Press Freedom: Drug-induced Terror (12/98)

Since the beginning of the 1980s, Latin America-s booming drug trade sometimes has made deadlines for journalists literal. According to the Miami-based InterAmerican Press Association (IAPA), which monitors the media throughout the western hemisphere, during the last two decades drug traffickers and their paramilitary units have effectively suppressed press freedom in 10 countries: Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Guyana, Bolivia, Chile, Haiti, Mexico, and Paraguay.

Drug-related terrorism of the media has taken many forms. Journalists have been threatened, beaten, kidnapped, and murdered; advertisers have been intimidated; and physical plants and distribution centers have been bombed. Those targeted have included columnists, reporters, publishers, radio commentators, and television anchors.

While I was in Colombia in 1997, researching a book on US foreign policy and international drug trafficking, gunmen murdered Gerardo Bedoya, the 55-year-old Editor-in-Chief of El Pais, Cali’s largest newspaper, and an outspoken critic of the country-s powerful drug cartels. The killing came three days after the torture and murder of Freddie Elles, a news photographer based in the coastal city of Cartegena. "We have seen this happen many times before," said Enrique Santos Calderon, Sub Director of El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest newspaper. "The drug traffickers are trying to impose a real dictatorship of fear upon the press. The situation is once again becoming extremely difficult and dangerous."

The two killings brought to 46 the number of Colombian journalists murdered between 1986 and 1997, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Bedoya was the most prominent victim since 1986, when hitmen gunned down Guillermo Cano, a columnist for the Bogota-based El Espectador, the country’s second largest newspaper. This chilling scenario has also been played out with alarming frequency in other Latin American countries. In November 1997, for example, Jesus Blancornelas, editor of the Tijuana, Mexico, newspaper Zeta, was murdered by ten gunmen who pumped 100 bullets into his car. Blancornelas had published expos’s about drug trafficking and corruption for 18 years. Before his murder, he-d focused attention on the powerful Tijuana-based Mexican drug trafficker Ramon Arellano Felix.

State Complicity

While drug traffickers have routinely been blamed for the situation, Latin American governments have often been part of the problem rather than the solution. Indeed, history reveals that when the Fourth Estate investigates drug trafficking and the concomitant corruption, it receives little protection from the authorities. While I was researching a story on Latin America-s media in the early 1990s, Mexican journalists revealed that few of the murders are ever solved. "No matter the circumstances behind each killing, the government has largely seemed indifferent to bringing the killers to justice," one source complained. "By doing so, it has sent an unspoken message: Journalists are fair game."

In Mexico, the government itself may have been involved in some way. Take the case of the late Manuel Buendia, a muckracking columnist for Excelsior, a leading daily that’s uncovered everything from CIA activities to right-wing paramilitary violence. In May 1984, Buendia hinted that he was about to publish his biggest story yet: an expos’ on the close ties between drug traffickers and high ranking Mexican officials. Soon after leaving his office, he was shot four times in the back at point blank range by a motorcycle gunman. Despite growing suspicions that Buendia was the victim of drug mafia influence on the government, the investigation of his murder went nowhere for five years. In June 1989, Jose Antonio Zorilla Perez, chief of the Direcion Federal de Seguridad (the Mexican equivalent of the FBI) and an investigator in the murder case, was himself arrested as the killer.

Nearly 10 years later, nothing has changed. The CPJ reports that in 1997, drug trafficking emerged as the primary threat to Mexico-s press. Rather than investigate, however, the government has often gone out of its way to blame the messenger and discredit the Fourth Estate. One official report has even alleged that Mexican journalists are being killed because they practice blackmail, engage in drug profiteering, and are prone to bar-room brawls. The government also has been known to exert pressure by controlling the supply of newsprint and government advertising.

In Colombia, the so called "linchpin" of the Latin American drug trade, the situation has been equally disturbing. The administration of President Ernesto Samper, whose 1994 election campaign was linked to $6.2 million in contributions from the Cali Cartel, did absolutely nothing to protect the press during its four-year run. Despite pleas to investigate the murders of Bedoya and others, no suspects were ever arrested. As the CPJ reported, Samper instead "tried to turn the tables on the press, declaring in a speech in August [1997] before the InterAmerican Press Association in Guatemala that Ôthe news machine has been formed by action and violence. What does not march to the tempo is left out."

In December 1996, the Colombian Congress passed a new law that gave the government a powerful new weapon to curb press freedom. A commission, charged with reviewing TV news shows, was authorized to take them off the air if it doesn-t approve of the content. "Politicians have taken revenge for the independence of the news media during the political crisis," charged Javier Dario Restrepo, director of the Colombian Chapter of the CPJ. In February 1997, La Prensa closed its doors after eight years of operation, complaining that it had gone bankrupt because the government pulled all its advertising. Ironically, Colombia is revered among its neighbors for a long tradition of press freedom.

Self-defense Strategies

Government indifference and pressure has taken its toll on the Latin American press. During my visits to Colombia during the past decade, local journalists have described various self-imposed restrictions on how they report the news. For example, many articles, especially controversial and sensitive ones, appear without bylines. "I would say I report about 80 percent of what I know," one journalist said.

Despite terror and intimidation, the Colombian press has earned a solid reputation for investigating drug trafficking. Yet, at times some journalists have felt it more prudent simply to look the other way than become a casualty of the drug war. In August 1989, for instance, after drug traffickers blew up local branches of Colombia’s two largest political parties, torched the homes of three prominent citizens, and left bombs outside two leading radio stations, the front page of El Colombiano was devoted to a drop in the nation-s revenues from coffee exports.

When the country-s press wants to inform the public about drug-related corruption without incurring the cartels’ wrath, it often resorts to a roundabout technique. Reporters pass on information to US colleagues in the hope that it will be published or aired elsewhere. Once that happens, they pick up the story.

Journalists in Colombia and other Latin American countries sometimes also take extraordinary security precautions. A number of Colombian reporters, for example, have worn bullet proof vests, traveled with bodyguards, and varied their routes every day. In Peru and Mexico, some journalists carry guns. But most say it-s pointless to pack a pistol in the face of machine gun. One Latin American journalist revealed that "both my wife and I have hand guns," but added, "don’t mention my name or country. It is to our advantage that drug traffickers don-t know we carry guns."

With little expectation of protection from their governments, journalists are trying what many other workers have done in the same situation – banding together and organizing self-defense groups. Two of most prominent are the Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS) in Peru and Periodistas in Argentina. In Mexico, journalists have met at a workshop sponsored by the CPJ to discuss freedom of the press and self-defense strategies in the face of continuing attacks. Press freedom in Latin America is being strengthened through this growing network of journalistic organizations.

"During the 1980s, the CPJ was often the sole source of information about attacks on the press in Latin America because journalists in the region, shackled by repressive regimes, were not in a position to defend themselves effectively," reports the committee.

"Today, CPJ increasingly relies on local press organizations for information and works with them to lobby their heads of state for press freedom reforms, or to push for justice when journalists are under attack."

Ron Chepesiuk’s book, Hard Target: The US-s War with International Drug Trafficking, 1982-1997, was released by McFarland Publishing in November. His encyclopedia on international drug trafficking and the war on drugs will be published in 1999.