Newsman at Risk in Colombia Gets Help

Times Staff Writer

Colombian journalist Daniel Coronell had been in California for nearly a full academic year before he shared the depth of his dilemma with colleagues at his Stanford University fellowship program: Death threats targeting him, his wife and small daughter had prompted the family to flee his homeland, he confided at an emotional dinner party.

He feared it was not yet safe to return.

The man they knew as gentle and self-effacing had built a formidable reputation as one of Colombia's most courageous journalists. He is news director of the television program "Noticias Uno," which the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists calls "one of Colombia's few independent news sources."

For two decades, his reporting has illuminated links among drug traffickers, right-wing paramilitary squads and the country's political elite.

But it was clear that the 41-year-old husband and father needed help.

The reaction of the other Stanford fellows was swift: They scrambled to find Coronell a new academic haven.

"We all experienced vicariously the intensity of commitment to telling the truth that leads you to put not only yourself but your family at risk," said Wired magazine writer Gary Wolf, who had also spent a year at Stanford on a mid-career journalism fellowship and who helped secure Coronell a visiting scholar's position at UC Berkeley's Center for Latin American Studies.

"It made us ask ourselves: Where does that commitment in myself come from and how strong is it?" Wolf said. "At the least, it obligates you to step up when one of your colleagues is threatened."

A grandson of Jewish immigrants, Coronell rose quickly in the ranks of Colombia's television journalists. His first "big complication," as he puts it, came in 1986, when he was the young chief editor of a national news show.

His station had aired a training video of a paramilitary death squad with links to drug traffickers, on which the well-armed participants could be heard screaming, "I carry hate against the communist guerrillas! I want blood!" When NBC television aired part of the clip in this country, the scandal widened: One of the trainers was identified as a retired Israeli army colonel.

Coronell's decision to pursue the story cost him personally: Relatives who feared an anti-Semitic backlash asked him to refrain. The reporting on the operation, meanwhile, uncovered a sophistication that belied government characterizations of the squads. Coronell received his first death threats.

As the country slipped deeper into the grip of Medellin cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar, Coronell's reporting kept pace; it included footage of the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan, linked in U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency recordings to Escobar.

Subsequent coverage focused on now-President and former Sen. Alvaro Uribe Velez, whom U.S. intelligence officials in 1991 described as "dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin cartel at high government levels."

Though documents describing that link were not declassified until 2004, Coronell reported in 2002 that a helicopter seized in a major drug-trafficking operation was owned by Uribe's father. New death threats followed.

Then, in April 2005, as Coronell investigated the election of a candidate who reportedly had the backing of a drug trafficker's brother, he received a telephone threat that pierced his core.

"They told me, 'Your daughter yesterday was wearing a red jacket and a white hair bauble,' " Coronell said, breaking down in tears as he recalled the call to his newsroom.

The details were specific: the description of the vehicle that had dropped off then 6-year-old Raquel at school, her schedule, and that of Coronell's wife, "Noticias Uno" anchor Maria Cristina Uribe. "Hug them very well because soon we're going to get them," the caller said. "We're going to have a party. Then we'll kill them and return them to you in pieces."

The next day, two funeral wreaths arrived at the office. One was adorned with his name; the other had the names of his wife and daughter.

E-mail threats followed. With the help of a computer engineer, Coronell said, he tracked them to the home of Carlos Nader Simmonds, a former senator who had served prison time in the U.S. for drug trafficking and is a close friend of President Uribe.

An investigation by Colombia's attorney general has led to charges against a former diplomat, who prosecutors say admitted on videotape to making the phone calls and sending the wreaths. He faces trial Friday, said the attorney general's director of international affairs, Maria Fernanda Cabal.

Coronell said he believes the suspect is not the mastermind. But Cabal called the investigation a success because thousands of threat cases in Colombia go unsolved.

A spokesman for the attorney general's office said the investigation separately concluded that Nader Simmonds libeled Coronell but did not threaten him. Coronell rejected an offer to settle the matter with Nader Simmonds, the spokesman said.

Colombia's Foundation for the Liberty of the Press has documented 19 assassinations, 16 attempts, eight kidnappings and 25 threats against journalists between 2002 and 2005. Carlos Lauria, who coordinates the Americas program of the Committee to Protect Journalists, calls Colombia "one of the most murderous countries in the world" for journalists.

After hearing of the death threats, the committee placed Coronell at Stanford as a senior research fellow with the John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists, which lasts one academic year. By the time it was Coronell's turn to tell the tale of his journalistic past at a dinner for fellows in late April, that program was almost over.

"There wasn't a dry eye among anybody there," said Wolf, who said he reasoned that if, like Coronell, he and the other fellows were on the side "of the people who tell the truth," they were obligated to act.

In the months that followed, letters and e-mails flew. One Stanford fellow persuaded Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) to write on Coronell's behalf to the Colombian Embassy, expressing concern for his safety. Colleagues referred Coronell to a UC Berkeley journalism professor, who hastily arranged a dinner meeting with Harley Shaiken, chairman of the university's Center for Latin American Studies.

"You can't protect free ideas if you have no concern with the people who state those ideas," said Shaiken, who said he attended the meeting with Coronell as a courtesy but instantly was moved to help. "I made a decision at the table. We were going to make this happen, whatever it took."

Shaiken secured $30,000 from George Soros' Open Society Institute. Meanwhile, other Knight fellows solicited $20,000 from the Scholar Rescue Fund, a project of the New York-based Institute of International Education. The institute began shuttling scholars to safety during Russia's Bolshevik Revolution and has placed 103 threatened academics around the world since it formally created the fund in 2002.

Though the fund has a backlog of 1,000 applicants seeking placement, Coronell -- who in Colombia is also a professor of undergraduate and graduate journalism -- faced an imminent threat.

"It was among the most compelling," Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, said of Coronell's case.

As his wife gave birth to a boy in August, Coronell's former Stanford colleagues scrambled to find the family a rental home in the East Bay hills. They furnished it mostly with their hand-me-downs, a grateful Coronell said recently, limping from room to room to show a visitor. (The one piece of decor they did not provide -- a table -- recently fractured the accident-prone Coronell's toe as he struggled to assemble it.)

Raquel, now nearly 8, has expanded her former four-word English vocabulary of "thank you, please, bye" to a nearly accentless chatter. On a recent evening, she proudly flew through the pages of E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web."

Coronell still writes a hard-hitting column for the Colombian weekly Semana, noting in one recent offering that paramilitary strongholds coincide with an aerial map of the country's illicit cocaine production zones.

He is researching his first book and will begin lecturing next semester, though the Center for Latin American Studies still must raise about $20,000 more to support him.

By next year, Coronell hopes, political conditions will have improved sufficiently for his family's return. Speaking out, he added, is also crucial.

"In the place where I am in danger, everyone knows me," Coronell said, leaning on his cane in the quiet night and puffing a cigarette. "I think the visibility is a shield, against everything that has happened -- and anything that might happen."

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leora.romney@latimes.com

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