Impunity Reigns and Death Threats Rise in Colombia

Truth telling in Colombia, a nation that bears the scars of politically motivated violence lasting half a century, has become increasingly difficult in response to new legislation intended to help heal the wounds of this Latin American nation, says one of the nation's renowned documentary film makers.

The Victims and Land Restitution Law -- which passed this June under heavy international pressure -- is estimated to give more than four million Colombians the right to seek reparations for land or family members lost during the armed conflict. While hailed as an important step forward, the legislation has been criticized for its gaps. For instance, critics charge it is easier to access reparations on behalf of victims of guerrilla or paramilitary violence than for victims killed by the government. The law has also increased the volume of threats against journalists in the country who dare to rehash the history of violence and tell the stories of the victims, according to Colombian investigative journalist Hollman Morris who is currently living in the United States.

Unintended Consequences

Colombia's long, complicated history of armed conflict has spawned multiple leftist rebel groupings and right-wing paramilitary forces tied to the government and fueled by U.S. military funding. The conflict has been called "overwhelming in its complexity and devastating in its impact on the civilian population." The total death count is unknown but there are some 30,000 forced disappearances registered in Colombia.

While the Victims and Land Restitution Law was intended to help foster peace in this conflict-torn nation, a significant unintended consequence has emerged: an increase in threats against journalists. By August of this year, the number of threats to journalists had already eclipsed the year before, according to the country's Foundation for the Freedom of Press.

Morris, who produces an independent TV news show "Contravia," spoke to a small group of journalists in Madison, Wisconsin, recently to describe a campaign to delegitimize critical voices like journalists in the country in the wake of the new law. The factions pushing these efforts, fueled chiefly by the desire to maintain the status quo and hold onto land, can be linked to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Morris said.

"Their perverse strategy is to question whether the victims are really victims and whether the massacres really happened," he said. Morris said journalists experienced increased threats to families, blocked financial statements, societal isolation and accusations of links to terrorist groups in the wake of the new legislation.

Morris has long suffered threats and intimidation for reporting on the stories of victims in Colombia. His more recent projects include the critically acclaimed 2010 documentary film "Impunity." The journalist was denied a U.S. visa over a year ago under the "terrorist activities" section of the USA Patriot Act as he sought to work as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. This decision was later reversed after it was heavily scrutinized by the media and human rights organizations.

The Colombia Support Network (CSN), an American non-profit that fights human rights abuses in Colombia, believes that Morris was placed on a visa denial list by the Bush administration to please Uribe, who was a good friend of President Bush and had publicly declared Morris to be a terrorist. Just before leaving office, Bush gave Uribe the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- a move that CSN describes as a "tremendous embarrassment" because of Uribe's track record in human rights abuses.

United State's Complicates Truth Telling Process

In addition to fueling the conflict with billions in military aid and a protracted "war on drugs," the United States has also made it more difficult to hold parties accountable for their role in atrocities. In 2008, fourteen former Colombian paramilitary chiefs were extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges. Under the 2005 "Justice and Peace Law," these men were in the process of admitting their involvement in the murder and torture of countless Colombians when they were whisked away to face lesser drug-related charges in the United States. Many contend that these extraditions were an attempt by the United States and Colombian governments to cover-up embarrassing information detailing the links between politicians and paramilitary forces, information which could also derail a free trade pact between the countries that was pending in Congress.

Morris predicts that Colombia will find itself as less of a focus of the political agenda of the United States in light of the fact that the free trade pact was finally passed by Congress in October 2011. A lot of pressure by the United States on the Latin American nation was to pave the way for this deal, he said.

Bananas Fertilized With Blood

Before he was extradited to the United States, paramilitary commander, Ever Veloza, revealed the role of businessmen, military leaders and politicians as architects of the massacres: "Only now do I see the real objectives of the war," he said. "Our destinations were no accident. An agreement with local businessmen was always in place before we got there... We went because we had the support of local people with financial interests there."

According to Morris, a key company embroiled in the violence is Chiquita Brands International, Inc. In 2007, the Cincinnati-based company agreed to pay a fine of $25 million to the U.S. Justice Department after admitting that it paid out millions to right-wing paramilitaries and leftist rebels.

Morris recounted the words of a Colombian women talking about the human cost of this type of corporate corruption, "There has not been one banana tree that has not been fertilized with dead bodies." And because the nation's main media outlets are owned by corporate media conglomerations, the Colombian people are not getting stories that are critical of these multi-national corporations, Morris said.

"Give Us Back Our Good Names"

In response to the rising threats in Colombia, Morris is asking that current President Juan Manuel Santos make a public statement in defense of journalists and other groups that are currently being threatened, such as victims eligible for reparations and human rights workers.

"For one year I gave this new government the benefit of the doubt. But we have seen in the last few months that it has conceded to the most extreme right sectors of the country," he said. "Give us back our good names. We have the right to our good names."

Here in the United States, CSN is pushing the U.S. government to act on these threats as well. The organization's president, John Laun, told the Center for Media and Democracy that continued U.S. funding of the Colombian military contributes to violence against local populations.

"We have called upon the U.S. government to place protection of journalists and other human rights issues ahead of funding for the military, which has historically collaborated with paramilitary forces which have been responsible for murders of journalists. We have on several occasions called for an end to U.S. support for the military, which has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid," said Laun.