Colombia’s civil conflict once again took a brutal toll on the country’s press, with journalists threatened, attacked, kidnapped, and murdered. At least three journalists were killed for their work in 2002, and CPJ continues to investigate the slayings of five others whose deaths may have been related to their reporting. At year’s end, Colombia’s overburdened justice system appeared far from solving any of these murders, perpetuating a climate of impunity that leaves the media wide open to attacks.
Leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary fighters were blamed for most of the violence against the press in Colombia, which CPJ ranked as one of the 10 worst places to be a journalist in 2002. A three-year peace process with the country’s largest rebel army collapsed in February, and in August, newly elected president Álvaro Uribe Vélez took power on promises to intensify the battle against armed groups.
Violence inhibited coverage of the 38-year-old conflict, which pits leftist rebels against the government and a right-wing paramilitary army. Journalists were often unable to do the reporting that would have provided more of the analysis and context needed to explain how the conflict has changed and the motives driving the various warring parties. Instead, most reports focused on casualty statistics, which are frequently based on only one anonymous military source.
The military was also criticized for allegedly feeding the press inaccurate information to enhance the perception that it is winning the battle. That became evident in September, when the media reported a claim by the head of Colombia’s air force that 200 rebels had been killed in aerial bombardments. The report was later discredited when the military could not explain how it had calculated the figure and conceded that a body count had never been taken.
During 2002, journalists also became increasingly concerned that media owners threaten editorial independence. Two powerful business groups with ties to the political establishment own the television and radio networks with the largest reach in Colombia, RCN and Caracol. The perception among many Colombians that media owners and politicians comprise a single ruling class became even more widespread when, during the May presidential elections, Uribe picked a member of the family that owns the country’s most influential daily newspaper to be his vice president.
These connections appear to have kept many journalists from reporting critically on sweeping economic reforms pushed through by Uribe after he became president and from examining questions raised during the elections about ties between drug gangs, Uribe, and his family. An exception was “Noticias Uno,” a current-affairs program on the TV station Canal Uno, based in the capital, Bogotá. In April, the program ran a series produced by investigations director Ignacio Gómez on alleged links between Uribe and the Medellín drug cartel. After the reports aired, unidentified men began calling the news station, threatening to kill Gómez, news director Daniel Coronell, and Coronell’s 3-year-old daughter, who was flown out of the country soon after the calls began. CPJ honored Gómez with an International Press Freedom Award in November.
Although guerrillas and paramilitaries were blamed for most of the attacks against the press and for two journalists’ deaths in 2002, the groups don’t appear to have been behind the murder of journalist Orlando Sierra. A deputy editor and columnist for La Patria newspaper in Colombia’s coffee-growing region, Sierra had repeatedly denounced a group of powerful local political bosses, accusing them of looting public coffers, buying votes, and practicing nepotism. On January 30, he was walking to his office with his daughter when an assassin shot him in the head.
The killings in 2002, along with dozens of others in previous years, force journalists to take seriously the flood of death threats they receive. At least 26 journalists were threatened with death during 2002; ten of them fled the country.
The best known among them is Claudia Gurisatti, the nation’s top television news anchorwoman, who left in February after receiving anonymous telephone calls warning of a plan to kill her. It wasn’t clear who was behind the threats, but Gurisatti had fled Colombia once before when authorities warned that fighters with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were planning to kill her. In 2000, Gurisatti conducted one of the first live interviews in recent years with then paramilitary chief Carlos Castaño. Many Colombians say that Castaño’s personable and charismatic performance during the interview helped the paramilitaries gain support among the country’s middle class.
Murders and death threats were not the only methods that armed groups used to show their disdain for Colombia’s press. FARC fighters reportedly dismantled a radio station, blew up the antenna and transmitter of two others, tried to fire a rocket into a television station, and kidnapped a reporter, apparently to force his paper to pay a ransom and publish a communiqué.
Rebels and government authorities also harassed the foreign press. As peace talks were unraveling in February, FARC fighters detained Los Angeles Times correspondent T. Christian Miller and his assistant, Mauricio Hoyos. In a separate incident days later, FARC fighters held Alain Kellert, a photographer from the French magazine Marie Claire. All three were released unharmed shortly after being picked up.
Xn September, President Uribe signed a sweeping security decree allowing the government to establish security zones to fight rebel and paramilitary combatants and requiring foreigners and the international press to get government permission to enter the zones. Some correspondents working in Colombia complained that the requirement was unnecessary, and in November, the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that the press did not need government permission to enter the security zones.
