By SHABINA S. KHATRI
DOHA CENTRE FOR MEDIA FREEDOM
For 17 years, Irma Londono did her part to uncover the truth about drug trafficking in Colombia.
As a journalist, Londono disregarded comments that women did not belong in her field, endured challenges to her credibility from corrupt officials and even survived a kidnapping from guerilla rebels.
But when threats against her life escalated, the award-winning journalist heeded her mother’s advice and fled to the United States as a political refugee, leaving her family, friends and career behind.
“I am very dangerous for the guerilla of the narcotráfico (the illegal drug trade) because (of the investigations) I make,” Londono recently told the Doha Centre for Media Freedom in a mix of Spanish and English.
Londono’s exile from her homeland began in 2000.
Since fleeing to America, she has done an impressive job of rebuilding her life. The 54-year-old, who lives near St. Petersburg, Florida, has learned English, established herself as a real estate agent and volunteers her time at a senior centre.
And though she hasn’t seen her parents in 11 years – they cannot get a visa to the U.S. because the government fears they may try to stay in the country illegally – she is not totally alone. The U.S. approved her son’s petition for asylum in 2002, and she has fallen in love with an Argentinean man and married him in Florida.
Still, she can’t help but miss parts of her old life.
“I have friends, I found a house, but the real estate (market) is no good,” Londono said. “I like to work in journalism, but it is difficult because there are no opportunities for work.”
Irma Londono was born in the Colombian capital of Bogotá in 1957. She dove into radio reporting in 1982, a year before she graduated from Colombia University.
During that time, the country was firmly entrenched in a war against drugs and the rising influence of drug lords like Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellín cartel.
The cartel used murder, intimidation and assassination to keep journalists and public officials from speaking out against them, according to a report from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
By 1985, Colombia had the highest murder rate in the world.
At the same time, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Arm, also known as FARC (and now Colombia’s largest insurgent group) was also picking up steam. FARC financed its operations through kidnapping and ransom, extortion and taxing the narcotics trade. It also targeted anyone suspected of conspiring with the military and paramilitaries.
Despite the dangers, Londono was committed to covering the violent grist of what was happening in her country. One of her primary motivations was personal:
“When I was four years old, the grandparents of my mother (were) victim(s) of violence in Colombia… the guerilla killed the family of my mother,” she said.
As one of the first female journalists in Colombia to report on issues like corruption, paramilitaries and drug traffickers in the ’80s, she raised a lot of eyebrows and hackles while on the job.
“It was difficult,” she said. “Militaries in Colombia are strict – the military says no women in the helicopter – what if someone attacks the military? People die.”
Londono also did not shy away from denouncing corruption among politicians and Colombia’s armed forces, and she quickly made herself many enemies.
In June 1989, three years into her job at a local television station, Londono made contact with members of the Popular Liberation Army, a communist guerilla group. The rebels said they wanted to make peace with the government and were willing to be interviewed about it.
Londono flew to Cartagena, an urban city in northern Colombia, to meet the men, who picked her, her cameramen and three other journalists up in a red jeep to take them to their commander.
“They tell us, it’s near, it’s near… (but) we drive five hours, oh my God six hours,” Londono said. Finally, the group arrived at a small boat, which took them across a river. Then, the guerillas, who had driven them south until they reached the Andes Mountains, told them to start walking.
Which they did – for 16 days.
“The boss of the guerillas was in the mountains and they said it was dangerous to travel to Cartagena, so the interview would be in the mountains,” Londono said.
It didn’t matter that the intrepid journalist had dressed for tropical weather, not the frigid mountains. When her dress tore, she was given a plastic tablecloth to wear.
It didn’t matter if night fell. The group was forced to travel by moonlight, told they must keep moving for fear of an ambush, from either the Colombian army or a rival guerilla group.
“For me it was the most terrible time in my life,” Londono said. “We drink water in the river. Every day it was rice, rice, rice. One day we found a turkey, but it was an elderly turkey.” Then for a while it was chewy turkey with rice.
“For the first time in my life I sleep on the floor,” Londono said. Sometimes, she would sleep in a hammock tied between two trees.
