Dangerous times in Colombia

Working in volatile countries can be challenging, but with a network of contacts built up over many years, producer Vivien Altman achieved remarkable access to stories for which she has been recognised by many awards. Continuing our 90th Anniversary series, and in the week celebrating 30 years of Foreign Correspondent, Vivien here gives an anatomy of a difficult and potentially dangerous assignment in the Latin American country of Colombia, which was a powder keg when she was there but will soon be ruled by a new and hopefully more democratic government, which takes up office in August 2022.

On the ground with Foreign Correspondent during an unpredictable civil war 

By Vivien Altman / 29 July 2022

In 2008 the dramatic rescue of kidnapped Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages (three US citizens and 11 Colombian police and soldiers) by government security forces, was headline news around the globe. She’d been held in the mosquito-ridden Colombian jungle for nearly six-and-a-half years by a revolutionary guerrilla organisation called FARC which had terrorised the country for more than four decades in Latin America’s longest-running civil war.

It was the type of story that galvanised our interest at Foreign Correspondent

In Colombia, life was cheap – 200,000 dead since the beginning of the conflict1, at least 5 million internally displaced, a traumatised and weary people with daily spills of blood, kidnappings, extra judicial killings, assassinations, bombs exploding in nightclubs, threats and disappearances.

We decided to investigate first-hand if there was any chance of the war ending and the mounting civilian death toll being stopped.

I knew it was going to be a tough story, and was determined to snare an interview and film with the most powerful and influential man in the country – the popular but controversial Alvaro Uribe who had been Colombian President since 2002. 

After decades of ineffectual governments, Uribe was viewed as a man who could get things done. With support from the United States, he led the fight against several guerrilla groups, notably the Marxist-Leninist FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia–Ejército del Pueblo – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People’s Army) which at its height had controlled 40 percent of the countryside and threatened some major Colombian cities. 

Uribe was America’s golden boy under President George W. Bush for joining in the strategy known as ‘Plan Colombia’, where US foreign and military aid and diplomatic initiatives were used to fight Colombian drug cartels, paramilitary squads and left-wing guerrilla groups, particularly FARC. (In fact, Bush saw President Uribe as one of his three staunchest allies in fighting terrorism, along with former Australian and British prime ministers John Howard and Tony Blair. During the time we were working on our story, he awarded all three the US Medal of Freedom2 – and with Uribe little known in Australia, this serendipitously suggested a title for our story, ‘The Third Amigo’.)

However, Uribe was also accused of having close links to far-right paramilitary groups and criminal organisations. In fact, he led a country that was being terrorised by its own army as well as left-wing rebels and right-wing paramilitaries. Hundreds of victims were targeted, with kidnappings and disappearances happening with frightening frequency. Assassinations of intellectuals, trade unionists, academics, journalists, students and human rights defenders were common. These atrocities have since been referred to in declassified documents from US intelligence agencies. 

Yet many Colombians saw Uribe as their hero, the saviour of the motherland for his hard-line policies that had started to rein in the terrible violence.

Getting access to the powerful and influential President Uribe was always going to be difficult, but I had certain advantages. I spoke fluent Spanish, having reported on radio from Central America (Nicaragua and El Salvador) during the Cold War from 1988 to 1994. And I was well connected to local and international Latin American networks. So, I worked through official channels, sent emails, and made phone calls in the middle of the night. I sat down with the local Colombian Embassy officials in Australia and used my personal connections to search for the most effective Colombian fixer/producer I could find to work with us on the ground.

There were also serious security and safety issues for journalists and TV crews that I had to plan for, including being watched by one of the Colombian security agencies. 

INTERVIEWING THE PRESIDENT

In January 2009 I flew from Sydney, with reporter Eric Campbell and cameraman Dave Martin for more than 24 hours to reach Colombia’s capital, Bogota, via Buenos Aires, Argentina. After passing through Customs with our numerous cases of equipment, a tall dark-haired man dressed in pressed white trousers and a navy blazer stepped out. He looked more Miami than Bogota as he extended his hand and introduced himself – Rafael Poveda, Colombian TV host and uber-producer. I knew immediately we were in good hands.

