Ken Dermota, 53, Dies; Labor Organizer Became Writer With Latin American Focus

Mr. Dermota was widely published.
Mr. Dermota was widely published. (Family Photo)
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Friday, May 29, 2009

Ken Dermota, 53, a journalist and former union organizer who specialized in issues involving Latin America, died May 11 of cancer at Washington Hospital Center.

For 10 years, Mr. Dermota was an organizer for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union in New York before moving to Colombia in 1990 to work as a freelance journalist. He wrote for Business Week, the Christian Science Monitor, Le Monde, the Boston Globe and the (Toronto) Globe and Mail and reported for National Public Radio and NBC Radio.

He covered the Colombian drug war and interviewed drug lord Pablo Escobar from prison. He also investigated media bias against the Mapuche Indians of Chile.

In 1996, he and his second wife moved to Washington, where he worked for NBC Radio and enrolled at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he received his master's degree in Latin American affairs in 1998.

The recipient of a Knight International Journalism Fellowship, he spent a year in Chile, where he taught journalism at the Universidad de Chile and the Universidad Diego Portales. While in Chile, complaints from his students and from Chilean journalists about lack of access to public records prompted him to launch an investigation. The result was "And Well Tied Down: Chile's Press Under Democracy" (2003), an 80-page manual for investigative journalists in Chile, published by the Universidad de Chile.

He joined the Washington bureau of Agence France-Presse in 2001 and traveled to Caracas to cover the 47-hour coup against President Hugo Chavez in April 2002. He also taught journalism at American University and Howard University.

One of his final articles, "Snow Fall," was a critique of U.S. drug policies that appeared in the July-August 2007 edition of Atlantic Monthly. "Since 1981," Mr. Dermota noted, "the United States has spent about as much on its 'war' on all illicit drugs as it did on its real war in Vietnam -- some $600 billion to $800 billion in today's dollars. So far, victory has proven just as elusive."

Kenneth John Dermota was born in York, Pa., the son of an upholsterer and a housekeeper. He received his undergraduate degree from Antioch College.

In Colombia, he served as president of the Bogota-based Foreign Press Association and hosted a weekly two-hour radio jazz show as well as the country's only radio news show in English at the time. He also established a Colombian human rights organization.

In Washington, he was a motorcycle enthusiast, an avid cook and a doting father who enjoyed hiking with his son. He also worked on an unpublished novel about a world without money.

His marriage to Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 15 years, Beatriz Elena Leon, and a son, Eddie Dermota, both of the District; and a brother.

-- Joe Holley

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