Q: What is the biggest challenge to Latin American women journalists today?
MCC: There are very few women in top management positions in the Latin America media. There is still machismo in many of our countries. In general, the top managers are men. There are some exceptions, like Ana Mercedes Gomez, director and owner of El Colombiano, a daily newspaper in Medellin, Colombia. But, in general, the media are not owned or directed by women. This is certainly reflected in some of the coverage.
For example, I wrote in an article for the Nieman Reports (Winter 2001 issue; Machismo is Only One Obstacle Women Face: A Colombian War Reporter Becomes Involved in Women's Issues) and included the fact that 400 journalists registered to cover the National beauty contest in Colombia. Florence Thomas, a professor at National University in Bogota said it well, when she said that such an event is humiliating, like a horse fair. Many of the nightly newscasts ended with pictures of young women in bikinis.
In contrast, some print media, such as El Tiempo, a Bogota daily newspaper, have recently been promoting women journalists. The current economic and international editors are women. Other women, like Jineth Bedoya Lima (a 2001 winner of IWMF's Courage in Journalism Award) formerly of El Espectador and now with El Tiempo in Bogota, cover hard issues in difficult circumstances.
Q: Were you treated differently as a woman investigative reporter?
MCC: When I began working, I didn't receive important reporting assignments. At that time, they were reserved for men. So I looked for key issues to write about and, progressively, I became a very happy workaholic as I pursued my own investigations. When I finished I presented my material to some top editors.
I remember that at first they were astonished, but they grew used to what I would produce and published my reports. I probed deep into the Colombian drug cartels, into institutional corruption and into the infiltration of drug money at the highest levels of government. At least a dozen politicians went to jail. I also wrote about Colombia's violence and human rights abuses.
Relatives and colleagues asked me many times if I was crazy. "Why do you write about such dangerous issues?" they said. They said it wasn't a normal woman's life to travel to war zones. They said: "What kind of life is that, constantly receiving death threats? One of these days they are going to kill you!"
I heard them, but I wouldn't give up. Criticism diminished when I began to win prestigious journalistic awards. I think I was able to build a reputation for being serious, and that helped me to get access to people. My persistence also helped.
Q: Was there a tradition of investigative reporting in Colombia then?
MCC: When I began, no, but earlier there had been a group of investigative journalists. They focused a number of their investigations on corruption in Colombia's Congress. Among other things, they exposed that the mayor of Bogota had improperly used the city's Philharmonic Orchestra. The orchestra had to play for free at the mayor's daughter's wedding. I remember the scandal at the time. It was when I was in high school. Those reporters left the country and there was a vacuum. Then I came and there was no tradition that a woman could be in charge of investigations. My relatives persisted in telling me that it was too dangerous. But I saw it as my way of trying to help my country, because I could expose corrupt people.
For example, as a consequence of a series I published, the Colombian president asked the head of an agency I had exposed to quit. I was also the first to publish evidence that a number of prominent politicians were involved in narco-corruption.
Q: How did you learn investigative reporting techniques?
MCC: I studied social communication and journalism at Bogota's Javeriana University. I studied social science investigations, not investigative journalism. I have always tried to get as much evidence as I could, and consult as many sources as possible. And I have always assumed that to advance in complex investigations it is also necessary to assume risks.
Q: How did you get started in journalism?
MCC: I started working in the media when I was 16, at the newspaper La Republica. A classmate asked me to go with her downtown for an errand, and by coincidence we went to the building where La Republica's office is located. It was five o'clock, deadline, the worst time to interrupt an editor. I went to the editor's door. He was obviously busy. I said, "My name is Maria Cristina Caballero. I am in my first semester of journalism at Javeriana University, and I want to write for this paper." He was writing, and I waited some time. I was about to leave. He was not paying attention. But suddenly, he began to read a list of topics. And he looked at me and he said, "which one do you select?"
He had said something about the automotive industry, so I selected that one. He said, "Write about it and come back with an article." And I began to investigate all the details about the industry, beginning with archives of different papers, because I didn't have any idea about it. I began making lists of sources to interview. When I sent my report, to my surprise, they published a series of articles on the front page of the paper.
Q: How have you gained access to the different factions in Colombia?
MCC: If you want to investigate about Colombia's violence, you have to go to the jungles and talk with the leaders of the factions. Whenever I meet them, I try to emphasize that I'm not supporting one faction over the other. I tell them: I'm here because I'm a journalist, and I need to know the points of view of all sides. Today I'm here, but tomorrow or next week or next month, I will try to contact the opposite side.
When I interviewed them, some of these people had not given extensive interviews to anybody else. In December 1997, after being in contact for more than six months, the leader of the paramilitaries gave me a five-hour interview. Because of that exclusive interview I received the Simon Bolivar Award, which is Colombia's top journalism prize. To my surprise, the military leader of the largest guerrilla group gave his very first extensive interview to me, too, almost two years later. I never went to a region without first establishing contacts there.
Q: What is the status of journalists in Colombia now?