Once installed in our hotel, Rafael introduced us to our ‘daily fixer’, Isabel Ramirez – a delightful 24-year-old woman who didn’t speak a word of English but had an excellent sense of humour, and with my Spanish we got along just fine.  

Producer Vivien Altman, with cameraman Dave Martin and reporter Eric Campbell in downtown Bogota.

As it turned out, President Uribe did agree to talk to us. 

First up, he invited us to fly with him on his private plane to one of his regular weekend rallies in Villavicencio, 210 kilometres south of Bogota. Here, he was welcomed at a raucous, cheering rally of enthusiastic supporters. I’d seen many similar events in Latin America, where local people join because the food’s free –plenty of beans, rice, and a staple in Colombia, corn arepas, stuffed cornmeal cakes with cheese – and so is the entertainment: on this occasion, typical folkloric Colombian music and colourful dancing with kids and adults dressed in traditional costumes.

A couple of days later we were also granted a one-on-one interview with President Uribe at the Presidential Palace. 

Tight security greeted us, and then a couple of minders escorted us up a grand staircase, with plush red carpet and handrails decorated with swirling black and white figures, to the upper floor of the palace. From there we were hurried along wide corridors to a lavishly decorated room with chandeliers and large gold-plated mirrors.  

The Foreign Correspondent team at the Presidential Palace: (L-R) local producer Rafael Poveda, Vivien Altman, Eric Campbell, fixer Isobel Ramirez and Dave Martin.

Once Dave had set up the camera and lights for the interview, President Uribe shook our hands and made it clear he had no time to waste. He gave the impression of being smart, uncompromising, cunning, well-educated and media savvy. He exuded the confidence of the Colombian upper class and there was something almost evangelical about his mission to fight narco-trafficking, smash FARC and their allies and re-establish law and order.

But he was defensive and indignant at any questions he did not like.

When Eric asked Uribe about his relationship with the paramilitaries, he was clearly annoyed by the question.

‘I don’t know which opposition you have spoken to. Because this is a government that has dismantled paramilitaries. Today Colombia no longer has paramilitaries. My government has fought them with all the determination that we have done against the guerrillas.’

Uribe was ruthless against any opposition. He said he would never exchange captured FARC guerrillas for hostages kidnapped by the FARC or negotiate with guerrillas, who he said were terrorists.

MILITARY MIGHT VERSUS NEGOTIATION

Gloria Polanco had a very different view on Uribe’s hard-line approach. 

An elegant woman, Polanco was dressed in a white suit with finely coiffured hair when we first filmed her in downtown Bogota, as she addressed a crowd of supporters for the kidnapped. She insisted ‘that negotiation is the only way. That’s what we all want so that all the hostages get out of the jungle, and the peace process begins.’

She and her two sons had been kidnapped by the FARC in 2001. Polanco was held in the jungle for seven years. Her husband Jaime Lozada, a Senator and ex-Governor of Hulla, was able to organise the release of his sons for a ransom, but he was murdered by the FARC in 2005 before he could achieve his wife’s release.  Polanco told us she had forgiven his killers.

Gloria Polanco with her husband Jaime Lozada and their sons, before the kidnapping. Lozada was later murdered by the FARC.

From Bogota, we headed off to the Government’s US-trained Anti-Kidnapping Training Squad facility where the first person we met was Tim, a military instructor from the US. 

He explained how they trained men to rescue Colombians kidnapped by the right-wing paramilitaries known for their organised killing and extreme cruelty. Their favourite killing method was using a chain saw. 

The left-wing FARC guerrillas preferred to hold their kidnap victims in inhumane conditions and then negotiate their release for millions of dollars when it suited them. If a FARC camp was attacked by the Army, the FARC executed the hostages. I realised then that this was why Gloria Polanco was so against any attempted rescue by the military. 

