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Criminal gangs intimidate, silence Córdoba journalists

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People remain stranded at the North Bus Terminal in Medellin, Antioquia department, on January 5, 2012 during an armed strike imposed by the criminal gang Los Urabeños. (Raul Arboleda/AFP)

At most newspapers, reporting for the society page isn't especially dangerous. But in the northern Colombian department of Córdoba, which is under siege from drug-trafficking gangs, even covering birthday parties can be risky.

Take the case of photojournalist Edwin Solano, who worked for El Propio, a tabloid that circulates among the poor and working class in Montería, the capital of Córdoba. Solano chronicled ribbon-cutting ceremonies, outdoor barbeques, and even street-corner gatherings in the city slums.

But on occasion, gang members showed up in Solano's photos, which may have allowed them to be identified and targeted by rival gangs, according to Erly Rojas, editor of El Propio. Solano received a death threat in February 2010. He immediately quit the paper and fled Montería, Rojas said.

"When these people appear in the newspaper, other gang members see them and they are declared targets" by these rival gangs, Alex Pajaro, another El Propio reporter who has received death threats for photographing gang members, told CPJ.

The gangs, known in Spanish as bandas criminales or "bacrim," are the offspring of right-wing paramilitary death squads that fought the country's Marxist guerrillas and trafficked cocaine. The paramilitaries disarmed in the mid-2000s. But many demobilized fighters went on to form bacrims, which have been especially difficult for journalists to cover.

The bacrims now have about 6,000 members nationwide, according to the Colombian National Police, who say they now pose a bigger security threat than the country's guerrilla groups. In a show of strength, one of the largest bacrims, known as Los Urabeños, recently declared a two-day general strike that shut down commerce and transportation across much of northern Colombia.

Unlike the paramilitaries, the bacrims lack a political agenda and are extremely hostile toward reporters, said Ginna Morelo, managing editor of the Montería daily El Meridiano, which also publishes El Propio. And because there is no visible commander or spokesman for these groups, she said securing interviews or permission to visit zones under bacrim control is nearly impossible.

Morelo said that the bacrims have declared many rural regions of Córdoba off limits to journalists and have warned taxi drivers not to take reporters into these areas. Morelo sometimes travels without identifying herself as a reporter but said many areas of the department simply go uncovered.

"There are a lot of no-go zones," she said. "That makes our job more difficult and creates a lot of self-censorship."

Morelo added: "Most journalists are not going very far in their stories. They don't dare do much investigative reporting."

Indeed, those who have done so sometimes face threats and attacks. Clodomiro Castilla, the editor and publisher of the Montería newsmagazine El Pulso del Tiempo -- who often wrote about links between politicians, landowners and illegal armed groups -- was shot dead by an unidentified gunman in March 2010.

Another veteran reporter, Edgar Astudillo of La Voz de Montería radio station, received death threats from bacrims in 2010 and fled Montería for Bogota. He's now back in Montería but works in an environment of fear and intimidation.

For example, someone who claimed to belong to Los Urabeños recently telephoned Astudillo at the radio station and ordered him to read the group's communiqué announcing this month's general strike. Astudillo at first refused but after several more threatening phone calls, he went on the air reading parts of the communiqué.

"In other circumstances, I would not have read the document," Astudillo said. "But I felt pressured."

There are also in-house pressures to deal with. One Montería reporter, who requested anonymity, said it's often impossible to report on links between the bacrim and local politicians because they often have close ties to Montería advertisers and to the owners of local media outlets.

"The gag order," this reporter said, "comes from within."

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