Colombia's most powerful criminal organization the Urabeños have threatened journalists who have reported on their activities, a stark example of the kinds of dangers faced by journalists across the region when covering organized crime.
On September 28, eight reporters in the cities of Cali and Buenaventura received threatening letters from the Urabeños, reported El Espectador. The letters told the journalists to either stop reporting on the Urabeños, which is believed to be Colombia's most formidable criminal group, or be killed.
According to news reports, the threats were a reaction to media coverage on the recent arrest of Fanny Grueso Bonilla, alias "La Chily," a member of the Urabeños who reportedly ran a house of torture in Buenaventura. The letters claimed the journalists reported false information on La Chily's arrest, then complained that the Urabeños have been under constant attack from the media.
In response to the threats, Colombia's Ombudsman Jorge Otalora asked authorities to take action in ensuring the protection of the reporters. The Attorney General's Office is currently investigating the origin of the letters, reported El Pais.
The threatened journalists work as correspondents for Caracol Radio, Q'Hubo Radio, El Tiempo, and Mas Pacifico in the Valle del Cauca department.
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The Urabeños are a decentralized organization, so it's hard to say if this action is a directive from the top or just a decision from one faction. Still, the blatant threat contained in these letters -- which were printed with a letterhead featuring a skull and crossed guns -- evokes memories of the height of Colombia's drug war during the 1980's and 90's, when reporters were routinely threatened and killed for reporting on criminal organizations. While the situation has improved drastically since then, there is still plenty of evidence that reporting on organized crime remains a dangerous job in Colombia.
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The Urabeños' letter comes just days after another criminal group, the Rastrojos, sent a similar letter that threatened 23 human rights activists, calling them "agitators." According to Colombia's Ombudsman's office, 93 journalists have been threatened during the first eight months of 2014, more than double the number of journalists who reported threats during the same period last year.
The worsening security situation for reporters in Colombia reflects a wider issue of organized crime restricting press freedom in Latin America. In its 2014 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Mexico as the worst country for press freedom in mainland Latin America, while Guatemala, Paraguay, Honduras, and Colombia all received poor rankings. The Committee to Protect Journalists also ranked Colombia and Mexico as the 8th and 10th most dangerous countries to be a journalist, respectively.