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COLOMBIA
Deadly profession
Michael Easterbrook
7/10/2002
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Leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries continue to target journalists.

When Ramón Vásquez Ruiz left the coastal city of Santa Marta to cover a crime story in a neighboring town, he expected to return to his wife and children that evening. Instead, Colombian rebels abducted the 52-year-old newspaper reporter and took him to the Sierra Nevada mountains.

For the next 12 days, fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) marched their hostage through the forest while demanding thousands of dollars from the newspaper where Vásquez works, in return for his freedom. He was nearly killed when a military plane fired on one of the camps where rebels were holding him.

The plan apparently failed. On May 28, Vásquez says, the FARC freed him without having extorted a single peso from the newspaper, the daily Hoy Dia-rio del Magdalena in Santa Marta. His driver had been released four days earlier.

Violence against journalists is not new in Colombia. Drug gangs have been killing members of the press since the days of drug lord Pablo Escobar, whose henchmen assassinated El Espectador publisher Guillermo Cano in 1986 and nearly razed the newspaper´s office three years later with 220 pounds of dynamite, injuring more than 80 employees. Since 1992, 29 journalists have been killed in Colombia.
For the past several years, Colombia has been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Five were murdered in one three-week period last year (LP, July 30, 2001).

This year is shaping up to be just as bloody. Since January, six journalists have been killed, more than 15 others have been threatened and five - including Claudia Gurisatti, the nation´s top television news anchorwoman - have fled the country.

Presumed leftist rebels have dismantled a radio station, tried to bomb the nation´s largest television station with a ground-fired rocket and detained or kidnapped at least 10 journalists.

The violence is partly a result of the breakdown in peace talks in February between the government and the FARC, which set the rebels off on a spree of kidnappings, urban bombings and attacks against the country´s infrastructure (LP, March 11, 2002).

On April 11, two journalists from RCN television were shot and killed while covering combat between the military and the FARC. Although investigations are pending, a freelance reporter who was with the victims said they appeared to have been shot accidentally by soldiers inside an army helicopter.

The growth of both rebel and paramilitary forces has also added to the risks that journalists face. The FARC, the country´s largest rebel army, is believed to have about 16,000 fighters, while the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) is estimated to have about 8,000 combatants. Both sides have strengthened themselves by taking millions of dollars in profits from the country´s cocaine industry.

As the armed groups have become stronger, they have also grown more sensitive to criticism. The rebels, who say they´re fighting to end a corrupt government and endemic poverty, often accuse the press of bowing to the interests of the nation´s elite. The AUC, meanwhile, has accused some members of the press of being rebel sympathizers.

Both sides believe that a victory in the decades-old conflict hinges on winning public opinion. As a result, they are working harder than ever to manipulate press coverage by intimidating journalists, said Rodrigo Pardo, editor of Colombia´s leading daily newspaper, El Tiempo.

"The case of Colombia is different from that of other countries in that the majority of the problems journalists face come not from the state, but from illegal groups that have become an uncontrollable phenomenon for the government," Pardo said.

Although none of the attacks against the press this year has been solved, not all appear to have been perpetrated by FARC rebels and AUC paramilitaries.

On Jan. 30, Orlando Sierra, a columnist and deputy editor at La Patria newspaper in Manizales, was walking back to work from lunch with his 20-year-old daughter when an assassin shot him in the head and neck. The 42-year-old journalist died two days later in a local hospital.
Some authorities suspect that the gunman, who was sentenced to prison after confessing to the crime, was hired to kill Sierra by a local political boss whom the journalist had accused of corruption. So far, however, investigators have failed to find evidence of such a link.

Drug gangs are suspected in other cases, such as a blanket death threat issued in March against seven newspaper and television journalists who had covered prominent drug cases.

Speaking by phone from Santa Marta, Vásquez blamed his abduction on bad luck, saying that the FARC had grabbed him at a roadblock they had set up to snag victims to be held for ransom.

Although the rebels treated him well, he was given a meager diet and marched through rough terrain for hours on end. Yet the relief he felt upon being freed didn´t last long. Hours later, presumed paramilitary members called him three times on his cell phone and accused him of staging the abduction for economic gain - a charge that Vásquez says is ridiculous.

"They said, ´Are you happy with yourself? Now wait and see what happens,´" the reporter said.


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Exiled: Claudia Gurisatti
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