COLOMBIA


Americas cases 2003: Country List    I   Americas Regional Home Page
How CPJ investigates and classifies attacks on the press





JANUARY 21 2003

Scott Dalton, The Los Angeles Times
Ruth Morris, The Los Angeles Times
MISSING

Dalton and Morris, freelance journalists who were on assignment for The Los Angeles Times in the lawless Arauca Department, in eastern Colombia, were abducted by leftist rebels, who held the journalists hostage for 11 days.

Dalton, a photographer from Texas, and Morris, a British reporter who grew up in California, along with their driver, Madiel Ariza, were taken from their car at a rebel roadblock sometime after 1 p.m. on a road south of the town of Saravena, 200 miles (320 kilometers) from Bogotá.

Ariza was freed unharmed on January 22. In a January 23 phone interview with CPJ, he said that rebels from both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) had detained them. Ariza added that the rebels promised to deliver the two journalists unharmed to the Red Cross, along with a message for the international community. However, on January 23, the ELN announced on a clandestine radio station that it was holding the journalists and would free them when "the political and military conditions permit," according to an Associated Press (AP) report.

In the radio broadcast, the ELN said the journalists had arrived in the area without its permission. "You must take into account that Arauca has been declared a war zone by the American government and the Colombian state," the rebel statement said, according to the AP. "For that reason, the National Liberation Army is on a war footing and is acting in defense of the dignity of all people of eastern Colombia." The rebels also said they were "prepared to guarantee the lives and security of these journalists."

Dalton and Morris are both experienced journalists who have worked in Colombia for years for various publications. Dozens of U.S. Special Forces had recently arrived in Arauca to train Colombian troops to protect a vital oil pipeline, which rebels frequently bomb, that runs through the region.

A top ELN commander said on January 28 that Dalton and Morris would be freed within days, but in a separate broadcast, the rebels announced they wouldn't release the hostages until the military halted operations in the zone where the journalists were being held.

Morris, 35, read a statement over the rebel-controlled, clandestine Voice of Liberty radio station. "We are in good health, but we are very worried," she said. The statement was given on January 27 and broadcast by RCN Televisión news the next day.

Early on February 1, the ELN released Morris and Dalton to an International Red Cross delegate in Arauca. The journalists, both of whom live in Bogotá, were in good health and said they were treated decently. Morris told reporters that the kidnapping was the spontaneous decision of one of the ELN rebels. She said rebel commanders may have decided to hold them longer for political gains.

The Colombian conflict, nearly 40 years old, sets the ELN and the FARC against the government and rival right-wing paramilitary groups. Nearly all of the paramilitary units declared a unilateral cease-fire in December 2002. Both the ELN and the FARC have been protesting the presence of U.S. Special Forces in Arauca.


JANUARY 26, 2003

Ramón Eduardo Martínez, RCN Televisión
Duarley Rafael Guerrero, RCN Televisión
Mauricio Vega, RCN Televisión
Rubén Darío Peñuela, RCN Televisión
Carlos Julio García, freelance
MISSING

Fighters from the country's largest rebel army abducted four members of an RCN Televisión news crew and an independent journalist who were covering an explosion that killed six soldiers and a civilian in the eastern Arauca Department. The journalists were freed on January 28, an RCN Televisión spokeswoman said.

RCN Televisión correspondent Martínez, cameraman Guerrero, technicians Vega and Peñuela, and freelance photographer García were abducted near the town of Tame by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Authorities blamed the FARC for the January 26 deadly car bomb explosion.

Reports that the FARC stole the journalists' equipment couldn't immediately be confirmed.


MARCH 12, 2003

Pedro Antonio Cárdenas, freelance
THREATENED, MISSING

Cárdenas, the host of a two-hour local news program broadcast weekday mornings on the RCN radio network, was abducted from his house in Honda, in Tolima Department, at 10 a.m. and taken to a motel, where several armed men were waiting. The men said they were affiliated with the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC.

For almost 40 years, the AUC has been fighting alongside government troops against leftist rebels in a civil conflict in Colombia. In recent years, the paramilitary army has been blamed for hundreds of kidnappings and for many of the human rights abuses committed in Colombia.


At the motel, the captors said they wanted to talk with Cárdenas further in a nearby village and forced him into a car. On the way there, police intercepted the car on a road at 11:30 a.m., freeing Cárdenas and capturing two kidnappers. A short time later, police arrested five others at the motel. A bulletin from the Tolima Department police described the men as paramilitary members.