Finally, in a development that may bode well for Colombia’s press, the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) declared an unlimited and unilateral cease-fire on December 1, vowing to end attacks against leftist rebels and suspected rebel collaborators. Though it is too early to tell if the cease-fire will hold, Colombian journalists hope it will mark the end of paramilitary-sponsored terror against the media.
Claudia Gurisatti, RCN Televisión
Gurisatti, a popular anchorwoman and talk show host at RCN Televisión, fled Colombia for the United States for the second time in one year after receiving death threats. The 28-year-old journalist told CPJ that, beginning on January 20, an unknown man called her several times at her office in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, to warn her of a plot against her life. She left Colombia on February 4.
During several calls, the man told Gurisatti that a group of people were watching her closely and had spent thousands of dollars on an elaborate plan to kill her. When Gurisatti asked him if he was a member of a leftist guerrilla army or a right-wing paramilitary group, which have been fighting in a 38-year civil conflict, he refused to answer.
As host of RCN Televisión’s evening news and a nightly news show called “La Noche” (The Night), Gurisatti has interviewed leaders of both guerrilla and paramilitary groups, as well as officials involved in alleged corruption.
In January 2001, Gurisatti left Colombia for Miami after government authorities said members of the nation’s largest guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), were trying to kill her. Gurisatti returned in June 2001 and later said she doubted the rebels wanted to assassinate her. In December 2002, the journalist, who is working for RCN Televisión from the United States, told CPJ that she has no immediate plans to return to Colombia.
Marco Antonio Ayala Cárdenas, El Caleño
A car bomb exploded before dawn near Caracol Televisión studios in the capital, Bogotá, shattering windows but causing no serious damage or injuries. About 65 pounds of dynamite were packed into a red four-wheel-drive vehicle and detonated at 4:30 a.m. on a residential street behind the office, where the network broadcasts its news programs, authorities said. The explosion also blew out windows in surrounding buildings and homes.
Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus blamed the attack on the nation’s largest guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). But Caracol news director, Gonzalo Guerra, said it was premature to assign blame and denied police reports that the network had received threats prior to the explosion. The blast came on the heels of dozens of attacks allegedly perpetrated by the FARC against the nation’s infrastructure, security forces, and civilians.
Orlando Sierra Hernández, La Patria
Alfonso Pardo, Voz
Pardo, a columnist for the Communist Party newspaper Voz, accused army officials of making threatening phone calls to him. Pardo said he was in the southern town of Pasto, Nariño Department, when he received two calls on his cell phone on the morning of February 5. The calls came just hours before he was to talk with authorities from the Attorney General’s Office about death threats he received last year from a right-wing paramilitary army.
According to Pardo, the first caller–whom he described as a man with a thick regional accent–said: “Son of a bitch, are you going to comply?” Pardo said a different man called 15 minutes later and said: “Is that clear?” An investigator from the Attorney General’s Office who traced the numbers said they belonged to three officials from the army’s 18th Brigade with the last names Parra, Roldón, and Hernández, said Pardo.
Col. Alberto Ruiz, a spokesman for the 18th Brigade, based in the eastern department of Arauca, said he did not know the names. “This is the first time we’ve heard of the case, but it’s a supremely grave charge and it will oblige us to initiate an investigation immediately,” Ruiz said. Colombia’s military has long been accused of collaborating with the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) against leftist rebels, who are waging a decades-long insurgency.
A wing of the paramilitary army known as the Southern Liberators Front sent a letter to news organizations in Pasto in November 2001 accusing Pardo and three other journalists of working with the rebels. The letter said they would be executed if they didn’t quit their jobs and leave the area within two days. Last year, paramilitary fighters allegedly assassinated Pardo’s friend and colleague at Voz, Flavio Bedoya.
The Interior Ministry’s Program for the Protection of Journalists and Social Communicators gave Pardo money to hire a bodyguard, but he left the country shortly after the threats.
T. Christian Miller, The Los Angeles Times
Mauricio Hoyos, The Los Angeles Times
Miller, a journalist with The Los Angeles Times, and his Colombian assistant, Hoyos, were detained by the leftist guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for 24 hours near the village of Bututo on the border of Putumayo and Caquetá departments.
They were released unharmed on February k0, just hours before then Colombian president Andrés Pastrana Arango suspended peace talks with the FARC.
The guerrillas detained the Colombia-based journalist and his assistant when the two men walked into a rebel encampment swarming with more than 200 fighters from the FARC’s 49th Front.
Miller and Hoyos had come to interview the rebels about a U.S. helicopter that had been downed in the region by FARC ground fire while conducting a drug- fumigation mission in January. Although the crew escaped unharmed, five Colombian police officers died trying to defend the helicopter after it crashed. No Americans were on board.
