Post-attack, top reporter worries his cover blown

Libardo Cardona, Associated Press
Post-attack, top reporter worries his cover blown

This Thursday, May 9, 2013 photo, shows issues of Semana magazine featuring investigative reports written by journalist Ricardo Calderon, in Bogota, Colombia. Calderon's most recent investigative series for Semana magazine exposed the scandalously luxurious life of military officers jailed for crimes including murder and genocide at Tolemaida army base. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- His exclusives have triggered some of Colombia's biggest scandals, leading to the dismissals, arrests and prosecutions of dozens of crooked, sometimes murderous public officials.

Yet in this age of social media saturation and in-your-face journalistic ego, Ricardo Calderon continues to shun the limelight. To the public, this old-fashioned gumshoe reporter's face is unknown.

Now, the prize-winning reporter fears, his cover has been blown.

Gunmen surprised Calderon last week when he stopped to relieve himself by the side of a rural road, pumping five bullets into his car as he dove into a ditch, escaping unscathed.

When his legs stopped shaking uncontrollably and the immediate danger passed, the 42-year-old investigative editor of Colombia's leading newsmagazine was gripped by a different fear: Could he be doomed professionally?

Suddenly, he was saddled with security detail of eight police bodyguards. He's since got it down to three.

"The object is to go back to moving alone, like before," he told The Associated Press. Sensitive sources tend to clam up when an investigative reporter arrives with an entourage.

At least his picture isn't circulating. And as for Twitter and Facebook, you won't find Calderon there.

"I have a phobia of photos," Calderon said. "I've taken it to a ridiculous extreme, really, for years so that there is no photograph of me anywhere."

Calderon's most recent investigative series for Semana magazine exposed the scandalously luxurious life of military officers jailed for crimes including murder and crimes against humanity at Tolemaida army base, a story he was working on last week when at least two gunmen opened fire after pulling up alongside his car just after dark and calling out his name.

It was the first attempt on the life of a Semana journalist in the magazine's 30 years and it sent shock waves through the news media and human rights communities because of Calderon's stature.

Until recently, provincial Colombian journalists were regularly hunted down and killed for exposing corruption, denouncing drug traffickers or reporting on other aspects of country's half-century-old civil conflict.

Colombia's independent Free Press Foundation counts 140 journalists murdered since 1977.

Calderon joined Semana 17 years later. He spent much of the late 1990s covering the conflict, then peace talks with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces. When arch-conservative Alvaro Uribe won the presidency in 2002, and launched a peace dialogue with far-right militias known as paramilitaries, Calderon began to shine.

He had taken aim at provincial politicians' ties with the paramilitaries, who were formed in the 1980s to counteract leftist rebels but evolved into drug-trafficking, land-thieving criminal gangs who killed more civilians than guerrillas.

That June, Calderon published the contents of a phone conversation in which then-Sen. Alvaro Garcia and rancher Joaquin Garcia discussed their participation the massacre of 15 peasants two years earlier in a place called Macayepo.

It would be the first of a series of cases to expose what would become known as "parapolitics" and that led to the jailing of at least 70 lawmakers for collusion with the militias. The ex-senator was later convicted of ordering the Macayepo massacre and sentenced to 40 years in prison. The rancher is a fugitive.

Calderon, who is married without children and is the eldest of three siblings, says he's not the most skilled of writers. But his colleagues say no one has matched him for cover stories.

"He is a very timid man, a man whose timidity turns out to be an enormous virtue because he listens a lot and doesn't talk much," said Daniel Coronell, news director at Univision and a longtime Semana columnist.

Calderon is nothing if not informal. He says he only remembers wearing a tie twice. He works in an office that looks more like an archive store room, its steel shelves neatly stacked with binders.

Calderon in many ways is heedless of his own well-being: He eschews exercise, smokes at least a pack and a half of cigarettes a day, eats at odd hours, drinks coffee all day.

"He's a journalist out of a novel," said co-worker Claudia Garcia.

It was Calderon's work, in large part, that landed Uribe's first DAS domestic intelligence agency chief, Jorge Noguera, in prison.

He wrote in 2003 that Noguera was working with the paramilitaries. Seven years later, Noguera was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison for giving them information that helped them kill leftist university professor Alfredo Correa de Andreis.

Calderon's biggest scoop would follow.

In February 2009, he revealed that the DAS had been illegally spying on Supreme Court judges, prominent journalists, human rights activists and political foes of Uribe.

More than 20 DAS agents would end up in prison — and a former DAS director, Maria del Pilar Hurtado, in exile in Panama — after an investigation that grew out of the Noguera case and become, at one point, quite dangerous.

In 2009, two of Calderon's sources were killed, he said. "That really takes its toll on you. And one source, someone threw grenades into his house. It was a miracle he survived."

Calderon also got repeated phone death threats and three funeral wreaths, a popular Colombian way of saying 'shut up or I'll kill you.'

The people Calderon worries have tried to keep tabs. In November, a tiny listening device was found hidden in the overhead lamp in his office.

Calderon's latest big journalistic adventure began last year.

He managed to get into the prison at the Tolemaida base in the central Magdalena River valley near Bogota, where he discovered that officers convicted of heinous crimes were coming and going as they pleased.

"Officers sentenced to more than 30 years were heading out on shopping trips to Bogota, going out partying and continued to run businesses," Calderon wrote in April. He managed to film one convicted murderer in a Bogota department store.

On May 1, still reporting the story, a scheduled appointment near Tolemaida fell through. A source didn't show. Calderon thinks it could have been a trap.

He was ambushed as he returned. Informed of the attack, President Santos, Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Press Association all demanded a quick and thorough investigation.

Colombia's chief prosecutor, Eduardo Montealegre, immediately pulled together a team of investigators.

"It was an attempt to silence him, Semana and journalism in general," said Marta Ruiz, a leading Colombian investigative journalist. "I think it comes from sectors whose corrupt business interests have been and continue to be exposed by Ricardo. But knowing Ricardo, they won't shut him up."

Calderon also believes the attempt was related to his work. He said he doesn't yet know whom to blame and, far from being cowed by the attack, is launching his own investigation.

"The only thing they did was to get me riled up."


Associated Press writer Vivian Sequera in Bogota and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.

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