In the weeks preceding the kidnapping, Cárdenas had been denouncing Honda's mayor and town council members on his radio program for allegedly trying to misuse US$270,000 in public money meant for municipal employees they planned on firing, said Cárdenas. He told listeners that the elected leaders were going to keep much of the money for themselves.

On March 2, paramilitary fighters threatened reprisals against Cárdenas unless he stopped criticizing municipal leaders and ended his radio show. Sources believe that that some of Honda's elected leaders have close ties to the paramilitary army.

On March 3, Cárdenas announced to listeners that he was giving up the program because of the threats. He returned to work several days later after residents gathered 2,000 signatures condemning the paramilitary threats in a show of support for the journalist. Cárdenas rents broadcast time from RCN and sells commercials to fund his work. He is not an official employee of RCN.

Even though police are guarding Cárdenas' house in Honda, where he lives with his wife and two children, he said he feared for his life and was considering fleeing to Bogotá. Following the kidnapping, RCN canceled the contract that allowed Cárdenas to rent broadcast time on the station, he said.


MARCH 15, 2003

Oscar Salazar Jaramillo, Radio Sevilla
KILLED—UNCONFIRMED

Salazar, owner of Radio Sevilla, in the Valle del Cauca Department in southwestern Colombia, was found dead in his apartment in the town of Sevilla at 9:30 a.m. with several stab wounds in his chest, stomach, and abdomen, according to a police bulletin.

Salazar, 74, hosted a one-hour radio program broadcast on Saturdays called "Sevilla in Seven Days" and was also the founder and owner of the station, said Wilson Rendón, a station employee. Salazar's apartment, where he lived alone, is located above the station.

On his radio program, Salazar gave commentary on politics, sports, and community news and discussed issues on air with listeners who called in. He had served as a congressman and a state deputy but did not hold a political position at the time of his death, said Rendón. Salazar had recently criticized local politicians for not fulfilling campaign promises and ignoring constituents' needs. However, he did not criticize the politicians by name, said Rendón.

Although Rendón said he was unaware of threats against Salazar's life, a relative of Salazar's, Rafael Salazar, told local reporters that the journalist had received death threats shortly before he was killed for opinions expressed on the air. Rafael Salazar did not elaborate and could not be reached for comment.

A spokesman for the Valle del Cauca Department police said there was no evidence that Salazar had been robbed, and that authorities are investigating rumors that he was killed in reprisal for views expressed on the radio program. Police have made no arrests.

Leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary fighters are active in the region. The rival groups and the Colombian government are embroiled in an almost 40-year-old civil war. Radio Sevilla is part of the Caracol Radio network and was started 49 years ago by Salazar.


MARCH 18, 2003

Luis Eduardo Alfonso Parada, Radio Meridiano-70
KILLED—CONFIRMED

Alfonso, a 33-year-old radio news host, was shot to death at 4:55 a.m. by two gunmen in the town of Arauca, near the Venezuelan border, while he tried to enter his office at Radio Meridiano-70. The two men were waiting for him there and fled on a motorcycle after the attack, said an Arauca Department police spokesperson.

The journalist, who had been threatened previously by members of a right-wing paramilitary army, was also a freelance reporter for Colombia's most widely read daily, El Tiempo.

In June 2002, presumed paramilitary gunmen shot and killed the owner of the station, Efraín Varela Noriega. Varela had alerted listeners to the presence of paramilitary fighters in the region days before he was assassinated.

Alfonso co-hosted several news shows broadcast during the day. Since October, he had been covering armed conflict in Arauca Department as a freelance reporter for El Tiempo, said Álvaro Sierra, an editor there. The conflict, which pits leftist rebels against rival paramilitary combatants and the government, has ravaged the country for nearly 40 years.

Alfonso lambasted all sides of the conflict but was particularly critical of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), said Miguel Ángel Rojas, who worked with Alfonso at Radio Meridiano-70. Rojas said Alfonso frequently reported in great detail on paramilitary activity in the region. "He didn't hold back at all," said Rojas. "I think that's what compromised him."

Fearing for his life, Alfonso fled for Bogotá soon after Varela was killed, said Jorge Enrique Meléndez, an El Tiempo reporter and friend of Alfonso's who spoke to him hours before he was killed.