Shortly after the journalists arrived at the camp, a subcommander told them that they should not have come to a conflict zone and said they were being detained both for their own safety and so rebels could verify that they were journalists. FARC members confiscated their wallets, cell phones, and notebooks and took them to a shack in a jungle clearing nearby. Both men said they were never threatened or physically abused.
On the afternoon of February 20, the group’s commander, Héctor Ramírez, apologized for the inconvenience and freed them. After their belongings were returned, Ramírez took them to see the helicopter nearby.
Alain Kellert, Marie Claire
Kellert, a photographer with the French magazine Marie Claire, was detained by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) while covering a story about internationally known Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
Kellert and others were riding in a vehicle with Betancourt when the leftist FARC rebels stopped them inside the rebel army’s former safe haven in southern Colombia, said Adair Lamprea, Betancourt’s logistics director, who was driving.
Betancourt was on her way to the main town inside the safe haven to show solidarity with its residents. Days earlier, on February 20, the Colombian government had ended a three-year peace process with the FARC and ordered the military to retake the Switzerland-sized safe haven.
Moments after rebels forced Betancourt’s vehicle to stop, a young FARC fighter stepped on a land mine nearby. Other rebels then commandeered the vehicle, placed the badly wounded fighter inside, and drove off in search of medical treatment with Kellert, Betancourt, and the others forced to remain inside, said Lamprea.
About an hour later, rebels abducted Betancourt and her campaign manager, Clara Rojas, from the vehicle and drove them off in separate trucks. By year’s end, they had not been freed.
The remaining detainees–Kellert, Lamprea, and Mauricio Mesa, a cameraman hired by the campaign–were driven for another three hours to a rebel camp, where the wounded fighter was whisked away.
The rebels gave the three men Gatorade, rice, and fish and released them at around 7 p.m., about five hours after they were detained. They were forced to walk back to the nearest town, Florencia, and spent part of the night sleeping on the side of the road. They arrived in Florencia at around 8 a.m. the next morning. Lamprea said he and the others were treated well and were never threatened or physically abused. Kellert returned to France two days later, Lamprea said.
Onda Zero, a radio station based in the southern town of Acevedo, Huila Department, was forced to close by leftist guerrillas, who accused the station of serving government interests.
Some 10 fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) threatened to blow up the station and then took a transmitter, antennas, and other equipment valued at US$12,500, said director José Vicente Rodríguez.
A journalist at the station, Divier Alexander López, fled the region the next day in fear of his life. Neither he nor anyone else at the station had previously been threatened. “They argued that they were taking us out because we were working for the government,” said Rodríguez. “I don’t know what reasons they have for saying that.”
Rodríguez denied FARC accusations that Onda Zero, which employs eight people, was working for the government. The station serves nine townships and began broadcasting 11 years ago. Seventy percent of its 16 hours of daily programming is popular music. The rest is devoted to educational programs, said sources at the station. Rodríguez said he would raise money to buy new equipment if the rebels refuse to return the transmitter and other equipment.
The radio station is located near the border of the safe haven that the Colombian government ceded to the FARC in 1998. On February 20, the government suspended peace talks with the FARC and launched a military operation to retake the area. In the weeks after negotiations collapsed, the FARC blew up electrical towers in Huila Department.
Jairo Lozano, El Tiempo
Juan Carlos Giraldo, RCN Televisión
Julia Navarrete, Caracol Televisión
Jairo Naranjo, RCN Radio
Hernando Marroquín, Caracol Radio
Marilyn López, “Noticias Uno”
José Antonio Jiménez, TV Hoy
Lozano, a reporter for the daily El Tiempo; Giraldo, a senior correspondent for RCN Televisión; Navarrete, a correspondent for Caracol Televisión; Naranjo, a correspondent for RCN Radio; Marroquín, a correspondent for Caracol Radio; López, a correspondent for the news program “Noticias Uno”; and Jiménez, a former correspondent for now defunct TV Hoy, were threatened with death and given three days to leave the country. All have covered high-profile criminal investigations for major Colombian media outlets.
A message typed on a card used to request a Catholic prayer for the dead accused the journalists of being “gossipy sons-of-bitches who with their lies have led the Attorney General’s Office to screw around with our people.” RCN Televisión received the first letter on March 1. Caracol Televisión received an identical letter three days later.
The Attorney General’s Office is investigating the threats, said agency spokesperson Carolina Sánchez. By year’s end, investigators had yet to determine who was responsible.
