Last Updated: Monday, 15 September 2014, 14:12 GMT

Attacks on the Press in 1999 - Colombia

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2000
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1999 - Colombia, February 2000, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c5659ec.html [accessed 16 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In a year that saw both an escalation of Colombia's armed conflict and a tentative beginning of peace negotiations, the press found itself in the crosshairs of nearly every party to the increasingly complicated civil war. Five journalists were killed in the line of duty, while scores of others were threatened, attacked, or kidnapped. Colombian journalists, many of whom had tolerated extremely dangerous working conditions for two decades, began leaving the country in unprecedented numbers.

The most devastating attack of the year occurred on August 13, when political humorist Jaime Garzón was murdered by motorcycle-riding gunmen as he was driving to his office. Garzón, who used humor to criticize all factions in the conflict, was a beloved figure on national radio and television. He regularly traded on his stature as a well-respected broadcaster to negotiate for the release of victims of guerrilla kidnappings. Garzón also served on an independent commission that was mediating between the government and the leftist guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Prior to his death, Garzón had received death threats from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a violent, right-wing paramilitary group linked to hundreds of human-rights abuses, including numerous attacks on journalists. While the AUC immediately denied responsibility for Garzón's murder, they remain a leading suspect.

Toward the end of 1999, journalists started leaving the country at an accelerated pace. According to CPJ's records, at least 13 journalists fled the country in 1999, and many other journalists were trying to leave at year's end. In its September 27 issue, the Bogotá-based weekly Semana described Colombian journalists as "the new displaced."

Even leaving the country does not always guarantee safety and peace of mind, as El Tiempo correspondent Carlos Pulgarín discovered when he fled Colombia for Peru in December. Pulgarín had been repeatedly threatened after he published a series of articles on the AUC. After he was briefly kidnapped and threatened at gunpoint, he left the country. With the help of the Lima-based press freedom organization Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), he relocated to Peru. But within weeks of his arrival, a vulgar and threatening message was left on IPYS's answering machine, warning Pulgarín to watch out because his whereabouts were known.

October and November saw a spate of kidnappings carried out by Colombia's three leftist guerrilla groups. In most cases, guerrillas kidnapped journalists in order to force them to cover civilian atrocities committed by right-wing paramilitary groups. But at least one journalist, Reuters stringer Henry Romero, was kidnapped and threatened with so-called revolutionary justice for photographing an ELN commander with his face uncovered.

International humanitarian law prohibits civilian hostage taking, and the Colombian press has been united in denouncing the guerrillas' heavy-handed publicity campaign. Local reporters told CPJ that many of their kidnapped colleagues faced continued pressure from their captors, even after being released.

Most of the violence against journalists is perpetrated by political factions in the civil war. But drug traffickers, who launched a campaign against the press in the late 1980s, remain a very real threat. In May, CPJ published a report linking drug traffickers to the 1998 murder of journalist Bernabé Cortés. On November 17, a bomb exploded in front of the Cali offices of the Bogotá-based daily El Tiempo, injuring three employees and causing considerable damage. Many people attributed the attack to narco traders angered by the government policy of extraditing suspected drug traffickers wanted in the United States (some also blamed left-wing guerrillas).

While there have been reports of self-censorship, the Colombian press in general has worked valiantly despite facing enormous risks. The press has covered the peace process in great detail while calling for civic participation in the negotiations. In December, the Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, a press freedom group, hosted a meeting in Bogotá with reporters from around the country that led to the creation of a national press freedom network.

There is a debate among Colombian journalists about how to cover the conflict responsibly. Medios para la Paz, a newly created media watchdog group, is seeking to address manipulation of the press by warring factions. And journalists struggle with the question of how to respond when they are tipped off in advance about a violent attack. On November 4, more than 20 editors signed an agreement that promised responsible coverage of the armed conflict. In the wake of the Garzón murder, a number of media agreed to "take the color out of violence" by reporting on political violence only in black-and-white. (That agreement lapsed after a few weeks, reportedly because of a drop in TV ratings.)

