A journalist's mission in Colombia: Reporting atrocities is not enough

Maria Cristina Caballero is an investigative editor for the Colombian weekly newspaper, Semana. Currently on leave, she is Mason fellow at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and is writing a book about the civil war in Colombia. In 1999, she was honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists with an International Press Freedom Award. A slightly different version of this article appeared in the May/June 2000 issue of the Columbia (University) Journalism Review and is reprinted by permission.

(CNN) -- I have never known a "normal" time in Colombia, my country. The activities by Marxist revolutionaries who want to bring down the government started some four decades ago, years before I was born.

Then, most Colombians did not worry a lot about the guerrillas, who were far away in the jungles. Now, the movement is stronger than ever -- the guerrillas have killed policemen on the edge of Colombia's major cities and exploded car bombs within some cities.

Fueled by money from drug trafficking "protection" businesses and kidnappings, the guerrillas control more than 40 percent of the country, including a large "demilitarized" zone that the government gave to them as a first step in talking about peace. The largest group, known by the acronym FARC, has between 15,000 and 20,000 troops, while another group, the ELN, has 5,000.

The so-called "paramilitary" forces -- private armies that oppose the guerrillas, mostly by terrorizing villages that allegedly aid them -- have between 5,000 and 7,000 troops. The paramilitaries also are financed by "taxes" on and protection of drug growers.

Narco-terrorism, of course, has been a problem for two decades in Colombia. And when terror has not been enough, there is always cash -- government officials at all levels have been implicated in bribery scandals.

In such a troubled country, the role of the journalist has always been open to debate. Do we simply report the atrocities, or try to find ways to stop them? Just reporting what goes on in my country is perilous enough -- 50 journalists have been killed trying to do their jobs in the past decade, five in 1999.

Yet, as bad as things are for Colombians in general and journalists in particular, there are some signs of change. Representatives of the FARC recently went to Europe to talk with officials and private entrepreneurs about alternative economic models. The FARC's political leader, known as "Tirofijo," or "Sure Shot," met with Colombian business leaders. The leader of the paramilitaries, Carlos Castaño, recently showed his face, for the first time ever, during a television interview. Millions of Colombians have demonstrated in the streets, asking for peace.

What lies behind this new openness? Perhaps a good part of it is the result of stories by journalists who have been trying to report on ways to solve our country's problems. At the leading daily newspaper, El Tiempo, a special reporting group, the Peace Unit, was created a year ago. Media for Peace, a new network of journalists, has influenced reporters to write more balanced accounts.

Of course, trying to actively point to solutions to problems is a dangerous role for journalists -- in March my colleague (and former boss) Francisco Santos, editor in chief of El Tiempo, had to flee Bogotá for Miami. Many others have been forced to flee -- I was one of 13 journalists who left last year after receiving death threats.

A journalist's responsibility

Still, despite all the risks, I strongly believe that journalists have a duty not only to expose injustices but also to try to improve the situation of their countries. "The Social Responsibility of the Journalist" was the title of my thesis when I graduated from Javeriana University in Bogotá in 1984; carrying out that mission has been my goal ever since.

As a journalist, I must try to find out, from all the factions, what their perspectives are, no matter how dangerous that is for me personally. So I have interviewed not only the leader of the paramilitary forces, but also the military leader of the FARC.

My first interview with Castaño, in 1997, is seared in my mind because that meeting led to an unprecedented report, "Peace on the Table," that shows there is hope to find a way out of the daily horror.

By coincidence, on the very same day I went back to my job as editor of investigations at the weekly magazine Cambio 16 -- having just finished a Nieman fellowship at Harvard, where I had organized a big conference on violence in Colombia -- we received the first reports of a terrible massacre in a town called Mapiripán.

Right-wing paramilitaries over the course of five days had terrorized the inhabitants, cutting some of them into pieces. "I will go," I said. Some of my colleagues tried to dissuade me, saying it was too dangerous. Getting from Bogotá, where I lived, to Mapiripán would be a difficult journey, and who knew what I would find there? But I decided to go.

What I found there sickened me -- decapitated bodies left to rot in the cemetery, and blood still visible in the dusty streets. Many of the men had been tortured until they died. The bodies that weren't dumped at the cemetery were thrown in the river.

Mapiripán was a ghost town, with the inhabitants initially afraid to talk with anyone. Some days later, though, I had enough interviews to file my story.

But I was left with a nagging question: Why? Why were Colombians doing this to one another? As I was leaving Mapiripán, a very old man without shoes ran to me and said, "Wait!"