We were given body armour, ear-muffs and protector glasses as a kidnap scene using real bullets was orchestrated for Dave to film. We were shown target practice using live rounds with revolvers, pistols, and long arm guns. Later a house was raided using real explosives to blow open the door and smoke out a hostage. 

THE ELUSIVE SENATOR

On our way back to Bogota in the early afternoon, Rafael, our local producer called to tell us we needed to hurry up to meet the elusive left-wing politician Piedad Cordoba3. She had been a kidnap victim herself, and had negotiated directly with the FARC for the release of Gloria Polanco and her two sons.

I had always wanted to meet Piedad Cordoba, a high-profile lawyer and left-wing Colombian Senator and the only female Afro politician in the country.

She was always glamorous and often clad in glorious purple and green, with large gold jewellery. She was a striking, powerful, self-obsessed diva who had ambitions to become President one day. Her record had been formidable. She’d negotiated the release of many of the hostages held by the FARC guerrillas and was adored by the families whose loved ones had been held in jungle gaols for years. But she was hated by President Uribe and the many Colombians who supported him.

Senator Piedad Cordoba.

Cordoba was seen as uncomfortably close to the (then) Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, a figure despised by most Colombians because of his socialist, anti-US government position. Chavez had used his connections to the FARC to persuade the guerrillas to release Colombian hostages and this angered Uribe. 

In Colombia there was very low tolerance for dissent. Uribe criminalised anyone who disagreed with him, including Cordoba. He had accused her of being a guerrilla lover and sympathiser. This was a very dangerous descriptor to have in a country where a point of a finger could get you taken out for as little as (US) 25 dollars!

I was told that Uribe liked to refer to Cordoba as ‘mi negrita’, loosely translated as ‘my little black one’, usually an inoffensive term of affection in Spanish. I suspected that Uribe felt upstaged by her. It stuck in his craw that a black Colombian woman from his hometown of Medellin (the second-largest city in Colombia) could get things done by negotiation rather than military might.

But after driving back to Bogota at full speed, we couldn’t find Cordoba anywhere. Eventually after 45 minutes, a couple of four-wheel drive vehicles with polarised windows pulled up in front of us and yelled at us to get in. Dave jumped into the first car with Piedad Cordoba, and Eric and I followed in the second car with some of her security bodyguards, guns balanced precariously on their legs. 

We headed off to City Hall for a reception with the much-feted former Governor of the Villavicencio region, Alan Jara, who’d recently been released after being held by the FARC for seven years. He was critical of Uribe for doing nothing to release FARC hostages and accused him of wanting to wage war rather than make peace. 

But once again Cordoba slipped away, leaving the reception and managing to lose us. We drove all over Bogota, to her home, to her office, and eventually tracked her down walking towards her home apartment block. 

I caught up with her and knew I had barely any time to persuade her to talk to us. She had an impressive array of excuses: she didn’t have time, she didn’t know anything about us, she’s leaving the country tomorrow. But I reminded her of our months of calls, faxes and emails. 

As she entered her building, she motioned for us to come inside and said she would do an interview in five minutes.

But then academics, Jesuit priests, human rights activists, writers, ex-politicians, and former hostages started to arrive and drifted into a meeting with her. Five minutes stretched into five hours. Finally, she called us in at 9.30 pm. 

Cordoba was powerful and eloquent, pithy, and smart with a grossly exaggerated sense of her own self-importance. She insisted that the government should treat FARC captives not as terrorists but as prisoners of war:

 ‘This is a process where there are two actors, the government and the FARC, where there are prisoners of war as much as from the FARC as from the government. To hand in arms means a process of negotiation. That means to understand the guerrillas as a valid and legitimate speaker in the country.’

We breathed a sigh of relief as the long chase for Cordoba could have easily gone up in smoke. There were never any guarantees when someone promised to let you interview and film with them, especially in countries in conflict like Colombia where life was always unpredictable and uncertain.  

The team taking a break in Bogota.

THE SCANDAL OF ‘FALSE POSITIVES’

The one part of our story that most sticks in my mind was our visit to Soacha, a poor marginal community on the outskirts of Bogota where residents lived on a knife-edge and gangs controlled who came in and out. 