In Bogotá, Alfonso received about US$320 from a government protection program for journalists to help support him while he sought refuge. He returned to Arauca six weeks later.

In November 2002, Alfonso's name appeared on a target list distributed in the town of Arauca by paramilitary fighters. The approximately 100 people named were threatened with death unless they "reformed," said Meléndez. In the weeks before his death, however, Alfonso had told friends and colleagues that he no longer feared for his life.


APRIL 6, 2003

José Emeterio Rivas, Radio Calor Estéreo
KILLED—UNCONFIRMED

Rivas, a 44-year-old journalist for Radio Calor Estéreo, was killed by unidentified gunmen. Police found the journalist's bullet-ridden body on April 7 along a road outside the town of Barrancabermeja, Santander Department, in northeastern Colombia.

He had four bullet wounds, said Col. Jorge Gil, the local police commander. Lying next to him was the body of Paolo César Montesinos, a 22-year-old university student whom authorities believe was killed with Rivas. It is not clear why the two men were together.

Rivas hosted a controversial morning program called "Fuerzas Vivas" (Live Forces). In the weeks before his death, he had publicly accused Barrancabermeja's mayor of corruption and collaboration with members of the Central Bolívar Block of the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), said Carolina Sánchez, spokeswoman for Colombia's Attorney General's Office.

On July 11, the office issued arrest warrants for the mayor, Julio César Ardila, along with three high-level officials in his office, identified as Abelardo Rueda Tobón, Juan Pablo Ariza Castañeda, and Fabio Pajón Lizano.

Sánchez said it is believed that the four men may have hired the paramilitary militia to kill Rivas. While the three town officials were arrested the day the warrants were issued, the mayor fled and is in hiding, according to Sánchez.

Authorities have also issued arrest warrants for three leaders of the Central Bolívar Block in connection with the killing. Sánchez said one of the men has been captured. Another was killed before authorities reached him, and the third is in hiding. Sánchez declined to discuss whether investigators believe that Rivas was killed for reasons related to his journalistic work.

Before he was killed, Rivas had received numerous death threats and had been assigned a 24-hour police escort through a protection program for journalists run by the Interior Ministry, said Gil.

The police escort was not with Rivas when he was shot. The journalist had told police that he didn't want the bodyguard to be with him over the weekend, allegedly because he was planning to attend a secret meeting with paramilitary fighters in the region, Gil said.

Although Rivas never told police he planned to meet with the paramilitaries, a man who refused to identify himself called police two days before the journalist's death and warned that the paramilitaries were going to kill him during a meeting he had scheduled with them. When police relayed the message to Rivas, he assured them that he was planning to stay home all weekend, said Gil.

According to CPJ sources, Rivas was a controversial figure. "Rivas was very involved in politics and had a lot of enemies. It will be difficult to establish the reasons of his murder," Enrique Fuentes, a member of Barrancabermeja's Journalists Association, told CPJ.

Rivas had worked as a public official for the local city council years before and was a candidate for the Colombian Senate in the legislative elections in November 2002, according to local press reports.

"It is a complicated case," said Janeth Montoya, a reporter with the Barrancabermeja-based Vanguardia Liberal. "The motives are not really clear at this time," she added.

Several people in the region had recently complained to police that Rivas had threatened to denounce them on the radio unless they paid him money. Gil said officials from the Public Prosecutor's Office in Santander were investigating the extortion claims. Sánchez said she wasn't aware of those allegations.


APRIL 28, 2003
Guillermo Bravo Vega, Alpevisión
KILLED—CONFIRMED

Bravo, a 65-year-old investigative journalist with the regional Alpevisión Radio, was shot dead at around 8 p.m. by an unidentified gunman who sneaked into his house in the southern town of Neiva, Huila Department. Bravo died as he was being driven to a local hospital, state police chief Col. Jairo Rolando Delgado said.

The journalist was shot once in the head and twice in the neck. The gunman escaped on the back of a motorcycle driven by another unknown individual. As of July, authorities had made no arrests in the case, according to Delgado.

Bravo, who directed the morning program "Hechos y cifras" (Facts and Figures) for Alpevisión, had frequently accused municipal and departmental government officials of mishandling public funds. Bravo also published an occasional newsletter focused on economics and finance called Eco Impacto (Eco Impact).

