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Barrancabermeja journalist apparent target of paramilitary murder attempt, authorities release suspects

(CESO-IFJ/IFEX) - Two attempts by the paramilitary to murder Álvaro Pérez, the director and co-owner of Tele Petróleo television station, in the oil port of Barrancabermeja, were frustrated by the Administrative Security Department (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS). The attempts took place on 21 January and the morning of 22 January 2008.

On the morning of 21 January, after Pérez arrived at the station for work, his DAS bodyguard - who has been assigned to him under the Interior Ministry's special programme to protect journalists - noticed the suspicious presence of two individuals on motorcycles.

The DAS agent asked the neighbours about the pair; the neighbours confirmed that the pair had been making suspicious rounds in the neighbourhood for several days. The agent immediately requested reinforcements and the DAS conducted an operation in the neighbourhood. Although the pair on motorcycles managed to escape, three armed individuals in a pickup truck - all of whom are demobilized members of paramilitary groups and have long criminal records - were captured behind the station. Since there was no arrest warrant, the three were released by the authorities for lack of evidence, although it was confirmed that they are all demobilized paramilitary group members.

On the morning of 22 January, another two individuals appeared in front of the journalist's home and followed him to the Prosecutor's Office (Fiscalía). There, when they passed the journalist on a stairway, one of them told him: "I'm from the paramilitary" and immediately disappeared into the crowd.

Pérez says that the assailants were there to kill him: "Even yesterday, one could deduce that I was the target; but today, when one of them identified himself as a paramilitary, that proved it was in fact the paramilitary, who probably want to pay me back for my consistent condemnation of their crimes, of their illegal businesses in the port, of the way they've manipulated regional politics, and of the way they've made the justice system undermine itself in the murder of my brother."

Pérez has been a prominent critic of the paramilitary groups of the extreme right, which took over the oil port several years ago. He criticised members of the Bloque Central Bolívar paramilitary group when it imposed the "security cooperatives" in the city's neighbourhoods. As he told the IFJ'S Solidarity Center in Colombia (CESO-IFJ): "I cannot accept that criminals be the ones to provide us with security measures, when that is the duty of the legally constituted authorities."

However, it was precisely a recognised politician - who was, until a few days prior to the incident, an official employed by legally elected authorities - who ordered the journalist's brother murdered in early 2007. Pérez pushed for the crime to be solved, and after being subjected to threats and messages discouraging him from his efforts from several of the authorities, he managed to have the criminal - a member of a paramilitary group - captured, and sentenced recently to 23 years in prison.

Selected murders are currently on the increase in Barrancabermeja. So far in 2008, approximately 20 citizens have been killed by hit men. It is common knowledge that the perpetrators are members of paramilitary groups who said they had demobilized, but who, after being defeated politically during the recent regional elections, are taking action to recover their lost power.

"We are worried about the current resurgence of criminal actions by the paramilitary groups in several regions of the country, where they have made our colleagues the target of their intolerance," said Eduardo Márquez, president of the Colombian Federation of Journalists (Federación Colombiana de Periodistas, FECOLPER) and also the executive director the IFJ's Solidarity Center in that country (CESO-IFJ). Márquez praised the DAS agent who protected Pérez for his professionalism and bravery, and called on other authorities in the city to be equally effective in protecting other journalists working in Barrancabermeja and other areas of the Magdalena River valley and in ensuring that they can safely carry out their work.

FECOLPER represents over 1000 journalists in 18 departments of Colombia. IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 120 countries.

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