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Death Beat: Covering the Colombian Cartels

Q&A with Maria Jimena Duzan, Grant Awarded 1990

Colombian paramilitaries at a demobilization ceremony © 2004 Stephen Ferry
Colombian paramilitaries at a demobilization ceremony © 2004 Stephen Ferry

In 2010 you published the book Mi Viaje al Infierno [My Journey to Hell] about the murder of your sister, who was killed by paramilitaries in 1990 while making a documentary about paramilitarism. Why did you decide to write the book 20 years after her death?

My first reaction to the murder of Silvia was that of fear. Fear that they would kill me, kill my mother. That fear paralyzed me as it does many victims. Initially attorneys were investigating the incidents, but nothing ever happened. And I never had the courage to file a report; I had to leave the country immediately, exiled, due to threats. It took many years for me to understand what happened.

Why was it so important for the truth about who killed your sister to come to light?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that victims of conflict need to know the truth. In the case of my sister, and the people killed with her, most of those who pulled the trigger are already dead, but the victims’ families are alive. For too long I believed that coming to terms with the fact that I myself was a victim was going to affect my journalism, but that was not the case. I think the truth has made me a better journalist.

As part of a peace agreement, the Colombian government is discussing potential amnesties for guerrillas and military officials who committed war crimes. If this happens, would it place an even greater burden on journalists like you to replace the justice system by establishing the truth?

Very few journalists in Colombia are genuinely interested in reporting about the negotiations and conflict-related stories. Many of us have had siblings or family members murdered. That is not something we can just put away and hide in a box while we continue to do our job as journalists. We must know, however, that as journalists we cannot work with vengeance.

To make matters worse, the story does not attract international interest, and the onus falls exclusively on Colombian journalists.

What story do you hope to tell in the book you’re currently writing about the peace process?

I am trying to tell the story of what I believe will be the first successful peace agreement in my country. We have been at war for almost 30 years! This is what I have done my whole life, and for once I’d like to write about peace. For the first time in my life, I will have this opportunity.

You earned your stripes as a journalist in the 1980s, under constant threat from drug traffickers and paramilitaries. Many of your colleagues were killed, including your mentor Guillermo Cano, the editor of El Espectador. What motivated you to continue reporting?

At first we didn’t know who had killed Guillermo Cano. We were not aware then that the drug trafficking world was so ruthless and that so many people would be killed; we never imagined that trafficking was going to be an even bigger monster than it was already. Just think: we did not even have evidence that Pablo Escobar, who was then a member of Congress, was also a drug lord! We had only published the truth on Pablo Escobar one year before he killed Cano. Later on, when Guillermo and many others were killed – including journalists, judges and political candidates – we realized that this was not just about drug trafficking but about politics in Colombia, and the ties between the country’s political and business establishment with drug trafficking, and how this in turn was interlinked with the emergence of a new monster, that of paramilitarism, and the extreme-right phenomenon.

And this is what mobilized me: I understood that we were dealing with a problem affecting the entire country and involving macabre alliances between drug trafficking, the political and business establishment, and large landowners. In other words, the problem was not only very serious and had been concealed, but was also deeply rooted in Colombia’s longstanding problems of inequality and injustice.

The dangers for reporters in Colombia continue to this day, especially for journalists like you who cover the armed conflict. In 2013, for example, your colleague at Semana magazine Ricardo Calderon survived an attempt on his life, apparently motivated by his reporting on military abuses. How does the ongoing threat of violence affect your work – and even personal life – as a journalist?

It has great impact on the stories you cover, because it means that you need bodyguards to access conflict zones that are far from urban areas. Having to travel to such an area escorted by a bodyguard and in armored cars in fact hampers our journalistic work. It does not stop me, because I go there anyway…despite all this. Only yesterday I received a call from the police commander in an area that I am planning to visit. He talked to my bodyguards and warned us not to go to the outlying areas, and he said that we should stay within the town center because there were FARC members [left-wing rebels] all over the place and my life could be at risk if there was any armed confrontation. But I have decided to go ahead, and that we will drive a local vehicle rather than an armored car, which can be too flashy, and the bodyguards will come with me wearing civilian clothes, but carrying guns. Still, it really is a dilemma.

The reason I have been given official bodyguards is that I am one of the journalists who has been most targeted by threats… Some FARC members believe that I am a spy and that I represent oppressive state institutions, while others [on the right], think that I am practically a member of the FARC.

The state has assigned me bodyguards also because in my book about those responsible for [my sister’s] killing I named the perpetrators, including a former army official and the then local police commander. None of them are in jail. This has affected my security since then.

I try to keep my husband and daughters out of this so that they can live a normal life, but it’s complicated, and for years I have had bodyguards… Sadly, I have to admit that I do feel safer when I leave the studio after my television show accompanied by a bodyguard. I long for the day when I will be able to be without a bodyguard, but for this to happen the war needs to come to an end.

As a victim of the conflict, what has it been like to interview FARC commanders for your book?

It’s been hard, because they too claim to be victims in this conflict, rather than perpetrators. That’s what’s so difficult about interviewing FARC commanders; I realized how different their vision of the conflict is from ours, and also from the way that much of the public perceives the FARC and their responsibility. Now, as a result of the peace talks, they are increasingly taking responsibility for their crimes, and as a victim I believe that this will be key to achieving peace in Colombia.

I realized that they still weren’t aware of how badly they were being perceived by the Colombian community. They think it’s all manipulation, run by the media. They don’t believe in public opinion surveys. But nevertheless, to my surprise, I have realized that they are in fact great supporters of the constitution. That, for a “guerrilla” who has fought for sixty years, is a huge surprise.


Jon Lee Anderson is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World.

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