Note: As I was doing some research on the legacy of El Diario-La Prensa newspaper as it approaches its 100th anniversary, I was embarrassed to accidently discover that this year marked the 20th anniversary of the assassination of its legendary editor, Manuel de Dios Unanue. As we read of the increasing dangers journalists in Latin American and around the world face today, it struck me that Manuel's story was an important one to retell on this anniversary year to acknowledge his sacrifice and commitment to journalistic truth, and remind us of what journalism could be. The city named the Manuel De Dios Unanue Triangle in Jackson Heights, Queens in his honor. which might be worth a visit if you find yourself in the area. He was a friend, a strong supporter of the Institute in our early years and an unforgettable figure that many of us in the New York Latino community still talk about to this day. Below is a tribute by The Heroism Project.
Manuel De Dios Unanue
Manuel De Dios Unanue's commitment to seeking and printing the truth at any cost eventually cost him his life, and cemented his heroic legacy in the minds of New York Latinos and journalists.
De Dios, former editor-in-chief of New York's largest Spanish-language newspaper, El Diario-La Prensa, was murdered on March 11, 1992 by a member of a Colombian drug cartel that he had attacked in print.
"The slogan of [El Diario-La Prensa] is 'El campeon de los hispanos,' the champion of the people-he did that," said El Diario-La Prensa reporter Rossana Rosado in a September 28, 1999 New York Times article.
"There were drug traffickers in the community," Rosado said. "He set up hot lines for people to call us and tell where they were, then he'd publish pictures of the corners they worked. When the photographer complained it was dangerous, he'd say, 'You want to be safe, go work in a bank.'"
At de Dios' memorial service, Rosado focused her comments on de Dios' heroism as a journalist. She said he continued to write articles and a book on the drug trade, even though he knew the dangers he faced.
"He practiced journalism with the zest some people have for skydiving, only he did it without a parachute," said Rosado in a March 19, 1992 Newsday article. "He did not do this for the glory; he did this because he felt it was right."
In March 1994 Colombian assassin Mejia Valez was convicted of de Dios' murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. During the testimony, Colombian drug lord Jose Santacruz Londono was implicated in hiring Velez after becoming enraged with de Dios' articles about the Cali cocaine cartel. At his sentencing, Judge Edward R. Korman said that Velez had "not only snuffed out in cold blood the life of another human being, he endangered the very rights that underlie a free society." Colombian drug lord Jose Santacruz Londono, who allegedly ordered de Dio's murder, was fatally shot by police in 1996.
De Dios became editor of El Diario-La Prensa in 1984. In the next 5 years, he would be credited with uncovering numerous stories of corruption and crime in New York City. The biggest story of de Dios' career was investigating and debunking the Colombian drug cartels. In 1988, he published a book, The Secrets of the Medellin Cartel, on the internal workings of the organizations. He founded two magazines: Cambio XXI ("Change in the 21st Century") and Crimen ("Crime"). De Dios left El Diario-La Prensa in 1989 to do a radio show called "What Others Silence" on a Spanish-language station.
De Dios knew that writing was a risk for him. In one his El Diario-La Prensa columns, he even predicted it would lead to his death: "The day something happens to me, many will know who was responsible."
"In the end, he died the way many of us expected him to," said Albor Ruiz, who worked for de Dios when he was editor of El Diario-La Prensa. "He was always looking for the truth. And in his work, it never crossed his mind to compromise."
De Dios was born into political turmoil and civil unrest. His father and mother immigrated to Cuba after General Francisco Franco came to power in Spain. The family returned to Spain during Fidel Castro's revolution. In 1967, the family fled Spain again, settling in Puerto Rico.
"Writing is what I've always wanted to do," said de Dios in a February 13, 1989 Newsday article. "When I was a child in Batista's Cuba, I got together with some friends and we put out a newspaper that we made by typing out sheets of paper and making carbon copies. We did that until Castro took over. When I lived in Spain under Franco, I was also a writer. No one will ever be able to tell me that I can't write."
Richard Araujo, an editor at El Diario, said de Dios had mentioned to friends that he had received death threats over the phone warning him against writing about Griselda Blanco, a major cocaine dealer in Queens in the 1970s.
De Dios refused to be intimidated. In the first issue of Crimen, he called Blanco "The Queen of Cocaine in Queens." "He wouldn't get scared," said Araujo in a March 13, 1992 Newsday article. "His usual response would be, 'You know where to find me.'"
A month before his murder, de Dios testified in Puerto Rico at the controversial Cerro Maravilla hearings, the case often called Puerto Rico's Watergate. "He was loyal to his principles, his convictions, his family and his country," said Puerto Rican Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Marco Rigau at de Dios' funeral service. "He was more than a victim, he was a hero."