MCC: Unfortunately, many journalists, especially investigative journalists, have left Colombia because there have been attempts to kill them. Different organizations use different numbers, but the Committee to Protect Journalists says that 34 Colombian journalists have been killed in the last decade while trying to do their jobs. Other organizations say that is a conservative estimate. Some say it is more than 90.
I admire the colleagues who are still there trying to do in-depth reporting. It is not easy for an investigative journalist to survive in Colombia. I consider that I have been very lucky. I have interviewed people from all the forces, and I have exposed many cases of corruption, and I am alive! So many times I found myself in troubling situations that today I think it is really a miracle that I am still alive.
Once, for instance, I was in a small jungle town, where I had gone to cover a story related to a guerrilla kidnapping. The guerillas were all over the road and they were looking for me. I had to lie on the floor of a cart and some people of the town covered me with potatoes so that I could get out. I escaped by a miracle, because if I had moved under the potatoes, I could have been dead. Situations like that make me wonder, if I am alive, is it because I have something in particular that I must do? There are so many colleagues who have been killed just trying to get into one of these regions.
Q: How did you come to Harvard as a Mason Fellow?
MCC: From 1996 to 1997, I was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, which is a mid-career program for journalists. Then I organized a conference on Colombia with a group of Colombian graduate students. To my surprise, about 350 people, including representatives from the White House and the United Nations, attended that conference. Afterward, the dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government suggested that I apply for the Mason Program, a master's degree program for mid-career international leaders. I was very interested, but I had made a commitment to go back to my job in Colombia.
Back in Bogota, I immediately got involved in a series of investigations about massacres in the rural regions, human rights abuses committed by guerrillas and paramilitaries, and the involvement of some military officers in some of those irregular activities. I felt that I didn't just want to report tragedies. I wanted to know how other nations have helped stop them from happening and how I could help. So I applied to the Mason Program and was accepted, but because I was involved in investigations, I postponed the program for two years.
Q: Why did you finally leave Colombia?
MCC: I had to leave because of death threats. Of course, I had received many death threats before, but this time some security guards in the building where I lived and some of my neighbors told me that they had seen a man outside my apartment with a gun, and they thought he was waiting for me. Someone had left messages on my home answering machine promising that I was not going to be alive at the end of the day. So I had to hide. While I was trying to figure out what to do next, I sent some e-mails, including to some people at Harvard, telling them about my situation. Joseph Nye, the dean of the Kennedy School, sent me an e-mail saying that he would help me if I decided to return to Harvard immediately.
I didn't begin the master's program right away, though. I almost couldn't walk because of back pain that started while I was going to interview Carlos Castano, leader of the illegal counter-guerrillas, who are called paramilitaries. To get to Castano's secret headquarters, I had to ride a horse for eight hours into the jungle. It rained a lot and the mountain terrain was very difficult.
Shortly after I got to Boston, I found a doctor who ordered an MRI and found that the nerve in my back was badly compressed by a disc and I had to have back surgery. After recovering, I began the Mason Program in 2000.
Q: Do you have any idea who was standing outside of your apartment with the gun?
MCC: No. I had published pieces about abuses from all the factions, about the business of the guerillas and about the forced recruitment of peasants. I had been exposing the massacres of peasants, such as the one committed in Mapiripan, where the paramilitaries tortured and killed people over the course of five days. One of my law enforcement sources said that evidence found there indicated that some military officials were aware of what was going on. Because of this, one of my law enforcement contacts said, "If they kill you, we'll never know exactly who killed you, because you are exposing all these people."
Q: Since you left because of death threats in 1999, have you gone back to Colombia?
MCC: Occasionally I have returned to war regions to try to show the complexity of the situation of my country to an international audience. I have also visited Colombia's neighboring countries. Through some op-ed pieces that I have written, I have pointed out that U.S. policy makers need to realize that there are no simplistic answers to the problems in Colombia or in other convulsed Latin American countries. For example, focusing a 1.3 billion U.S. aid package to Colombia on the aerial fumigation of coca crops in the name of the war on drugs has not been successful at all. The United Nations recently found that new growth in Colombia has offset last year's eradication efforts, and that farmers in Peru are turning again to coca crops. The shift to Peru is happening after years in which coca growth there was cut by 75 percent because it had been shifted to Colombia. Some experts call this the "balloon effect." It means that in response to the continuing demand for cocaine, mainly from the United States, eradication in one place just pushes coca growing to another neighboring region. More effective policies could probably be designed.
Maria Cristina Caballero began her journalism career at age 16 as a reporter for La Republica, a Bogota newspaper. She has been in charge of investigations at El Tiempo, Colombia's leading daily newspaper, and at Colombia's two main weekly news magazines, Cambio 16 and Semana. A former Alfred Friendly Fellow based in the Washington, DC bureau of Time magazine and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, Caballero left Colombia in 1999 after receiving death threats. She is currently a Mason Fellow completing a master's degree at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University. Caballero has contributed articles to The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald, CNN Interactive, Columbia Journalism Review, Harvard International Journal of Press and Politics and Nieman Reports, among other publications. She is a frequent commentator on Colombia's political situation and serves on the IWMF's Latin American Advisory Committee.