In November, CPJ awarded one of its 1999 International Press Freedom Awards to investigative reporter María Cristina Caballero. The award honored Caballero, a courageous and deeply committed reporter, but also recognized the extraordinarily dangerous conditions under which all Colombian journalists work. The fact that Caballero – who has endured all kinds of death threats – fled her country after a death threat in May illustrates how dramatically the situation has deteriorated. CPJ has been in contact with Colombian officials to press for the inclusion of the protection of journalists in the agenda for peace negotiations.

In October, the attorney general's office announced the creation of a special unit to investigate the murder of journalists. The commission's first report, made public in January, noted that 18 people had been detained, including two members of the intelligence services, in eight separate investigations.

While local journalists see violence as their main problem, they also face legal obstacles. A bill that would have made disclosing sealed court documents to journalists a criminal offense triggered such an outcry that it was halted. Journalists are repeatedly called in to give evidence in the public prosecutor's office, and armed forces pressure news organizations to surrender dispatches and unedited images of interviews with armed groups.

Assessing the risks of working under such conditions, a local reporter in the violence-plagued Magdalena Department noted, "You leave your house every day, not knowing whether you will return. But you have to ... keep doing your work."

January 7
Alfredo Molano Bravo, El Espectador THREATENED

Two suspicious-looking men were spotted outside the home of Molano, sociologist, journalist, and columnist for the Bogotá-based daily El Espectador. Molano had been receiving threats from paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño since publishing an article in July 1998 that linked Colombia's right-wing paramilitary groups to the notoriously violent anti-kidnapping group Death to Kidnappers (MAS), which has close links to Colombian drug traffickers.

After his article came out, Molano received a series of threatening letters from Castaño, written on the stationery of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). In an ominous December 23 letter, Castaño noted that his organization had "begun to dismantle the paraguerrilla in Colombia, which does more damage to the country than our declared enemies." (The term "paraguerrilla" refers to alleged auxiliaries of the Marxist guerrilla movement.)

In a December 30 fax sent to El Espectador editor Rodrigo Pardo, Castaño called Molano an enemy of the nation. In response, the Administrative Department of Security (DAS) provided Molano with an armored car and several armed guards. On January 7, the DAS agents guarding Molano noticed two men loitering outside his home. When questioned, the agents provided military credentials and said they were under the orders of a cavalry school lieutenant called Serrano. The men said they were on a special mission, but would provide no further information to the DAS agents.

Molano's neighbors spotted between two and four other military-looking men lurking near his property that day. Two men hiding in a gully pointed to Molano's sister as she walked by, as if to identify her. Credible reports documenting intelligence and logistical support provided to paramilitary units by members of the military gave reason to suspect that rogue elements of the military might have been conspiring to assassinate Molano.

Fearing for his life, Molano fled to Spain. This was the second time that the journalist has been forced to leave Colombia. In July 1997, Molano went to Europe briefly after receiving his first menacing fax from Castaño.

In a January 20 letter to Minister of Defense Rodrigo Lloreda Caicedo, CPJ urged him to determine why soldiers had been present around Molano's house and to punish anyone found to have exceeded his authority. In an August 13 letter to President Andrés Pastrana Arango, CPJ expressed great alarm at this and other threats against journalists by Carlos Castaño and members of the AUC. CPJ also asked for a thorough investigation into the murder of journalist Jaime Garzón, who had been killed that same day after receiving threats from Castaño.

March 24
Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, El Tiempo HARASSED

Apuleyo, a well-known Bogotá writer, journalist and columnist for the Bogotá-based daily El Tiempo, was sent a book-sized mail bomb. The bomb exploded in a private mail company's delivery truck; no one was injured. Although the case was still under investigation at year's end, Apuleyo believes he was attacked because of an El Tiempo column in which he accused the attorney general's office of being infiltrated by members of the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN).

