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Journalists from The New York Times awarded the 2023 James Foley Medill Medal for Courage

Their investigation exposed Colombian political leaders who were profiting from a massive people-moving enterprise through the Darién Gap.

Julie Turkewitz and Federico Rios in the jungle.
On April 26, 2024 Medill will welcome Turkewitz and Rios to Evanston to accept their awards and discuss their reporting.  

EVANSTON, ILL. -- Julie Turkewitz and Federico Rios of The New York Times have been awarded the 2023 James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism for their exclusive coverage of migration through the Darién Gap, a 66-mile stretch of densely forested jungle across northern Colombia and southern Panama. The award is given by the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. This year’s award is for articles published in 2023. 

Their investigative journalism exposed how political leaders in Colombia were profiting immensely from a massive people-moving enterprise through the jungle, despite a pledge by the Colombian government to halt the flow of people. Turkewitz and Rios detailed the expansion of this operation, which is regulated by one of the country’s most powerful armed groups.  

Last year, half a million migrants with dreams of reaching the United States braved the journey across the Darién Gap. This doubled the previous year's record, which stood at nearly 250,000. Despite the joint commitment in April of 2023 by the U.S., Colombia, and Panama to "end the illicit movement of people" through this route, Turkewitz and Rios uncovered a smuggling scheme fueling this humanitarian crisis. 

The series also brought to light the far-reaching effects of the war in Afghanistan and its stunning consequences for the hemisphere, with thousands of Afghans heading toward the American border. Turkewitz and Rios trekked with 54 Afghans across the Darién Gap, then followed some of them as they crossed from Mexico into the United States.  

Turkewitz and Rios' work received global acclaim, with Rios' photographs capturing the attention of audiences worldwide. Their expertise in navigating migrant-related social media led to the identification of hundreds of smuggling advertisements on social media. After the Times documented more than 900 cases of these advertisements on Facebook, the company removed hundreds of posts, and similar content was taken down by YouTube and TikTok. Their reporting has been recognized as crucial to understanding the complexities of migration, influencing policymakers, prompting government actions, and was part of a package sent to Pope Francis, who had solicited information about the humanitarian situation in the jungle.    

The reporting took a toll on their health and safety, and Rios at one point was airlifted to a hospital. Despite facing injuries, a staph infection, and dengue fever, the journalists persisted in their coverage, enduring challenges such as getting lost in the jungle and nearly running out of food. 

The dangers escalated after the articles exposed officials involved in the lucrative smuggling route, with threats prompting both Rios and Turkewitz to flee Colombia.  

“Julie Turkewitz and Federico Rios risked their lives, more than once, to bring to light the enormous humanitarian crisis of the more than half a million migrants who crossed the Darién Gap – a notoriously dangerous jungle – to get to the United States, including many from Afghanistan,” said Ellen Shearer, co-judge and professor emeritus at Medill. “By showing the role of Colombian political leaders who turned this humanitarian crisis into a huge people-moving business, these courageous journalists forced Colombia and the U.S. to take action.”

“If you wonder why our immigration crisis is so out of control, you need to read this outstanding investigative series,” said co-judge Al From (MSJ66), Medill Board of Advisers member and founder and chairman of the board of directors at the Democratic Leadership Council. “Displaying journalistic courage worthy of the James Foley Medill Medal, Turkewitz and Rios put their lives on the line to uncover and detail how political leaders have turned smuggling 500,000 migrants through the treacherous Darién Gap into an enormously lucrative business.”   

Honorable Mention:  

This year’s honorable mention was awarded to Maggie Michael, El Tayeb Siddig, Ryan McNeill, Zohra Bensemra, Khalid Abdelaziz and the Staff at Reuters for their coverage of the war in Sudan. 

In 2023, Reuters spotlighted a forgotten war in Sudan, portraying the brutality and devastation of a conflict often overlooked amid the headlines of other global struggles. Reporters dedicated almost two months to the Chad-Sudan border, capturing the stories of over 300 survivors fleeing ethnic bloodletting in Darfur. 

Their reporting revealed the systematic nature of the attacks, exposing racial animus and the horrifying methods of torture employed by Arab forces against the Masalit people. Despite obstacles, including restricted access to massacre sites and confiscated phones, the team conducted extensive interviews and obtained rare on-the-ground photos and satellite shots. 

“The reporting from Sudan was astonishing in its depth and creative use of old-fashioned on-the-ground reporting and cutting-edge technology, satellite imagery that revealed newly dug graves as evidence of slaughter. Satellite imagery also revealed wide swaths of destruction where Masalit people lived. The Reuters team then used a Google Earth Engine tool to calculate the staggering extent of the devastation,” said Donna Leff, co-judge and professor emeritus at Medill. 

The reporting team's efforts culminated in "The Slaughter of El Geneina," an in-depth account that laid bare the extent of the killing, the use of rape as a weapon of war, and the orchestrated campaign to eliminate the Masalit people. The team's meticulous analysis of satellite imagery, fire-detection data, and survivor accounts provided a comprehensive understanding of the destruction in El Geneina. 

Through their investigative prowess, the Reuters team identified six commanders allegedly playing key roles in the ethnic cleansing, naming them in "Death in Darfur."  

On April 26, 2024 Medill will welcome Turkewitz and Rios to Evanston to accept their awards and discuss their reporting.  

Jim Foley’s mother, Diane Foley, founder of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation will attend the medal ceremony and give remarks. The winners will be interviewed by Medill alumna and CBS correspondent Roxana Saberi.   

This event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

Register for the medal ceremony