The message, a copy of which was obtained by CPJ, warned that the journalists and their families would be considered military targets if they did not leave the country within 72 hours. The note was signed “Death Commando” and included an image of Jesus. Four of the seven journalists told CPJ that the threats came from “a criminal organization” but declined to elaborate. The other journalists could not be reached for comment.
All seven journalists had covered high-profile drug investigations for their news organizations. The letter that arrived at Caracol Televisión on March 4 was addressed to Navarrete, who covers the Attorney General’s Office. She has received four previous threats and attributes a minor heart attack she suffered in February to work-related stress.
Hours after opening the letter, Navarrete was heading home in a chauffeur-driven company car from her office in the capital, Bogotá, when a vehicle with its headlights on high beam raced up from behind and tailed her car. The pursuer sped away after Navarrete’s driver pulled into a police checkpoint.
The Interior Ministry’s Program for the Protection of Journalists and Social Communicators provided the journalists with bodyguards. At least three of them went into hiding within Colombia, but they had returned to their homes by year’s end.
Fernando Garavito, El Espectador
Garavito, columnist for the Bogotá-based newspaper El Espectador, fled Colombia after a series of events that made him fear for his life. The journalist, who writes a Sunday column for the paper, left Colombia for the United States on March 21.
In a series of columns, Garavito criticized the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and described the then front-running presidential candidate Álvaro Uribe as an ultraright candidate whose election would be dangerous for the country. (Uribe won the May 26 poll.) 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 of having “poisonous spirits” and mentioned Garavito by name. 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 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. 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 March 21.
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-old civil conflict.
Carlos José Lajud, Citytv
Lajud, television reporter with the Bogotá-based station Citytv, received a death threat after reporting extensively on the country’s left-wing guerrilla movement. On April 4, Lajud received a letter at the Citytv offices. “Our sincere condolences … for the death of Carlos Lajud,” read the note, a copy of which was obtained by CPJ.
The letter referred to Lajud as a “gossipy son-of-a-bitch,” accused the journalist of serving the interests of Colombia’s ruling class, declared him and his family “military targets,” and demanded that he leave the country within three days.
Since February, Lajud has produced some 20 investigative reports claiming that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) have established armed cells in Bogotá. Lajud detailed the organizational structures of these new urban guerrilla groups, showed how they bought explosives, and revealed that one cell had opened a clandestine clinic to treat its wounded, the journalist told CPJ.
The letter was the most serious of several threats against Lajud that began in late February, just three days after his reports on the new urban guerrilla groups began to air. On February 27, strangers began calling Lajud and his wife, Patricia Busigo, at their home and describing their daily routines. In March, at a park near the television station, an unknown man grabbed Lajud by the arm, said he had a “big mouth,” and predicted he would “disappear.”
Lajud claims not to know the source of the threats, but the Interior Ministry’s Program for the Protection of Journalists and Social Communicators gave the journalist a bodyguard. In May, the Canadian government granted the journalist and his wife asylum. The couple left Colombia in July. Lajud is the son of the late radio journalist Carlos Alfonso Lajud Catalán. In 1993, Catalán was shot and killed after he publicly accused a local mayor of corruption.
Adriana Aristizábal, RCN Televisión
Andrés Reina, RCN Televisión
Aristizábal, an RCN Televisión correspondent, and Reina, her cameraman, were detained, along with driver Joaquín Gómez, by fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the small town of Pulí, where they had traveled to report on a guerrilla attack. The town is in Cundinamarca Department, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) east of the capital, Bogotá.
The journalists were leaving the town when about 10 FARC combatants stopped them, ordered them to exit their car, and said they would be used as human shields so the military would not fire at the rebels, said Aristizábal. The rebels then took their car, a camera, film, and other personal belongings, including money and identification cards. Four hours later, the fighters stopped a passing car and ordered the driver to take the journalists.
Aristizábal said the rebels refused to return the journalists’ equipment or belongings and insulted them repeatedly. Aristizábal has worked for RCN Televisión, Colombia’s largest television station, for four years. She covers the Ministry of Defense and often works in combat zones.
Héctor Sandoval, RCN Televisión
A rocket exploded near the studios of RCN Televisión in the capital, Bogotá. Local authorities said the station was intentionally targeted. The blast destroyed a brick wall surrounding the offices of a telephone company located less than 13 yards (12 meters) from the station in an industrial neighborhood in south Bogotá, said Sgt. Alberto Cantillo, a spokesperson for the city’s police department.
The rocket was fired at a range of less than 330 yards (300 meters) from the station by a man who was driven to the area on the back of a motorcycle, Cantillo said. No one was injured in the attack, which authorities blamed on the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). RCN’s sprawling facility contains executive offices as well as television and news studios, said Rocío Arias, executive producer of RCN Televisión news.
