Reporters Without Borders today condemned death threats made against five journalists in the northwestern province of Tocache by Sergio Gonzales Apaza, the leader of the “Saúl Guevara Díaz” group of cocaleros (coca growers). The cocaleros have been on strike since 2 November in protest against the eradication of their crops by the government, which accuses them of cooperating with drug traffickers.
Sergio Gonzales has threatened the journalists several times publicly and by telephone. Two of the journalists, José Saldaña Vela of Radio Libertad and Abel Gonzales of Radio Concierto, have been physically attacked by members of the group. Radio Concierto has also been attacked.
“It is deplorable that the cocalero leaders are threatening journalists like this over their coverage of the protests,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We firmly condemn Sergio Gonzales’ threats and incitement to violence, which have already led to actual violence against Saldaña and Gonzales. Cocaleros already threatened the former and attacked the latter in March.”
The press freedom organisation added: “Amid the continuing polarisation between coca growers and authorities in Tocache, we urge activists to respect the work of journalists, and we urge the local authorities to ensure that the safety of journalists is guaranteed.”
González and two Radio Concierto colleagues, Julio Aguirre Domínguez and Peter Donato Torres, and Saldaña and Angélica Reyes of Radio Libertad were directly threatened by Sergio Gonzales when they attended a cocalero meeting. Accusing them of “disinformation” and of giving their movement a bid image, he said all journalists “who speak ill of the cocalero sector will be stoned.”
Reyes told Reporters Without Borders that Sergio Gonzales called her on her mobile phone on 2 October and told her that if she did not stop her programme, the cocaleros “would come and burn down the station and everything else.” The threats were repeated on 26 October, and again on 30 October, during a TV broadcast. The cocalero leader “incited the population to attack the radio station and burn us alive for linking the cocaleros with drug traffickers,” she said.
Saldaña was attacked on 2 November by a group of coca growers, who took his tape recorder. Two days later, Gonzales’s way was blocked by several cocaleros in Puerto Pizana, as he was on his way back to the city of Tocache with his wife. The slapped him and said they would kill him if he did not portray coca growing in a more favourable light. Stones were thrown at Radio Concierto while Aguirre was working inside.
The coca growers have been acting hostilely towards journalists since the start of the year. Several journalists, including Donato, Aguirre, Gonzales and Saldaña, were threatened or attacked in Tocache in March by cocalero leaders and demonstrators, who regard the journalists as “enemies of the cocaleros” (see 12 April release).