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Newsman at Risk in Colombia Gets Help

The journalist and his family have been threatened because of his coverage of drugs.

October 02, 2006|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

KENSINGTON, Calif. — Colombian journalist Daniel Coronell had been in California for nearly a full academic year before he shared the depth of his dilemma with colleagues at his Stanford University fellowship program: Death threats targeting him, his wife and small daughter had prompted the family to flee his homeland, he confided at an emotional dinner party.

He feared it was not yet safe to return.

The man they knew as gentle and self-effacing had built a formidable reputation as one of Colombia's most courageous journalists. He is news director of the television program "Noticias Uno," which the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists calls "one of Colombia's few independent news sources."

For two decades, his reporting has illuminated links among drug traffickers, right-wing paramilitary squads and the country's political elite.

But it was clear that the 41-year-old husband and father needed help.

The reaction of the other Stanford fellows was swift: They scrambled to find Coronell a new academic haven.

"We all experienced vicariously the intensity of commitment to telling the truth that leads you to put not only yourself but your family at risk," said Wired magazine writer Gary Wolf, who had also spent a year at Stanford on a mid-career journalism fellowship and who helped secure Coronell a visiting scholar's position at UC Berkeley's Center for Latin American Studies.

"It made us ask ourselves: Where does that commitment in myself come from and how strong is it?" Wolf said. "At the least, it obligates you to step up when one of your colleagues is threatened."

A grandson of Jewish immigrants, Coronell rose quickly in the ranks of Colombia's television journalists. His first "big complication," as he puts it, came in 1986, when he was the young chief editor of a national news show.

His station had aired a training video of a paramilitary death squad with links to drug traffickers, on which the well-armed participants could be heard screaming, "I carry hate against the communist guerrillas! I want blood!" When NBC television aired part of the clip in this country, the scandal widened: One of the trainers was identified as a retired Israeli army colonel.

Coronell's decision to pursue the story cost him personally: Relatives who feared an anti-Semitic backlash asked him to refrain. The reporting on the operation, meanwhile, uncovered a sophistication that belied government characterizations of the squads. Coronell received his first death threats.

As the country slipped deeper into the grip of Medellin cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar, Coronell's reporting kept pace; it included footage of the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan, linked in U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency recordings to Escobar.

Subsequent coverage focused on now-President and former Sen. Alvaro Uribe Velez, whom U.S. intelligence officials in 1991 described as "dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin cartel at high government levels."

Though documents describing that link were not declassified until 2004, Coronell reported in 2002 that a helicopter seized in a major drug-trafficking operation was owned by Uribe's father. New death threats followed.

Then, in April 2005, as Coronell investigated the election of a candidate who reportedly had the backing of a drug trafficker's brother, he received a telephone threat that pierced his core.

"They told me, 'Your daughter yesterday was wearing a red jacket and a white hair bauble,' " Coronell said, breaking down in tears as he recalled the call to his newsroom.

The details were specific: the description of the vehicle that had dropped off then 6-year-old Raquel at school, her schedule, and that of Coronell's wife, "Noticias Uno" anchor Maria Cristina Uribe. "Hug them very well because soon we're going to get them," the caller said. "We're going to have a party. Then we'll kill them and return them to you in pieces."

The next day, two funeral wreaths arrived at the office. One was adorned with his name; the other had the names of his wife and daughter.

E-mail threats followed. With the help of a computer engineer, Coronell said, he tracked them to the home of Carlos Nader Simmonds, a former senator who had served prison time in the U.S. for drug trafficking and is a close friend of President Uribe.

An investigation by Colombia's attorney general has led to charges against a former diplomat, who prosecutors say admitted on videotape to making the phone calls and sending the wreaths. He faces trial Friday, said the attorney general's director of international affairs, Maria Fernanda Cabal.

Coronell said he believes the suspect is not the mastermind. But Cabal called the investigation a success because thousands of threat cases in Colombia go unsolved.

A spokesman for the attorney general's office said the investigation separately concluded that Nader Simmonds libeled Coronell but did not threaten him. Coronell rejected an offer to settle the matter with Nader Simmonds, the spokesman said.

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