As the only woman in the group, the guerillas pushing them onwards did show her minor courtesies, giving her a mule to ride on, asking if she needed to take bathroom breaks.
But as their trek continued into its third week and her cameraman grew ill and feverish, Londono made a decision.
“Day, day, walk walk, night, night, walk, walk,” Londono said. “I told them, ‘My camera man is sick, and I (won’t) walk anymore, I (won’t) walk anymore. We have no food, we are exhausted. I (won’t) move… The army is near, you run, we(‘ll) stay here!’ ”
To Londono’s relief, the guerrillas, fearful that the Colombian Army was in pursuit and tired of being slowed down by the journalists, took her advice and fled, leaving the prisoners in a farmhouse. Sixteen days had passed since Londono first climbed into the PLA’s jeep.
After the guerillas left, the group quickly sought help from a local countryman, paying him to take them by boat to a small town, where they took a bus back to Cartagena. Londono then returned to Bogotá, filing a detailed report about her kidnapping.
“My boss was very angry with me, but it wasn’t my fault – I thought the interview was in Cartagena,” she said.
But the kidnapping was not the biggest hardship Londono would face in 1989.
In August of that year, a couple of months after her mountain adventure, Londono investigated the assassination of Luis Carlos Galán – one of five presidential candidates killed by drug traffickers in the mid-to-late ’80s and early ’90s.
Londono did not expect the story to be her last report. But Gen. Miguel Maza Márquez, an intelligence agent who was implicated in the piece, lobbied to make sure of it.
“That general has a lot of power – he said I told lies and closed the doors of my journalism (career),” Londono said. “For me, it killed me! It was my work.”
Blacklisted by almost every news organization in Colombia, Londono finally found a job covering tourism and culture at a small radio station in Bogotá.
She would have to wait 20 years for validation – in 2010, Colombia arrested Márquez for his role in a conspiracy to assassinate Galán.
“Twenty years after, many journalists say – you were right!” Londono said. “Oh sorry, sorry! You were right.”
For the next 10 years, Londono’s radio reports focused on the silver linings in the decidedly dark clouds of news hanging over Colombia, a country torn apart by drugs.
“I (would) never speak about the war – I (would) speak about the people, music, cultural things,” she said. “I visit(ed) the areas in Colombia where there’s war and I (would) speak about the beautiful things in that town.”
But behind the scenes, the journalist couldn’t help keeping up with the latest in narcotráfico news.
“I knew many things about the corruption in Colombia,” she said, adding that she learned a lot about the country’s ongoing political problems when she traveled to work on her culture-themed stories. “I (would) meet with other journalists and speak (about it).”
Perhaps, Londono said, some people thought she knew too much. Even though she wasn’t reporting on drug trafficking and paramilitary issues, she certainly wasn’t being quiet about them, denouncing corruption publicly and serving as a source for other journalists.
Something she said must have fallen upon sinister ears in 1999, because the journalist began receiving death threats over the phone. The tires on her car were slashed and one day, two men rode up in a motorcycle asking for her. One of them sported a military uniform, but the apartment building’s security refused to let him enter.
“My mother (told) me, ‘probably you (will) die in Colombia from (those) people,’ ” Londono said.
It was as much as she could take. In November 1999, Londono applied for political asylum in the U.S. Her petition was accepted in April 2000, and she soon relocated to Miami, Florida.
But she ended up moving from there to St. Petersburg, also in Florida, because “in Miami, you don’t learn English.”
The journalist’s itch
Now, she spends her days working as a real estate agent, helping out with her husband’s painting business and keeping abreast of world events.
“Every day, I study, study, study,” Londono said. “I don’t know. in the future maybe I (can) teach journalists or work in media. I don’t know. But I read everything because I love journalism. It’s my profession.”
Though she misses her parents and said she still cries about leaving her native country, Londono has no plans to go back to Colombia.
“Right now I think Colombia is very dangerous for me and for journalism,” she said. “Now, I don’t have much hope for Colombia – I think it doesn’t change.”