Authorities, who believe that Bravo may have been assassinated for denouncing public officials on his television program, are investigating reports that he was killed by a professional assassin hired by government officials, said Pedro Moreno, director of intelligence for the Administrative Department for Security (DAS) in Huila. Moreno declined to give more details.

According to a friend of Bravo's, two weeks before he was killed, a man approached the journalist at his house and warned him to leave town. The man told Bravo that he had been paid two million Colombian pesos (US$700) to kill him. Authorities have not been able to confirm the report.

Known for his investigative reporting, Bravo won Colombia's Simón Bolívar National Journalism Award in 1979. Ricardo Areiza, editor-in-chief of the Neiva-based daily Diario del Huila, said that Bravo had received death threats a month before his murder. "He said that he was going to be killed, and I believe that his assassination is related to his work," Areiza added.

Bravo was also well known as a left-leaning politician. He served as a departmental lawmaker in Huila more than two decades ago and had recently been a candidate for mayor of Neiva, according to a report published on April 30 in El Tiempo, Colombia's leading daily newspaper.


APRIL 29, 2003

Diógenes Cadena Castellanos, Huila Estéreo Radio
THREATENED

Cadena, who covers judicial issues for Huila Estéreo Radio in the city of Neiva, Huila Department, fled for Bogotá on May 4 after unidentified men called him twice at his home threatening to kill him. The journalist, 36, received the first threat on April 29, one day after his former colleague Guillermo Bravo Vega was shot dead inside his house in Neiva. The caller left a message on Cadena's answering machine warning him that he would be killed unless he left Neiva in three days.

Four days later, on May 3, Cadena received another call at his home, where he lives with his mother and siblings, from an unidentified man who said his time was up and warned him that he was "finished." Cadena left the following day and said officials at the government protection program for journalists have promised him financial assistance for four weeks.

Cadena said he doesn't know who is threatening him. He worked with Bravo for nearly two years at the regional station Alpevisión. However, Cadena said, he doesn't know if the threats he received are related to Bravo's murder.

Bravo directed a morning program on the station called "Hechos y cifras" (Facts and Figures) and frequently accused municipal and state government officials of mishandling public monies. Authorities were investigating reports that a professional assassin hired by public officials killed Bravo.

Jaime Rengifo Revero, Radio Olímpica
KILLED—CONFIRMED

Rengifo, a 48-year-old host for Radio Olímpica, was shot dead at around 6 a.m. by an unidentified gunman in the hallway of the hotel where the journalist lived in the northern town of Maicao, La Guajira Department, authorities reported.

The journalist was shot five times in the back while he was walking to his room at Hotel Venecia after drinking a cup of coffee in the lobby. The gunman, who had checked into the hotel under a false name the day before, fled on a motorcycle, said state police chief Col. Heriberto Naranjo.

As of July, authorities had made no arrests, Naranjo told CPJ. Officials continue to investigate reports that Rengifo was killed for comments made during his weekly morning program, "Periodistas en acción" (Journalists in Action).

Rengifo frequently criticized state security forces for failing to bring security to the region and also accused local politicians of corruption, said James Vargas, the station's production director. Leftist guerrillas and rival right-wing paramilitary forces fighting in the country's 40-year-old civil conflict all operate in the lawless region.

Vargas said Rengifo had received death threats in the past. A month before the journalist was killed, someone scrawled the message "Death to Jaime Rengifo" on the side of a building in Maicao. Rengifo was also the publisher of an infrequently published newspaper called El Guajiro Quincenario.


MAY 6, 2003

José Iván Aguilar Castañeda, Calor Estéreo
ATTACKED

A gunman riding tandem on the back of a motorcycle shot Aguilar as he was driving to work to prepare for his weekday morning program, "Noticias Ya" (News Now), on Calor Estéreo radio, in the city of Villavicencio, Meta Department, the journalist told CPJ.

Although one bullet grazed him and another pierced the upper portion of his chest, Aguilar was not seriously injured and was released from the hospital the following day. A third bullet struck Aguilar's car.

Aguilar, 39, left for Bogotá on May 7 with his wife and three children. He is seeking help through the government's protection program for threatened journalists, which provides money and police escorts.

Aguilar spoke frequently about Colombia's civil conflict but said he had received no previous threats and does not know who was behind the attack. Aguilar also works as a correspondent for "Noticias Uno" (News One) on the Bogotá television station Canal Uno (Channel One).

