Enrique Zileri, a pre-eminent Latin American journalist and scourge to a succession of repressive Peruvian governments during his decades at the helm of Caretas, his country’s top news magazine, died Aug. 24 at a hospital in Lima. He was 83.
The cause was complications from throat cancer, his daughter Drusila Zileri said.
Zileri was widely noted as a persistent advocate for press freedoms in Latin America when many regional governments sought to suppress the media. In a statement, Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate, called him an “indefatigable defender of freedom and democracy” whose publication “could never be bribed or intimidated.”
Caretas, which means “Masks,” was co-founded by Zileri’s mother in 1950 and became one of the country’s most influential news outlets. Its reach was compared to that of Time or Newsweek in the United States.
Zileri was credited with combining ambitious investigative reporting with cultural features and society gossip that together helped make Caretas a weekly must-read. The magazine distinguished itself from many other Latin American publications by showing no loyalty to any particular political faction and by seeking to expose government abuses, whoever was in power.
The newspaper’s office was located in Lima across from the presidential palace, as if in a constant face-off with authorities.
“I imagined the president peeping out from behind the palace curtains, training his binoculars on Zileri’s mischievous grin,” journalist Isabel Hilton wrote in the New Yorker in 2001.
In his early years leading the magazine, Zileri contended with Peru’s military governments under Juan Velasco Alvarado and Francisco Morales Bermúdez.
Caretas was shuttered numerous times, and twice Zileri was exiled. The first deportation — to Portugal in 1969 — followed a report in Caretas that military leaders intended to secretly increase the pay of the armed forces by 30 percent.
In 1974, the Velasco government closed Caretas, citing the “continuous and ill-intentioned attacks mounted by the magazine against the Peruvian revolution.”
Later that year, as Zileri battled a jail sentence for printing an article that allegedly harmed “the honor and reputation of high Government officials,” the New York Times described him as “one of the outstanding journalists of the Americas.”
Beginning in the early 1980s, Zileri led the magazine through coverage of the guerrilla insurgency of the Maoist group known as the Shining Path. Among the reporters he hired for the dangerous work of reporting on the violence was Gustavo Gorriti, now one of Peru’s top journalists.
Writing in the Nieman Reports, Gorriti described the mandate for Latin American journalists at the time as “Publish, try not to perish.”
“I was fortunate to work with a great editor — the talented and brave Enrique Zileri,” Gorriti wrote. “He … could inspire or terrify Caretas’ eclectic group of journalists with a simple, binary alternative: Produce a scoop or suffer temporal but stinging disgrace.”
During the autocratic government of Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s, Caretas aggressively investigated corruption and human rights abuses, despite government efforts to stop the spread of such information.
“Enrique and Caretas were really in the vanguard of this struggle,” Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in an interview. “He was both incredibly gracious and absolutely irascible in the way that only great journalists can be.”
Vladimiro Montesinos, the chief of national security under Fujimori, once sued Zileri for defamation when Caretas described him as Fujimori’s “Rasputin.” Zileri was fined and received a suspended jail sentence.
“I think the main idea was to keep us quiet,” Zileri told the Los Angeles Times.
Enrique Alberto Zileri Gibson was born June 4, 1931, in Lima. His father, Manlio Zileri, was an Argentine diplomat of Italian descent. His mother, Doris Gibson Parra, was a Peruvian of English heritage dating back several generations.
Zileri attended boarding schools and studied at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, but did not complete his degree because his family ran out of money to finance his tuition, his daughter said.
He worked as a publicist and wrote for Caretas before becoming editor and publisher. The magazine, which continues as a family-run publication, is led by his son Marco Zileri.
His wife of five decades, Daphne Dougall de Zileri, a noted photographer, died in 2011. Survivors include five children, Marco Zileri, Diana Zileri, Sebastian Zileri and Drusila Zileri — all of Lima and all of whom work for Caretas — and Domenica Zileri of Tyler, Texas; and eight grandchildren.
Zileri received many honors, including the prestigious Maria Moors Cabot Prize for journalism that furthers inter-American understanding. He later helped administer the prize as a juror.
“It’s not an exaggeration — he was one of the giants of Latin American journalism,” said John Dinges, a veteran foreign correspondent in the region and a professor at Columbia University’s journalism school.
Among U.S. journalists, Zileri was a go-to source for explanations of his country’s politics. Like the journalism his magazine produced, his quips often were insightful and stylish. Before the 1990 Peruvian election, in which Vargas Llosa would lose his presidential bid to Fujimori, Zileri weighed in with his estimation of the writer’s prospects.
“You have to be willing to step on your mother,” Zileri told the New York Times, “and I’m not sure that he is.”