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Colombian media take on the drug lords

Politics and crime-fighting are staples of newspapers the world over, but journalists generally try not to get involved in campaigning on these subjects. In Colombia, however, newspapers and TV and radio stations have joined forces for a massive publicity offensive against drug traffickers. They are simultaneously publishing and broadcasting the descriptions and details of the nation's biggest criminals, to ensure public awareness of the cocaine bandits' identities and to force the government to continue its war against them.

For the past three days across the nation, 13 daily papers, five TV stations, and two radio networks have carried translations of a series of articles from the Miami Herald on the development of the cocaine cartel, including faces and names of the leaders of a criminal class that has begun to challenge the survival of Colombian democracy.

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Forty-three men and women are portrayed in a full-page mafia family tree, tracing the connections of the cocaine industry pioneers of the 1970s to the present-day leaders and their lieutenants. The rogues' gallery carries staggering lists of quantities of drugs smuggled, murders carried out, and, in some cases, the prison sentences awarded on conviction.

Only in Medell'in, the center of trafficking activity, have the two big dailies failed to carry the series, reinforcing widespread suspicions that the drug lords have bought influence on the editorial boards or terrified the publishers into silence. One of Bogot'a's six TV stations broadcast only very brief summaries of the 20-minute segments, raising eyebrows and caustic questions about the station's allegiance.

A few months ago, it would have been unthinkable for competitive news organizations with opposing political sympathies to carry the same story on their pages. What welded the Colombia press into this almost united front was the December murder of a highly respected newspaper editor, Guillermo Cano, by gunmen from the drug gangs.

``This unity is unprecedented for the Colombian media. Instead of fighting to beat rivals for the scoops, we are collaborating against our common enemies,'' says Enrique Santos Calder'on, one of the editors of the biggest Bogot'a daily, El Tiempo. ``It is very significant that the Medell'in papers failed to join in. But now we will have to see what results all this brings.''

An immediate result seems to be shaking people into greater awareness of how many prominent citizens are connected to crime. Even a lawyer from the attorney general's office who supervises searches for narcotics at the capital's airport said: ``Seeing all those photographs and names was a surprise. I had not realized that so many politicians and powerful men are involved.``

The frontal attack on the crime groups has not so far produced any reprisals, but one member of El Tiempo's Santos family, Deputy Editor Rafael Santos, earlier this week said: ``We are very alert. There is tension.'' The police have assigned extra units to protecting news organizations against retaliation for their challenge.

Mr. Santos added: ``This is the second big action of solidarity to prove to the country and to the traffickers that we are working with the government against them.'' After Mr. Cano's murder, thousands of journalists protested with a silent march to the Congress building. Newspapers stopped their presses, TV stations turned off cameras, radio stations shut down microphones - the press was silent for 24 hours.

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Cano was the most eminent Colombian newsman to die for his work, but 21 other newsmen have been murdered in the past 10 years. In only two cases have arrests been made, although widely voiced rumors attribute their deaths to the same group of traffickers.

The knowledge that the traffickers do not hesitate to have opponents gunned down, and even seem to enjoy the power of life and death, makes this defiant press campaign all the more courageous, although the purpose of joint publication is to try to prevent individuals from being targeted for revenge. And should another journalist become a victim, the new unity means there will be a remorseless hunt for the assassin.

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