At the end of September, Apuleyo left Colombia for Italy. He feared for his life following the murder of journalist Jaime Garzón on August 13, and former peace envoy and respected academic Jesús Antonio Bejarano on September 15.

April 11
Hernando Rangel Moreno, free-lancer KILLED

Rangel, a free-lance journalist who worked for the newspaper Sur 30 Días as well as local radio stations in El Banco, Magdalena Department, was shot four times in the head while watching a late-night boxing match on television.

Local sources told CPJ that the journalist regularly denounced corruption in the administration of Mayor Fidias Zeider Ospino Fernández. Just prior to his death, the journalist had organized a protest against the mayor. Local reporters seemed wary of volunteering any information in a climate that has become increasingly dangerous them, making it difficult for CPJ to confirm when and where Rangel's work had in fact appeared. Rangel was attacked in 1996, while covering community affairs for a local radio station, according to local journalists.

The attorney general's office formally started investigating Ospino Fernández on December 7. A few days later, he was arrested and charged with having ordered Rangel's murder. At year's end, Ospino Fernández was imprisoned and awaiting trial.

May 22
Jorge Rivera Sena, Caracol and El Universal IMPRISONED

Individuals believed to be members of a paramilitary unit kidnapped Rivera, a Carmen de Bolívar correspondent for the Cartagena-based daily El Universal and the Caracol radio network. Rivera had gone to Cartagena to file a news story for El Universal; he was returning to Carmen de Bolívar by taxi when he was assaulted.

After being held hostage for ten days, Rivera was released without major injuries on May 31. Rivera has since lost his job with El Universal. Fearing for his life, he moved out of Carmen de Bolívar and stopped reporting on news from that town. Rivera continued to receive threats at the El Universal offices until he left for Spain on September 21. At year's end, he was living and working in exile.

May 25
María Cristina Caballero, Semana THREATENED

Caballero, an investigative editor for the weekly Semana, received a death threat on the answering machine at her home in Bogotá. The voice said, "You know what? You'd better start packing your suitcases, babe. You won't get through the day."

After hiding for five days in the homes of friends and family members, Caballero returned to her apartment. She learned that a tall, thin man had come looking for her but left no message. Caballero believes the threat, like numerous other threats that she received in previous years, was related to her work as a journalist. Caballero has interviewed drug traffickers, guerrilla leaders, and the head of Colombia's notorious paramilitary forces. In the process, she has acquired many powerful enemies.

Shortly after the latest threat, Caballero left Colombia for Harvard University, where she started writing a book about the Colombian conflict. A former journalist with Colombia's leading daily El Tiempo and the weekly Cambio 16, Caballero was awarded CPJ's 1999 International Press Freedom Award in recognition for her independent reporting on drug trafficking, human rights abuses, corruption, and violence.

May 27
Yinet Bedoya Lima, El Espectador ATTACKED, HARASSED

Two unknown motorcyclists attempted to run over Bedoya, a 25-year-old journalist who was working for the daily El Espectador, for the Radio 1 station, and for the RCN radio network, a few blocks from her Bogotá home. Luz Nelly Lima, Bedoya's mother, was injured in the attack.

The journalist believes that the attack came in response to articles that she had published in El Espectador in 1998 and 1999 about criminal gangs that kidnap people for ransom. One such gang, led by a man known as "El Chontaduro," had threatened her by phone and delivered a dead rat to her office. The government launched an investigation into the attack.

June 8
Juan Carlos Aguiar, RCN Televisión THREATENED, HARASSED
John Jader Jaramillo, RCN Televisión ATTACKED, THREATENED

Reporter Aguiar and cameraman Jaramillo of RCN Televisión received several death threats after the station aired their footage of policemen ignoring a mob killing.

On June 8, in the town of Chinchillá, Aguiar and Jaramillo filmed a man being clubbed to the ground, kicked, and stabbed to death while four police officers watched passively. After the report was aired, Aguiar and Jaramillo received several telephone death threats.

