Star TV reporter Manolo Bonilla (John Leguizamo), who works for a Miami-based tabloid show called "One Hour With the Truth," is in Ecuador with his camera crew to follow the story of a serial killer who has been targeting children. While there, he manages to save the life of Vinicio Cepeda (Damián Alcázar), a man who has killed a child in a car accident and is about to be lynched by a mob. Thrown into jail, Cepeda is still fearful for his life. He tells Bonilla he knows something about the mass murders, and will give him the information if Bonilla helps get him out of the hoosegow.
Bonilla soon becomes convinced that Cepeda is the aptly named "Monster of Babahoyo," and only needs some prodding to confess his sins. Sensing he's on the track of the biggest story he's ever covered, Bonilla also decides to keep his suspicions from the police, since he's afraid they'll take over the case and deny him access to Cepeda. This means that even after Cepeda has led Bonilla to a victim the police know nothing about, the driven journalist swears his co-workers to silence.
Bonilla decides to shoot a story on Cepeda, painting him as a good guy (he's married, has children and is a beloved Bible salesman) saved from tragedy at the last minute. He's hoping that when the spot airs, it will encourage Cepeda to tell his full story, but just the opposite occurs: The tale becomes a huge hit, forcing the Ecuadorian police to release Cepeda from jail. He disappears into the interior of the country immediately, leaving Bonilla to ponder whether he should finally tell the cops what he knows. Realizing he's gotten in way, way over his head, Bonilla and his team decamp from the country without revealing what they know, leaving a serial killer on the loose.
Shot in a raw, rambling style, Crónicas is a blunt instrument of a tale, with considerable emotional impact. The opening lynching scene is brutally realistic, almost impossible to watch, and the Ecuadorian locations are drenched with humidity, poverty and despair. But it is also nuanced in its storytelling, particularly in the character of Bonilla, who is not so much immoral as driven by professional concerns that force him to make a lot of bad decisions. Acting in Spanish for the first time, Leguizamo manages to create a man who, by the end of the film, is devastated by what he has done. The final scene brings it all home: Considered by TV viewers to be a hero because he saved Cepeda's life, he is greeted at the airport by autograph seekers, people who want their picture taken with him, and a local TV crew asking him what it feels like to be such a brave man. All he can mouth are platitudes that he no longer believes. It's one hell of a downbeat ending.