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From his new home in West Philadelphia, Paraguayan journalist Cándido Figueredo Ruíz reflects on a career spent exposing organized crime and corruption in his home country–much to his own peril.

Photography by Ryan Collerd/The Globe and Mail

This story is part of a series, Moral Courage, exploring the dangers journalists face around the world. Learn more below.

For 24 years and eight months, Candido Figueredo Ruiz was marked for death. To thwart the bullets of his eager assassins, the Paraguayan journalist lived surrounded by seven heavily armed guards. Two patrolled the front of his modest home, two took up station in the short corridor outside his bedroom, and three kept an eye on his back door. Simple pleasures such as sitting on the veranda on a warm evening, going for a stroll down the street, attending a birthday party or wedding, enjoying a cup of coffee at a local café, or dining in a restaurant were considered too risky. When he travelled by car, two bodyguards went with him, while the others followed in a second vehicle close behind.

Mr. Figueredo Ruiz lived this extraordinary existence because he was a journalist who dared to tell inconvenient truths. It really all came down to drugs and geography.

He was born in Pedro Juan Caballero, Paraguay, a city of 230,000 people that straddles the border with Brazil. Nearby is the largest marijuana plantation in South America. The city also lies along the lucrative corridor used to transport cocaine through Colombia and Bolivia to markets in the United States. Poorly monitored by law enforcement agencies over the years, the area historically has been a haven for smugglers of illegal cigarettes, guns and electronics.

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In the wake of drugs came corruption – a hydra of graft, extortion, bribery, double-dealing and profiteering. It snaked its way up from the petty criminals and lowly dealers through the customs officials, police and lawyers into the corridors of power where politicians on the take dispensed their largesse or displeasure according to self-interest. The people were poor. Drug money was plentiful. Brutality and poverty locked the system in place. To a journalist with a strong moral compass and steely resolve like Mr. Figueredo Ruiz, there was no shortage of truths to tell.

He came to journalism relatively late in life. One of six children in a modest, working-class family, he grew up in a country ruled with an iron fist by Alfredo Stroessner, a dictator of mixed German and Paraguayan descent with a fondness for Nazi fugitives and a taste for great cruelty. As a child, Mr. Figueredo Ruiz was an avid reader and drawn to the arts. He had hoped to go to university and pursue a career in journalism, but gaining entry entailed taking a pledge of loyalty to General Stroessner. He balked at this – a decision that showed early signs of the independence and determination that would come to define his later career.

At 18, with his pathway to university blocked, Mr. Figueredo Ruiz fell in love with a Norwegian girl visiting Paraguay, married her and went to live in Norway. In doing so, he wryly notes, he moved from one of the world’s most repressive countries to one of the freest. At first, Norway seemed like paradise to him, “a “comfortable country [that] took care of its citizens from birth to death.” Soon there was a family to support, and he found work in an iron-processing factory, monitoring machinery. It was a far cry from journalism, and the schedule (which included night shifts) was tough, but the money was good and the work secure. He remained in Norway for 21 years. By the time Mr. Figueredo Ruiz’s marriage failed, Gen. Stroessner had been deposed in a coup, gone into exile in Brazil and the press in Paraguay was being unshackled. Much as he admired Norwegian society, Mr. Figueredo Ruiz had never felt fully at ease in it. It was time to return home.

Months after returning to Paraguay to begin his journalism career, Figueredo Ruíz began working for ABC Color, a newspaper Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner once shuttered for dissent.

As an added sweetener to his homecoming, Mr. Figueredo Ruiz landed his first journalism position, directing Radio Yby Yau, a small radio station in Concepcion, 200 kilometres from his hometown. Two months later, he was back in Pedro Juan Caballero working for ABC Color, one of Paraguay’s most widely read daily newspapers. It was fitting that a man who had refused to bend a knee to Gen. Stroessner was now working for a newspaper the dictator had once shuttered for dissent.

It did not take long for Mr. Figueredo Ruiz to file his first corruption story. He learned about contraband beer coming into the country and the payoffs the police were receiving from customs officials. He found the bodega where the beer was being stored and photographed it. Just before he was about to break the story, he was approached by a high-profile lawyer with judicial connections representing the company flouting the law who offered him $2,000 to back off. Determined to expose the multiple layers of graft involved, Mr. Figueredo Ruiz set up another meeting with the lawyer, filming what went down with a miniature camcorder hidden in his clothes. On camera, he asked for the payoff to increase to $3,000, considered a small fortune in Paraguay at the time. The cash was immediately produced. “What would you like me to say in my article?” he asked obsequiously, handing the lawyer a pen and piece of blank paper. The lawyer obliged, and Mr. Figueredo Ruiz had him read the notes aloud. The whole interaction was caught on camera, filmed amidst the piles of incriminating cash. The following day, Mr. Figueredo Ruiz’s scoop was on the front page of ABC Color. He also let it be known that he had given the $3,000 to a children’s ward at a local hospital.