Individuals presumed to be police officers approached the journalists when they were attending the victim's wake, and told them they should hand over the video or face the consequences. An anonymous caller who phoned Aguiar's wife a few days later offered a detailed account of her daily routine and that of the couple's two-and-a-half year old son.

Colleagues at RCN Televisión told CPJ that on June 17 a student who shares an apartment with Aguiar and his family was violently abducted, driven around the streets of Manizales, and questioned about Aguiar's whereabouts. On June 22, Jaramillo was attacked on the street by two individuals who slammed him against a wall and stripped him of his identification. Later that day, he was accosted in his home by two individuals who warned him that this was only the beginning.

In mid-August Aguiar fled the country for Venezuela, where he continued to work with RCN Televisión. Jaramillo tried to continue working in Bogotá, but received new death threats. On the advice of the Colombian intelligence services, he also left for Venezuela in mid-November. The families of both journalists remained in Colombia at year's end, but Aguiar and Jaramillo were concerned for their safety.

June 29
Carlos Pulgarín, El Tiempo THREATENED

Pulgarín, Montería correspondent for the Bogotá-based daily El Tiempo, received death threats that accused him of being a spokesman for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia's largest guerrilla movement.

The threats apparently came from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary organization. In April and May, Pulgarín published articles about the assassination of indigenous activists by right-wing paramilitary forces. A few days later, a white vehicle approached Pulgarín as he entered a restaurant. Three individuals in the vehicle told him to stop defending the "Indians" if he wished to avoid problems.

Pulgarín spent the next two months traveling in complete secrecy between Bogotá and Manizales. At the end of August, Pulgarín was reassigned to Bucaramanga, where he moved with his family. He worked there anonymously for almost three months without receiving any more threats. But on November 29, Pulgarín received telephone threats at his office and at his strictly confidential home telephone number. On December 6, several men kidnapped the journalist at gunpoint, forced him into a taxi, and verbally abused him as they drove around town.

With the help of CPJ and other organizations, Pulgarín was able to leave Colombia on December 8. He found refuge with the Peruvian press freedom organization Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS). In Peru, as in Colombia, Pulgarín went to great lengths to conceal his whereabouts. But on December 27, and again on January 11, 2000, IPYS received threatening messages for Pulgarín on its answering machine. This was the first known case of a Colombian journalist continuing to face threats while in exile.

In an August 13 letter to President Pastrana, CPJ expressed its great alarm at this and other threats against journalists by AUC leader Carlos Castaño and other members of the AUC. In the same letter, CPJ asked for a thorough investigation into that day's murder of journalist Jaime Garzón, whom Castaño had also threatened.

July 13
Alvaro Anaya, Emisora Fuentes THREATENED
Carlos Ardila, "Voz de las Antillas" THREATENED

Anaya, a reporter with the radio station Emisora Fuentes, which transmits in Cartagena and along the Atlantic Coast, and Ardila, a reporter for the radio station Cadena Todelar's program "Voz de las Antillas," received death threats after the two exposed corruption within the Cartagena municipal administration.

The journalists dredged up scandals within the administration of Mayor Nicolás Curi Vergara. Their work led to a public meeting on April 31, during which some 25 people accused the city government of corruption. The mayor was suspended in August, as were various other administration officials.

Both journalists began receiving death threats after July 13, when the Cartagena city comptroller was suspended and 78 separate corruption charges were filed against local officials. Ardila received telephone threats at work while the threats against Anaya's life were relayed through his brothers, one a politician and the other a well-known businessman. Anaya filed a complaint with the attorney general's office on August 13. In September, he moved to a new apartment and changed his phone number.

August 12
Alfredo Molano, El Espectador THREATENED
Patricia Lara, El Tiempo THREATENED
Arturo Alape, El Espectador THREATENED

A pamphlet circulated and signed by a previously unknown ultra-right group called the Colombian Rebel Army (ERC) referred to Alape, Lara, Molano, and 18 other intellectuals as enemies of the peace process.

