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mathew charles

Luis Carlos Cervantes

Luis Carlos Cervantes had a passion for journalism that was infectious.

He was the director of a local radio station in Taraza, Colombia, and his determination to pursue stories that most reporters do not dare to touch had made him a popular man in his community.

On Aug. 12, he was shot dead as he picked his son up from school.

Taraza is one of six municipalities that make up the region of Bajo Cauca in the department of Antioquia. It is home to leftist rebels and criminal gangs made up of former paramilitaries. The Andean mountains on either side are covered with plantations of coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine. Whoever controls this region of 400,000 people, controls access to the coca harvest and drug smuggling routes north to the Caribbean and west to the Pacific Ocean.

The region is also home to some of the bravest journalists I have ever met. Leiderman Ortiz is one of them. His relentless pursuit and passion to expose criminal activity in Caucasia, the largest town in the Bajo Cauca, has made him a target for the gangs. His monthly newspaper, The Truth of the Town, is a bible of investigative journalism.

The most amazing thing about Leiderman is that he works alone. He is the newspaper. He does the journalism, the design and even the printing.

Leiderman has survived several attempts on his life. He has permanent armed guards and the latest threat came just two weeks ago when one of the gangs named him publically as a target on their hit list.

"It's very worrying," Leiderman told me, "But unfortunately it comes with the territory."

Luis, who had become a good friend since I met him two years ago, had been receiving death threats since 2010. His reporting on the violence and corruption that is so endemic in Taraza had made him many enemies. It also made him many friends and admirers. In fact, his radio station is the only media outlet in the town, but in the past year, Luis gave up "doing news," as he put it.

This decision gave him an overwhelming sense of guilt. He believed he was not only failing his profession, but also society. "If I want to stay alive, or more importantly, if I want my family to be safe, this is just something I have to live with. But it's hard," he told me in June.

For two years, Luis had permanent armed security provided by the Colombian government. However, this protection was revoked two weeks before his murder. The organization in charge of assessing the threat to Luis, the National Unit for Protection (UNP), decided armed guards were no longer necessary for his security.

The UNP provided security for 116 journalists in 2013. This has fallen to just 80 this year. The Colombian government spends $7.5-million (U.S.) annually on protecting reporters, but this month the Interior Ministry announced major budget cuts to the program.

Omar Martinez is another journalist in Caucasia who has received several death threats. But he is still waiting for his security detail to arrive. He was promised protection on Sept. 8, but so far nobody has come to protect him. He has sent his son to live with family in Venezuela because he fears for his safety.

Luis is the first journalist to be murdered this year in Colombia, a country where 42 reporters have been killed since 1992. Fortunately, the number of slain journalists has fallen quite dramatically in recent years, but let us not be fooled by the statistics. According to the Foundation for Press Freedom in Bogota (FLIP), fewer murders are not a result of improved security, but testimony to the silence and self-censorship, which have become a reality for hundreds of reporters in Colombia's conflict zones.

In 2013, 47 per cent of journalists surveyed by FLIP admitted to not publishing a story because of the threat to their personal safety.

The cowards who killed Luis have taken the life of a brilliant man, husband and father.

I wish I could say that such a thoughtless and callous act of violence would not help whoever killed my friend achieve their goals. But the fact of the matter is that it will. The truth of the matter is that it already has. Luis's assailants had managed to silence him even before pulling the trigger. It makes his murder all the more painful.

Taraza, like so many other towns and villages in Colombia, is now a town without journalism, without reporters, without news. Corruption, crime and conflict are left unquestioned and unexposed.

In these towns and villages, ignored by the national mainstream media, there is only silence. And the silence, as they say, is deafening.

It makes the work of journalists like Leiderman and Omar even more incredible. Despite the very real risk to their lives, they continue to pursue and expose wrongdoing.

They are the lone voices determined to break the silence. It is a very solitary crusade, and even a thankless task. But this is no deterrent.

"The only other option is to be quiet. To ignore what is happening around us. And I could never do that," said Omar.

Mathew Charles is a freelance journalist based in Bogota and a PhD candidate at Cardiff University in the U.K.. His thesis examines the role of regional journalism in Colombia's conflict zones