In the parlance of foreign correspondence, Leo Veras, 52, was my fixer. A beat reporter in the lawless border town of Ponta Porã — where Brazil’s most powerful gangs wage war for control of smuggling routes — he helped me report a recent story on the illegal pesticides trade. He arranged interviews with cops, politicians and crooks. He introduced me to his wife and two young children. He shared every meal with me. He made me laugh. He made me promise I wouldn’t leave the hotel without him. He kept me safe.
Dogged, resourceful, glad-handing, chain-smoking, ebullient — he was all of those things, a mishmash of qualities somehow reduced to a few shattering words in the Thursday morning news story: “Journalist Leo Veras shot dead in his own house.”
One more dead journalist in a world where truth-seeking is under attack and its practitioners are increasingly viewed as enemies rather than participants in democracy. Hundreds of journalists across the world are in jail, and dozens more were killed last year, with many of the murders going unsolved, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
The danger is particularly acute in Latin America. Mexico, where 11 journalists were killed last year, is now the world’s most dangerous place to be a reporter. And in Brazil, where the rise of nationalist President Jair Bolsonaro has coincided with mounting aggression toward freedom of speech, dozens of journalists have been killed in the past decade.
And now Leo, too. He ran a small news outlet from his house called the Porã News. He drove a battered, dust-caked SUV, which he used to pick me up on my first day in Ponta Porã. On that day last month when we puttered out into the city of 84,000 inhabitants, I knew little about it, save that it was a dangerous place, particularly for journalists.
In 2012, the editor of the newspaper Jornal da Praça was assassinated on a Sunday night while he drove through town. Then another journalist was murdered three years later. One prominent Paraguayan journalist who covered the drug trade had equipped himself with a semiautomatic Browning handgun and departed his bunker only when accompanied by bodyguards armed with submachine guns.
Veras had frequently discussed the dangers of reporting here — and the threats that accompanied it. After receiving word in 2013 that he’d been put on the execution list for his reporting on drug trafficking, he reacted with mixture of bravado and courage.
“I will continue to do my job as I do every day,” he told the Brazilian Press Association. “No threat could ever stop me from this. I’m not going to lock myself in my house.”
Years later, in another interview, while discussing fellow journalists who had been killed, he was reflective — even fearful.
“We all have our day to die,” he said in a 2017 documentary made by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism. “I always ask that my death isn’t so violent, and it wouldn’t be with a lot of rifle rounds. Because here, if a gunman wants to kill you, he will come to your door, ask you to open it and shoot you.”
The Leo whom I came to know over our three days of working together was voluble, a creature of the border — a Brazilian with a Paraguayan wife, fluent in Portuguese, Spanish and the indigenous language Guarani. This was his home, and there was nowhere else he’d ever want to be.
There were times when I felt like he was more of a cultural ambassador than fixer. The first thing he wanted to do — for the story about pesticide smuggling — was take me to a park, an expansive grounds anchoring the city. What we found, while walking through it at dusk, weren’t people living in fear, but parents pushing strollers and children playing games as the sky turned dark orange. This was the town he wanted to show me.
The city was two worlds, he told me. The gangs and traffickers had theirs. And everyone else tended to their own. The city was safe, he said again and again, as long as you didn’t mess with the traffickers, as long as the worlds didn’t mix.
At the park, we met his wife of 12 years, Cintia. She was with their 11-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter. The girl was nonstop conversation. The boy was shy and sweet — no words, but lots of smiling. I didn’t know it at the time, but from then on, we five were a reporting team — me, my fixer and my fixer’s family.
He took them everywhere, and, in turn, he took me everywhere. They came along to a 10 p.m. interview I had with some Interpol investigators who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity out of fear for their lives. And I went along to a staff meeting Cintia had at the hospital where she worked.
The final night we were together, I asked him if he wanted me to credit his reporting in the story, which he more than deserved. But he waved me away. He never explained why he didn’t want his name on the story, but now it seems clearer.
Local authorities say he’d been receiving a barrage of threats for weeks and had been increasingly skittish.
“He was deepening his journalistic investigations, and this made the mafias uncomfortable,” fellow local journalist Santiago Benítez told the nearby Campo Grande News. “He always talked about threats, but on the border, you only believe it after it happens.”
It happened on Wednesday evening, just before 9 p.m., as the family was sitting down to a meal of white rice and beef in their backyard. Two masked men climbed out of a white truck and approached the house, entering through a door that had been left open.
Cintia told me she looked up from her plate to see the men. They were both holding guns.
“He had his back to the guys, so I told him, ‘Look around!’ ” she said. “He started to run. And they started to shoot him.”
In front of his daughter who wanted to be a journalist like her father, in front of his son who followed him everywhere, in front of his wife who now doesn’t know how she’ll provide for the family, the masked men shot him 12 times.
“Everyone was there,” Cintia said. “Everything that happened, we saw.”
“They wanted to silence him,” she said. “It was some story that he did.”
She still can’t comprehend it. He’d always been careful. He never reported anything he thought would make trouble with the local gangs. Thinking no story was worth his life, he often passed on tips to other journalists.
“I never imagined we would go through this,” she said.
I asked her a question whose potential answer had terrified me since I learned of Leo’s death. Did she think that the story we’d reported together — which had published only days before his murder — had something to do with his death?
She didn’t think so. In her opinion, he was targeted for his work writing about the drug trade.
For Leo, the two worlds of Ponta Porã, which for so long he’d meticulously kept divided, had finally mixed.