Alejandro Arias, one of the ten journalists who received death threats from neo-paramilitary group “La Oficina del Caribe,” said that the authorities have failed to protect them, even to the point of denying the existence of the group.
“The night we received the threats we met with the commander of the metropolitan police of Santa Marta …. he took the pamphlet and said that the Oficina del Caribe did not exist and to ignore the threats,” said Arias to Colombia Reports on Thursday.
Arias and nine other northern Colombian journalists received death threats in the form of a letter “dumped” at the door of the Radio Caracol office in Magdalena, while two more received independent communications.
The chilling threats in which the journalists were told, “enemies deserve to die so they shut up forever,” were issued after Arias conducted an interview with Jose Alburricin, alias “El Canoso,” a demobilized paramilitary leader of the now-defunct Tayrona Resistance Bloc.
The journalist himself was forced to flee to Bogota as rumors abounded that he was the main focus of the threats, as it was he who conducted the interview with Alburricin, during which new claims were made about links between local authority officials – including the mayor of Santa Marta – and the paramilitary organization.
The neo-paramilitaries are thought to have formed after the 2004-2006 paramilitary demobilization, however according to the journalist the authorities have been denying the existence of the group for the past eight months.
“The local government has denied the existence of this organization – the same as the police,” said Arias, who has been receiving protection in Bogota, but is worried about the safety of his fellow journalists in Santa Marta.
“The other journalists in Santa Marta, the local police promised to draw up a plan to offer them protection. But they haven’t done it.”
According to the journalist, authorities have led the public and the media alike to believe that the journalists are being protected until the threats subside. This however, is not the case, he said.
“They came for one day to guard their places of work and protect their lives, but on the second day there was no one. They gave one day of protection in the way of public promotion, and then suspended the plan.”
According to Arias, the journalists were completely unprotected up until yesterday when the Inspector General of the nation Alejandro Ordoñez announced that he “had formed a review committee that would analyze the situation and provide protection for the other journalists.”
Arias said that he has very little faith in the local authorities in Santa Marta, and according to his colleagues the police commander who had denied the existence of La Oficina del Caribe on the night of the threats then “two days later, paradoxically remembered that he knew of the existence of this Oficina for the past six months.”
The area around Santa Marta, one of Colombia’s most visited tourist destinations, has seen a huge increase in violence over the past few months as the new neo-paramilitary group clashed with notorious crime-gang Los Urabeños to try and gain control of the region. Arias claimed that local authorities have continued to deny even the existence of the groups until this week, not to mention the violent combat between them.
On Thursday, according to the Santa Marta journalist, “an official in the town of Magdalena made public in the local media, the fact that families had been coming to him saying there was huge displacement going on because of the combat between the Oficina del Caribe and the Urabeños in the north zone of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta.”
Only following this revelation would the authorities admit the existence of the armed gangs and the bloody conflict in the area, said Arias.
The reason for the authorities’ denial of the neo-paramilitaries according to the journalist is that there are long-standing ties between them. “I think there are links, yes totally ….. It seems to me that because there are some facts in the interview with Jose Albarracin that revealed some totally new subjects of which the Oficina are now making threats,” said Arias.
These new facts are related to construction contracts in the historical center of Santa Marta and of the public market in the town which, “today this figures as an agreement between paramilitaries and politicians of the region,” said the Santa Marta journalist.
“More information from the interview which is very new, and we can confirm by very credible sources, is that today there continues investigations against the present mayor of Santa Marta,” said Arias. Current mayor Dr. Carlos Eduardo Omar, who is being investigated for human rights violations and a triple homicide, “had repeated meetings in Santa Fe de Rialto with (paramilitary leader) Jorge 40,” during the time Omar was serving as rector of the University of Magdalena.
“There was lots of speculation about meetings between the present mayor of Santa Marta and the organization of the criminal group Jorge 40, but Albarracin confirmed the details of who organized them and what happened during them,” said Arias.
“The paramilitaries at the time said to everyone that they were demobilized, and they were actually still active, and still are active. The mayor was at the meetings while he was rector, and during the meetings they endorsed a contract between the university and the paramilitaries which is still being hidden from authorities today,” said the northern Colombian journalist.
For now, Arias has the protection of the Inspector General of the country, but his hopes for support from the local authorities of his hometown are low, “they systematically denied before the national media the existence of these criminal gangs,” when the journalists went “looking for help. I find it regrettable and it breeds mistrust …. because (the authorities) dismissed the threats.”