During his 15-year career satirizing public figures, Colombia’s best-known editorial cartoonist has made numerous enemies. In his drawings for the Bogotá daily El Tiempo, Julio César González, better known by his pen name, Matador, targets politicians of all stripes.
But he often zeroes in on Álvaro Uribe, a popular senator and former president. He depicts the right-wing Uribe as a two-faced strongman, a saboteur of Colombia’s peace process that ended a long-running guerrilla war in 2016, and a political puppeteer scheming to place one of his ideological allies in the presidency
In response, Uribe’s supporters have showered Matador with insults in speeches and on social media, tried to take court action to make the cartoonist apologize for his work–a judge threw out the case earlier this year–and, in a more recent and worrying turn, called for the journalist to be assassinated.
The threat came last month, when Ariel Ortega Martínez, a Colombian travel agent and Uribe backer, lamented on Twitter the 2004 death of a notorious paramilitary death squad leader and suggested that if the killer were still around he could be used to silence Matador, according to reports. Colombian authorities, as well as Uribe and his party, from which Ortega was subsequently expelled, immediately denounced the death threat. The government’s National Protection Unit has also provided the cartoonist with bodyguards, an armored vehicle, and bullet-proof vest.
In response to the threat Matador announced that until further notice he will stop using social media or posting his cartoons on the internet, where he believes most people view them. They are still being published in El Tiempo and on its website.
Matador recently spoke with CPJ about his ordeal.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Have you ever been threatened before for your cartoons?
Never. But I often receive insults.
When I was starting my career at my hometown newspaper in Pereira, I did a cartoon referring to the pedophile scandals in the Catholic Church. In my drawing a boy confesses to a priest that he’s gay. He is told to recite 10 prayers and to give the priest his phone number. The next day, church officials called me “the devil.”
But insults come with the territory, especially now that social media is so important. My cartoons send messages and argue political points. When people can’t back up their own arguments they resort to personal attacks. That’s OK. But a death threat takes things to another level. And it’s a risk I don’t want to take because in this country, when they kill journalists nothing ever happens.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: At least 37 of the 44 journalists murdered in direct retaliation to their work in Colombia since 1992 were killed with impunity, according to CPJ research.]
Do the threats and insults affect the way you work?
I feel like I have a pistol pointed at me when I draw. I try to not to let it affect me. But you can’t ignore your head and your heart. I try to have a sense of humor about it, however, this has been very difficult, especially for my family. Even though I’m off social media, I still receive nasty messages.
Why do you focus many of your cartoons on Uribe?
Because of my cartoons, people think I hate Uribe. But that has nothing to do with it. I use humor to explore very difficult issues. I focus on national politicians who have the most power, and they include Uribe. He is a great communicator and reaches the masses with his messages. But my cartoons reveal that much of what he says is false or that he manipulates the truth. That’s what cartoons are supposed to do.
Why are you staying off social media?
I draw about 100 cartoons a month. Half of them are printed in El Tiempo and the other half I publish on social media. So now, the public will only see half of my work. But it was time to take some kind of action. Social media is a reflection of who we are as a society and it is full of lies, attacks, and venom. It is a tower of Babel. So I thought it would be good to bring things to a halt.
What made you decide to still work as a cartoonist after receiving this threat?
Because I still have to make a living.