Attacks and bodyguards: The price of being a Colombian journalist

Leiderman Ortiz, founder of La Verdad del Pueblo newspaper, has survived several attempts on his life.

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    Caucasia, Colombia - Leiderman Ortiz's mother, sister, brother and nephew were visiting him in Caucasia in May 2010 when a loud blast went off outside the house where they were asleep.

    "I jumped out of my bed and started shouting, 'Stay down, don't move'," Ortiz said.

    "My poor mother was screaming. She was terrified."

    Unlike many others who have been targeted by the regular grenade attacks in Caucasia, a small city about 670km north of the Colombian capital Bogota, Ortiz isn't a criminal. He writes about them. And the 2010 attack was the third of at least five known attempts or suspected attempts on the 45-year-old's life.

    The first occurred in 2009 in Medellin when he was leaving an office and an armed individual was waiting for him. Ortiz saw the individual and called the police. The next year, the 2010 grenade attack occurred. Two days after that attack, another grenade was thrown into his garden. The following year, at least two suspected hitmen were paid to follow Ortiz, but his security team prevented any attacks.

    Covering a city that has always been at the heart of Colombia's conflict and criminal activities is no easy task - and many people would prefer Ortiz was dead.

    Ortiz founded the La Verdad del Pueblo, translated as The Truth of the Town, independent newspaper two decades ago with the goal of exposing the crime and corruption that plagues his hometown.

    He runs the paper alone, exposing crimes and pictures of high-profile gangsters, stories about polluted rivers and updates on local politics.

    The mission of La Verdad del Pueblo is to expose the crime and corruption that exposes Caucasia [Mathew Di Salvo/Al Jazeera]

    Threats against reporters are abundant in the country, and Ortiz's work in one of the most dangerous regions makes him a regular target. He travels with four armed bodyguards, paid for by the Colombian state, which provides protection to individuals under the threat of political violence, and his family now never visits.

    "Of course it's tiring [having the constant protection]," Ortiz said. "But I have to go on."

    Murder rate soared

    Born and raised in Caucasia, with a population of 100,000, Ortiz grew up around crime and corruption.

    Uncomfortably humid, dusty and loud, Caucasia is the capital of Bajo Cauca, a subregion in the north of the Antioquia department. A key hub of the cocaine trade, Antioquia was home to much of the violence during Colombia's half-century of war. 

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    Rich in gold and coca, a key ingredient of cocaine, rural Bajo Cauca has always been a desirable spot for right-wing paramilitaries, leftist rebel groups and drug traffickers to base themselves.

    There were 139 murders in Caucasia last year, according to local media, accounting for a little less than half of the total number of homicides that took place across Bajo Cauca.

    The violence is so out of control and Colombia's new president, Ivan Duque, travelled to the area in the first two months of his presidency for an emergency meeting with security forces to analyse the situation.

    The landmark 2016 peace deal between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government led to the armed group to putting down their weapons, paving the way for a power struggle between other rebel groups to gain control over Bajo Cauca's illegal economies - mainly gold and coca.

    Many frustrated former members of the FARC, disillusioned with the peace deal, have also rearmed and returned to the areas they once occupied.

    The 'bunker'

    Aptly named the 'bunker', Ortiz's modest home, surrounded by shops, sits in the middle of Caucasia. It is equipped with four surveillance cameras, a bulletproof front door and windows and three-metre walls with barbed wire. It is in the bunker where he puts together La Verdad del Pueblo every month. 

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    The first edition of the paper was released in 1999. Today, about 2,000 copies are circulated around Bajo Cauca each month. It's also accessible online. A typical edition features corruption in the city hall, the naming and shaming local members of the BACRIM (criminal bands) or politicians involved in child abuse cases.

    One of Ortiz's latest scoops aided police in catching a teenager allegedly involved in the rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl.

    Leiderman Ortiz works in a room, named the 'bunker' [Mathew Di Salvo/Al Jazeera] [Daylife]

    According to Ortiz, the citizens of Caucasia trust him more than police - many of whom reportedly have links with the BACRIM - and will regularly provide him with tips, including pictures or addresses of the latest gunman or thief.

    "Yes, I feel proud and satisfied they [the people of Caucasia] can reach out to me," he said. "But it's also sad that there is so little trust in the authorities."

    Whether Ortiz is chasing a story or shopping, he is always accompanied by his security team and travels in a blacked-out bulletproof 4X4, followed by another car.

    Ongoing dangers

    The dangers Ortiz faces are common for journalists throughout Colombia, which ranks eighth on the Committee to Protect Journalists' (CPJ) Global Impunity Index. The index examines the 14 countries where more than 82 percent of the perpetrators in the murders of 324 journalists have gone unpunished.

    Fifty-one journalists have been killed in Colombia since 1992, and 39 of those murders are still unsolved, according to the CPJ.

    Despite the 2016 peace deal, threats against journalists have increased, with a string of recent threats against prominent journalists in 2018 following the election of the new president, Ivan Duque, who campaigned on a promise to overhaul the peace deal.

    Journalists reporting in the regions once occupied by the FARC are particularly vulnerable and the region of Antioquia has seen the most threats against reporters.

    Ortiz travels with four bodyguards everywhere he goes [Mathew Di Salvo/Al Jazeera]

    Colombia's Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) NGO has acknowledged the seriousness of the situation.

    "The situation with aggression against the press is getting worse and it's very worrisome," said Luisa Fernanda Isaza, coordinator of Defense and Attention to Journalists at the FLIP.

    "For some journalists, reporting on the BACRIM is one of the subjects which generates the most self-censorship," she told Al Jazeera.

    She added it is difficult to cover as reporters have been attacked just for mentioning the subject of the BACRIM. 

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    In April 2018, two Ecuadorian journalists from the daily Quito-based El Comercio newspaper and their driver were kidnapped and killed by a FARC dissident group at the Colombia-Ecuador border while reporting on drug-related violence.

    Their tragic story highlights the increasing dangers of reporting in hotly contested regions following the peace deal, areas that often generate the most important stories in the country.

    "Unfortunately his [Ortiz's] situation is far too common in Colombia and throughout the region," Natalie Southwick, the CPJ's programme coordinator for Central and South America and the Caribbean, told Al Jazeera.

    "We've seen journalists reporting in post-accord regions face ongoing threats of violence for continuing to report there. The threat of violence, especially in smaller communities, does tend to lead to self-censorship."

    But reporting in Colombia has been dangerous for decades.

    "With or without the presence of guerrillas, it will always be tough," Ortiz said. 

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    Last year saw the 19th anniversary of the death of the widely-loved activist, comedian and journalist, Jaime Garzon, who was was shot five times while driving to work in Bogota on August 13, 1999.

    A day after the anniversary of his death, a former top official of Colombia's now-disbanded intelligence agency was sentenced to 30 years in prison for instigating Garzon's murder.

    But for Ortiz, and many others in Colombia, this is merely motivation.

    "The truth is, I do it because, first and foremost, I really enjoy the job," he said.

    "It's a big passion of mine [journalism] and every day I am motivated more and more."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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