Mauricio Bayona, El Tiempo, Citytv
Bayona, a sports editor at El Tiempo newspaper and Citytv television station who has written frequently about links between drug gangs and professional soccer, fled Colombia on April 15 after secret police learned of a plot to kill him. He returned to Colombia on May 15.
The journalist said agents from the Department of Administrative Security told him that a drug boss in southwestern Valle Department had paid the equivalent of US$25,000 to have him assassinated. The agents said the attack was being planed from Modelo Prison in the capital, Bogotá.
Bayona, his colleagues, and his parents then began receiving calls from unidentified men who said that the journalist would be killed if he continued to write columns denouncing the influence of drug traffickers in Colombia’s professional soccer leagues.
The 37-year-old journalist, who has been sports editor at El Tiempo and Citytv in Bogotá for two years, said he returned “because I love my work.” The government has given him two bodyguards.
Daniel Coronell, “Noticias Uno”
Ignacio Gómez, “Noticias Uno”
Coronell, news director of “Noticias Uno,” a current affairs program on the Bogotá TV station Canal Uno, and his 3-year-old daughter were threatened with death by unidentified men.
Coronell received threatening calls on his cell phone, home phone, and office phone after he aired an investigative report examining possible links between the country’s leading presidential candidate and drug traffickers. The journalist reported the threats to police and on April 24 sent his daughter out of the country with relatives.
The report that Coronell aired revealed that a helicopter seized during a notorious 1984 cocaine bust was registered to an aerial photography business co-owned by presidential front-runner Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s father. The segment also reported that in 1981, Colombia’s civil aviation department granted an operating license for the helicopter in one day, although the normal waiting time was up to 20 working days. Uribe headed the department when the license was approved.
Less than two weeks before the report aired, Gómez, director of investigations at “Noticias Uno,” received some 15 threats–many of them death threats–by telephone at his home in Bogotá.
The day after the report was broadcast, a man called Coronell’s office three times and told the secretary that Coronell would be killed. At 11 p.m. that night, a man called Coronell from an unregistered telephone number and said, “We’re going to kill you, son-of-a-bitch.” At 9:30 a.m. the following morning, another man called Coronell on his cell phone and threatened to kill his daughter. The journalist told CPJ that he does not know who is responsible for the threats.
Manuel Benavides, Diario del Sur
Benavides, a correspondent for the daily newspaper Diario del Sur, based in southwestern Nariño Department, fled the region with his wife and son after paramilitary fighters accused him of being friendly with rival leftist guerrillas and threatened to kill him.
Benavides, 54, said the threats stemmed from an article he wrote in April criticizing the armed forces for failing to respond quickly when guerrillas from the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) attacked a village near Benavides’ home. Three-days later, a man who identified himself as a member of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) called Benavides at his home and accused him of being a friend of the guerrillas because the journalist had criticized the armed forces. The guerrillas are fighting the government and the paramilitary army in a civil conflict that began 38 years ago.
In May, Benavides said he was traveling from his home in San Pablo to Pasto, the departmental capital, when paramilitary fighters detained him at a roadblock. After the militia commander identified Benavides, he said that the journalist would be declared a “military target” if he did not leave Nariño.
Benavides said he was detained at four other paramilitary roadblocks during the following two weeks, and that paramilitary members repeated the threat each time they identified him. He said he reported the threats to the local public prosecutor’s office and to a human rights official on May 17.
Benavides has covered fighting in Nariño as a free-lance correspondent for the 4,000-circulation newspaper for 14 “ears. Paramilitary fighters and guerrillas are battling for control of lucrative drug crops in the region. Benavides went into hiding on July 12.
Astrid María Legarda Martínez, RCN Televisión
Legarda, a correspondent who covers Colombia’s civil conflict for independent RCN Televisión, learned that the nation’s largest rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was planning to kill her. The journalist heard about the alleged plan from a source in a high-security prison in the capital, Bogotá. Legarda went into hiding soon after and fled Colombia on July 3.
Edgar Buitrago Rico, Revista Valle 2000
Buitrago, founder and director of the Cali-based monthly Revista Valle 2000, received repeated death threats. The journalist received two threats by e-mail on May 2. In June, armed men mistook the magazine’s advertising salesman for Buitrago, forced him into a vehicle, and threatened to kill him before realizing their mistake and freeing him.
Buitrago fled to Bogotá in early August but returned to Cali three weeks later after running out of money. On August 21, Buitrago requested assistance from the Interior Ministry’s Program for the Protection of Journalists and Social Communicators to relocate to the capital, Bogotá.
