merits to his charges or not, doesn’t he?

GIORDANO: Press freedom and First Amendment protections are developed mainly through litigation, through the interpretations by the courts of constitutional protected liberties. There is very little case law on Internet speech. Hernández and his lawyers are taking advantage of that gap, but I suspect they know full well that we will defeat them in the end. Right now, it’s a matter of applying case law on other media to the Internet itself. And by that standard, we will emerge victorious. We plan to make some good case law along the way — that is to say, to set precedents that protect everyone’s cyber-liberties in the future.

The courts have yet to address the phenomenon of the “cyber-SLAPP suit” — Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation — like the Banamex/Akin, Gump case against our First and 14th Amendment rights, as well as our right to petition our government for a redress of grievances. I am going to push the courts to do their job on this, to make good case law and settle this problem once and for all.

This case does not deserve to go to trial. It should be dismissed. But if it does go to trial, then the jury is going to have the final say. And it’s going to be very interesting to see the adversary’s attempt to extract out of me and the other defendants a “culpable mental state,” which is an element they have to prove to win a libel verdict. In the end, they want to prove a “thought crime.” Well, okay, let’s open up Giordano’s head, let’s open up Menéndez’s head, let’s see what Narco News is really all about, and let the jury hear it. Let’s see what formed our states of mind in making and writing these statements. Let’s have a full airing of the facts of US government complicity in cocaine trafficking in Mexico — the corrupt officials, the laundered-money trail, the pristine Caribbean beaches destroyed by this illicit business. Let’s see how Mr. Hernández and his official protectors abused the courts in their country to persecute journalists. Let’s subpoena some white-collar narcos and corrupted officials directly involved in this story, depose them under oath, and see how it really operates. Let’s look at Hernández’s participation in what I think is the legalized bribery of campaign finance. Let’s look at Operation Casablanca and the two Banamex officials charged with money laundering in the United States. Because before I even heard the words Hernández or Banamex, the Federal Reserve Board slapped them with a cease-and-desist order to stop laundering dirty money. Let’s open up all these vaults and see what flies out.

If they want to put me on trial for my thoughts, my experiences, and my beliefs, I am more than happy to have them heard in an open and public forum. Let’s look at the drug war and how it is waged in Mexico. The movie Traffic only scratches the surface of the festering corrupt narco-system that lies beneath and benefits from this policy. That’s why our defense fund is called “Drug War on Trial.”

KENNEDY: How are you handling the legal aspects of this? How can you afford to travel back and forth from Latin America to New York?

GIORDANO: I can’t. This is the major headache. And what about where I stay while I am in New York? I can’t afford an apartment there, certainly not a hotel room! And they are gambling that one day I will have to show up for a hearing and won’t be able to afford it. This is where Civil Society, if it believes in our most basic freedom — the freedom to speak and write without reprisal — is needed to help out.

Good people of conscience can help out by making a check to “Drug War on Trial” and sending it to:

Drug War on Trial

c/o Attorney Thomas Lesser

Lesser, Newman, Souweine & Nasser

39 Main Street

Northampton, MA 01060

This is what bugs me most of all. I never wanted to ask anyone for a cent to publish Narco News. I believe that free speech should be free. And as my late pal Abbie Hoffman said, “Free means you don’t pay.”

There are people of conscience who have the means to solve this inequity with a single check. Maybe one of them will come through. Or maybe there is another Jeff Buckley or two out there who can help Barry Crimmins organize the cultural defense and we can fill Madison Square Garden for a few nights for a free-speech fund that will solve not only our defense, but defend others similarly attacked in the days and years to come. Meanwhile, working folks are kicking in 10 bucks, 20 bucks, sometimes a hundred bucks, and this has kept us in the game so far, albeit precariously close to defaulting. But Civil Society has responded and ordered Narco News not to give up the fight. Obedience leads, as the indigenous of Chiapas taught us. And we will obey this order from Civil Society with our every last ounce of strength.

As a writer, when so many people give me the gift of their eyes by reading my work, I have a responsibility that comes with that privilege. I can’t let the readers down! Without them, I’m not a writer. I’m very lucky to have readers. They give meaning to my life. And if it means enduring the hassles of this lawsuit, well, let’s go into the fight!

KENNEDY: Has Mario Menéndez also been traveling back and forth? Are you mounting a joint defense, or are your cases being handled separately?

GIORDANO: Mario is represented by the foremost First Amendment attorney in the United States, probably the world: Marty Garbus of New York. There is a spirit of full cooperation between the defendants and attorneys, but each defendant has a slightly different set of facts to respond to, although it’s all essentially the same big set of facts and the same principles and liberties at stake. I wish I could afford Marty Garbus. I wish I could afford Tom Lesser — right now he’s defending Narco News, my first priority to defend because, as I said, it’s my child! And unless and until enough funds come in, I have to represent myself. You can’t ask any talented attorney to do a complex libel case against Akin, Gump for free, although both are doing it at less than their usual fees because they believe in the rightness of the cause and the defense of liberty. This isn’t anywhere near as simple as a criminal case. It’s a civil litigation, against sleazy attorneys from Akin, Gump whose only goal is to tie the case up in knots and delay eventual judgment, because they have to know that Banamex going to lose in the end, as long as we keep fighting. Maybe they haven’t told Banamex that fact, but they must know it themselves.

KENNEDY: Is it possible for Hernández to grind away to the point where the Bulletin ceases publication? Or is the operation small and mobile enough that it can’t be killed?

GIORDANO: Yes. It is possible that Narco News ceases publication of new stories because I am converted into a full-time pro se defendant. But what is already published on Narco News will remain on the Internet. That is my vow. If it has to go to a thousand mirror sites, or reconstitute itself in anothernews.com from an offshore server, well, the Internet also provides those options. But I don’t foresee any ruling from the court to shut down Narco News. It would be illegal and unconstitutional, and overturned on appeal. The law is very clear.

As for whether we can keep publishing new commentary, reports, news, and information, that is up to Civil Society. So far, Civil Society has said yes.

KENNEDY: What’s next for you and the Bulletin?

GIORDANO: Waiting for orders from headquarters. That is to say, waiting for Civil Society. Or, as Jeff said in the final words of his magnum opus: “I have no fear of this machine!”

Issue Date: April 12 - 19, 2001


Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site: http://www.dankennedy.net
Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here