Three days later, the front of his house was sprayed with 45 bullets. If that message was not clear enough, anonymous callers also told him his days were numbered. ABC Color responded by publishing news of how their man in Pedro Juan Caballero was being threatened. The intimidation of Candido Figueredo Ruiz now became the main news item of the day. His cause was taken up by the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. With international attention on the country, Paraguayan authorities responded by assigning guards to keep a constant watch over the journalist, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sixteen cameras were installed within and around his home. Such was the gravity of the threats, Mr. Figueredo Ruiz was trained to use firearms – an unthinkable option for journalists – lest his security detail be overwhelmed. Overnight, his life changed irrevocably. He did not know it then, but he would never again walk freely in the city of his birth.

Mr. Figueredo Ruiz’s response to the intimidation was to double down and keep exposing corruption. “I grew up seeing injustice,” he told me. More than two decades after refusing to swear fealty to the Stroessner regime, an act that cost him a university education, Mr. Figueredo Ruiz’s moral compass remained unwavering. “I have always been a rebel,” he declared. “I will not kneel to power.”

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Despite the certain danger he and his family faced by as a result of his journalsim, Figueredo Ruíz was steadfast in his conviction to continue exposing corruption and injustice in Paraguay “I have always been a rebel,” he declared. “I will not kneel to power.”

There is nothing new in journalists being threatened with death. What makes Mr. Figueredo Ruiz’s experience so unusual is the degree to which these threats, and the measures taken to thwart them, have overturned his life. There were only two rooms in his house that were off limit to the guards – his bedroom and the washroom. “It was awful – terrible at first,” he recalled. Having remarried, his worries now extended to his wife, 500 kilometres away in the capital, Asuncion, where she was studying psychology while working part-time for ABC Color. “We know where she is,” anonymous callers insinuated ominously. “She is so beautiful…” Three policewomen were assigned to guard her, too.

While his wife was spared, Mr. Figueredo Ruiz’s immediate family was not. “Let me tell you a story that is very sad to me,” he offered when I asked about them. He recounted how a local bank robbery ended with one of the robbers and a teller dying. Mr. Figueredo Ruiz learned that the mastermind behind the botched attempt had been one Luis Enrique Georges, a killer so notorious that people feared mentioning his name. Mr. Figueredo Ruiz, on the other hand, had no such qualms, outing the man in his account of the robbery. The alleged drug lord’s response was to kidnap Mr. Figueredo Ruiz’s brother and threaten to execute him – and thereafter kill Mr. Figueredo Ruiz’s four sisters, his mother and all their cats and dogs, if he did not divulge his sources. Mr. Figueredo Ruiz’s counter-response, made under the intense pressure of a 30-minute deadline, was to phone his adversary and thank him. “To this day, I don’t know where this came from,” he said. “But I told him I would be very thankful and asked him when he was going to begin. ‘To me, it means absolutely nothing, because my family only create problems,’ ” he recalled saying. “You are doing me a favour. Do it!”

The long walks Figueredo Ruíz takes through his West Philadelphia neighbourhood are a welcome activity after years living under the cramped protection of several armed guards in Paraguay.

RYAN COLLERD/The Globe and Mail

Listening to Mr. Figueredo’s Ruiz’s account of this remarkable interaction, I thought of the psychotherapeutic technique of paradoxical intention, pioneered by the celebrated psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. It is, however, one thing to apply this construct in therapy, but quite another to stop a known killer from murdering your relative. Mr. Figueredo Ruiz of course never had Dr. Frankl in mind when he instinctively blurted out his outrageous challenge, but he is convinced it worked. His brother was freed, at the cost of the journalist promising to write a flattering article on Luis Enrique Georges’s life.

The kidnapping marked another turning point in Mr. Figueredo Ruiz’s life. All contact with his siblings was now severed. He never saw them again. They were instructed to disown him if ever asked about him. His remaining contact with his elderly mother was reduced to fleeting moments in the driveway to her home, mother and son surrounded by a phalanx of armed men.