Authorities are investigating the shooting but have made no arrests, said Meta police commander Col. José Arnulfo Oliveros.


AUGUST 22,2003

Jaime Conrado Juajibioy Cuarán, Manantial Estéreo
ATTACKED

Juajibioy, 24, who works for the program "Panorama Informativo" (News Outlook) on the community radio station Manantial Estéreo, was seriously injured when the vehicle he was traveling in was fired on at a checkpoint reportedly guarded by members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) near the town of Puerto Caicedo, in southern Colombia. Manantial Estéreo is run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Putumayo Department, in the town of Sibundoy.

Juan Carlos Benavides Arévalo, 29, who hosted the program, was shot dead in the attack. Juajibioy was seriously wounded and was taken to a hospital for treatment, according to CPJ sources.

Benavides and Juajibioy were traveling with a group, including local politicians, from Sibundoy to Puerto Asís, where they had planned to cover a Saturday meeting between Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and regional leaders. At Saturday's meeting, Uribe said that rebels from the FARC had been trying to attack him during his visit to Puerto Asís, The Associated Press reported.

According to local press reports, the rebels who shot at the vehicle were FARC members. However, the government, right-wing paramilitary militias, and drug lords—in addition to the FARC—are also known to control checkpoints in the region.

On September 3, the Colombian military reported that two FARC rebels who had allegedly shot Benavides were killed in a confrontation with the army. Army officials said the rebels had set up a checkpoint in the area where the journalist was killed, the Bogotá-based daily El Espectador reported.

Juan Carlos Benavides Arévalo, Manantial Estéreo
KILLED—CONFIRMED

Benavides, a 29-year-old host for the community radio station Manantial Estéreo, was shot dead when the vehicle he was traveling in was fired on at a checkpoint reportedly guarded by members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) near the town of Puerto Caicedo, in southern Colombia.

Benavides died at about 6:15 p.m., after being shot when his driver decided to elude the checkpoint. The journalist hosted the morning radio program "Panorama Informativo" (News Outlook) on Manantial Estéreo, which is run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Putumayo Department, in the town of Sibundoy.

Jaime Conrado Juajibioy Cuarán, 24, who worked with Benavides at the station, was seriously injured in the attack and was taken to a hospital for treatment, according to CPJ sources.

According to local press reports, the rebels who shot at the vehicle were FARC members. However, the government, right-wing paramilitary militias, and drug lords—in addition to the FARC—are also known to control checkpoints in the region.

On September 3, the Colombian military reported that two FARC rebels who had allegedly shot Benavides were killed in a confrontation with the army. Army officials said the rebels had set up a checkpoint in the area where the journalist was killed, the Bogotá-based daily El Espectador reported.

Benavides and Juajibioy were traveling with a group, including local politicians, from Sibundoy to the town of Puerto Asís, where they had planned to cover a meeting between Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and regional leaders. At the meeting, Uribe said that FARC rebels had been trying to attack him during his visit there, The Associated Press reported.

OCTOBER 22, 2003
Posted: November 5, 2003

Janeth Montoya, Vanguardia Liberal
THREATENED

Montoya, a reporter for the Barrancabermeja-based daily Vanguardia Liberal, in the northeastern Santander Department, received death threats that appeared to be related to her work as a journalist.

On October 22, the regional human rights ombudsman, Jorge Gómez, received an anonymous call warning him that Montoya's life was at risk because of reports that the journalist had published. The man claimed to have seen her name on a list of people the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) intended to assassinate "for being tattle tales and gossips." Two days later, on October 24, Montoya's mother received a call from an unidentified man saying that her daughter should watch herself.

Montoya told CPJ that a month prior to the threats she had published a story exposing the social ills of a popular neighborhood in Barrancabermeja where illegal armed groups are active. "My beat is public order, and I report on actions undertaken by both the paramilitary and guerrilla fighters," Montoya told CPJ.

The stress from the death threats caused Montoya, who was eight months pregnant, to give birth prematurely to a healthy girl. The Interior Ministry's program for the protection of journalists offered to cover Montoya's moving costs and provide her with a minimum-wage salary for three months. But the journalist said she does not want to move. Although she is worried about the situation, Montoya is currently on a three-month maternity leave and hopes the tensions will dissipate before she returns to work.