Colombian Journalists Track Guerrilla War on Contravía

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[UPDATE: On Link TV’s “Latin Pulse,” CIR’s Mark Schapiro talks to Morris via Skype about new developments with his television show, Contravia—including a recent scandal involving the Colombian secret service, which had been conducting systematic surveillance of Morris’ mail, movements, and computer communications for years, according to documents released in the Colombian Congress in March. Watch it here.]

Our first segment features Colombian journalists Hollman Morris and Juan Pablo Morris, who created a series on Colombian television that is unearthing the largely hidden history of the country’s long-running guerilla wars. The series, called Contravía, airs on Colombia’s third public channel and online at

While the violent tactics of the left-wing guerilla movement, the FARC, have generated considerable press attention—most recently after the release of kidnapped former congresswoman Ingrid Betancourt and other hostages in July 2008—a major component of that violence, by right-wing paramilitary groups, has gone largely unreported. Founded some twenty years ago by landowners to combat the guerillas, the paramilitary groups have transformed into violent criminal enterprises financed through cocaine exports and kidnappings—much like the FARC itself. Over more than two decades, the paramilitary squads have been responsible for the deaths and disappearance of as many as 20,000 people, according to the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, a human rights group established to protest paramilitary abuses.

The Morris brothers take their cameras deep into the Colombian countryside to probe into the disappearance of thousands of individuals kidnapped over the past decade, and track efforts to unearth their graves far from the cosmopolitan capital city of Bogotá or the eyes of the international or global press. “Our aim,” Juan Pablo told us, “is to reconstruct the memory of those atrocities…. Many of the people who followed the paramilitaries in the 1980s and 90s are running the country today.”

Contravia has uncovered links between paramilitary leaders and high officials in Colombian politics and finance. Thirty senators and representatives in the Colombian Congress have been imprisoned because of their ties to the paramilitary death squads; another sixty have been investigated. That’s a third of Colombia’s 268-member Congress, giving rise to a new term—‘para-politica’—to describe the ongoing crisis as one top politician after another is accused of complicity with the paramilitary squads. Most of those accused represent political parties that are part of the governing coalition led by President Alvaro Uribe.

Hollman Morris was given the Human Rights Defender Award by Human Rights Watch in 2007. He has been forced to leave Colombia several times for extended periods after the airing of Contravía revelations. The show does not receive commercial backing; subsidies come from the Open Society Institute, the European Union, and other international sources.

In February 2009, Colombia’s Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, accused Hollman Morris on national radio of being “close to the guerillas,” after he conducted several interviews with FARC hostages who were later released. Uribe himself denounced Morris to the national press, and implied he was a member of the “intellectual bloc” of the FARC.

Such accusations in Colombia can have fatal consequences. Death threats followed. Shortly thereafter, Morris defended himself from the government’s charges on one of Colombia’s most popular morning talk shows; Contravía filmed Morris’s part of the conversation with host Julio Sanchez and produced an English translation of the interview.

The government’s accusations prompted a protest by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch, which claimed in a letter to President Uribe that there was no evidence for such a statement, which could lead to “serious threats” of violence, and “undermines … freedom of expression” in Colombia.

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) of the Organization of American States issued a statement criticizing the Colombian government’s effort to vilify the journalists and link them to the guerillas. On March 23, attorneys for the Committee for Free Expression in Colombia and other free press advocates publicly challenged the Colombian government’s version of events, and described the potentially corrosive effects the personal attacks were having on the willingness of Colombian journalists to pursue controversial human rights stories.

Two days after that presentation, Juan Pablo Morris commented by phone from Bogotá that Contravía will continue to defy efforts by Uribe to “link journalists who question the government to ‘terrorists’.”

CIR Editorial Director Mark Schapiro interviewed Hollman and Juan Pablo Morris via Webcam at their studio in Bogotá.

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