Reporters Without Borders calls for greater vigilance by the authorities after threats and intimidation, apparently by paramilitaries, against journalists in Barrancabermeja, in the northern department of Santander, especially Alvaro Pérez Vides, the head of community TV station Tele Petróleo, and Diro César González, the editor of the regional daily La Tarde.
“Those who prey on the press have not disarmed,” the press freedom organisation said. “Despite the demobilisation of the United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC) from June 2003 to June 2006, the paramilitaries continue to pose a grave threat to civil liberties, especially in the provinces.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “Pérez has a bodyguard and González is being protected by the interior ministry but this unfortunately does not remove the threat. As ‘demobilised’ paramilitaries infiltrate society, judicial actions pending against them need to be speeded up. Investigative work is also needed involving both the authorities and civil society, including the press.”
Pérez was alerted twice by his bodyguard about the presence of paramilitaries around his home and the premises of the Barrancabermeja-based TV station he runs, Tele Petróleo. Two men on a motorcycle and three in pickup took up position outside the entrance to the station on 21 January.
Notified by the bodyguard, members of the Department for Security Administration (DAS), an intelligence agency, arrested the three in the pickup (one of whom was a minor) and quickly identified them as demobilised AUC members. In the absence of an arrest warrant, the DAS released them.
When the bodyguard came to collect Pérez the next day, he noticed individuals watching the house. Neighbours told Pérez the surveillance had been going on for several days. Their attire (ponchos and long boots of the kind used in marshes) was the same as that worn by the men outside Tele Petróleo. Some paramilitaries are recognisable by this kind of dress.
Pérez attributes these threats to the judicial proceedings that were begun after his brother was murdered in 2006. Pérez has often spoken critically on the air this year about the presence of paramilitaries from the Bloque Central Bolívar (one of the AUC’s branches) in some of Barrancabermeja’s neighbourhoods. Paramilitaries have on occasions turned up unannounced at the TV station demanding to take it over. His family has also been threatened.
González has also been targeted by paramilitaries and has been getting protection from the interior ministry for more than a year. His wife has nonetheless receiving threatening calls in recent weeks describing his movements. In November, he received a small bottle in the mail apparently containing blood and a death notice naming him as the deceased. Two months before that, a 9 mm bullet was found outside the door of his office.
Twenty murders have been committed in Barrancabermeja since the start of the month in a new crime wave. Local human rights groups said: “The situation of the media is becoming increasingly tense because the victims [of violent crime] or those close to them do not want these cases reported at the national level.” Alluding to the paramilitaries, the human rights groups added that “the police and judicial authorities are doing nothing to investigate these people.”