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Two journalists victims of suspicious and intimidating surveillance in Barrancabermeja

(FLIP/IFEX) - Diro César González and his wife, Tatiana Marcela Sánchez, respectively the director and manager of "La Tarde" weekly newspaper, which is based in the city of Barrancabermeja, an oil port in Santander department, report that they were followed in a suspicious manner on 16 February 2008. This incident occurred amid irregularities in the operation of the couple's protection programme.

At 11:00 p.m. (local time) on 16 February, the journalists were in a store in the municipality of La Mesa de los Santos, Santander department, interviewing people from the area. Their bodyguards noticed the presence of several suspicious-looking men. After verifying with the shop owner that the men were strangers, the guards recommended that the couple leave.

The strangers followed them, and shortly after, two men on a motorcycle joined them in their pursuit of the couple. Once the couple had taken refuge where they were lodging, the bodyguards contacted the police, who followed the suspects and captured two of them; the other three escaped. The two that were captured were taken to the police station, where they were found to be carrying a knife. However, they were freed a few hours after, since in the opinion of the police, there was no reason to keep them in custody.

When discussing the matter with FLIP, Janeth Waldrón Moreno, the commander of the La Mesa de los Santos police station, dismissed the gravity of the incident, saying that the men arrested were simply peasants, with their identification documents in order and no criminal records. Regarding the knife, she said, "Here, all the peasants carry knives."

However, González told FLIP that it is not possible that the men who followed him and Sánchez were simple passers-by, because when he, Sánchez and their bodyguards left the store, the men trailed them for over five blocks, and then were joined by the two others on the motorcycle.

On 15 February - the day prior to this incident - at 4:00 p.m., unidentified men had circled for several hours around the newspaper's headquarters in Barrancabermeja. The journalists and their neighbours alerted the police, who took the suspects to the police station, and checked them out before freeing them.

Since December 2007, the owners of "La Tarde" have reported damages to the vehicle assigned to them for their safety, and irregularities in the presence of their bodyguards, without the Ministry of the Interior and the Administrative Security Department (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS) having resolved the problems.

The two journalists have had security problems since December 2005, when "La Tarde" published a photograph of an individual who was apparently the murderer of a young woman in Barrancabermeja. This individual, reportedly tied to paramilitary groups, was freed by the authorities; a few days after, he visited the journalists at their home and threatened them (see IFEX alert of 23 January 2006). After several months in Bogotá, the couple returned to Barrancabermeja with a government-approved security plan in place.

At the end of November 2007, the journalists informed FLIP of a new threat; they had received a condolence note expressing sympathy for the González's death, with a bullet (see alert of 6 December 2007).

FLIP urges the authorities to investigate this latest incident, and asks the Ministry of the Interior and the DAS to solve the protection scheme problems have been occurring during recent months.

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