On the first day that Jineth Bedoya Lima arrived for work at the offices of Colombia National Radio in Bogota, she was assigned to cover a story that would become her life. That day, in December 1996, her task was to report on a riot at what is probably the most dangerous prison in the world, La Modelo, a focal point for trafficking in drugs and arms between state forces, cartels and rival militias.
Less than four years later, on May 25, 2000, Bedoya returned to the jail after the massacre of 42 prisoners by inmates belonging to fascist paramilitary groups who were terrifying the country. This time, she was seized at the prison gates, kidnapped, tortured and raped by the paramilitaries’ men on the outside.
Three years later, she was kidnapped and held again, this time by the militia that the fascists claimed to be fighting: the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).
Then, in 2009, Bedoya emerged from this wind tunnel of violence and violation and, with resilience that defies imagination, became the voice of the innumerable thousands of survivors and victims of Colombia’s greatest hidden crime; described by a report published this month as the “habitual, extensive and systematic” kidnap and rape of women in the country’s internal wars.
Earlier this month, Bedoya toured Britain and Ireland to lobby politicians and rally supporters as a new movement calling itself: “Now is not the Time to Stay Silent” bursts defiantly into the open, as well as to promote the report, compiled by the London-based advocacy project ABColombia.
She is slight of frame in a way that belies her gale-force energy.
Asked why she did not, as most would, crawl away into a cave after these experiences, she said: “How did I overcome my fear, when it looked like my life was over? How did I continue as a woman and a journalist when faced with this black wall? I needed to know what happened. When I leave this world, I need to have known what happened to Jineth Bedoya, to my colleagues and so many other women.”
Bedoya was born in 1974 to parents who — like millions of other Colombians — were displaced to Bogota from the countryside by the long civil war that the country calls La Violencia (the violence). She grew up in the fallout of that war, as narco lord Pablo Escobar waged his cartel’s battle against state and society. Bedoya began working as a reporter on the slipstream of that war, after Escobar was killed and his empire fragmented into a labyrinth of paramilitary units and new cartels, while the state armed forces, Marxist guerrillas and gangs calling themselves combos mobilized further murderous forces.
“After that first day, when I had been the only reporter granted access to the jail, I began to work on what I found out there,” Bedoya told the Observer. “Complicity by the army in many of the massacres carried out by the paramilitaries and ways in which the military were arming the paramilitaries, some members of the military were even selling weapons to FARC.”
She said she was not “working then on the violation of women, but I can see now that as well as being furious at what I was writing, they were offended by the fact I was a woman — young, pretty, petite, but sticking my nose into their affairs.”
Honing in on the corrupt and vicious duplicities of Colombia’s wars, Bedoya moved to the newspaper El Espectador, and in May 2000, secured an interview with a paramilitary leader jailed in La Modelo who went by the name of El Panadero, “the Baker.”