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Colombia's Press Pays in Blood for Anti-Drug Stand

February 05, 1987|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — Two brothers yoked by grief, fear and challenge huddled close together in a room that is their family's pride.

Seated in what is called the Founder's Room at the newspaper El Espectador, Juan Guillermo Cano, 32, and his brother Fernando, 30, felt the weight of history and family tradition.

Fidel Cano, who founded the newspaper 100 years ago, stared somberly from a life-size oil painting. Guillermo Cano, who died defending Colombia's democratic principles from assault by drug traffickers, watched from a portrait so new that it still waited to be hung.

"This is a war. We will fight," Juan Guillermo said softly.

"We will follow father's line. There is no going back," Fernando murmured.

Killed by Gunmen

Guillermo Cano, editor of El Espectador, did not like drug dealers and said so in print. Last Dec. 17, two young men on a motorbike murdered Cano as he drove home from the office.

Cano was a vigorous 61, and now his sons shoulder the burden of his outrage. His death underlines the crisis of authority that a super-rich cocaine Mafia has brought to Colombia, and the courage with which the Colombian press is confronting it.

Threats against newspapers and their editors and reporters are endemic in Colombia today. Worse, they are delivered by millionaire terrorists who have repeatedly demonstrated their will and ability to kill with abandon.

"They threaten to swallow us all," said Enrique Santos, editor of the Bogota newspaper El Tiempo, dean of the Colombian press.

Backed Extradition Treaty

Drug traffickers killed three Colombian editors in 1986. There were no arrests.

Guillermo Cano publicly supported a controversial extradition treaty with the United States.

"Let us wake up and realize the grave threat to our society from a drug Mafia every day more arrogant, stronger, richer, more implacable and more determined to impose its law, the law of crime, above our legitimate laws," Cano wrote four months before his death.

Luis Roberto Camacho, 41, a part-time correspondent for El Espectador, died opposing the takeover of legitimate businesses by traffickers in his hometown Amazon port of Leticia.

Raul Echavarria, the 64-year-old deputy editor of El Occidente in Cali, applauded a call in the U.S. Congress for the death penalty against drug traffickers.

"Those who make poison available to the people are executioners," Echavarria warned not long before the executioners killed him.

"Once I asked my father about threats," Fernando Cano recalled. "He said, 'I know the consequences, but the danger is great. We cannot be silent.' "

For those who defend the rule of law, Colombia can be both a perilous and lonely place today.

List of Martyrs

"Speak publicly in favor of the extradition treaty, and the traffickers will kill you. You can take that to the bank," one foreign narcotics expert said.

A combative press, an intimidated judiciary and paralyzed law enforcement agencies are particularly exposed. Each has its own list of martyrs. Under siege, all demand more protection or expanded resources from a bleeding government, which, in turn, believes that it should get more help from the United States, where the traffickers' fortunes are made.

El Espectador, which has a circulation of about 210,000 and follows El Tiempo as Colombia's largest newspaper, supports the ruling Liberal Party of President Virgilio Barco. The Cano family is an old, respected and prominent part of Colombian high society.

The murder of Guillermo Cano, then, was a crude and direct warning from the traffickers to the government and the press.

"We can kill whom we want," the traffickers were saying. Reinforcing their point, an assassin gravely wounded former Justice Minister Enrique Parejo in Budapest, Hungary, where he had been sent as ambassador for his own safety. "There is no place to hide," was the traffickers' message.

Press Fights Back

If the traffickers hoped to silence the Colombian press with the Cano murder, they failed.

In mid-January, every newspaper in the country published on its front page a declaration of principles that was also broadcast by all radio stations and television channels in Colombia.

"The communications media consider that the country and its government are confronted with an open war declared by the narcotics Mafia alone or in conspiracy with the guerrillas and other groups outside the law," the declaration said.

Citing the "high quota of blood" shed by those in the media, the declaration voiced surprise "that neither the actions of the government nor the reaction of the other diverse elements of the society match up to the danger of the country's falling under complete control of the traffickers."

Calling for a "united front," the nation's newspapers and radio and television stations said they have "decided to mount a permanent guard to demand that the government, the political parties and Colombian society unify solidly behind effective actions to win the war against the narcotics criminals."

'Accepted the Challenge'

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