Alerts   |   Colombia

DRUG TRAFFICKING AND THE PRESS IN LATIN AMERICA




May 3, 1999 Bogotá, Colombia -- In 1986 when El Espectador editor Guillermo Cano was gunned down at a traffic light in downtown Bogotá, everyone in Colombia knew who was behind the hit. Medellín cartel leader Pablo Escobar reportedly held several lavish victory parties to celebrate the murder.

There were no parties on May 19, 1998, the day a gunman in Cali shot television journalist Bernabé Cortés as he was getting out of a taxi. No one knew for sure who wanted him dead.


There were rumors: Local traffickers angered by his reporting on the drug trade had ordered the hit; maybe it was guerrillas, or members of the military who were angry about a story Cortés had broadcast on the shooting of several people at roadblock. Some suggested that Cortés had been killed because of unpaid debts; others that he had taken payoffs from drug dealers.

What is clear is that thirteen years after the murder of Guillermo Cano, journalists in Colombia continue to face enormous risks. Bernabé Cortés was one of four journalists killed in the line of duty in Colombia last year, more than any other country in the world. In the last decade, 43 Colombian journalists have been killed, second only to Algeria. Where once drug traffickers were the primary threat, the circumstances surrounding Cortés' murder show how the demise of the Colombian cartels has created new risks for journalists in Colombia and throughout the Americas. New diversified trafficking operations are not only less centralized-and therefore harder to predict or control-but they have become so entwined with local political actors (governments, guerrillas and paramilitary forces) that it is often impossible to distinguish between criminal violence and political violence.

Today an award honoring a journalist who died at the hands of drug traffickers was bestowed on another journalist, Jesús Blancornelas, who miraculously survived a similar attack. It seems an appropriate moment to re-examine the dangers posed by the drug trade to journalists in our hemisphere. According to a review of CPJ's database, at least 15 journalists in the Americas have died at the hands of drug traffickers since Guillermo Cano was gunned down on December 17, 1986.

CHANGING TRAFFICKING PATTERNS

At the time of Guillermo Cano's murder, international drug trafficking was dominated by two cartels, based in the cities of Cali and Medellín. The Medellín cartel in particular targeted journalists in their bloody fight against both the rival cartel and the Colombian government. As the Colombian government fought back, and the United States shut down the traditional smuggling route through Miami, the cartels expanded their operations through Mexico and the Caribbean, in search of new smuggling routes. By the end of the decade, the Colombian cartels had established an enormous network linking coca producers in Peru and Bolivia, middlemen scattered throughout Mexico and Caribbean, and consumers in the United States and Europe.

Under fierce pressure from the United States, the Colombian government intensified its crackdown in the early 1990s. In 1993 Medellín cartel leader Pablo Escobar was killed in a shoot-out with police; over the next few years the leaders of the Cali cartel were arrested and jailed.

But the demise of the major cartels has not slowed the flow of drugs into the United States; nor has it made the world safer for journalists. In fact, the decentralization of drug smuggling operations across the hemisphere has often made journalism more dangerous, particularly in Mexico where powerful cartels now control the lion's share of cocaine entering the United States. The decentralization has also allowed local traffickers to form alliances with political organizations, from state governors to guerrillas and right wing paramilitary groups. These groups provide political protection to the traffickers in exchange for a portion of the proceeds.

For Colombian journalists, the declining fortunes of the cartels have given them no respite. The profits from the drug trade now apparently finance an array of violent groups, all of whom have targeted journalists. As the confusion surrounding the murder of Bernabe Cortés makes clear, there is never a shortage of suspects when a journalist is killed.

THE DEATH OF BERNABE CORTES

On the morning of May 19, Bernabé Cortés was at home, on vacation from his job as a television reporter for the CVN station in Cali. At around 11:15 he told his wife that he was going to visit an aunt and grabbed a taxi in front of his home. He probably did not notice that he was being followed by a black Mazda.

The last thing Cortés probably saw was a gunman approaching him as the taxi pulled to the curb in front of the aunt's home. The assassin first killed Cortés, then, in an apparent effort to eliminate a witness, he also killed the taxi driver. Then he jumped back in the Mazda and sped off.

Cortés' murder initially caused widespread consternation in Cali and throughout Colombia, particularly because it came at the precise moment that Colombians in major cities were gathering for a series of public marches against violence and for peace. In Cali, where the gray-haired Cortés was the city's best-known television reporter, thousands of people turned out for the funeral.

