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Colombia16 May 2006

Journalist threatened by one of his own bodyguards, linked to paramilitary

Reporters Without Borders is alarmed to learn that a bodyguard of independent journalist Pedro Cárdenas apparently tried to get a para-military from the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) included in his escort. Cárdenas has been repeatedly threatened by the AUC for the past three years.

Cárdenas has told the press freedom organisation that one of his bodyguards in an escort provided by the Administrative Security Department (DAS) tried to recruit an AUC member to his guard and threatened to kill Cárdenas when he exposed the attempt.

“We urge the interior minister to seriously consider the intimidation suffered by Pedro Cárdenas and to investigate a possible link between the DAS and the paramilitaries”, it said.

“We also call on the authorities to put an end to the impunity still enjoyed by the two individuals who took the journalist hostage in March 2003. The government should look again at the Justice and Peace law which exempted para-militaries from legal action in exchange for handing in their weapons.”

“This law does nothing to prevent former para-militaries, who have moreover been pardoned, from working on their own account,” said Reporters Without Borders.

It is not the first time that Pedro Cárdenas has been the target of death threats in a 17-year career. While based in Mariquita, central Colombia, he was forced to leave the area because of threats from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Since then he settled in Honda in the western district of Tolima, where he headed a news programme on radio RCN for five years. This broadcast encouraged citizens to phone in with complaints about the running of the local municipality. His vision of journalism, which he considers has a social role and his openness, won him many listeners in the region.

On 10 March 2003, after he exposed corruption within the Honda municipality on air, the mayor summoned Cardenas to buy his silence. The journalist was later visited by a henchman, who said he was a member of AUC and who gave him three orders: to stop speaking about the mayor and his councillors either positively or negatively, to stop talking about the company, Alcanos, which provides gas to the municipality, and to quit his job at RCN.

Pedro Cárdenas refused to resign and on 12 Mars 2003, he was abducted by two members of the AUC then released the same day. Despite the arrest of his kidnappers - inexplicably released before sentencing, which was due on 3 May 2006 - the journalist left Honda for Bogotá, before seeking asylum in Uruguay.

On his return from Uruguay, Pedro Cárdenas told Reporters Without Borders that he believed he had nothing left to lose and that he had little time left to live. “Either I die with dignity, or I live in the most shameful way, here, in Bogotá,” he said. On 18 January 2006, he went back to live in Honda, where he worked as an independent journalist, again exposing local corruption in the bi-monthly magazine La Verdad.

On 30 January 2006, Cárdenas was visited at his home by Rafael Herrerra Martínez, an alleged paramilitary known as “Rafa”, who told him he could no longer stay in Honda and this first warning would also be his last.

The journalist received a phone call on 25 April from a man who said he was a member of a group of demobilised para-militaries. He told him that he would be the target of a bomb attack in one month. He was able to give him details of the equipment to be used in the attack and the names of some of those to take part and the instigators, apparently para-militaries.

On 3 May, two men riding on a motorbike, apparently para-militaries, searched for Cárdenas at all his known haunts. On 8 and 9 May, the found a five thousand peso (about 1.5 euros) note with a bouquet of myrtle, used for funeral wreaths, and a purple ribbon.

After this, the journalist was provided with a bodyguard by the DAS. However one of his bodyguards, Franck Giovanni Ríos, reportedly tried to recruit into his escort, Fernando René Pimentel, a member of AUC from Puerto Boyacá.

Cárdenas, then exposed the incident, providing all the evidence, he told Reporters Without Borders. The bodyguard involved then threatened to kill the journalist if he was dismissed and produced an unsigned statement in the name of Fernando René Pimentel, denying the charges made by Cárdenas.

The interior ministry protection programme changed the original bodyguards. After the publishing of a study carried out by police in Ibagué, western Colombia in March 2006 concluding that the journalist was no longer in danger, Cárdenas expressed his fear of his escort being withdrawn, in a letter sent to the ministry on 12 May.

On 10 May, the journalist received a letter from the ministry, informing him that his complaint had been transferred to the national general prosecutor’s office and of the opening of an investigation. However the DAS in the Bogotá region cast doubt on his statements.

It said that the journalist only lodged a complaint after finding out that one of his bodyguards had made a complaint against him accusing him of misusing money intended to buy petrol for his bodyguards’ vehicle. The journalist denied this and said he had copies of the letters that he had sent to the ministry, asking him to change his bodyguards because of his lack of confidence in them. These letters were dated 22 February 2006 while the complaints from the bodyguards were made on 26 February. He finally left Honda on 14 May.

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