Guild member Martha Mendoza shares Gramling award for seafood slaves series

“They’re freeing the slaves!”

Guild member Martha Mendoza of AP’s San Jose bureau went from bed to bed in the early morning hours of April 3, whispering that to her children and her husband. She had just gotten an overseas call from a colleague saying hundreds of men held as slaves and forced to fish for years were streaming from the hills of Benjina in Indonesia to boats that would take them to freedom.

Mendoza, one of four people who won the AP’s highest award for the series, remembers none of this. “I was that excited,” she said.

Mendoza, Esther Hstuan, Robin McDowell and Margie Mason shared the $10,000 Gramling award for journalism. In announcing the winners, AP CEO Gary Pruitt said: Their dogged efforts and relentless pursuit — at times following ships by satellite, locating slaves locked in pens, stalking refrigerated trucks to their destinations — revealed how rampant slavery is in the fishing industry and brought immediate reaction from major retailers as well as the Indonesian government.”

The judges broke from the tradition of recognizing individual achievement to honor the team, whose work resulted in the release of about 800 slaves.

Mason and McDowell followed a boatload of slave-caught seafood to Thai processors, Mendoza said. She then plugged away at databases that track U.S. imports.

“I also went to dozens of supermarkets in different states to check out their frozen and canned seafood,” she said. “Was it from Thailand? Was it a species we had seen? What brand was it? Who was the distributor? Then back to the databases for a potential match.

“Eventually, the puzzle came together and we were able to tie seafood caught by slaves to U.S. markets, distributors and restaurants.”

It was April 3 when McDowell called Mason from Benjina to say “the slaves were all being rescued, that they were pouring out of the hills, jumping out of boats,” Mendoza said. “Margie called me up, before dawn, and told me. I jumped out of bed, realizing I was going to need to get U.S. reax, and started making calls and sending emails. A few hours later when my family gathered for breakfast, they told me I had gone bed to bed and shaken my kids awake, telling each of them ‘They’re freeing the slaves!’ I don’t even remember doing this.”

Gramling award winner: The enslaved men are heroes

The young, enslaved men risked their lives when they spoke with AP journalists, she said.

“These men, who spent months and years in horrific situations, deserve any and all credit and kudos for daring to speak up,” Mendoza said. “They could easily have been killed for such insubordination. There are many more in their situation. …We have a lot more to do. And I have tremendous gratitude to the AP for giving us the opportunities to press on.”