It took a week of negotiating for us to be able to enter this shanty town, with the help of a left-wing writer, Ivan Cepeda4, who we’d interviewed. In 1994 Cepeda’s father Manuel Cepeda, a leading left Senator, was murdered on the streets of Bogota by a paramilitary group. 

Ivan Cepeda, who had a master’s degree in Human Rights from the University of Lyon in France, worked with a group advising mothers whose sons had been murdered by members of the security forces or the army but were claimed to be enemy combatants killed in action. This became known as the scandal of ‘false positives’ whereby abducted and murdered civilians were declared as rebel combatants to boost statistics and get additional US aid.5

Human Rights organisations estimate that some 5,000 young men met their deaths this way. 

Cepeda was not with us when we drove the thirty minutes from our hotel to Soacha, where we were greeted by a couple of young guys in baseball caps at a makeshift entrance. They checked our passports and searched our car. Almost on cue, a white four-wheel drive vehicle with polarised windows pulled up with another two men who checked us out and nodded. 

Their instructions were simple and clear, ‘Follow us and don’t film until we get there.’  I carefully translated this to Eric and Dave, ‘No cheeky shots out the front window Dave, these guys are serious, one move and they’ll kick us out, or worse.’ 

As we drove in along the dusty winding road, we could see hills all around us dotted by small fibro shacks.

We drove up to one of these shacks and a small skinny woman in a cheap, blue cotton dress came out to greet us. She was probably in her early fifties, but life had worn her down and she looked much older. She introduced herself as Flor Hilda.  Her face was lined, her eyes were sunken and sad. Her hair was black, long and flowing.  She looked at us expectantly as if our arrival might have brought some news of her son. I spoke to her directly explaining who we were, why we were here and what we wanted to talk to her about, and could we film with her.  She nodded her head: ‘Yes, I want to do it.’ 

Her 20-year-old son, Elkin, had been kidnapped and disappeared. She had never seen or heard from him again after that terrible day four years previously when he had been pulled into a four-wheel drive by a couple of masked men. She still had no idea why he was taken, where he was and if she would ever see him again. She knew there was no point calling the police as they were probably in on it, and asking too many questions in the community could also get her into trouble.

Flor Hilda Hernadez son Elkin who was kidnapped and murdered by the Colombian Army.

She invited us to go with her to the cemetery. Although she had none of his remains to bury, she had made a place for him. At the entrance gate to the cemetery, we bought her a bunch of beautiful red carnations which I handed to her, and we walked across to a lot with a simple white cross planted on top of it.   

Here, Flor Hilda Hernandez grew more and more visibly upset and started to sob. She threw herself on the ground, her anguished cries pierced the air and our hearts, but there was nothing we could do. I felt uncomfortable and turned to Eric, ‘Should we be here, filming her private grief?’ It was obvious we were all affected by her suffering. 

We were often faced with similar situations working on Foreign Correspondent. It was an incredible privilege for us to be let into her life, and to witness first-hand the terror and pain that the policy of ‘false positives’ had inflicted on her.

We drove back to our hotel, ate dinner and I went upstairs to log the tapes. We agreed that today had been a ‘productive’ filming day. In a few days, we would be leaving the country. Flor Hilda had nowhere to go and no one to ask about her son. She was completely alone, powerless and drowning in her grief, and her case was one of thousands.  

Little did any of us know that it would be another six years and under a new President that a peace deal would finally be signed between the FARC and the Colombian Government.6 I still wonder if Flor Hilda ever found out what really happened to her son and if anyone was ever brought to justice for his death. 

AFTERWORD

Colombia has just witnessed a seismic shift with the victory in June 2022 of the country’s first left-wing President, Gustavo Petro, who will be inaugurated in early August for a four-year term. 