Molano is a columnist for the Bogotá-based daily El Espectador. He fled the country earlier this year after his life was threatened by Carlos Castaño, leader of the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces (AUC). Lara is the former owner of the weekly Cambio; she now writes occasionally for the Bogotá-based daily El Tiempo. Alape is a columnist for El Espectador and the biographer of Manuel Marulanda, leader of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The pamphlet was circulated in the cities of Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín, where it appeared one day before the assassination of popular radio satirist and journalist Jaime Garzón. The pamphlet charged that the 21 intellectuals "feed the war between Colombians, foment hatred and class struggle, [and] live off war ... They will pay for the destruction of the peace process."

CPJ protested this incident in an August 26 letter to Attorney General Alfonso Gómez Méndez. The letter urged Gómez Méndez to investigate the origin of the pamphlet and provide protection for those threatened.

August 13
Jaime Garzón, Radionet, "Caracol Noticias" KILLED

Two gunmen killed political satirist Jaime Garzón, host of a daily morning show on the Bogotá station Radionet and contributor to a television news program called "Caracol Noticias." At 6 a.m., as Garzón was driving his Jeep Cherokee to the Radionet studio, two men on a white motorcycle intercepted him, shooting him multiple times in the head and chest.

Before his death, Garzón had frequently been threatened by Carlos Castaño, leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary organization that is fighting against leftist guerrillas. Garzón's colleagues informed CPJ that the journalist had scheduled a meeting with Castaño for the following morning.

On the day of Garzón's murder, the AUC put out a press release denying any responsibility for his death. It is still not clear who ordered the murder. While some local journalists believe the AUC could have authorized the killing, others blame drug traffickers or the military. In either case the likely motive would have been Garzón's contact with guerrilla forces. Still other sources speculate that Garzón may have been killed by rival factions within the guerrilla revolutionary movement.

Before launching his career as a journalist and satirist ten years ago, Garzón served as an elected official in Sumapaz, a region near Bogotá that is dominated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia's largest leftist guerrilla movement. More recently, Garzón regularly traded on his stature as a well-respected broadcaster to negotiate for the release of victims of guerrilla kidnappings. He also served on an independent commission that was mediating between the government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), another leftist guerrilla movement.

On the day of his murder, CPJ wrote a letter to President Andrés Pastrana Arango, urging him to do everything in his power to investigate the case, to bring those responsible for Garzón's murder to justice, and to ensure the security of all journalists in Colombia before another critical voice is lost.

On January 6, 2000, authorities arrested Juan Pablo Ortiz Agudelo, alias "Bochas," who was positively identified by an eyewitness as one of Garzón's killers. Ortiz Agudelo is affiliated with a group of some 300 paid assassins known as "La Terraza," which has often been hired by drug traffickers and the AUC. He is currently awaiting trial.

August 15
Luis López Criollo, "Imagen Empresarial" THREATENED

López, a veteran journalist who produced a Sunday morning program called "Imagen Empresarial" for the radio station La Voz del Valle de Todelar, fled the country after receiving repeated death threats.

López told CPJ that his program supported the rights of laborers, small business owners, and people who favor social and economic development. The show was often highly critical of local government.

Beginning in mid-August, the journalist began receiving phone threats in his office and at home. The threats grew so persistent that he feared for the life of his wife and son. López canceled his radio show on October 30. He and his family left Colombia on Christmas Eve.

September 16
Guzmán Quintero Torres, El Pilón KILLED

Two assassins on a motorcycle shot and killed Quintero, editor of the daily El Pilón, in the northern town of Valledupar.

At 10:00 p.m., Quintero was seated in Los Cardones Hotel and Restaurant where he often stopped on his way home from work. He was relaxing with two colleagues from the newspaper when a single assassin entered the hotel and shot the journalist four times before escaping on a motorcycle driven by an accomplice.

On September 29, police arrested two suspects, Jorge Espinal Velásquez and Rodolfo Nelson Rosado Martínez. According to local authorities, both men were identified by witnesses and are believed to be professional assassins. They are currently awaiting trial.

