Memoirs of a Colombian War Reporter

Footage- Luis Eduardo Franco RCN News

In 2014 I met Arianna Huffington in Manhattan. At that time I was facing a very difficult personal moment, trying to find some answers to what was happening in my life. A good friend of mine invited me to one of Arianna’s book presentations, and that was when I was introduced to Thrive.

Today, after few years of reading and following Arianna’s advice and guidance, I’m positive to say that Thrive gave me the empowerment I needed to reinvent myself. I was inspired to write my memories as war reporter in Colombia, transforming a negative experience into a positive one. That’s how my second book, “Caught in the Storm of War,” came to life.

The story is based on my own experience as a war reporter in my home country. I was forced to leave Colombia with my son, due to serious death threats from the former terrorist group FARC. As a journalist, author and survivor of the longest war in the world, “Caught in the Storm of War” is a tribute to the journalists that were killed in my country during the last 20 years of war. The book is set to be published by York House Press. Today, as a celebration of life, I’m proud to share an excerpt of my story.

“CAUGHT IN THE STORM OF WAR

Chapter 2

The Place Called “Pleasure”

When we returned to the road to leave, we began to hear gunshots coming towards our location from the jungle. The FARC had hidden themselves among the trees, coming very close to the paramilitaries without them realizing it. While we were frozen on the road the paramilitaries took up positions and returned fire. The fighting had begun again, and Franco and I were right in the middle.

It was half an hour before there was silence again. As soon as it seemed safe, Franco and I ran to where the Jeep was parked next to the road. I couldn’t start the car at first, my hands were shaking so badly. I tried to start it quickly, turning the key many times and pressing down on the gas rapidly, but the car wouldn’t respond. After what felt like an eternity, however, the engine roared to life and we drove off at full speed.

I was breathing heavily and my heart was beating hard and fast. Franco had the camera in his hand and kept recording as we made our escape. We felt bullets beat against the car as we drove. They were shooting and in those moments, we were the target. Somehow, we managed to get away.

When we got back to the village to return the car, the owner was furious to see that it now had 15 bullet holes. He never asked us if we were alright or how that happened; his only concern was whether or not we would pay for the damage. Those bullet holes stood as testimony to our perilous journey to a place called, paradoxically, “Pleasure.”

In the 90’s, there was a rise in the presence of paramilitary groups in Colombia. Carlos Castaño and his brother Fidel had created a powerful illegal group a decade before. That group at the end of the 80’s lead in associate with the Cali cartel the group Los Pepes, that mean persecuted by Pablo Escobar, and then the single and most important mission they had was murder they archenemy Pablo Escobar and ended the Medellin cartel.

At the end of the 90’s, and after the death of Escobar, the paramilitaries grew and strengthened in Colombia. After having helped the Cali Cartel to eliminate the Medellin Cartel, they devoted to continue the attacks against guerrillas groups as Farc and ELN, which by then had seized a large territory of the country.

The paramilitary groups organized, ran and promoted hundreds of murders and massacres of people related in some form with guerrillas groups. With the help of foreign mercenaries and large shipments of weapons purchased with drug trafficking money in the European black market, the paramilitaries managed to expand territorially, sometimes with the approval of landowners who feared to be kidnapped by the guerrilla. Because of the absence of protection from the government, some accepted “help” from paramilitary squads of private security.

In 1999, I managed to contact “The Hawk,” one of the South Block leaders of the Autodefesas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary and drug trafficking group. I was to record a story in one of the paramilitary camps in the south of Colombia. It was complicated subject matter because, unlike the FARC, the AUC were responsible for massacres and drug trafficking.

Every force in the war was active in the Putumayo region located in the border with Ecuador and Peru, as evidenced by how it common it was to come across FARC, paramilitary and army checkpoints all only a few kilometers from each other along the same road. On one trip alone we were stopped by all three, and the golden rule that saved our skins was, “Remember that you haven’t seen anything.”

In one of the episodes that sticks out in my mind, I received word of battles between the paramilitaries and the FARC in the village of El Placer (“Pleasure”), apparently over a cocaine operation the FARC owned.

Beginning in the late 90’s, Putumayo has been known as a major center for cocaine production. There were and still are extensive coca plantations in the region. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, there are 96,000 hectares of coca in Colombia, 81% of the planted area are in Putumayo, Cauca, Nariño, Caquetá and Norte de Santander.

The day of our trip, I was up early with my cameraman Luis Eduardo Franco to rent a jeep. I remember that we were accompanied by a European journalist that worked for Getty Images and that the car was huge. I could barely reach the pedals!

We went into the forest in the direction of the combats and quickly got lost. At one point we arrived at a crossroads where some farmers told us that a crime had occurred on a small nearby farm.

In that moment our priority changed and I decided with the cameraman to go towards the humble farm where the crime had occurred, when our foreign colleague realized we were lost and were planning on going to an unknown location to investigate a crime, he panicked and abandoned the car, arguing that it was too risky to do this for a story and that he’d rather return to the village we’d come from by foot.

He left, and Franco and I went on ahead. Franco recorded while I drove, a white flag hanging over our rearview mirror as a symbol of our peaceful intentions. When we reached the house where the crime had occurred we got out of the car. The door was open, and Franco went ahead to enter the house, still recording. He called me in once he saw it was safe. I walked inside resolutely and suddenly found myself confronted with an image I’ll never be able to forget.

There was a body laid out on a table, covered with a white sheet and surrounded by four candles. Drops of blood fell to the floor one by one. Looking at the shape of the body, we quickly discovered that it was a pregnant woman.

I felt a deep, profound sadness at the sight of this woman lying alone. Who was she? Why had she been killed? Who killed her? Had this been her home? I had so many unanswered questions.

It was the body of a mother and her unborn child sacrificed on the altar of violence. When we left the house, I looked around us nervously, feeling as though we were being watched from the forest, as though countless eyes were hiding between the trees.


Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on November 22, 2016.