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Colombia Press under Siege: After a Lull, Drug Cartels Begin Again Bombing Newspapers and Killing Journalists

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Colombia Press under Siege: After a Lull, Drug Cartels Begin Again Bombing Newspapers and Killing Journalists

Article excerpt

After a lull drug cartels begin again bombing newspapers and killing journalists

WITH THE recent killing of two journalists and bombing of three newspapers, Colombia journalists fear once again that deadlines may become literal.

On March 20, gunmen murdered Gerardo Bedoya, the 55-year-old chief editor of El Pais, Cali's largest newspaper, and outspoken critic of the country's powerful drug cartels. The killing came three days after the torture-murder of Freddy Elles, a news photographer based in the coastal resort city of Cartegena.

"We have seen this happen many times before," said Enrique Santo Calderon, Sub Director of El Timpo, Colombia's largest newspaper. "The drug traffickers are trying to impose a real dictatorship of fear upon the press. The situation for Colombian journalists is once again becoming extremely difficult and dangerous"

The two killings brought to 67 the number of Colombian journalists murdered in the last eight-and-a-half years, according to a report published by the Inter American Press Association (IAPA). Bedoya was the most prominent Colombian journalist killed since 1986, when hitmen gunned down Guillermo Cano, the publisher of the Bogota-based El Espectador, the second-largest newspaper in Colombia.

Last Dec. 17, a car bomb containing 50 kilos of dynamite exploded outside the office of El Colombiano in Medellin, killing one, injuring 48 and damaging 15 buildings. The terrorist wave continued with the bombings of the left-wing newspaper Voz on Dec. 20 and the Medellin office of El Tiempo, on Dec. 28, which caused no deaths but $300,000 in damage.

The Colombian press thought its worst days of intimidation and violence had ended when police hunted down and killed Pablo Escobar Gaviria on Dec. 2, 1993, an event that in effect ended the Medellin cartel's position as the major player in the country's billion-dollar drug trade.Although the Cali cartel quickly filled the vacuum, its godfathers were viewed as a kinder, gentler mafia that preferred the bribe to the bullet.

Under pressure from the U.S., the Colombian government began cracking down on the Call cartel in 1994 and have since arrested and imprisoned all of its top leadership. The U.S. government has demanded the extradition of the Call cartel godfathers, who are wanted on drug charges in the U.S., and there has been a movement in the Colombian Congress to reinstate the extradition treaty with the U.S., which has been suspended since 1991.

"The one thing the drug traffickers fear more than a prison cell in Colombia is extradition to the U.S.," explained one U.S. diplomat. "They have vowed that they would never spend a day in an American jail."

In the days leading up to the bombing of El Colombiano, the newspaper's director, Ana Mercedes Gomez, received an anonymous warning that the newspaper should not write about extradition or current legislative moves in the Colombian Congress to increase the penalties against drug traffickers and to confiscate their property.

In his editorials, Bedoya, a former diplomat and legislator, had demanded tougher government action against the drug cartels and went on record as supporting extradition. In one of his last columns, Bedoya wrote, "Even though they call me pro yankee, I prefer the prison of the United States to the narco traffickers. I prefer the influence of the gringos to the influence of the narco traffickers. I prefer the intervention of the gringos in our internal affairs to the drug cartels."

The authorities say they don't know if any threats were made against Bedoya and have speculated that robbery may have been the motive for Elles' murder. Although no one has claimed responsibility for either of the killings, the local press fears that it will be targeted by drug traftickers and other groups who don't like what they read.

Management of Voz, the paper of the Communist-oriented Patriotic Union Party, believes that assassins, paid by drug traffickers, were behind the bombing. …

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