Mr. Figueredo Ruiz is an ebullient man who appears younger than his 64 years. He has a disarming, upbeat manner with a quick sense of humour. This jolly persona, while true to his character, also obscures the many dark and desperate times he endured. Only once did his facade crumble during our interview, when I asked him to reflect on the personal price paid. He sat silently, his facial expression sombre at first before the weight of what he had been through year upon year slowly unravelled his composure, and tears eased speech aside.

“There were days when I did not want to leave my room,” he recalled, drying his eyes, “because the first thing I would see was a cop saying, ‘Good morning, sir – everything calm here.’ And then there would be another cop in my study. I would ask my wife to bring my coffee into the bedroom. I could not face the reality of our existence. But we had to pull ourselves up. Nobody else could.” All the while, he kept reminding himself and his wife that they were doing important work, even as they came to the end of each month with almost no money. “We could make the rich and powerful tremble. We were the stone in their shoe that made them uncomfortable. I had to hold on to this because if I sat down and thought about my situation, it would bring me down.”

A year shy of retirement, Figueredo Ruíz and his wife Luz Patricia Bellenzier packed up and left Paraguay, arriving in the U.S. just as COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were announced.

Over the years, the attacks never let up. His home was raked with gunfire on two further occasions. His car was shot up twice. During his decades of confinement, six Paraguayan journalists were killed, including Pablo Medina Velasquez, his colleague at ABC Color. Mr. Figueredo Ruiz recalls being sent a photograph of the murdered journalist crumpled in his car, head down, blood dripping. And then there were times when those arrested because of what Mr. Figueredo Ruiz had written would be released within days and drive past his house honking their horns.

When I asked Mr. Figueredo Ruiz if he thought about death, he said plainly: “I have lived next to death every day.” The murder rate in Pedro Juan Caballero is high, and he has seen a lot of dead people; tortured, dismembered, burned – so many different ways of being killed. “I have a photographic archive that cannot be published because it is too gruesome,” he said. “My greatest fear was that I would be captured, tortured and cut into pieces.”

On Feb. 12, 2020, gunmen walked into the home of journalist Lourenco Veras in Pedro Juan Caballero and shot him 11 times, killing him while he was having dinner with his family. The killers let it be known Mr. Figueredo Ruiz was next on their list. Exhausted, the intrepid journalist had had enough. A year shy of retirement and with an offer to join a friend in Pennsylvania, he and his wife packed up and left Paraguay. He arrived in the U.S. just as COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were announced. He laughingly told his host that after 24 years in lockdown, he felt right at home.

Though he bears the scars of years spent in the crosshairs of deadly violence in his home country, the Paraguayan flag hangs prominently in Figueredo Ruiz's Philadelphia home.

Mr. Figueredo Ruiz carries the scars of his prolonged ordeal. When he hears the occasional gunshot in the Pennsylvanian night, he reflexively reaches for a weapon that is no longer there. His responses are automatic, conditioned by years in the crosshairs of the sicarios. With the easing of pandemic restrictions, he goes for 15-kilometre walks every day, unaccompanied, exulting in his newfound freedom. These long walks, however, are also an attempt to shed the hypervigilance that stalks his waking hours, the need to constantly look over his shoulder and check whether he is safe.

This physiological marker of emotional trauma, hard-wired into his autonomic nervous system and geared for survival, is difficult to extinguish. But these phenomena, learned involuntarily, are offset by a happier offshoot of his experiences under siege. The man who was denied the education he wanted because he would not betray his moral compass is now an honoured guest in the lecture halls of great American universities such as Columbia and Princeton. Mr. Figueredo Ruiz smiled as he told me this – and in his expression, there was a touch of wonder, too.

Moral Courage: about the series

Journalists are key to civil society, keeping readers, viewers and listeners informed of events both local and international. At times, this work entails exposure to grave danger. The factors that motivate journalists to continue this work despite these threats are many and complex, but central to it all is moral courage. Simply put, to some journalists, doing nothing in response to the egregious behaviour of corrupt or genocidal politicians, human traffickers and drug cartels is worse than the repercussions that come from exposing such crimes. These journalists are driven by a moral imperative to risk their own safety and psychological well-being for the story – and the price paid for this steely determination is invariably steep.

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Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, is an authority on the psychological effects of conflict on journalists. Together with Dr. Feinstein, The Globe and Mail is running Moral Courage, a project that will feature frank and intimate interviews between Dr. Feinstein and a journalist working in hazardous situations around the globe. Each story showcases the work of these journalists, the factors that explain why they feel compelled to pursue such an all-encompassing mission, and the personal consequences their work entails.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect spelling for Alfredo Stroessner's name.

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