A Shortcut to Hell

Maria Cristina Caballero, journalist, Harvard University

mapiripan Maria Cristina Caballero discusses the 1997 massacre of Mapiripan, in which paramilitary soldiers killed an estimated 31 people in a remote town in southern Colombia. Her series of articles on the massacre eventually led to the dismissal of a general in the Colombian army.

I have been an investigative journalist for 20 years. Previously, I was a fellow of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, covering political corruption, but I decided to go back to Colombia and focus my work on the violence there, because it had been getting so intense. By coincidence, the very first day I arrived in Colombia, an awful massacre occurred in the south, in an area called Mapiripan.

I went to see my colleagues at Cambio 16, a weekly news magazine in Colombia, and asked them, "Who is covering the massacre?" No one wanted to go. It's very far away, and there are no easy roads getting there. It's not possible to go by car. We went, but I had to hire an aircraft. The pilot, when we were arriving, saw some soldiers and decided he didn't want to land there because it would be too dangerous. I was not going to go all that way just to turn around out of fear, so we asked him to go as slow and as low as possible. Finally, we found some bushes and we jumped.

A lot of people had left Mapiripan already. Of those who remained, no one wanted to talk. They were traumatized, they were in shock. There was blood in the streets. There were a lot of people crying. I was the only journalist who stayed there for several days, and eventually some people began to talk to us. They told horrific stories about a group of paramilitary soldiers, approximately 200 of them, who came to town and asked the men to stand in front of the slaughterhouse every night. They cut them to pieces, dismembering them until they died. Night by night, for five nights, they killed people this way. They threw the body parts into the river beside the town. They had cut off all communication, but the penal judge of Mapiripan found a way to call the army forces headquarters to tell them what was going on. He called eight times; no help arrived until a week after, when lots of people had been killed.

I began to get testimonies from some of the paramilitaries. After the killings, they got very drunk and began talking about how they got to Mapiripan, saying they had arrived by plane. The only airport in the region is controlled by the army, the national authority. The national record said there were two flights that arrived from the north of Colombia, but when I went to the regional airport to ask for the records, they didn't have these flights registered. The investigation took months. The judge gave me all the documentation he had. We published his testimony and other evidence in a series of articles.

The top commander of the paramilitary was in the region, supervising the massacre. Finally, I got an interview with him, and I asked him to explain. He told me that his father had been killed by the guerillas, and all his brothers and sisters had vowed revenge. He considered himself a hero. He thought that he was helping to stop the guerillas. 

He also said he was tired of killing people, that he had other plans for his life before the killing of his father. To my surprise and the surprise of many, he said, "I'm willing to begin peace negotiations." I published the interview, and afterwards he sent a personal envoy to speak with me at the magazine. The envoy brought with him the first written peace proposal of the paramilitaries. I said, "This goes beyond journalism, this goes beyond a scoop," and I immediately contacted the International Red Cross.

Then we said, "Let's try to get such documents from all the factions." To our surprise, we did, and we published them in the magazine, calling it "Peace on the Table." There were elements there for beginning peace negotiations with all the warring factions. That has not yet happened.

Through exposing a human rights abuse, I suddenly got involved in something else. As a human being, I wanted the violence to stop. In some ways, Colombia is extremely polarized. Some journalists just go to one region or the other. I have been asked, "Why did you assume these risks, you could have easily been killed?" But I believe that journalists have a social responsibility.

Questions, Comments and Responses

Florence Graves, director, Brandeis Institute for Investigative Journalism: I know that the Committee to Protect Journalists tracks the deaths of journalists all over the world, and that Colombia has the record consistently, roughly 30 journalists a year. Tell us more about that.

Caballero: Colombia is many countries in one. There are seven big cities, and there are many very underdeveloped rural regions that have been forgotten by the policymakers for centuries. Because of the absence of law and order, paramilitary factions have controlled these regions for many decades. In the south of Colombia, the guerilla commanders are law. People consult with them. If you go to these regions without making contact first, you are seen as a spy. I have always tried to make sure that I contact people in the region in some way or another before I go. And, I have been very lucky. I wonder sometimes, "Why am I alive?" Many colleagues have been killed. Some of it is lack of experience; sometimes the situation is critical, and they get killed in battle; some of them are kidnapped and held for ransom. The people in these regions, a high percentage of them are afraid of the paramilitaries. They follow orders, because if they don't do what they are told, they are killed. When I go to these regions by myself, some of these people decide to protect me.

Dan Terris, director, International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life: You reported very courageously on a difficult story. It sounded like you started telling that story with the purpose of determining what happened and to be able to trace the responsibility. It seemed as though the ultimate purpose of that account was to seek accountability. Then you got into this conversation with the paramilitary leader, and you participated in the process in which your paper took an active part in this peace plan. That conversation is in some ways a step back from the process of accountability. I wonder whether that was something that troubled you.

Caballero: As a journalist, social responsibility was a goal since the beginning. My goal was to generate change. As an aside, because I was the only one publishing this for a while, the prosecutor general asked me to guide the research. I said, "That's not my role."  As a human being, my role has been to help people. I wanted to expose who was responsible. When I was leaving Mapiripan, an old man without shoes, extremely thin and very dirty, ran to me and said, "You must do something for us. All my children are dead. Two joined the guerillas, two joined the paramilitaries. I was told they killed each other. All the children of Colombia are dying. These guerillas and paramilitaries are destroying all our children, our future." I said, "I will try."

Pamela Cytrynbaum, associate director, Brandeis Institute for Investigative Journalism: What I hear you talking about is not as much "I want accountability," but, "I want truth." I feel like what you were setting out for was, "What is the story?" That seems to override everything for us. What happened in that five-hour interview with the paramilitary leader, do you think, that allowed him to open up and push him to change policy? 

Caballero: It was a very intense interview. I told him, "I don't support what you're doing, I don't support what any of the factions in Colombia are doing." At the beginning, he was very calm. When I asked about Mapiripan, he began to lose control, and I began to wonder if I was going to walk out of there. He said, "Maria Cristina, I am totally exhausted. I am more exhausted than after any other combat. This is exhausting. You make me think." He had read my articles, I was known in Colombia for being a tough journalist. Years later, when I spoke to him for the first time after that interview, he said, "Of course I remember you. You talked to me with respect. You were the first one to listen to me."