I visited Bogotá and Cali in January to investigate the murder. After talking to his colleagues, other journalists in Cali, and investigators, I pieced together the following account.

Soon after the black Mazda fled the scene of the crime, authorities in Cali were able to trace the license plate to a couple who owned a ranch (finca) outside of town. The couple told investigators that they had lent their car to an employee who had not returned. A few days before the crime, another couple had reported to police that they had been robbed of their black Mazda at gun point by a well-dressed couple posing as car buyers. A week later, that car was recovered at a roadblock. Authorities surmised the Cortés' killers may have used that car in the attack, but had switched the license plate with the one from the car that belonged to the finca owners. Such a scenario suggests a sophisticated operation.

Sometime later, police acting on a tip arrested Julio César Ospina Chavarro in the town of Yumbo, outside Cali, and charged him with carrying out the murder. A search of Ospina Chavarro's home turned up the license plates of the stolen Mazda. Police also recovered a weapon. Ballistic tests have matched it to the gun used to kill Cortés.

Ospina Chavarro is not talking, but authorities have linked him to a group of traffickers who operate out of Corinto, a town about an hour from Cali. On July 11, 1997, Cortés had gone out with the Colombian army to report on the destruction of a major cocaine laboratory operating in that area. He and his crew had left at 12 a.m. and arrived at a major laboratory at around 9 a.m. the following morning, after hiking three hours through the mountains. They filmed soldiers and police emptying drums of chemicals and tearing up coca plants. The lab had processed nearly two tons of cocaine a month.

After leaving the laboratory, the military convoy came under heavy fire from FARC guerrillas positioned on nearby ridges. (The FARC-the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-is Colombia's largest guerrilla group). Several police officers were slightly injured. Cortés' footage of the fire-fight, broadcast nationally, provided some of the first visual evidence that the guerrillas were protecting local traffickers. While FARC leaders have acknowledged providing protection for the peasants who grow coca, Cortés' report suggested a much more intimate relationship between the FARC and traffickers engaged in processing a substantial amount of cocaine.

Journalists I spoke with during my visit to Cali told me Cortés' murder typifies the new dangers that journalists face now that the Cali cartel has been nearly eliminated. While the level of violence has dropped, it has become more unpredictable as smaller organizations with no command structure have filled the void. Local journalists have also reported that guerrillas-both the FARC and the rival ELN (National Liberation Army)- are increasingly financed through protection of local traffickers, a fact that may help to explain the intensification rebel activity. Because of the danger, journalists say they seldom leave Cali to report a story without a military escort.

During my trip to Colombia in January, I was also able to confirm that three other journalists were murdered during 1998 in reprisal for their professional work. All three murders were related, directly or indirectly, to drug trafficking.

Bullfighting reporter Oscar García Calderón was forced into a taxi as he was leaving the offices of El Espectador on February 22, 1998. He was shot three times, and his body dumped near the Attorney General's offices. His colleagues at El Espectador believe García was killed because he had tried to arrange a meeting with the Attorney General to discuss how drug traffickers were using bullfighting and cattle ranching to launder proceeds.

Radio journalist Nelson Carvajal Carvajal was gunned down in the town of Pitalito on April 16. On January 5, 1999, police arrested the former mayor and two local politicians who jointly owned a construction company, and charged them with the crime. Carvajal had denounced the former mayor for misappropriating funds. CPJ has received information from local sources alleging that the local companies were also being used to launder drug proceeds.

On August 11, 1998 Amparo Leonor Jiménez Pallares was shot to death by members of a paramilitary death squad outside her home in Valledupar, apparently in retaliation for a story she reported in August 1996 about the massacre of peasants occupying a large estate. While there is no direct relationship between the murder of Jiménez and drug trafficking, there are widespread reports that paramilitary groups are increasingly financed from trafficking proceeds, particularly around Medellín.

THE TOLL

As an organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of press freedom around the world, CPJ takes no position on public policy issues surrounding the drug trade. We do feel that drug trafficking and the criminal violence associated with it are issues of legitimate public concern, which should be covered by the press. We are therefore extremely concerned for the safety of journalists who cover the drug trade.