Many local sources believe Quintero was killed in retaliation for his work as a journalist. Although Quintero was not known to have been receiving threats at the time of his death, he had apparently been threatened in the past. In 1996, he received death threats after publishing a news item in El Heraldo about the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group that is fighting against left-wing guerrillas. After lying low for a few months, Quintero resumed his work, though exclusively in the field of financial reporting.

However, the journalist had recently been looking into the 1988 murder of television journalist Amparo Leonor Jiménez Pallares, also of Valledupar. According to the attorney general's office, Jiménez was killed in retaliation for a story she broadcast in 1996 about the murder of peasants by a paramilitary death squad. As in Quintero's case, the gunman has been caught, but whoever was responsible for ordering the murder is still at large.

Another motive suggested for Quintero's assassination is an article he published in El Pilón in July about an AUC attack on the home of a presumed guerrilla sympathizer in the town of Patillal, just 12 miles from Valledupar. Quintero published the article after speaking with the victim, Saída Maestre. Subsequently, on July 5, Maestre was kidnapped – her horribly mutilated body was later found. The AUC has been linked to this murde, among others.

Many have speculated that Quintero's public denunciation of the attack may have led to his own assassination. In a September 21 letter to President Andrés Pastrana Arango, CPJ condemned Quintero's murder and urged an exhaustive investigation. Local authorities have assured CPJ that the investigation will continue until it is determined who is responsible for ordering Quintero's murder.

October 13
Journalists in Santander Department HARASSED

The Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a Marxist guerrilla group, kidnapped about 60 journalists and public officials who had come to witness its release of kidnapped folk singer Jorge Velosa. The mass hostage-taking, which was carried out in order to ensure a safe getaway for EPL members, occurred in Santander Department, northeast Colombia.

The EPL hijacked a helicopter rented by RCN Televisión after the government failed to provide two helicopters that sources say had been promised to guarantee safe passage for members of the rebel group. The EPL held the captives until all its members had been safely evacuated from the region. The captives were released after 26 hours.

Included in the kidnapped group were journalists from several major media organizations, including the dailies El Tiempo and El Espectador, the radio networks RCN, Radionet, and Caracol, and the television news program "Noticiero de las 7."

October 21
Rodolfo Julio Torres, Emisora Fuentes KILLED

Torres, correspondent with the Cartagena-based radio station Emisora Fuentes, was found brutally murdered along a highway outside the small town of Berrugas in the Atlantic coastal municipality of San Onofre, in Sucre Department.

In the early hours of the morning, a group of unidentified individuals arrived at Torres' home and took him away by car. They drove the 38-year-old journalist to the outskirts of town, shot him several times, and left him by the side of the road. His body was later discovered by his family and members of the community.

Torres had worked as the press secretary for Silfredo Mendoza, the recently elected mayor of a small town near Cartagena. He had formerly been a correspondent with Radio Caracolí in Sincelejo, the capital of Sucre Department, and also with the Sincelejo daily El Meridiano.

Torres' colleagues are convinced he was assassinated in reprisal for his outspoken reporting. He covered cockfights, known as major gambling sites, as well as general politics. One year earlier, a series of anonymous pamphlets had accused him of being affiliated with leftist guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN). The pamphlets were believed to have come from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a coalition of extreme right-wing paramilitary groups.

In an October 22 letter to President Andrés Pastrana Arango, CPJ expressed its profound indignation over Torres' murder. CPJ urged the president to launch an exhaustive investigation into this lethal attack on press freedom.

October 26
Henry Romero, free-lancer IMPRISONED

Romero, a free-lance photographer who worked regularly for Reuters, was kidnapped by members of the José María Becerra unit of the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia's second-largest guerrilla movement. He was held for nine days.