"All of my sons are dead," he told me. "Three of them joined the guerrillas and two joined the paramilitaries .... Perhaps they killed each other." With tears in his eyes, he said, "Please help us .... Guerrillas and paramilitaries are killing all our children .... All our future."

All I could say was, "I will try."

Castaño makes peace offer

That promise to the old man led me to pursue the interview with Castaño, the notorious paramilitary leader. Castaño has been indicted several times on charges he masterminded assassinations of politicians and human rights workers and ordered the massacres of villages by his troops.

Over six months I cultivated contacts. In December 1997 I was finally able to meet with Castaño himself. At the time Colombia's government had prohibited any contact with Castaño and was offering the equivalent of U.S.$1 million as a reward for his capture.

I flew to the northern part of the country and then rode in three different cars, apparently without any fixed route, until the driver received a radio signal authorizing our approach. We followed very precarious roads and passed over improvised "bridges" built with only two tree trunks.

Hours later, while surrounded by mountains and streams and gripped by the overpowering mid-day heat, we observed a short, athletic man dressed in a camouflage uniform leading, with a quick step and an inscrutable glance, the 300-odd armed-to-the-teeth soldiers of his personal guard.

"Welcome. I am Carlos Castaño," he said with an energetic voice, shaking my hand firmly and smiling mysteriously.

Our interview lasted almost five hours, with no breaks. During the interview Castaño denied being a monster and rejected allegations that he had committed massacres. "I have performed selective murders, which is very different," he insisted.

Castaño also told me that he had been fighting since the age of 16, when he swore vengeance against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- the FARC -- who had kidnapped and killed his father. To my surprise, he said that he was tired of the violence and ready to sit at the negotiation table.

I asked Castaño if he did not see himself in the faces of the orphans of his victims, if he did not think that those children were swearing to themselves that they would exact revenge against the paramilitary leader for having killed their parents. Stammering a little, Castaño confessed that this had been precisely the topic of a disagreement with his brother Fidel, the first known leader of the paramilitary forces.

Castaño said that he had just annihilated the brother of one of the commanders of the FARC when, upon entering the house, they found five children aged 3, 4, 5, 15 and 17. Fidel told his brother that they would have to kill the 15- and 17-year-olds because they were in a position to start doing just what Fidel and Carlos had done.

Nevertheless, Carlos Castaño realized that the same thing could be said of the 5-, 4- and 3-year-olds. "I just couldn't do it," Castaño said. "Of course I saw myself in their faces. There is a great internal contradiction."

This was the first time that Castaño talked so openly about himself and his own conflicts. Castaño also said that he had realized that if this vicious cycle of war continues, in 20 years his own children would be killing off the children of the current FARC commanders. He repeated that this was why he wanted to start peace talks as soon as possible. "This war cannot go any longer."

Why are they fighting?

After that interview, which made national and international headlines, I asked Castaño to prepare a document explaining what he wanted to achieve with his movement and proposing the key reforms the country needed for peace. To my surprise, he agreed.

He even told me later that he would like to present that document personally at a meeting of representatives of the forces in conflict, a meeting I was in theory hoping to organize in a neutral country with the support of some academic and international organizations.

When Castaño told me that he was willing to present a structured peace proposal, I immediately contacted the International Red Cross. We also contacted the National Commission of Conciliation, a group of key representatives from different institutions looking for ways to achieve peace. We agreed to at least try to ask all of the forces in conflict for a similar document. All of them said yes.

This 60-page report, distributed in May 1998 with an edition of Cambio 16, was titled "Peace on the Table." For the same edition I wrote a cover story titled: "So, Why Are They Fighting?"

Their proposals, their dreams for the country were astonishingly similar. In their separate wish lists, all of the players -- the assorted leftist groups, the right-wing paramilitaries, the government -- spoke of land reform, of opening the political landscape for new movements, of investing more in education and health, and of Colombians gaining greater benefits from the country's natural resources. Even the right-wing paramilitaries questioned the value of an unfettered free market. The similarities of the agendas raised an obvious question: Why, if they agree on so much, are they putting a bloody and fiery end to each other?

They are still fighting.

The document is still on the table. The Colombian peace process is complex and turning out to be a long one, affected by many interests and factors such as a presidential election, and now by U.S. plans to dramatically increase military aid, which would potentially also generate risks for Colombia.

But what I have learned personally is that journalism in countries like mine can go far beyond reporting and writing. It is about more than getting scoops. It is about trying to help create an environment in which peace is possible.

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