Colombian security forces are seen on the border between Colombia and Venezuela on October 17, 2020. Several journalists recently fled Colombia after receiving threats relating to their coverage. (AFP/Schneyder Mendoza)

Colombian TV station employees flee country amid threats from FARC militants

Bogotá, Colombia, December 7, 2020 – Colombian authorities should thoroughly investigate death threats received by Caracol TV employees and ensure they can work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On November 16, Arlex Piedrahita, a camera operator with the news broadcaster Caracol TV, fled to the United States with his family after he received a death threat and other threatening messages from individuals claiming to be members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist rebel group known as the FARC, according to news reports and the journalist, who spoke with CPJ via messaging app.

Piedrahita said that he and two other Caracol TV journalists, Eduardo Manzano and Alexander Cárdenas, received a series of death threats from FARC members after reporting on the illegal marijuana trade in western Colombia in November 2019.

Manzano and Cárdenas fled Colombia last year and remain in exile, according to the Bogotá-based Foundation for Press Freedom.

“Threats from illegal armed groups are unfortunately nothing new for Colombian journalists, but the Colombian state has a responsibility to ensure that those journalists can continue working safely,” said CPJ’s Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “If press workers under threat, like Arlex Piedrahita and his colleagues, feel that leaving the country is their only option to stay safe, then Colombia’s journalist protection programs are in need of a serious overhaul.”

Piedrahita told CPJ that he received several threatening messages, the last of which was texted to him on October 16, and which prompted him to flee the country. The message, which CPJ reviewed, said: “Spy, SOB, you and your family will die, you have forgotten you are a military objective […] We are not fooling around, we know where you live, your time is up.”

The other messages included calls for Piedrahita to quit his job, he said. In the messages which CPJ reviewed, the senders identified themselves as members of the FARC.

When he received the first threatening messages following Caracol TV’s reporting in 2019, Piedrahita initially stayed in his hometown of Cali, in southwest Colombia, where the government’s National Protection Unit gave him a bullet-resistant vest and a panic button to alert police in case of an emergency.

As an extra precaution, he said that he had been constantly on the move and sleeping at the homes of relatives and friends. But he said it was a difficult situation for his wife, who sought medical treatment for stress, and for their seven-year-old son. He also told CPJ that he had not worked on any sensitive stories recently.

 “I would come home at night and my wife would have to help me take off my [bullet-resistant] vest,” he said. “That’s no way to live. We couldn’t take it anymore.”

Piedrahita said he is now working in Miami and plans to live permanently in the United States.

CPJ emailed the attorney general’s office to ask about the status of the investigation into the threats Piedrahita received, but did not receive any response.