Journalist Seth Freed Wessler talks justice, human rights

Photo by Allyson Huntoon ’19  Award-winning journalist Seth Freed Wessler gave a talk in Dwight 101 on Monday, April 22.

Photo by Allyson Huntoon ’19

Award-winning journalist Seth Freed Wessler gave a talk in Dwight 101 on Monday, April 22.

BY ALLYSON HUNTOON ’19

The role of journalism is tied to “concepts of justice and transparency and equity,” according to award-winning journalist Seth Freed Wessler, who spoke at Mount Holyoke on Monday, April 22. He was introduced by Professor David Hernández, and his visit to campus was hosted by the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Spanish, Latina/o and Latin American studies departments. 

Wessler is an investigative reporter and fellow at Type Investigations/Type Media Center. He is a Hampshire College alum and has also done reporting for The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, ProPublica, NBCnews and other outlets. He has won a variety of awards for his work, most recently including a Peabody Award for his podcast “Monumental Lies.” He spent much of his talk on Monday, which was titled “Journalism, Justice and Homeland Security: Reporting on Human Rights in the U.S.,” highlighting his work on the topic of immigration. 

When reporting on immigration in the United States, Wessler said that he has come to understand the border with Mexico as a place where stories get told. “This is a period of United States history and world history when we are obsessed with borders,” he said. 

He explained that beyond the boundaries of the U.S. mainland, there is another dimension of the border that he has been reporting on, which he described as “the effort to push the border outward.” 

In recent years, the United States has expanded its efforts in immigration and drug enforcement beyond the Southern border and into international waters, according to Wessler. In his research, Wessler discovered a number of cases in which “low-level drug smugglers” from Ecuador, Venezuela and other countries in Central and South America were caught in international waters and picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard. Although the activities of many of these men did not include plans to travel to the U.S., Wessler said that the Coast Guard detained some of them without legal representation for “weeks or months” before they were brought to the U.S. for legal proceedings. 

Wessler published an article in The New York Times Magazine on this topic in 2017. The article, titled “The Coast Guard’s ‘Floating Guantánamos’” focuses on the experiences of seven former Coast Guard detainees, particularly a man who Wessler described as a “40-year-old fisherman from Ecuador’s central coast” named Jhonny Arcentales. Wessler discussed the treatment of men like Arcentales who were held on Coast Guard ships, saying that some were shackled by an ankle to the decks of the ships, exposed to the elements until they were brought to land. 

The detention of these men is legal because of a set of laws passed by the U.S. government in relation to the vast expansion of the war on drugs, according to Wessler. He wrote in his article, “Government officials say intelligence gained from small-time boatmen is key to investigating and dismantling larger transnational criminal networks.” He also wrote that according to a former Coast Guard lawyer he spoke with, the Coast Guard “never intended to operate a fleet of ‘floating Guantánamos.’” 

When faced with challenges in maritime drug law enforcement in the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. government took legal action. Wessler wrote that Congress passed a set of laws, “including the 1986 Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, that defined drug smuggling in international waters as a crime against the United States, even when there was no proof that the drugs, often carried on foreign boats, were bound for the United States.” The Coast Guard was assigned the responsibility to enforce these regulations and carry detained smugglers to the U.S. for legal proceedings. But Wessler said that these ships are not retrofitted as detention centers, so detainees are just held, some even shackled.

The Coast Guard’s vast reach into the seas began as a migration control mission, according to Wessler. He cited the example of migrants on boats from Haiti being picked up and returned home by the Coast Guard. With regard to drug smuggling, Wessler explained that the number of maritime detentions and criminal charges have increased in recent years related to a multinational effort to disrupt smuggling routes through South and Central America before the drugs can be brought into Mexico or the U.S. “The U.S. thinks it can exert its power in these extreme ways deep out into the world’s oceans in ways that are really beyond what any other country has tried before,” he said.

The manner in which the “low-level drug smugglers” were detained is, according to Wessler’s article, “justified by Coast Guard officials and federal prosecutors alike, who argue that suspects like Arcentales are not formally under arrest when the Coast Guard detains them.” He added, “While on board, they’re not read Miranda rights, not appointed lawyers, not allowed to contact their consulate or their families.” 

He shared that a psychologist who worked with former detainees noted the trauma faced by men who had been shackled and held on these ships, some suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “For me this is a story obviously about human rights abuse,” Wessler said.

Alex Kenoian ’19 attended Wessler’s talk and was surprised by many aspects of his work on this issue. “I wasn’t aware this was happening,” she said. “I’m glad Mount Holyoke is continuing to invite speakers that have something new to say.” 

In response to a question from the audience, Wessler noted that there are Coast Guard officers who say that they hate performing duties related to these detentions and try to be as kind as possible. “Commanders often hate having to do this,” he said. He also shared that some humanitarian organizations are pursuing this issue and that attempts at legal action are possible in the future. 

Beyond his work on this topic, Wessler has recently published other articles on the denaturalization of U.S. citizens, public funding for Confederate monuments and other timely subjects. 

Professor Hernandez believes that journalists like Wessler make exceptional speakers for students to meet. “Because Wessler’s body of work bridges social justice and professional journalism,” Hernandez said, “I believe it is of interest to students as they consider the utility of their intellectual commitments, the relationship between knowledge and power and next steps in their political lives after MHC.”