ELN guerrillas kidnapped Romero after summoning him and other journalists to the mountains near Cali for a press conference about the ELN's May 30 kidnapping of 162 worshipers during a Roman Catholic mass. Romero was kidnapped in retaliation for taking and publishing a photograph of ELN leader Comandante Nicolás without his signature black-and-red mask. Romero took that photo in June, when he was given access to a camp where the hostages were being held.

CPJ circulated several news alerts about the Romero case. After much domestic and international media attention, the ELN unit released Romero on November 3 near the town of Suárez, in Cauca Department.

October 29
Wilson Lozano, Caracol Televisión IMPRISONED
Idamis Acero, RCN Televisión IMPRISONED
Blanca Isabel Herrera, "CM&" IMPRISONED
Ademir Luna, Vanguardia Liberal IMPRISONED
Reynaldo Patiño, RCN Televisión IMPRISONED
Jhon Jairo León, "CM&" IMPRISONED
Franklin Chaguala, "Noticiero de las 7" IMPRISONED

Members of Unit 24 of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) abducted seven journalists based in Barrancabermeja, an oil-refining town in the northeastern department of Santander. The journalists were released after being held for five days.

The abducted journalists included four reporters and three cameramen. The reporters were Lozano from Caracol Televisión network, Acero from RCN Televisión network, Herrera from the "CM&" TV news program, and Luna from the Bucaramanga daily Vanguardia Liberal. The cameramen were Patiño from RCN Televisión, León from "CM&," and Chaguala from the TV news program "Noticiero de las 7."

FARC's Unit 24 detained the seven journalists after inviting them to cover the displacement of farmers by right-wing paramilitary units operating in the south of Bolívar Department. According to Luna, the rebels compelled them to march long distances in order to visit villages where they heard farmers denouncing alleged paramilitary atrocities.

A rebel leader who identified himself as Commander Leonardo called Vanguardia Liberal to report the kidnapping. He said the journalists would be released when they reported the "truth" about alleged atrocities committed against the peasants by paramilitary forces.

All seven journalists were released on the afternoon of November 2. CPJ documented the kidnapping in news alerts circulated on November 1 and November 3.

November 2
Alvaro Montoya Gómez El Nuevo Siglo THREATENED

Montoya, cartoonist and reporter with the Bogotá-based daily El Nuevo Siglo, resigned his position as weekly columnist after receiving anonymous calls that threatened his life and the lives of his children. On November 2, a caller not only threatened Montoya but also detailed the daily schedule of his adolescent children. In Montoya's words, this kind of threat went well beyond what Colombian journalists consider to be normal occupational hazards.

The threat came on the anniversary of the murder of Alvaro Gómez Hurtado, outspoken critic of the Samper government, former executive editor of El Nuevo Siglo, and the Conservative Party's 1990 presidential candidate. Gómez's death in 1995 sent shock waves through the country.

Montoya's last column, written around October 25, criticized Attorney General Alfonso Gómez Méndez for failing to investigate Gómez Hurtado's murder and for lacking political independence. In a letter published by El Nuevo Siglo on November 25, Montoya, known by his pseudonym Alfín, wrote, "If I am not able to express my opinions freely, it is better to keep silent."

Even after resigning his position as columnist, Montoya continued to receive threats.

November 10
David Sierra Daza, RCN Televisión IMPRISONED
Isbel Ballesteros, RCN Televisión IMPRISONED
José Urbano Céspedes, Caracol Televisión IMPRISONED
Aldemar Cárdenas, Caracol Televisión IMPRISONED
Libar Gregorio Maestre, "CM&" IMPRISONED
Pablo Camargo Alí, "24 Horas" and El Pilón IMPRISONED
Edgar de la Hoz, Vanguardia Liberal and El Pilón IMPRISONED

Members of Front 59 of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) kidnapped seven Colombian journalists and their driver while the journalists were traveling to cover the aftermath of a right-wing paramilitary attack in Atánquez, in the northern department of Cesar.

