Journalists Increasingly Under Fire in Colombia

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Wherever Daniel Mejia Lozano goes, he wears a bullet-proof vest and has a government-financed bodyguard. But he’s not a security forces officer or even a public official. Mejia is a reporter.

Mejia’s dresscode is becoming more commonplace for investigative journalists in Colombia, as threats against reporters in this country rise. 

Colombia’s Ombudsman office reported 93 journalists were threatened from January to August 2014, more than double the 42 reported cases during the same period in 2013. This figure does not include two reporters who were threatened in late September, allegedly by the criminal group Rastrojos, and eight more just days later, reportedly by the Urabeños, the largest of what Colombians call BACRIM, an acronym derived from the Spanish term for “criminal bands.” In December, Reporters Without Borders listed Colombia’s northwest department of Antioquia as one of the world’s five most dangerous areas to be a journalist.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

Since 2012, Mejia — the founder of the independent magazine Senxura — has investigated the public health effects of lime and brick factories in Valle de Sogamoso, a mining town in Colombia’s Boyaca province. According to Mejia, 250 of the 280 factories, or “hornos” in the region, are unlicensed or do not meet government safety regulations and are operating illegally.

Mejia is currently investigating if there is a correlation between these illegal factories, which use large amounts of carbon to produce the brick, and the disproportionate number of individuals who suffer from respiratory problems in Sogamoso. According to government documents that Mejia showed to InSight Crime, in 2011 there were over 30,000 reported cases of respiratory illnesses, representing nearly 20 percent of the town’s 166,000 inhabitants.

However, Mejia says his research on the illegal factories has earned him enemies among shadowy criminals for hire in Colombia’s underworld. Mejia said he received several threats during 2014. The first, he says, was from a paramilitary organization, and the second was a phone call that he said came from an army sergeant.

“[The army sergeant] told me they [the paramilitaries] pay him to kill,” Mejia told InSight Crime. “That if he didn’t kill me, he would leave me in a wheelchair. But that I could be certain he was going to assassinate my mother, and that he would go to Sogamoso on the day of her funeral to celebrate.”

Mejia spoke with a military official in Boyaca about the threats. However, he was told the military could do nothing and was directed to the Attorney General’s Office, which he says has not opened an investigation. Mejia also solicited help from the non-governmental organization Freedom of the Press Foundation (FLIP), which assisted him in obtaining government protection from the National Protection Unit (UNP), which provides security detail for those under threat due to their line of work. 

The FLIP told InSight Crime it has not been proven a member of Colombia’s Armed Forces threatened Mejia, and that they were waiting for more evidence before scheduling a meeting with the military to review the case.

The Nature of the BACRIM Threat

It is not entirely clear why journalists in Colombia attracted more threats in 2014 from the previous year. In September, Colombia’s Ombudsman office said (pdf) the BACRIM were behind the increased number of threats and attacks. International watchdog groups, such as the Committee to Protect Jounalists’ (CPJ), agree.

“A considerable amount of the threats [against journalists] are coming from BACRIM,” Senior Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauria, told InSight Crime. 

However, on some levels, saying the BACRIM are responsible is a vague assertion, akin to saying “organized crime” is responsible. The BACRIM groups are diffuse and decentralized. Even the Urabeños – the BACRIM with the most extensive presence across Colombia – operate as numerous semi-independent franchises and have a highly decentralized leadership structure

SEE ALSO: Coverage of BACRIM

Some local BACRIM factions are not beholden to their superiors, and may agree to jobs — a killing, a kidnapping, or a threat delivered by phone call — for third parties. In essence, in the fragmented world of Colombian organized crime, some threats against journalists attributed to BACRIM may be directed by outside groups — both legal and illegal — who use the criminal organizations as a proxy to threaten and censor the media.

Hot Topics: Corruption, Politics, Human Rights 

Threats against Colombia’s journalists can come from a wide range of actors. In the case of Erika Londoño, a reporter with Caracol Radio, the source seemed to be political. She told InSight Crime she believes someone “close” to the governor of Guaviare, Jose Octaviano Rivera Moncada, sent her threatening text messages in December 2013 and again in January 2014. The messages reportedly warned Londoño to stop reporting on a referendum that could have removed Rivera Moncada from his post as governor.

In October, Londoño was threatened yet again: acid was thrown on her car just days after Caracol had published information on alleged corruption by the provincial government accountability office.

Londoño reported the threats to Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office and Colombia’s investigative police unit, SIJIN. Attempts by InSight Crime to reach the Attorney General’s Office regarding the case were unsuccessful.

Studies also show that the reasons for threats against Colombian journalists vary. Based on field research carried out between 2009 to 2010 in seven of Colombia’s most violent provinces, the FLIP found coverage of paramilitaries, BACRIM, illegal mining and state corruption were “untouchable” topics for local journalists. According to CPJ, more than half of the 45 journalists murdered since 1992 for work-related purposes in Colombia reported on corruption, while other common topics included politics, human rights, and crime, as indicated in the graph below. 

Widespread Impunity 

Exacerbating the issue of threatened and killed journalists is the lack of initiative on the part of the Colombian government to investigate these crimes. 

In 2012, Paul Bacares — formerly a reporter with Canal Capital — received a voice message in which several gunshots were fired in the background. The message came shortly after he wrote an article linking another journalist to an emerald tycoon Pedro Nel Rincon Castillo, alias “Pedro Orejas,” based on phone calls intercepted by the Attorney General’s Office in 2008. Orejas is currently in a maximum security prison on charges of conspiracy and arms trafficking. However, no court of law or official inquiry has yet proven who threatened Bacares.

“My journalist instinct tells me it [was Orejas], but since the Attorney General’s Office never opened an investigation, I never found out [who was behind the threat],” he told InSight Crime. 

The lack of a satisfying resolution to Bacares’ case isn’t atypical — Colombia ranks eighth worldwide in unresolved journalist murder cases.

Bacares was never assigned a bodyguard to protect him after he reported receiving threats, but he said this isn’t what troubles him the most.

“More than protection from the state, what I wanted was an investigation into who sent me the [threatening] call, but the Attorney General’s Office never opened one,” Bacares said.

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