Protests in Catatumbo add to risk in Colombia

By John Otis/CPJ Andes Correspondent on July 22, 2013 5:30 PM ET

Reporting from Catatumbo, a region in northern Colombia dominated by guerrillas and drug traffickers, has always been challenging.  But working conditions for journalists have seriously deteriorated amid nearly two months of anti-government protests pitting thousands of angry peasant farmers against soldiers and riot police.

The farmers are upset about a government campaign to eradicate coca leaves, the raw material for cocaine that many of them grow. Their initial protests drew other farmers and peasant organizations angry about the lack of government assistance to the region, which is home to some of Colombia's poorest municipalities. For the past six weeks, they have blocked roads, burned buildings and vehicles, and clashed with government forces.

"The violence is coming from all sides and the journalists are in the middle of it," Wilfredo Cañizales, director of Fundación Progresar, a human rights group based in the nearby city of Cúcuta, told CPJ.

On July 16, Richard Gálvez, a camera operator for Bogotá's RCN TV station who was covering protests in the town of Tibú, suffered wounds to the crotch when a shell from a homemade bazooka fired by protesters exploded near him, according to the Bogotá-based Foundation for Press Freedom, or FLIP. He was released from the hospital the next day.

As the conflict has become more violent, the Colombian government has moved from conciliatory statements to painting the demonstrations as illegal and as being infiltrated by Marxist guerrillas. On July 19, the Colombian Attorney General's office charged 10 of the protesters with acts of terrorism and illegal possession of explosives.

Meanwhile, journalists for several outlets widely viewed as sympathetic to the protesters have complained of police harassment. On June 20, a reporter for Venezuela's left-leaning Telesur TV station was roughed up by anti-riot police who tried to stop him from filming, FLIP reported.

People documenting the protests for political groups have also been targeted. The same day the Telesur journalist was assaulted, a team of reporters for Marcha Patriótica, a left-wing political organization, was briefly detained and photographed by police, according to FLIP. In another case, Olguer Pérez, a camera operator for the communications department of the Peasant Association of Catatumbo, a group that is taking part in the protests, told CPJ that police shot at him while he was filming a June 25 march in the town of Ocaña.

Pérez claims that the police are deliberately targeting journalists to keep them from reporting on the protests, which are turning into a major political liability for President Juan Manuel Santos. The blocked roads have cut off towns, like Tibú, where food and other supplies are now being airlifted in and where prices for many basic goods have tripled or quadrupled. At least four people have been killed and dozens wounded, according to news reports.

In a June 24 communiqué, FLIP called on the police to punish officers involved in harassing journalists. The foundation is planning to send a fact-finding mission to Catatumbo.

In a telephone interview with CPJ, Gen. Yesid Vásquez, chief of police for the region which includes Catatumbo, insisted that his units had not harassed or shot at any journalists. He claimed that many reporters in the alternative media support the protesters and said they were spreading false information.

"There are so many cameras around that if we really were harassing reporters, it would be caught on tape and there would be a huge scandal," Vásquez said.

On July 10 the United Nations publicly criticized the Colombian police for its "excessive use of force" in Catatumbo. 

[Reporting from Bogotá]


Thanks for writing this article. I as a Colombian also want the best for my country both inside the border and out. Recently, on my domestic travels, I've been present on a few demonstrations, where the police are too afraid to do anything just because of things like this. Caracol, RCN, El Tiempo and El Espectador have kept us, the Colombian people, informed of what has been going on inside the catatumbo and tibu. None have reported acts of violence torwards the press from the government's side. While police and army have indeed shown aggression torwards the "protestors," those acts are also very much justifical since the protestors attack for no reason and are commiting several crimes that include disturbing peace, terrorism(making and executing home made bombs), and even preventing the rights of us the Colombians by suspending the public schools with threads and thus the right to education. I don't know if this articles are written about colombia are beacaue we are a developing country with a past that we are overcoming or what other unjust reason because I never seen anything about the U.S or Canada where the police think they can violate one's rights just because you are Hispanic or black. On the Zimmerman case, the American government has censored by prohibition and what happens? Nothing. We try to have Liberty and order as our colombian constitution says we can and may but it all comes to this, biased reports with a lack of research and relying of what others say without videos nor photos to back up if what they are saying is 100% true as it rarely is.
Please do visit Tibú and the Catatumbo to tell us about your experience, you'll notice that protection will be provided as its mandated by law.

Andres Carrillo, 18 July 23, 2013 1:16:57 AM ET

I just want to add to andres carillos' statement. He is clueless, for him to say thAt news sources like el tiempo or espectador are imparcial or that the riot police are scared individuals just shows his ignorance about colombian society, history and conflict.

My dearest Andrés Carrillo and readers of this article,

Democracy was created, besides other things, to give people the right to protest and be heard. And it hurts me in the deepest part of my guts to see a Colombian naming these protests an unjustified act with no grounds.

Land concentration rates in Colombia are of the highest in the world. 43% of the plots and farms in the country are own by 1% of the population. Not embarrassing enough, despite having one of the richest, agriculture-friendly soils in the planet, half of our cereals and dairy products come from outside, as local costs of production and supplies (including fertilisers) are among the most expensive in the world. There's no possible way a small farmer can make a living under these circumstances. Moreover, farming is in the centre of our existence, it's a tradition and it's a centrepiece of our culture. It deserves respect and so do people who, in the modest, humblest way, dedicate their lives to work the land, OUR LAND.

Our countryside, my friend, is currently being burdened by poverty, violence, social injustice and the impact of the TLC. It is just fair to rebel when all the help is given to the big companies and the country funds destined to pay for overpriced arms and munitions to keep us in an eternal state of war.

I understand your frustration and total rejection of acts like blocking roads, which also are harming other farmers preventing them of transporting and selling their products. But it is also to be recognised that Colombian news have taught us that there isn't enough journalistic coverage unless commotion breaks out, and the government as well as a big chunk of the population, likewise, only seem to pay attention when the commotion reaches the news.

My dear Andrés and other people, the internet has given us the power to be heard, not only by our friends in the social networks but most importantly by those outside them, and those who are far away. Let's keep our opinions and concerns public and drag the world's attention to our side.

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