Those kidnapped included Daza and Ballesteros, correspondent and cameraman, respectively, for RCN Televisión; Urbano and Cárdenas, correspondent and cameraman, respectively, for Caracol Televisión; Maestre, cameraman with the TV news program "CM&" Camargo Alí, correspondent for "24 Horas" and reporter for the Valledupar daily El Pilón; and de la Hoz, photographer with the Bucaramanga daily Vanguardia Liberal and the Valledupar daily El Pilón.

Less than two months before, de la Hoz had witnessed the cold-blooded murder of his El Pilón colleague Guzmán Quintero Torres, who is widely thought to have been killed because of his work as a journalist.

Local sources informed CPJ that the journalists left the Cesar capital, Valledupar, at around 11:30 a.m. They were headed for the Atánquez district, a two-hour drive, to investigate an attack by right-wing paramilitary forces earlier that day. Later that afternoon, one of the journalists used a mobile phone to leave a message for a colleague in Valledupar, saying that he and his colleagues had been kidnapped. For security reasons, the hostage did not reveal where the group was being held.

Five of the seven journalists – Daza, Camargo Alí, Ballesteros, Maestre, and de la Hoz – were freed on November 12. They reached Valledupar that evening under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

CPJ documented and protested the kidnapping in November 11 and 15 news alerts. ICRC representative Julian Smith arrived on November 12 to facilitate the release of the entire group. Instead, he himself was seized and held captive with Urbano and Cárdenas, the remaining two journalists. All three were released on November 14.

November 14
El Tiempo ATTACKED

At 10:30 p.m., a white van pulled up to a bus stop in front of the offices of the daily El Tiempo, located in the north of Cali, where the regional edition for western Colombia is printed. A man got out of the van and left a bomb containing five kilos of explosives at the bus stop. The bomb exploded a few seconds later, injuring three employees and causing considerable damage to the El Tiempo office as well as to surrounding homes.

It is unclear who ordered the bombing. Local journalists have several theories, and more than one group has claimed responsibility. On the evening of the attack, a man who identified himself as a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) called the Todelar radio station and the Cali office of the Bogotá-based daily El Espectador, claiming responsibility for the attack. The caller said El Tiempo was bombed in retaliation for an article about FARC attacks on Colombia's oil industry that had run in that day's paper.

A previously unknown group identifying itself as the "Colombian Patriotic Resistance" (RPC) also claimed responsibility for the attack. In a communiqué distributed to the Colombian media, the group said it had bombed El Tiempo to protest the recently resumed government practice of extraditing suspected drug traffickers to the United States. Police speculate that the RPC might be an alliance between drug traffickers and dissident members of the leftist M-19 guerrilla group. (The M-19 signed a peace treaty in 1990 and agreed to disarm.)

Finally, police are also investigating the possibility that the National Liberation Army (ELN) carried out the attack. One possible motive, according to the police, is that on the day of the attack, El Tiempo news editor Francisco Santos went on the radio and denounced the May 30 ELN kidnapping of some 160 Cali churchgoers.

In a November 17 letter to Colombian President Andrés Pastrana Arango, CPJ expressed concern about the many recent attacks against journalists and urged that the safety of journalists be included on the agenda of the ongoing peace negotiations.

December 3
Pablo Emilio Medina Motta, TV Garzón KILLED

Medina, a cameraman with the regional station TV Garzón, was killed by multiple shots to the head and back when more than 100 leftist guerrillas stormed the town of Gigante, in Huila Department. Six other people died and some 20 were wounded in the five-hour attack, perpetrated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

According to TV Garzón director Rulfo Ciceri, Medina, 19, had traveled to Gigante with him and a few other journalists covering the attack. In order to reach the scene more quickly, Medina then jumped on the back of a motorcycle with a commander from the National Judicial Intelligence Service (SIJIN). The FARC guerrillas apparently mistook him for a member of the SIJIN forces.

Ciceri told CPJ that a commander of the FARC apologized to him for the error, explaining that they had mistaken Medina for a mosca, or "fly," a pejorative term for a police informer.

Copyright notice: © Committee to Protect Journalists. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission from CPJ.

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