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Guillermo Cano, Colombia

World Press Freedom Hero (Honoured in 2000)

Guillermo Cano was murdered by two hired killers in front of his newspaper’s office in Bogotá on Dec. 17, 1986. One of the assassins rushed toward Cano’s car and fired his submachine gun eight times at the journalist before speeding off with his accomplice on a motorcycle in the heavy pre-Christmas traffic. The day before his murder, Cano said in an interview, “The problem about our business is that we never know if we are going to return home at night.”

Cano’s commitment to freedom of opinion and expression and the circumstances surrounding his death have come to symbolize the heavy price paid by journalists around the world in the pursuit of truth. In his memory the UNESCO/ Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize is awarded each year on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, to a person, organization or institution making a significant contribution to the defense of press freedom anywhere in the world.

Guillermo Cano Isaza was born in Bogotá on Aug. 12, 1925. At 17, he began writing about bullfighting for the national daily, El Espectador, which was run by his father. After working as a copy editor, he launched the newspaper’s Sunday magazine and was a correspondent in Europe before being named editor of the paper in 1952 at age 27.

In the early 1980s, at a time when drug traffickers ordered the murder of more than 50 judges, a justice minister, a Supreme Court justice and the chief of the anti-drug police, Cano attacked the drug cartels in his editorials and regular column, “Libreta de Apuntes” (Notebook). Because he felt that his country’s institutions were not strong enough to convict the powerful drug lords, he supported the extradition of Colombian drug traffickers to the United States. Because of Cano and El Espectador, the notorious boss of the Medellín Cartel, Pablo Escobar, quickly identified those investigative reporters who took the lead among Colombia’s media in exposing the activities of the drug gangs, as his major enemies.

Cano’s courage and defense of press freedom earned him the National Journalism Award in 1986. Later that year, he was murdered by contract killers upon the orders of Pablo Escobar. The day after Cano’s murder, while Escobar and his men held victory parties in Medellín, a funeral procession attended by thousands of Colombians accompanied Cano’s body to a cemetery on the outskirts of Bogotá. The media did not publish or broadcast that day.

The slaying of a national daily’s publisher shook the foundation of Colombian society and was the prelude to a wave of violence against the country’s journalists. Since then, Colombia has been established as the most dangerous country in Latin America to work as a journalist. Over 100 journalists have been killed, at least half because of their work, and most of these murders have been committed without prosecution.

For El Espectador, which continued its campaign against the drug traffickers, Cano’s murder was only the beginning of a relentless campaign against its editors and reporters. Cano’s two sons, Juan Guillermo and Fernando, who shared the paper’s top editorial positions, received death threats. Four other reporters were forced into exile after receiving similar threats. Distribution of the paper was sabotaged and the Medellín office closed down after the circulation director and office manager were killed. The violence against El Espectador culminated in 1989, when the Cano family lawyer was murdered, the newspaper’s building was destroyed by a 300-pound bomb and the Cano family summer house was burned down.

Cano’s murder investigation took nine years and was fraught with irregularities. The Medellín Cartel infiltrated the judiciary, bribing judges, court officials and jurors. One judge was murdered and another forced to flee the country. A third judge’s father was slain. The hit men suspected of having killed Cano, Alvaro García Saldarriaga and Luis Eduardo Osorio, were themselves murdered in an effort to erase any traces. Finally, in October 1995 María Ofelia Saldarriaga, Pablo Enrique Zamora, Luis Carlos Molina Yepes and Carlos Martinez Hernández were found guilty of conspiring to commit murder. They were sentenced to 16 years and eight months in prison, but Bogotá’s Superior Tribunal revoked the decision in July 1996 and ruled that Saldarriaga, Zamora and Martinez were innocent. The sentence against Molina Yepes, who was captured by the police in February 1997, was upheld.

Some colleagues saw Cano as obsessed with the influence of Pablo Escobar, who was killed by police in 1993, and other drug lords. Most Colombian journalists now agree that he was among the first to recognize the danger that the encroaching drug trade posed for Colombian democracy. “Guillermo kept up his fight against the drug traffickers, no matter what,” his brother Luis Gabriel said. “He felt if we didn’t stop them, the drug gangs would want to run the government.”