The latest threat appeared in late August in a letter sent to the local press and politicians in Cali. It accused Buitrago of publishing lies in support of Cali’s mayor, whom Buitrago has backed publicly because of the mayor’s stance against corruption.
The letter warned that Buitrago and 10 other people would be declared “military targets” unless they left the city immediately. The note was signed by the Committee for the Rescue of Cali.
The journalist launched the magazine Revista Valle 2000 in 1998 as a publication dedicated to investigating and denouncing cases of political corruption in Valle del Cauca Department, whose capital is Cali.
Death threats in recent years have forced four of Buitrago’s volunteer correspondents to resign. Before starting the magazine, Buitrago was subdirector at the daily El Caleño and a reporter for the daily El País, both based in Cali.
Ün September 17, CPJ sent a letter to Colombia’s interior minister, Fernando Londoño Hoyos, supporting the journal-ist’s request for financial assistance to relocate for his safety. The ministry later granted him funds.
Carlos Pulgarín, Universidad de La Sabana
César Mauricio Velásquez, Universidad de La Sabana
Alejandro Santos, Semana
Francisco Tulande, RCN Radio
Pulgarín, a journalism professor at the Universidad de La Sabana, a private university in the capital, Bogotá, was approached by two men as he was walking toward the bus stop to go to work, the journalist told CPJ. One of the men grabbed him by the arm and the other patted him on the shoulder in a seemingly friendly manner. They were not visibly armed.
The men told Pulgarín that it was a lovely day and that he had better enjoy it, because he did not have many days left to live. They told him to convey the same message to Velásquez, the dean of the Universidad de La Sabana’s department of social communication and journalism. Before leaving in a red all-terrain vehicle, the men told Pulgarín that they knew where his family lived.
A similar car had followed Velásquez in April, Pulgarín said. One of the men who threatened Pulgarín resembled the driver of the vehicle that had tailed Velásquez.
The threats to Pulgarín and Velásquez were the latest in a series of warnings directed at four local journalists beginning on March 19. That day, a man who identified himself as a retired army sergeant called Velásquez’s office twice and told his secretary that there was a plan under way to kill Tulande, deputy director of RCN Radio; Santos, editor of the news magazine Semana; and Pulgarín.
On April 8, the same man called again and told Velásquez’s secretary that the attack was imminent and that Velásquez was also a target. The man said the four journalists were considered “enemies of Colombia” because of their work but did not elaborate.
Velásquez notified authorities and the other journalists about the alleged plot. The Interior Ministry’s Program for the Protection of Journalists and Social Communicators provided him with a bodyguard.
While none of the journalists know why they were threatened, Santos said Semana‘s participation in a collaborative media investigation into the shooting death earlier this year of journalist Orlando Sierra is one possible motive. On March 3, Semana and six other prominent Colombian newspapers and news magazines published the results of a joint investigation concluding that local politicians may have ordered Sierra’s murder because he had frequently accused them of corruption.
Pulgarín fled Colombia on May 14. Death threats have forced the journalist to flee Colombia on several occasions since 1999. All the threats apparently resulted from his exposés of violence perpetrated by Colombia’s guerrillas, paramilitaries, and government forces.
Pulgarín said that the men who accosted him on May 8 had harassed him on several previous occasions. The first incident took place outside his apartment building in 2001. On that occasion, the two men were armed and identified themselves as members of a right-wing paramilitary organization.
They demanded that Pulgarín leave Colombia and renounce journalism. Pulgarín subsequently quit his job (he was working at the Bogotá daily El Tiempo at the time) and left the country. When he returned to Colombia in September 2001, the journalist said, the same two men accosted him and repeated their threats. On March 14, 2002, his birthday, Pulgarín received a phone call from an unidentified man who said, “Sapo [informer], son-of-a-bitch, enjoy it because it’s your last year.”
Nidia Álvarez Mariño, Hoy Diario del Magdalena
Ramón Vásquez Ruiz, Hoy Diario del Magdalena
Álvarez and Vásquez, both of the Santa Marta-based daily Hoy Diario del Magdalena, and their driver, Vladimir Revolledo Cuisman, were abducted by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Magdalena Department, in northern Colombia, said Mónica Pimienta, an editor at the paper. Álvarez was freed unharmed the next morning, but the rebels did not free Vásquez and the driver until May 24.
The reporters were traveling to a town south of Santa Marta to cover a local court case and satanic cults when they unknowingly drove into a rebel roadblock near Ciénaga, about 420 miles (670 kilometers) from the capital, Bogotá. The rebels kidnapped nine other people in addition to the reporters and the driver.
