Undercover and Working for Change

At a quick glance, Xiomara Orellana doesn’t seem to fit my idea of risk-taking, investigative reporter. Xiomara appears as a prudent, middle-aged woman who is well-measured in the use and timing of her words. Her eyes, however, give away her secret. As a journalist working for decades in Honduras, Xiomara has seen and lived a great deal.

I sat with Xiomara last month to discuss journalism, her experience in this field, the power and challenges of practicing journalism in Honduras, and her utopian vision of journalism as a means to improve society.

Her inspiration to pursue journalism came from her youngest days. “My father was a correspondent of a newspaper from the western part of Honduras, so since an early age el gusanito [journalism] captivated me,” she said.

At the age of 14, Xiomara participated in a contest to be radio newscaster, and she never looked back. After college, Xiomara went to work in television, but for the past eleven years, she has worked in print media, and found her passion.

“I found my place in print media because I like to write. Because unlike television, where every minute is counted and you must choose between what’s important and what’s most important, print media gives you the opportunity to deepen on issues related to agrarian conflicts, violence, gangs, human trafficking, and narcotrafficking,” she said.

A Passion to Explain the Migration Experience

“I did the mojada [a term for migrant used commonly in Central America] migrating route three times in order to tell the story of migrants who travel from Honduras to the United States,” Xiomara said. The first time, she got as far as Reinosa, Mexico. The second time, she crossed the border and made it to Tucson, Arizona via Nogales. U.S. border patrol agents ultimately detained her in Nogales, but after realizing that she was a journalist, they let her go.

“I slept in the houses of immigrants [along the route], and sometimes in the train [better known as La Bestia — the Beast]. We went through a lot of hurdles, but I’m really passionate about migrant issues,” she told me.

By her third and last journey, she had learned to bring cigarettes, water and money. Another journalist had advised with these three items, you “can share with the bad guys [you encounter along the route] and gain their trust.”

That’s precisely what happened. As Xiomara and a photojournalist traveling with her walked along the tracks of The Beast towards Arriaga, Mexico, she met a member of the mara gang — or marero — whose trust she gained. “He would say at first that I didn’t look like a typical migrant; he didn’t know that I was a journalist. I told him that I have been laid off of work, and I befriended him by giving him cigarettes and water,” she said.

“When we got to Arriaga, Mexico we [a group of ten, among them real migrants] were all tired, and at that moment we gave a contribution to buy tortillas and a kilogram of cheese. We sat in a circle on the edge of the tracks of the train and started to eat. In that moment, my photographer saw the opportunity for a spectacular photograph; all of us sitting with a pile of tortillas and cheese, eating. I think he forgot [the risks] at that moment, so he took out his camera and took a picture” she said.

The “click click” sound of the camera immediately disrupted the peaceful, communal moment, and the marero along with other “bad guys” started to beat the photographer. “I had to intervene. I told him that we were journalists, so he turned towards me and told me that we had three minutes to disappear” she said. This was a great lesson for Xiomara, who thanks God and can only speculate on how handy the cigarettes that she gave the marero were when he “forgave her life.”

Accepting Risk in Pursuit of ‘Ideal’ Journalism

“I have a philosophy of never regretting what I do. Because behind any and every thing [in life], there’s learning and an experience. And in spite of the dangers and risks, I like what I do and I think that I’d continue doing it” she said.

Besides, Xiomara believes that journalism plays such a crucial role in society. “The essence of what you do is in the impact that it has on people; for you to inform, change, help consolidate democratic societies. So you can open people’s eyes, tell them the truth but without implanting fear in them” she says.

Xiomara sits in a boat with a man
Xiomara at work. Photos courtesy of Xiomara Orellana

In an ideal world, “journalism would not have to practice self-censorship. On the contrary, journalists would be equipped with the necessary tools to inform about issues. The day journalists can carry out their work with freedom and without fear of retaliation, and of course with the support of their supervisors, that day we will be practicing ideal journalism.”

“[Citizens] must understand that they too need to play a key role in the quest for solutions to some of the problems that afflict us all; it is within their hands,” she said.

At the end of our conversation, Xiomara wondered why, of all the participants we were working with, I’d asked her for an interview. And perhaps, given her unassuming personality, I wouldn’t have picked her out of a crowd. I didn’t know much about her before we spoke, only that as an investigative journalist in one of the region’s most dangerous countries, she had to be an interesting, tenacious woman. And in the end, my suspicion was right.

Xiomara was one of twelve journalists and communicators from El Salvador and Honduras who participated in a Training of Trainers (ToT) on investigative journalism, data journalism, and digital and physical security organized by Internews in San Salvador, El Salvador, and funded by USAID.

This activity is part of Internews’ “Promoting Journalism and Freedom of Expression” project, which seeks to enhance freedom of expression in the Northern Triangle region through empowering local journalists to develop high-quality investigative reporting that sparks public dialogue about human rights violations, closing political spaces and other constraints to freedom of expressions.

Carolina Gomez Martin is Program Associate for Latin America and the Caribbean for Internews.

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)