El Nuevo Herald reporter Gerardo Reyes.
El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language sister paper of The Miami Herald, has performed some of the most aggressive investigative reporting about narcotraffickers’ and paramilitaries’ power in Colombia. While its editorial board has been fiercely supportive of Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe, the rest of the paper has worked assiduously to reveal uncomfortable truths about Uribe, his associations, and his past as a rising politician in cartel-dominated 1980s MedellÃn.
Most of this is the work of two veteran El Nuevo Herald reporters, Gerardo Reyes and Gonzalo GuillÃ©n. Both are Colombian. In part because they are associated with a U.S.-based newspaper whose editors give them backing, they have been able to carry out investigations into topics that most Colombian journalists would find very uncomfortable.
The work of both reveals a deep suspicion about Ãlvaro Uribe’s background. “Bombs are exploding all around Uribe and some shrapnel has hit him,” Reyes told the Colombian newsmagazine Cambio in November. “But there is nothing strong enough to place his credibility in question. Since no direct link with the paramilitaries has so far been demonstrated, the United States has not begun to exert pressure.”
GuillÃ©n, meanwhile, has probed more deeply into President Uribe’s past than almost any other reporter, including allegations that, upon his father’s murder by FARC guerrillas in 1983, Uribe tried to reach the zone in a helicopter belonging to Pablo Escobar. These investigations attracted Uribe’s notice, according to an October article in the Miami New Times weekly.
In 2003, he says, he received an unexpected call from the president. “He said he had copies of several e-mails that I had sent to people and that he didn’t like the investigation I was doing,” GuillÃ©n remembers. “People from the [American] embassy that I knew told me these calls were really threatening and dangerous. And a secretary of the government named Moreno told me that I was really in danger.”
Reyes, who works out of Miami, has broken many stories about paramilitary groups’ infiltration of Colombia’s state, implicating many officials close to Uribe. He is one of few reporters to have interviewed Rafael GarcÃa, a jailed former official of the presidential intelligence service, the DAS. GarcÃa has become a star witness in several so-called “para-politics” criminal investigations, including one against his former boss, Jorge Noguera, who allegedly worked closely with top paramilitary leaders while heading Uribe’s DAS for over three years. The New Times recounts an April 2007 confrontation between President Uribe and Reyes.
In April, speaking before journalists from around the world at the Ritz-Carlton in Coconut Grove, Uribe castigated GuillÃ©n’s colleague, El Nuevo Herald investigative reporter Gerardo Reyes, for asking about the paramilitary ties.
The scene was otherworldly weird, Reyes says â€” a president who follows the press too closely. “He began reciting each story I had written,” Reyes recalls. “He was furious, and he was looking right at me. Everyone turned around to look. It was very uncomfortable.”
In May of this year, GuillÃ©n raised the stakes, publishing a book, Pablo Escobar’s Confidants, alleging that the Uribe family had links to the drug trade. This clearly enraged President Uribe, who singled out GuillÃ©n in October when Pablo Escobar’s ex-girlfriend, Virginia Vallejo, published a separate book including allegations that Escobar was quite fond of the young Uribe.
On October 2, Uribe told a BogotÃ¡ radio program, “Behind this woman [Vallejo] is Gonzalo GuillÃ©n, who has dedicated his journalistic career to slander and lies.â€ GuillÃ©n, who said he had not even read Vallejoâ€™s book, was forced to leave Colombia after receiving about two dozen threats and having one of his two DAS bodyguards inexplicably removed.
“I got a call at my home … a guy said, ‘We can kill you,’” GuillÃ©n told the Miami New Times. “Then the threats started coming fast. Five calls at my home, e-mails, 24 death threats in 48 hours. I was afraid for me, for my family. I left the country in a sprint.”
The Miami Herald editorial board’s response was surprisingly tepid, avoiding strong criticism of Uribe’s actions even though his words endangered one of the paper’s reporters.
President Alvaro Uribe’s recent comments about journalist Gonzalo GuillÃ©n strike … a dissonant chord. The president’s words have impact, and they can have devastating consequences. … Mr. Uribe should be careful to avoid remarks that might increase that risk.
On Sunday, though, the El Nuevo Herald reporters themselves showed that they have not been deterred.
In a detailed article, Gerardo Reyes revealed new details about the 1984 murder of Colombian Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, a crime that was ordered by drug lord Pablo Escobar. Lara Bonilla had publicly denounced Escobar, who was then an alternate member of Colombia’s Congress, and helped oversee the security forces’ takedown of an enormous cocaine lab in CaquetÃ¡ called “Tranquilandia.” Mark Bowden asserted in his 2001 book Killing Pablo that Lara Bonilla’s murder is what finally caused a majority of Colombians to view the country’s newly rich drug lords as a threat.
In Sunday’s paper, Reyes reveals some sworn testimony that Lara Bonilla’s sister gave at the time – testimony that mentions Ãlvaro Uribe, then an up-and-coming MedellÃn politician, and his father Alberto Uribe Sierra, who had been killed by FARC guerrillas a year earlier.
The statement, given in July 1984 following Lara Bonilla’s death, suggests the ex-minister believed that [Alberto] Uribe Sierra might be tied to the world of narcotrafficking, because he had discovered a helicopter belonging to him while carrying out a gigantic search of a cocaine processing laboratory in the south of the country, in a place known as Tranquilandia.
“He said that Tranquilandia was very serious and compromised people who were very important in the country’s politics, that the helicopter they had found at Tranquilandia belonged to Ãlvaro Uribe VÃ©lez’s father,” the minister’s sister, Cecilia Lara Bonilla, declared that year. “It was then that he said to me, in that moment: ‘The mafia has entered into all of the country’s institutions, not just politics but the economy too.’” …
“I believe that he [Lara Bonilla] did have many doubts about [Alvaro] Uribe (VÃ©lez). He did not express them clearly,” Cecilia said in a telephone conversation with El Nuevo Herald.
Reyes’ article forced the resignation on Tuesday of Rodrigo Lara Restrepo, the murdered justice minister’s 31-year-old son, who was serving as the Uribe government’s “anti-corruption czar” (widely regarded to be a rather thankless job).
The Colombian government responded to Reyes’ latest article with a letter to El Nuevo Herald presenting proof that Uribe’s father’s estate had sold the helicopter before it was found at Tranquilandia. The letter, noting that “on repeated occasions one of your reporters has tried to stain the honor of the President of Colombia,” scolds: “Colombia cannot be tied down in a cyclical debate with individuals determined to discredit it and to slander its legitimate authorities.”
Reyes’ article, however, had acknowledged the helicopter’s earlier sale, noting that no formal record of the property transfer exists. It goes on to cite two sources claiming that the helicopter’s new owner was a close associate of MedellÃn cartel figures Fabio Ochoa and Gonzalo RodrÃguez Gacha.
Meanwhile, Gonzalo GuillÃ©n is back in Colombia as of earlier this month – and he is already receiving threats again. This story is far from over.