Intro from Jay Allison: Transom likes to help first-time producers. That's part of our point. And, we're interested in people with experience in other professions who want to move toward telling stories in public radio. We've even assisted (suckered?) doctors and lawyers to change their professions.Paul Bieber is a private investigator. He searches for evidence in cases from insurance fraud to murder. Lately, he's decided to get into human rights investigations and went to Colombia to interview victims of paramilitary violence. This violence may have been funded by multinational corporations, a claim that Paul was beginning to investigate, and he wanted to tell the story for radio.
About Scene of the Crime
This summer I traveled to Colombia on a 10-day fact finding mission organized by Witness for Peace, a Washington-based social justice organization. Witness for Peace had scheduled ten long days of interviews with human rights activists, union leaders, displaced farmers, and witnesses and victims of paramilitary violence. I’m a private investigator and working on a graduate degree in Legal Studies focusing on human rights investigations, so the delegation to the Magdalena and Cesar regions of Colombia was right up my alley. The focus of the trip was Human Rights violations, corporate abuse, and internally displaced persons, specifically in relation to lawsuits against Dole, Chiquita and Drummond Mine Company. As a law student I was interested in the legal issues of bringing allegations of human rights abuses in U.S. courts. As an investigator I was interested in the difficulties of gathering evidence of crimes that occurred years ago and in another country.
I’m also an avid NPR listener and I’ve always been interested in radio documentaries. At least once a week I come across a subject and think, “this would be a great radio piece”. It seemed like the Colombia trip had all the makings for a compelling radio documentary. So about a month before my trip I sent an email to Transom.org to see if they could suggest someone to produce a radio piece regarding the ties between these multi-national corporations operating in Colombia and paramilitary terrorists. The next thing I knew, recording equipment was arriving by FedEx. My intention was to produce an investigative piece, not a reflection on my experiences. But as Jay Allison told me, “You know you have a good story when it’s not the one you intended to tell.”
We ask on behalf all the Pauls out there.
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I had read about similar lawsuits, where the plaintiff’s are trying to prove in U.S. courts that crimes were committed in another country, crimes that occurred years ago. As an investigator I’ve been involved in death-scene investigations, but the body was usually still warm…or at least there was a body. In the Chiquita lawsuit there are nearly 250 victims, and in the Dole lawsuit there are over 50 more. That’s 300 crime scenes, 300 bodies. Of course, in reality, there aren’t any crimes scenes; the crime scenes have been gone for years. And there aren’t any bodies, unless they’re dug up. How were the plaintiffs going to prove any of this? And I have seen cases were people that were thought to be dead were found to be very much alive. Could that be happening here? I was fascinated. I still am.
The challenges in Colombia began right away. As an investigator I’m used to working on my own. But in Colombia I was in a group with nine others and two group leaders. The leaders of the group were terrific and had done a great job scheduling meetings and interviews, but working in a group is always difficult, especially when it comes to conducting interviews. The group interviews were less focused than I would have liked, and the background noise made effective recording impossible. So I ended up sitting through the incredibly long group meetings, and then asking for a private interview in a quiet environment where I could more intently probe. Because we were on a tight schedule I missed some good interview opportunities and the chance to record background noise and ambiance that would have come in handy during production.
One of the first people we met was Edguardo Cabrara, a human rights activist. He became our guide to the plaintiffs and their stories. Edguardo took us to speak with a group of fishermen and their families who had been displaced by paramilitary violence and now lived in Boca de Aracataca, a mudflat next to the Magdalena River. As rain poured down on us, children played soccer in the mud and community leaders told us their personal sagas of being displaced in their own land. While the group spoke with the villagers I had a chance to take Eduardo aside for his own interview, one of the few times in our nearly 10 days together that we were able to speak privately.
We met with the coalminer’s union at their headquarters in Cieniga. As a group we spoke with union members who knew and had worked with the union leaders whose murders led to the first of the lawsuits against Drummond Mines. Again, as group interviews continued, I was able to pull various union leaders aside and interview them privately in an empty office.
Later in the trip we visited the coalmining region where Drummond has its La Loma mining operation. And we visited Nuevo Milenio, the encampment of displaced farmers that has sprung up at the base of the mountain where the coalmine could be seen in the distance.
In Nuevo Milenio there is no water or sewage service, and the little electricity they have is hijacked from a nearby neighborhood. Many of the shack walls are built with the plastic bags that used to carry the explosives at the coalmine that blew up the farmer’s land.
So we looked around and we talked with a lot of people, but things didn’t get much clearer. With each interview came a new allegation and for each allegation the companies have an explanation. And I still haven’t seen any bodies. The only thing that’s indisputable is the suffering borne by the victims. Beyond that, it depends on whom you talk to. In Colombia, where the evidence is marred by politics, emotion and time, conclusions are hard to come by.