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  • Colombia's Bloody War of Words
  • Maria Jimena Duzan (bio)

On 26 February 1990, six armed men entered a restaurant in Cimitarra, Colombia, and wiped out the leaders of a nascent peasant union movement. Also killed in the shooting that day was a journalist named Silvia Duzan who was working on a documentary about the activities of the union leaders.

Silvia had hoped to describe an effort that to many Colombians seemed an impossible task. The union workers were attempting to find a peace formula for the Middle Magdalena Valley, a region of our country that has become a virtual no-man's land. It was first conquered by leftist guerrillas and, more recently, by an alliance of wealthy landowners, drug bosses, and the paramilitary groups that they control.

All that I have left of my sister Silvia is the last remembered echo of her warm laughter, which seems to follow me, reverberating. She and [End Page 99] the peasant leaders were killed by the forces with whom they were trying to negotiate. They were but a few of the thousands of victims who have fallen in a twisted struggle that pits the Colombian establishment against the drug bosses and their allies.

Today Colombians confront much more than a group of drug dealers intent on pursuing criminal profits. The cocaine business has exacerbated social and political conflicts to the point where ministers of state and peasants alike are threatened with death, and politicians, judges, priests, journalists, farmers, and even shoppers in downtown Bogotá must face the prospect of a sudden bomb blasting apart their lives.

It was against this backdrop of explosions, assassinations, and massacres that Colombians went to the polls on 27 May 1990 and elected a president who vowed to keep fighting the drug dealers. President César Gaviria was one of the survivors of the most bloody and painful political campaign ever in my country, a campaign in which the most prominent candidates were killed. In the end, as a colleague put it, "Colombians voted for the dead." A lull has followed Gaviria's ascension to the presidency, but proclamations of victory for the democratic process could be quickly belied by a single attack.

There have been many massacres and many fallen innocents, yet not so many that we Colombians have become inured to the horrors. We have, however, become far too skilled in the business of dying. We make bitter jokes about it as a survival mechanism. "The only thing that has become democratic lately in Colombia has been the violence itself," a friend said to me not long after his mother had become one of the 120 people killed in the December 1989 terrorist bombing of an Avianca Airlines jet in Bogotá.

Ours is a bloody reality. While the world looks on, stupefied, through its distant television sets, a massive criminal network surrounds us. This network, which only begins in the Andean countries, operates in the multibillion-dollar daily bank transactions of Europe and the United States, where cocaine profits are laundered and legitimized; on the streets of major U.S. and, increasingly, European cities where a street dealer may sell a kilogram a week and snort some of the profits himself; in the warehouses of international chemical firms, which produce more ether and acetone than legitimate business can consume, then ship it off through front companies by plane, boat, truck, and canoe to the clandestine laboratories that need those materials to produce cocaine. This is the atmosphere in which Colombian journalists must work—one of coercion, terror, and, all too often, death.

Targeting the Press

It was 7 P.M. on 16 December 1986 in northern Bogotá. As had been his custom for 15 years, Guillermo Cano lsaza, publisher and editor-in- chief of El Espectador, took a final look around the newsroom and checked the latest reports before heading home. Nothing new had happened, as far as he could tell. President Virgilio Barco Vargas had just decided to confront the Supreme Court with the highly sensitive question of Colombia's extradition treaty with the United States. As always, the nation was divided. Cano supported the treaty, under which major drug dealers could be...