Voices in Danger: Despite being kidnapped and raped by paramilitaries, Jineth Bedoya Lima has stayed in Colombia to continue reporting

“If I didn’t go back to my office, I knew I wouldn’t be able to continue living.”

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Imagine having to wear a bullet-proof vest, drive in a blackened out armoured car, and travel with five armed bodyguards so that you can get to work everyday.  That’s how Jineth Bedoya Lima must travel to work at Colombia’s daily newspaper El Tiempo to get there safe and alive.  After having been kidnapped twice, raped, tortured and left for dead on the side of a road when she was only 26, Jineth doesn’t take any chances now. She hasn’t seen her sister, nephews and nieces for fear of bringing harm to them. It’s the same reason she has chosen to never start a family of her own. 

Jineth recalls the conversation that led to her first kidnapping for Voices in Danger, “I was working at El Espectador at the time when I received a package of photocopies of my articles with highlighted names of paramilitiaries I had named in my reports.  I told the police about it, and they said that I should talk to them directly myself!” That night, she received a call from the Head of Security of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary who suggested they meet the next day at La Modelo, Bogota’s maximum security prison.  It made sense to her at the time since she was the only journalist allowed to enter the prison after the massacre which saw 42 inmates killed, execution style. 

Jineth went with three of her colleagues to La Modelo for the fateful meeting.  While her colleagues were in another room for only 2 minutes, the paramilitaries pointed a gun at her, grabbed her by the hair and dragged her away.  In retrospect, Jineth says, “Everything was so well planned.  They knew that I would be on my own at that door at that time.”  She offers the wider context,  “All Colombians are living in a war zone, and you don’t go to work thinking that you will be kidnapped or attacked.  After 60 years of conflict, it integrates itself into your daily life.”

Jineth tears up as she focuses back on the experience of 13 years ago, “Three armed men bundled me into the van.  My hands were tied, my mouth masked over and my eyes were covered.  I had no idea where I was being taken. I was terrified.”

When they arrived at the abandoned farmhouse in an open field, they tortured and raped her for 16 hours.  Jineth manages to whisper, “I was physically and morally destroyed.”

Her colleagues did not suspect anything as they waited for her to return. By late afternoon, they called the Prosecution’s Office to inquire of her whereabouts.  It was the first time they realised there was a problem.  “That phone call kept me alive,” Jineth says.

From that moment, they were able to trace Jineth’s location via her mobile phone. She was located 4 hours outside of Bogota, and the Prosecutor’s Office immediately mobilised a search team.   Her naked, broken body was eventually discovered at the side of a highway.

After a short time recovering, Jineth realised she needed to return to work to regain a sense of order in her life.  “When they first took me to the hospital, the doctors said it would take me three months to recover.  But after 15 days, I returned to the office with a walking stick.  It was my only opportunity to return to a normal life.  If I didn’t go back to my office, I knew I wouldn’t be able to continue living.”   After a long pause, Jineth continues, “In those days, I just wanted to die.  My body was destroyed.  I was covered in wounds.  They had cut my hair as well.  I knew that the only way to continue living was to continue being a journalist.”

The German Embassy offered Jineth asylum, but she didn’t want to leave Colombia.  She explains, “In the last few decades, journalists have had to face very difficult situations in the various wars around the world.  A lot of them have left their lives in their work.  The worst thing we could do is remain silent.  I believe that these things happen to us for a reason, and as journalists we should speak about these things because others can’t.  I feel that we have a social responsibility.”

ABColombia, a group of leading UK and Irish organisations working on human rights issues, states in its Colombia: Women, Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and the Peace Process November 2013 Report that: “...only 18 per cent of women in Colombia report sexual violence crimes.  They are usually not given the required support nor are they directed to the appropriate medical and health services.” ABColombia does acknowledge that “...the Colombian Government has taken some positive steps to address the sexual violence, including the appointment of A Women’s Sexual Equality Advisor in July 201l, instituting key laws and rulings.” However, they conclude that, “the near impunity for these crimes is striking.”

Jineth later joined the national non-tabloid daily, El Tiempo, after El Espectador fell into financial difficulties.  Even though El Tiempo provided Jineth with more protection, it was unable to prevent her second kidnapping by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in territory deep in the Colombian jungle.  It was territory not even the Red Cross would enter.

Jineth recounts the ordeal that she and her photojournalist colleague suffered, “For 8 days we were ridiculed, starved, and left without medication.  We endured humiliation and fear.”  A group of locals brought them just enough food to survive, and organised for them to speak to the Commander of FARC who ultimately agreed to release them.  The director of El Tiempo organised for a plane to collect them in an open field. “Up to the point that we stepped on that plane, they told us they were going to kill us,” says Jineth.

Even though they were both exhausted when they arrived in Bogota, Jineth said, “They had a lot of food at the office when we arrived, but I couldn’t eat. All I wanted to do is write about our experience. It was important to get this information out.”

In her time as a journalist in Colombia, Jineth has received numerous dire warnings since first starting out as a junior at Radio Cadena National Radio (RCN Radio).  In 1998, when she was only 24 years old, her report on a criminal network linked to arms trafficking was aired on RCN Radio.  Later that day, an unassuming, old lady visited her office. She held a bag with a dead animal in it, handed it to Jineth and said, “If you don’t stop reporting on these things, you will be dead just like this animal here.”

A few months later, a masked assassin with a shotgun on a bike shot at Jineth while she walked home with her mother from the busstop.  Her mother protected Jineth from the bullet.  The masked man returned, grabbed Jineth’s mother by her coat and dragged her along the road from the back of his bike for one block.  Her internal injuries kept her in the hospital for two weeks. 

To this day Jineth is a target.  “In the last year, I’ve received five threats, mainly phone calls, but the last threat was through one of my sources.  My source said were going to kill me.”  She knows who is making the calls, but doesn’t want to say.  Instead, she says, “I continue to feel kidnapped.  It’s impossible to live normally.  Everyday, I am reminded when I put on my bullet proof vest, and have to travel in the armoured car.”

The multi-award winning journalist, public speaker and author of numerous Spanish-language books lives with her mother under the protection of 5 bodyguards.  The people responsible for the attempt on her life, the kidnappings and innumerable threats, still walk free.

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In its 2013 Report, The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) states that, “Colombia is the second most dangerous country in South America for women.”

45 Journalists have been murdered in Colombia since 1992.

The Committee to Protect Journalists places Colombia in the top 5 of its Impunity Index 2013 ( a global index which calculates unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of each country's population).

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