New York, March 14, 2000 — Francisco “Pacho” Santos Calderón, editor of Colombia’s largest daily newspaper, El Tiempo, fled the country on March 11 after an apparent attempt was made on his life. According to one of Santos’ colleagues, the assassins were hired by members of the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s largest guerrilla movement.
During peace negotiations between FARC and the Colombian government held over the weekend of January 29-30, FARC leader Manuel Marulanda Vélez (also known as “Tirofijo”) announced that Colombian journalists “would pay” for what he saw as anti- FARC bias.
On March 8, as Santos was on his way to eat in a restaurant that he frequented regularly, his security guards noticed that a number of vehicles that had been trailing the journalist for the last month were parked outside. Santos changed his plans, foiling an apparent assassination attempt.
Santos noticed he was being followed about a month prior to the attack, and contacted authorities at that time, according to CPJ’s sources in Colombia. Less than a week before the March 8 incident, police officers captured an individual who revealed that members of the FARC’s Front 22 had hired a number of “sicarios” (paid assassins) to kill the journalist.
Santos has publicly denounced the kidnapping of journalists, a common practice among Colombian guerrilla factions seeking money or publicity. “Today the entire Colombian press is held hostage,” wrote Santos in an October 31, 1999 El Tiempo editorial, accusing FARC and other violence-prone Colombian political organizations of using fascist methods to stifle independent journalism.
In addition to his role as editor of El Tiempo, Santos is the founder and director of the only non-governmental organization devoted to ending kidnapping, La Fundación País Libre (Foundation for a Free Country). Some 230 people were kidnapped in Colombia in 1999, according to El Tiempo‘s records. Santos is also the co-director of ¡No Más! (No More), an organization composed of some 200 private, non-partisan groups dedicated to ending the violence that has racked Colombia for the last forty years.
Santos himself was kidnapped in 1990 by Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellín drug cartel. Along with ten others, he was held for about eight months in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to extort a promise from then president César Gaviria that he would not extradite drug traffickers to the United States.
Santos’ exile follows the January 22 kidnapping of Guillermo “La Chiva” (“The Scoop”) Cortés, a 73-year-old journalist who was abducted from his home in Choachí, outside of Bogotá. He is believed to be in the hands of the FARC. Another prominent journalist and television personality, Fernando González Pacheco, was forced to leave the country the week before Santos, also due to FARC threats. Pacheco hosts the nationally acclaimed program “Charlas con Pacheco” (“Chats with Pacheco”), which features interviews with notable political leaders and celebrities.
Investigations into the Cortés case suggest that the FARC members who kidnapped Cortés were actually searching for Pacheco, according to CPJ’s sources. Pacheco owns a house next door to Cortés’ residence in Choachí, but happened to be in Bogotá at the time of the attack.