On May 23, the founder and director of Hoy Diario del Magdalena, Ulilo Acevedo, told CPJ that the FARC had sent the paper a communiqué on May 18 demanding that the newspaper print the statement and pay the equivalent of US$500,000 to secure the release of Vásquez and Revolledo. He said that the communiqué analyzed the current political situation in Colombia and lambasted the paramilitary armies. Acevedo feared that a rival right-wing paramilitary army could retaliate against the daily newspaper for publishing the statement. On May 24, the FARC freed Revolledo and Vásquez, who told CPJ that the rebels had dropped their demands.
Vásquez also told CPJ two unidentified men called him three times on his cell phone just hours after the FARC freed him. The men accused the journalist of collaborating with the group that abducted him, alleging the 52-year-old reporter had staged the kidnapping with the help of the FARC, presumably for economic gain. Vásquez denied the charge.
Although the men did not make specific threats, Vásquez said he reported the calls to the local Prosecutor’s Office and fears for his life. A spokesman for the Prosecutor’s Office in Magdalena Department declined to say whether authorities were investigating the threats or if they had received the complaint.
Vásquez said the nation’s smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), kidnapped him five years ago while he was working for a newspaper in the nearby city of Barranquilla and held him for eight days. Both rebel groups have been fighting the government and a rival paramilitary army for the last 38 years.
Oscar Javier Hoyos Narváez, Radio Súper
Efraín Varela Noriega, Radio Meridiano-70
Anyela Muñoz, El Vocero
Muñoz, owner of the weekly El Vocero, was accosted by two unidentified gunmen on a street in Barrancabermeja, an oil-refining town in the northeastern department of Santander. The men told her that if that week’s issue of her paper were published, someone would die.
This threat followed a statement by a commander of the Bloque Central Bolívar unit of the rightist paramilitary army United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) that was directed at journalists in Barrancabermeja. “You either stop playing with the pain of the community, or it will be our sad obligation to execute someone so you know the pain of the people,” said the commander in a July 8 interview with the daily Vanguardia Liberal, which is based in the Santander Department capital, Bucaramanga.
Barrancabermeja is a hotbed of violence in Colombia’s 38-year-old civil conflict, which pits two of the country’s main leftist rebel armies against the AUC and the Colombian military.
On the same day that Muñoz was threatened, she and journalists from other media outlets met to discuss the matter and subsequently published a communiqué denouncing the threats. El Vocero appeared on newsstands with the headline, “Yes to the Press.”
Following a national and international outcry, the commander who made the declaration backed down from the threats. According to a CPJ source, however, Barrancabermeja journalists are still wary of the situation.
Mario Prada Díaz, Horizonte del Magdalena Medio
El Nuevo Día
Elisabeth Obando, a newspaper salesperson for the daily El Nuevo Día, and her friend were pulled off a bus and shot by unidentified gunmen along a roadside in the town of Playarrica in Tolima Department, authorities said.
Obando was taken to a hospital, where she died the next day, said El Nuevo Día director Antonio Melo. He said that during the last four years, the 40-year-old Obando had sold copies of the newspaper from her shop in the nearby town of Roncesvalles. Police in Playarrica identified the other victim as Angela Bríñez, 23, who worked in Roncesvalles for the department’s Human Rights Office.
In September 2001, the 10,000-circulation newspaper began publishing articles accusing local members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) of seizing privately owned land as part of an illegal land reform policy. Following the reports, the local FARC commander publicly threatened reprisals against Obando if she continued selling the newspaper, said Melo. Obando stopped selling it in March.
Jairo Orlando Guzmán, “Noticias Uno”
Guzmán, a news cameraman for “Noticias Uno,” a current-affairs program on the Bogotá TV station Canal Uno, and his family fled Colombia for the United States following a series of death threats that began last year. Guzmán, 42, said the threats started in March 2001, when a Catholic prayer card traditionally used to honor the dead arrived at his house with a bullet and a painting of a red crucifix inside.
The next month, Guzmán’s 16-year-old son answered a telephone call from a man who told him to tell his father to stop being a “gossiper” and recommended that they leave the country. Later the same day, the son said a second man called with another message for his father: “We’re going to hit him where it hurts the most,” the caller reportedly said. Guzmán’s 21-year-old daughter said she received two similar threats on June 2. Guzmán, along with his wife and two children, left Colombia on July 23, said Nubia Sánchez, subdirector of the private company that produces “Noticias Uno.”
Guzmán began working as a cameraman for the program 11 years ago and has reported on both leftist rebels and rival paramilitaries in Colombia’s ongoing civil conflict. Guzmán reported the threats to the Attorney General’s Office and police, but he does not know who is behind them.