In this context it is important to consider the ways in which changes in trafficking patterns over the last decade affect journalists' safety. For example, drug trafficking is clearly helping to finance the violence in Colombia at a time when armed conflict has faded from the rest of the hemisphere. Fighting a war is expensive, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the decline of Cuba's economic prospects, and the end of U.S. backing for counter-insurgency efforts in Latin America have meant that the money has run dry for many guerrilla groups and government armies. Peace treaties were the result. The war in Colombia, meanwhile, appears to be self-financed through the drug trade, with guerrilla groups, the paramilitary, and even elements in the military now receiving the economic proceeds from the drug trade. It is important to consider the implications for journalists covering the conflict. The repression of the drug trade in Colombia has also produced an increase in trafficking activity elsewhere in Latin America, particularly in Mexico where journalists face significant risk from powerful cartels or "grupos." Other high-risk countries for journalists are the United States, Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Peru.

Since 1987, drug traffickers have been responsible for the murder of as many as 15 journalists in Latin America, according to CPJ's records. I have the compiled the names of journalists who may have been killed because of their work covering the drug trade. However, we can not be certain of the motive in many of theses cases, since the suspects remain at large.

FIGHTING BACK

Despite these examples, violence against the press in Latin America has generally been declining. In fact, an increasing number of CPJ's cases in the Americas stem not from physical attacks, but legal ones, particularly criminal defamation prosecutions. Nevertheless, the drug trade continues to pose a substantial risk to journalists in the whole hemisphere. Controlling this risk is one of the press' most important challenges.

When journalists are victimized by authoritarian governments, we in the international press freedom community have a variety of tactics and strategies we can use to hold leaders accountable. We can meet with government representatives and pressure them directly, or we can use the press to draw attention to abuses committed by a particular regime. Providing protection for journalists against attacks by criminal organizations is much more difficult because criminal gangs, by their nature, do not generally have recognized leaders who are susceptible to international pressure. Nevertheless, I believe that there are a number of measures that can be taken to reduce the inevitable risks to journalists covering the drug trade.

  1. Investigate the crime: Journalists should cover attacks on the press not out of professional solidarity but because they are legitimate news stories, similar to an attack on a politician or a judge. An attack against a journalist in reprisal for his or her reporting is also an attack against the whole society's right to receive information and to be informed. This is not to say that journalists should suspend their usual skepticism when they cover such stories; they should investigate each attack thoroughly to understand why it occurred. Because local news organizations often do not have the resources to carry out such investigations, press freedom groups, both national or international, play a key role. The creation by the Inter American Press Association of a "Rapid Reaction Team" which will be deployed to investigate such crimes may become an important deterrent.
  2. Follow up: Once it becomes clear that a journalist was attacked or killed because of his or her reporting, other journalists should follow up and publish their findings prominently. The certainty that a violent attack against a journalist will engender increased public scrutiny is the most effective deterrent against those who would attempt to silence the press through violence.
  3. Denounce and publicize: Journalists can act politically, through the editorial pages and by delegating national press organizations to meet with government representatives and hold them accountable for the investigation into the crime.

Recently, I spoke with a veteran reporter who has covered the Sicilian Mafia in the United States for many years. I asked him if he was ever concerned about his safety. He said that the Mafia in the United States had come to understand that the public reaction to attacking a journalist is so strong that it is counterproductive to do so. "If they don't want their names in the paper, they don't talk to you," said the journalist. "As long as you don't make the relationship personal, there is very little danger."

Teaching the drug traffickers that operate in the Americas a similar lesson will be difficult, but not impossible. Traffickers in Tijuana who ordered the attack on Jesús Blancornelas today understand that their efforts to suppress the reporting on drugs has dramatically backfired. The public outrage over the attack fueled a government crackdown on the Tijuana cartel; the activities of the cartel have been publicized in newspapers throughout Mexico and around the world; the assailants have been identified and are on the run. By honoring Blancornelas today, the Cano foundation and UNESCO help make it safer for all journalists in Latin America covering dangerous assignments by showing that the international community will back journalists who put their life on the line to tell a story. All of us here today hope that this renewed attention will force Mexican authorities to redouble their efforts to arrest and prosecute those who ordered and carried out the attack on Blancornelas.

Criminals should know that journalists working together can ensure that using violence to suppress the news will not keep your name out of paper. On the contrary. It should be surest method to getting your name on the front page. We do not yet know the names of those who ordered the murder of Bernab&eaacute; Cortés. This is a story that still need to be written.


Para la versión Española, haga CLIC AQUí.

Back to top.

Like this article? Support our work