Prominent columnist flees country

New York, March 29, 2002
—Newspaper columnist Fernando Garavito recently fled Colombia after a series of events that made him fear for his life, CPJ has learned.

Garavito, who writes a Sunday column for the Bogotá-based newspaper El Espectador, left Colombia for the United States on March 21 and has no plans to return.

In a series of columns, Garavito attacked the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and described front-running presidential candidate Álvaro Uribe as an ultra-right candidate whose election would be dangerous for the country. (The presidential election is scheduled for May 26.)

Garavito told CPJ that his problems began soon after the columns appeared.

On February 19, the AUC published a communiqué about the Colombian press on its Web site. Signed by paramilitary leaders Salvatore Mancuso and Carlos Castaño, the communiqué accused local columnists in general of having “poisonous spirits” and mentioned Garavito by name.

“When those kinds of observations are made by people like Mancuso or Castaño, they take on a distinct connotation,” said Garavito, speaking by phone from exile.

Soon after, people began calling Garavito at home and work and hanging up before speaking. Meanwhile, strangers called Garavito’s friends to ask about the journalist.

On the morning of Monday, March 18, two men claiming to represent an organization to protect journalists entered the Sergio Arboleda University campus in the capital, Bogotá, where Garavito teaches a journalism course. The two men wanted to know Garavito’s teaching schedule and his home telephone number. They also asked to know what newspaper he worked for.

Garavito, 57, went into hiding the next day. He fled the country on Thursday, March 21.

“This has been very difficult for me,” Garavito said. “I want to forget all about this.”

Garavito has been a columnist for El Espectador since 1998 and plans to continue writing from exile. In the past, he has used his column to criticize not only the paramilitaries but also leftist guerrillas and the Colombian government. The three sides are entangled in a 38-year civil conflict that kills an estimated 3,500 people annually.

Last September, CPJ released a special report titled Bad Press, linking the AUC and Castaño to a series of attacks against Colombian journalists, including several murders.