Colombian newspaper El Espectador marks 129 years with campaign for forgiveness

For El Espectador’s 129th anniversary and in anticipation of the signing of a long-anticipated peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Colombian newspaper is asking readers whom they will forgive.

For the greater part of the last century, Colombians have lived with fighting and violence between state security forces, leftist guerrillas, drug cartels, criminal gangs and paramilitaries. Innocent people were often caught in the middle of these conflicts or were direct targets.

Now, after more than five years of peace talks, the government and FARC are expected to sign a peace deal. Though an original date was set for March 23, President Juan Manuel Santos recently said he wanted to postpone the signing to create a better deal; the FARC has agreed to set a new date.

The note above quotes Mahatma Gandhi, "Do not let the sun die without having killed your grudges." Below the graphic, El Espectador said: "We want you to celebrate with us, telling us, Who do you forgive?"

El Espectador has dedicated pages of its March 15 print and online editions to the idea of forgiveness and has launched a Twitter campaign reaching out to readers.

Newspaper director Fidel Cano Correa wrote that the campaign was not only about the armed conflict.

“Our daily life in Colombia is full of all kinds of conflicts, aggression, profound damage, destroyed lives, large and small pains that hurt our existence and that only voluntary and conscious forgiveness can help us to overcome,” he wrote.

The newspaper published stories of victims and survivors, activists, community leaders, politicians, writers, business people and others.

Teresita Gaviria represents those left behind as a result of violence. Paramilitaries killed her father and brother and disappeared her son. The leader of the Madres of the Candelaria told her story in the March 15 issue of El Espectador and described how she met with guerrillas during the peace talks in Cuba. She wrote, “A very clear message that we want to give the paramilitaries, to the guerrilla, to the common criminals and anyone who has been, is that they tell us the truth. We forgive, but for us, it is fundamental.”

There is also the account of María Carolina Hoyos Turbay, whose mother, journalist Diana Turbay, was kidnapped by the Medellín cartel and later killed as police tried to rescue her. Or Paralympic athlete Moisés Fuentes, who is now in a wheelchair because armed men shot him and his brother in 1992. His brother died. And Alexis Viera, an Uruguayan soccer player who was shot in 2015 by thieves in Cali, Colombia and is now unable to use his legs.

Additionally, in early February, the newspaper asked readers to “paint peace.” Examples from the more than 2,130 submissions were published in the day’s edition and online.

Few people, organizations or companies, including El Espectador, were left untouched by the violence that has ensnared Colombia in these last decades.

On Dec. 17, 1986, Guillermo Cano Isaza, then-editor of El Espectador, was fatally shot while leaving the newspaper’s headquarters in Bogotá. Drug lord Pablo Escobar ordered the hit, according to the paper.

Then, on Sept. 2, 1989, a bomb went off outside the offices of El Espectador, injuring 73 people. And on Oct. 10, 1989, Martha Luz López and Miguel Soler, administrative and circulation managers for the newspaper, were killed in Medellín, causing the newspaper to close its offices in this city.

According to the newspaper, one of the lieutenants of the Medellín cartel later said that Pablo Escobar and Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, known as El Mexicano, ordered the bombing of the offices.

“The motive was the same for which they killed Guillermo Cano: his persistent denunciations against the Medellín cartel and unwavering fight against organized crime,” El Espectador said. “The same murderous crusade threatened, exiled or took the lives of many innocent people for the sole reason of working with the newspaper.”

In a video posted to El Espectador’s Twitter feed on March 15, Fidel Cano Correa, nephew of Cano Isaza, said:  “I forgive all who, so often and in many ways, some very cruel, wanted to silence El Espectador during these 129 years, because forgiveness is what allows us to move forward.”

Cano Correa, in his note to readers, asked them to use the hashtag #YoPerdono (#IForgive) to share their “stories of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

“Congratulations to @elespectador for a courageous campaign #YoPerdono in times when some (as always) ask for blood and few reflect,” a user wrote.

Journalist Carlos García said, “#YoPerdono the doctors of EPS who sent my dead to die and did not detect, on time, the cancer that killed him.”

However, in Colombia, the peace talks between the government and FARC are controversial, as is the idea of forgiveness.

“Forgiveness COMES from the victim. If the victimization does not change, IT IS USELESS. It is even WORSE,” one user wrote in response to a Twitter post by El Espectador with a link to Cano Correa’s videoFORGIVENESS WITHOUT REPENTANCE from those who victimized only guarantees repetition. It is a reward for their atrocities.”

Another said, “False STRATEGY to silence the people and strengthen their business. Just commercial journalism, do not fall for it.”

El Espectador was founded by Fidel Cano Gutiérrez on March 22, 1887 in Medellín, Colombia as "a political, literary, news and industry newspaper." It later relocated to Bogotá, where the headquarters are still located. It is considered "one of the oldest [newspapers] in Colombia and America, and one of the most significant in the history of the country," according to a post on the Colombian National Library's website.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.