President-elect Petro is an economist and former guerrilla fighter, mayor of Bogota, parliamentarian and senator. Alongside him is Colombia’s first Afro-Colombian Vice-President, Francia Marquez, a lawyer who has been a community and environmental activist since the age of 13, and won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2018 for mobilising women against illegal mining.  

The new leaders campaigned on a platform to expand social programs, tax the rich, and move the economy away from fossil fuels. They appealed to the more marginalised sectors of society – especially to younger people and to women (including those attracted by their support for abortion, and single mothers), and to others who since 2019 joined large street demonstrations and strikes, and who were never part of the right-wing political and social elites who traditionally ran the country.    

As well as social and economic reform, the new government’s supporters want an end to political violence, inequality, rising inflation, poverty and corruption. 

Petro and Marquez face a mammoth task. They continue to receive death threats, and face a divided country, a well-resourced opposition and political ideologues.  

Petro has said he will work to stop the erosion of the Colombian Amazon, reset Colombia’s relationship with the US and resume diplomatic relations with Venezuela.  

Speaking on National Public Radio (NPR) on 19 June, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that ‘the Biden administration looks forward to working with Petro’.

Colombia is following a trend across Latin America in recent years with the election of left-wing Presidents in Peru and Chile, and centre-left in Mexico. Brazil could possibly follow at general elections later in 2022, with former left-wing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva running against current President Jair Bolsonaro.

Foreign Correspondent’s episode about Colombia, ‘THE THIRD AMIGO’, aired in May 2009 and can be viewed here. A transcript is also available.


Vivien Altman worked as a freelance radio reporter and producer for ABC radio and Triple J for six years. She worked on Foreign Correspondent as a journalist and producer for 15 years, winning two Walkleys, a Logie and various Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in the New York Film Festival for stories from the Middle East, Australia and Latin America. She has also worked as a series producer on Radio National’s Background Briefing.


Footnotes:

1 Four years after the Foreign Correspondent team’s story, Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory (NCHM) released a 434-page report, Basta Ya (‘Enough Already: Memories of War and Dignity’), which estimated that at least 220,000 lives were lost in the Colombian conflict between 1958 and 2012. In 2018, the figure was updated to more than 262,000, some 84 per cent of whom were civilians. 

2 In January 2009, during the last days of his presidency, President George W. Bush awarded the US Medal of Freedom to the Colombian President Alvaro Uribe for his contribution to combatting terrorism and drug cartels in his country, along with medals to former Australian Prime Minister John Howard and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair for their support of his so-called ‘War on Terror’ following the 9/11 attacks.  

3 Piedad Cordoba was a member of parliament in the Chamber of Representatives of Colombia from 1992 until moving to the Senate in 1994, where she served till 2010 when investigated for a second time by the Colombian Inspector General and stripped of her seat (in 2016 the Supreme Court overruled the decisions in both investigations due to lack of evidence). She was controversially nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for her work in promoting peace and human rights in conflict zones, which she did not win. Cordoba then ran unsuccessfully for President in the 2018 election but was returned to the Senate in the 2022 elections as part of newly-elected President Petro’s coalition. However, her future is under a cloud after being detained at an airport in Honduras for failing to declare US$62,700, which she was unable to explain, and also because of lingering questions relating to her ties with Alex Saab, a Colombian who has been accused of questionable business dealings with the Venezuelan government. As with former Venezuelan President Chavez, Cordoba has also been criticised for her relationship with the current Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. President Petro has asked her to resign as Senator while she finalises her legal position, but to date she has not stood down.

4 Ivan Cepeda became a member of Colombia’s Chamber of Representatives in 2010, moving to the Senate in 2014 where he still serves. 

5 President Uribe sacked dozens of high-ranking officers over the Soacha ‘false positives’ scandal, including the Army chief, in 2008.

6 President Uribe was replaced by Juan Manuel Santos in the 2010 election. In 2016 President Santos signed a peace deal with FARC, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2017, FARC ceased to be an armed group and handed over its weapons to the United Nations. In 2020 Uribe was placed under house arrest for bribery and witness tampering and asked to give evidence concerning three massacres in the 1990s. He has since been released.

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