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Colombia Reporters Flee Into Hiding

June 25, 1999

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ In a chilling example of the perils faced by Colombia journalists, two television reporters have fled into hiding after their nationally broadcast footage of a savage lynching triggered physical harassment and death threats.

In an interview Friday, the two described an anonymous terror campaign that began immediately after their network, RCN Television, broadcast footage of the June 8 killing of a 37-year-old shoe repairman as he tried to calm an angry crowd in a western town.

The journalists said they thought the intimidation stemmed from the emphasis in their reports on the inaction of four police officers who stood a few feet away as the repairman, Jorge Evelio Cardona, was clubbed to the ground, kicked in the head and stabbed.

Their video proved instrumental in helping authorities identify and arrest three of Cardona’s attackers. The four police officers have been suspended pending an internal investigation.

The arrests and suspensions haven’t shielded reporter Juan Carlos Aguiar and cameraman John Jader Jaramillo from trouble.

``Turn over the video, you stoolies. We’re going to you kill you if we end up going to jail,″ Aguiar quoted one of a group of six police officers as saying as he and Jaramillo left Cardona’s wake on June 9.

From then on, the two said, they received daily death threats by telephone. After they provided sworn statements to prosecutors and presented video of the stabbing as evidence for possible prosecution, the threats mounted.

Finally on Wednesday, the two, accompanied by their families, fled their homes in Pereira and neighboring Manizales for an undisclosed location.

Numbed as they are to the violent death so common in this country plagued by guerrillas, drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitary groups, Colombians were shocked and outraged by the Cardona killing, especially because the nation witnessed it on television.

Cardona was trying to persuade a mob protesting the eviction of squatters from public land in the town of Chinchina to stop throwing stones through downtown shop windows. After being beaten and stabbed, he was left on the street to die until a cousin collected him and took him to a hospital.

Aguiar, 27, said he and Jaramillo, 33, were paying the price for refusing to be silenced.

``I don’t have the soul of a martyr, but I’ve always told myself that if I’m going to be killed it will be for telling the truth,″ Aguiar said.

On Monday, an anonymous caller described to Aguiar’s wife the daily routines of her and the couple’s 2 1/2-year-old son, and said that she was going to have to pay her husband’s ``debt″ because he couldn’t be located, said Aguiar.

The following day, Jaramillo was accosted twice.

First he was grabbed at his door by two men who tried to pull him from his house in the provincial capital of Pereira. Then he was jumped on the street and thrown against a wall by a man who stripped him of his identification papers.

``That’s what they do to you in this country before they kill you. It’s what the drug mafias used to do. First they take your papers. Then your body is found later abandoned somewhere with nothing to identify it,″ Jaramillo said.

Colombia is the hemisphere’s most dangerous country for journalists. Eighteen Colombian journalists have been killed since 1995 and two have been forced by death threats to flee the country.

A photographer whose pictures of the Cardona killing were published in newspapers across Colombia, Dario Agusto of the Pereira daily La Patria, said he has also received threatening phone calls.

Agusto changed his telephone number and then his residence, but has no plans to leave.

``I work for a small regional paper so I don’t have the option of moving elsewhere,″ he said.

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