Please quote me on that,” states Guillén, five minutes into the interview, in which he reiterates the accusations he has made against the current governor of La Guajira department, Juan Francisco Gómez Cerchar, known as “Kiko.” According to Guillén, Gómez is the mastermind and crime boss behind hundreds of deaths in the department, and remote regions which cross into Venezuela. He also accuses the politician of being involved with the paramilitary group Los Urabeños, and having ties to three Mexican drug cartels (Sinaloa, Zetas and La Familia), to strengthen their coastal drug routes using seven ports of La Guajira and neighbouring Venezuela, as well as, some Caribean nations.
When confronted with the fallout of the La Guajira investigation, Guillén goes on: “It’s like the north of Colombia broke away from the country and annexed itself to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, to become one country of the mafia, known as ‘Narcolandia.’”
Guillén’s allegations have been widely reported and independently confirmed by Revista Semana and other media, based, in part, on a petition made by him to Colombia’s Attorney General, Eduardo Montealegre, to revise the ongoing investigation into the assassination of the former mayor of the municipality of Barrancas, Yandra Britto, last November.
Covering a trail of corruption and crime in La Guajira, has forced Gonzalo Guillén and two respected investigators of the Arco Iris foundation, León Valencia and Ariel Avila, to leave Colombia after a plot to kill them was uncovered by Colombian authorities, earlier last month.
In a strange twist of fate, one of Guillén’s first major stories ever published concerned La Guajira and ran in El Tiempo, back in 1975, when he worked as a reporter on the national desk of the prestigious daily. However, his life wasn’t threatened on that occasion. The then Editor-in-Chief, Enrique Santos Castillo (father of President Juan Manuel Santos), commissioned the young writer to travel through the department in a truck and report of the marijuana trade, among other stories.
“They lent me a camera with a scratched lens,” recalls Guillén. While many frames were damaged in the film processing, a few beautiful shots of sunsets near the Manaure salt flats were saved, thanks to Santos. The article was entitled: ‘Atardecer Guajiro’ – Guajiro Sunset.
Guillén worked in the ‘Departamentales’ section of the paper, with correspondents scattered across Colombia and writing alongside journalists and editors such as Germán Castro Caicedo, Alegre Levy, Gonzalo Castellanos, Germán Espinosa and Carlos Villar Borda. Guillén earned his Journalist title by decree, from the Ministry of Education. Having edited a community newspaper in his hometown of Chía, before joining El Tiempo, the reporter laughs that it could have been destiny which made him become a journalist.“I’ve never felt the calling of God or anyone. Journalism isn’t a vocation, it’s a handicap, and I was born with it.”
From covering breaking news and writing his first book on Colombian migrations to Venezuela, entitled Los Que Nunca Volvieron, in 1981, Guillén went on to become a co-founder and the News Editor of the country’s wire agency, Colprensa. From print and cables, the reporter then made the leap to television becoming the Editor-in-Chief of the Pastrana family-owned, TV Hoy.
From the mid to late 1980’s the rapid expansion of cocaine and cartels, put Colombia’s class-based democracy under threat. The M-19 guerrillas were quickly gaining ground in the southern departments of the country and Pablo Escobar of the Medellín cartel was the man to watch, and fear.
To further freedom of the press and offer Colombians a European-sized compact newspaper, one of the first of its kind in the region, the Pastrana family asked Guillén to become Editor-in-Chief of La Prensa newspaper. Overseeing a newspaper staff of 50, Guillén went on to win prestigious awards, such a Simón Bolívar Prize, the CPB (Bogotá Journalists Circle), two King of Spain Awards with former President Andrés Pastrana Arango, among others and in media. But he shies away from claiming protagonism to a life’s work. “Nobody is a journalist because they win an award.”
As a staunch defender of journalistic freedoms Guillén is no newcomer to intimidation and has been the target of threats far too often. He is an uncomfortable truth to many in Colombia. Despite being trusted by his sources and respected among colleagues, he continues to bear the brunt of insults by those who claim he denounces them without evidence.
Guillén gets straight-to-the-point. “I’ve never had to rectify my work. I have never been sued for what I have written. I wait every day expecting to be summoned for libel and slander. I have not received the first charges against me, either from Uribe, or from any other of the subjects of my investigations.”
He regrets that when one comes out to defend those against whom a crime has been committed, far too often it’s the reporter who ends up being slandered. This voice of experience recounts specific cases. “Santos once called me ‘A useful idiot of the FARC’ when I proved ‘Operation Jacque’ was a farce.” Operation Jacque – or Operation ‘Check-Mate’- being the military’s rescue mission to free FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt and 13 others, when Juan Manuel Santos was Colombia’s Defense Minister. One of the more public and inflammatory episodes in Guillen’s repertoire of threats occurred in 2007 when President Alvaro Uribe Vélez lashed out, calling him a ‘Professional Slanderer.’
As the Miami-based El Nuevo Herald correspondent, he conducted an interview with the former television presenter and mistress of Pablo Escobar, Virginia Vallejo, who revealed connections between leading politicians, including Uribe, and the drug sindicate.
Uribe then accused Guillén of being behind Vallejo’s book, Amando a Pablo, odiando a Escobar, (Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar). Guillén denied these charges, even though he was the author of The Confidants of Pablo Escobar, and Los Testimonios que Undieron a Santofimio, that same year.
Guillén had also demanded Uribe reveal his Income Tax statement as well as those of his sons, and accused the President of alleged ties to high-ranking members of the Medellín cartel, when directing the Civil Aviation authority in that city, from 1980 to 1982.
Guillén found himself caught in a maelstrom of malicious intent. With the presidency embroiled in a verbal war with columnists and reporters, a shadow was cast over freedom of expression in Colombia. During three critical days Guillén received 24 death threats. The journalist was advised to leave Colombia for his safety and international journalism defense entities, including the senior editors of El Nuevo Herald came to his defense.
As one of the standard-bearers of freedom of expression in Colombia, Gonzalo Guillén is an example of perseverance and journalistic integrity. While many of his contemporaries have retired from writing and public scrutiny, this reporter, after almost a decade with the U.S newspaper, is now freelance and writes scripts for television documentaries. He is also taking tome to finish a movie project he sold to Hollywood on Colombia. When asked if there is any redeeming aspect of living here (Colombia), he replies with an off-cuff-remark: “Ask the tourism office.”
-Reporting María Claudia Peña