Rodrigo Ávila, Caracol Televisión
Ávila, a Caracol Televisión correspondent, and Radio Meridiano-70 received e-mail messages from paramilitary fighters accusing members of the press and media owners in Arauca Department of flouting justice and warning that they could be declared military targets. The Arauca Liberators Block of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) signed the letter.
Paramilitary leaders announced before the July 29 threat that the AUC was disbanding because they no longer had control over their fighters. The AUC is now fighting under the banner of Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá.
A month before, on June 28, presumed paramilitary fighters in Arauca shot and killed Radio Meridiano-70 owner Efraín Varela, who, days before his death, had alerted listeners to the presence of paramilitary fighters in the departmental capital.
Ávila, Caracol’s correspondent in Arauca, said he received at least 10 threats by telephone in mid-July and hired a bodyguard with financial help from a private human rights group in Colombia. He said repeated requests for protection from the previous government and the new government of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who took office on August 7, have gone unanswered. Evelyn Varela, manager of Meridiano-70 and Efraín Varela’s daughter, said she reported the e-mail message to local authorities, who have not responded.
Iván Noguera, El Tiempo
Héctor Fabio Zamora, El Tiempo
Noguera and Zamora, correspondent and photographer, respectively, for the daily El Tiempo, along with their driver, were detained by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and freed two days later. About 10 FARC fighters forced the men out of their vehicle outside the town of Mistrató in western Colombia.
The men had traveled there from their office in nearby Pereira, the capital of Risaralda Department, to report on local indigenous groups that have been caught in the middle of fighting between leftist rebels and rival paramilitary fighters in the region, said Noguera.
The rebels marched them for two hours through the mountains to a farmhouse, where they were held for two nights before being released early on August 8. Although the rebels robbed the newspaper’s Toyota truck and confiscated five rolls of film, Noguera said he and his colleagues were not mistreated. The FARC did not explain why the men were being detained but complained to them that Colombia’s press is slandering the 17,000-strong rebel army and kowtowing to the army, Noguera said.
José Eli Escalante, La Voz de Cinaruco
Two unidentified men placed a 66 pound (30 kilogram) bomb in front of the offices of the daily newspaper La Opinión in northeastern Colombia. Police later destroyed the bomb.
Two men arrived at La Opinión offices in the city of Cúcuta shortly after midnight and asked two security guards to carry a briefcase inside the building, news editor Ángel Romero told CPJ. The guards refused. Minutes later, the men placed the briefcase in front of the office, which also houses the newspaper’s printing press, and fled in a van, said Romero.
The guards called the police, who discovered a bomb inside the briefcase and destroyed it shortly before dawn, said a spokesperson for the Norte de Santander Department police.
Police said it wasn’t clear who was responsible for the foiled attack. Fighters from Colombia’s two largest leftist rebel armies and rival right-wing paramilitary groups are all active in the region. The outlaw groups are fighting in a 38-year-old civil conflict.
Romero said no one had recently threatened the 15,000-circulation newspaper. In March 1993, fighters from the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) shot and killed La Opinión publisher Eustorgio Colmenares.
Gimbler Perdomo Zamora, Panorama Estéreo
Presumed members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) blew up a Radio Caracol antenna and transmitter near the town of Cúcuta, in northeastern Colombia, knocking one radio station off the air but causing no injuries.
A day after the explosion, a man named Rubén Zamora, who identified himself as a FARC commander, called the local newspaper La Opiniónöand claimed responsibility for the attack, according to a reporter at the paper. The reporter told CPJ that the man said his fighters attacked Radio Caracol because “the capitalist media doesn’t agree with the changes the FARC wants to make.”
The 33 pound (15 kilogram) bomb was placed directly under the antenna, which is located near a farmhouse about 9 miles (14 kilometers) from Radio Caracol’s offices in Cúcuta, and was detonated at 10:15 p.m., said Radio Caracol general manager Javier Rojas. The explosion, which destroyed the antenna and transmitter, caused about US$90,000 worth of damage, according to Rojas.
Radio Caracol operates five stations in Cúcuta that broadcast news, music, and sports. The destroyed antenna and transmitter served two of those stations: Caracol Básica, which broadcasts news and opinion; and Radio Reloj, which broadcasts primarily music but also news and sports. Radio Caracol is using another antenna to continue broadcasting Caracol Básica, but Radio Reloj remained off the air at the end of 2002, said Rojas.
A spokesman for the police in Norte de Santander Department, of which Cúcuta is the capital, said authorities were still investigating the attack. He had no knowledge of the call that the alleged FARC commander reportedly made to La Opinión.