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Slinging Words at the World’s Goliaths

by Juan Pablo Pérez-Burgos, 2023 Journalism Fellow

Laura Ardila made me fall for journalism. In the two years we worked together in Barranquilla (a city of over a million, the most populous on Colombia's Caribbean coast), she showed me that real-life stories could hold beauty just like fiction or poetry. She opened my eyes to a world bigger than thorough interviewing, ledecrafting, alternating short and long sentences, and killing reiterative conclusions. Above all, she taught me that to tell the meaningful stories of a country as hostile to scrutiny as Colombia, I had to overcome my own fears and insecurities. And so, I learned to call without hesitating, hitchhike through the Caribbean, bargain with every taxi driver, let go of every insult, and not yield to anyone, no matter who they are: the Vice-President, congresspeople, corrupt politicians, civil advocates, journalists, ex-guerrillas, ex-paramilitaries Always ask the relevant questions. Never yield. Never fear. And a month ago, a couple of days after our fellowship in Berlin and Krakow ended, Laura offered me a final lesson.

As she's one of my closest friends (she gave a speech at my wedding!), we have been in touch regularly since I moved to Berkeley. We always come back to her first book, based on the reporting she has done for the last eight years in Barranquilla. After three years of writing and reporting, the book was scheduled to be published at the end of June. I was to fly to Berlin then. Naturally, I asked my wife to buy the book so I could read it once I came back. But on July 9, when I was still in Krakow, I received a shocking text from Laura. 

It was a link to her weekly op-ed in El Espectador, one of Colombia's leading newspapers, about how her book had been censored. Planeta, the publisher with whom she was working (one of the biggest in the Spanish-speaking world), decided at the last minute that her book would not be published. A few days earlier, she had been called to an unexpected meeting at Planeta where "in a conversation that lasted half an hour,"1 Mariana Marczuk, editorial director of Planeta for the Andean region, notified her that the corporation decided not to publish her book. She told Laura that the company "didn't "want to run the legal risk of a possible lawsuit."2 After three years of working with an editor who only complimented her, after an independent group of lawyers read the book and recommended it go forward, after Marczuk herself called the book a "jewel of investigative journalism," after a team of designers created the cover, after a photographer took Laura's professional photos, and even after possible release dates were scheduled—after all that, Planeta’s heads in Spain simply decided that her work wouldn’t see the light of day.

There was no precedent for this in Colombia.

Why had the book’s publication been canceled? Why did Planeta express this concern after three years of hard work not just by Laura but also by their own employees?

Could there be someone who convinced Planeta to pivot at the last minute?

Most of these questions remain unanswered. What I can tell you, however, is what the book is about. For nearly a decade, Laura has systematically covered the Char family. With a fortune of around $400 million3 they stand among Colombia's wealthiest and most powerful cliques. They influence almost every aspect of life in Barranquilla. They own the largest supermarket chain in the region, the most popular radio station in the country, the local soccer team, and a bank; like almost every rich family in Colombia, of course, they have ventured into politics. The Chars have unanimously controlled Barranquilla's city council for over fifteen years, even electing the last two governors of Atlántico (the department, the Colombian equivalent of a state, to which Barranquilla belongs). Their influence has surpassed the Caribbean and reached national politics. Fuad Char (the family's patriarch) has a group of six congresspersons that follow his orders; his son, Arturo, was president of the Congress three years ago; his other son, Alejandro, better known as Álex, mayor of Barranquilla for eight years, is running again for another four-year term. Last year, he ran for president. 

Laura's book, as she puts it, "tries to explain the lights and shadows of this group that holds so much power."4 No one has a problem with the lights: the Char family has no problem when reporters celebrate their successes. It's speaking about the shadows that brings trouble. It's reporting on the corruption scandals or the problematic contractual system the family has established in Barranquilla, one which allows a considerable chunk of the city's budget to end up in the hands of their supporters, that causes problems. At bottom, they make public scrutiny almost impossible and impossibly dangerous. In these eight years of reporting, Laura has had her notes stolen by gunmen and received multiple threatening messages. I have seen this with my own two eyes while covering Barranquilla's politics with her. One time, I was even assaulted when, on election day, I took a photo of some of their allies buying votes in Sincelejo, a small sweltering city on the Caribbean coast.

Planeta censoring Laura's book was shocking, but, in the end, it was no surprise. It was just another chapter in what has proven a long story about Caribbean corruption. 

"I publish this story [about her book not being published] because I think it is not just regrettable, but of public interest that a relevant journalistic investigation cannot see the light. Citizens lose when they can't access information. I consider, too, that it is a strong message that can inhibit colleagues from thinking of similar projects,"5 Laura writes.

Fortunately, those who wanted to kill the book didn’t get away with it. Justice, even if only in small ways, does sometimes prevail. After Laura wrote her op-ed, a wave of solidarity swept over the Colombian journalistic and editorial milieu. Journalists, the Colombian Foundation for Freedom of Speech, and writers, supported her. She was interviewed by almost every news outlet in Colombia (except, of course, the ones that never publish pieces that find the Char’s disfavor). She was even a guest on El Hilo, a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, the most popular podcast network in Latin America. Juan David Correa, Planeta's editorial director, left his position after five years in charge. "In light of the corporate decision to cancel this serious and solid journalistic investigation, my possibilities and legitimacy have been decimated. An editor needs, without doubt, the support and the liberty to think and decide what conversations they propose to a society,"6 he wrote in his resignation letter.  

Fun fact: After his resignation, Correa was named by President Gustavo Petro, a fierce opponent of the Char family, as minister of culture. I joked with Laura about how she had managed to move the strings of Colombian politics.

Less than two weeks after the scandal, Laura found a new publisher, one willing to take the risk of putting out her book. Quickly and unexpectedly, it’s now a bestseller! As Laura told me in a phone call, her debut book sold over 1,000 copies in presale, an unprecedented number in Colombia. La Costa Nostra—a wordplay using the Spanish word "Costa" (coast) and the Italian term "cosa nostra" (our thing), an allusion to the Sicilian mafia—was finally released on August 26. After only two weeks, it had sold over 10,000 copies, and it’s already in its second edition.

Divine justice, some might say.

I prefer to frame it as a hard-won battle in the ongoing war against silence in Colombia. For decades, journalists in the country have been kidnapped, tortured, exiled, and killed. Although there are still a couple of murders per year, things are thankfully not as violent as they were 20 or 30 years ago. But those in power still use the tools at their disposal to enforce silence: mounting frivolous lawsuits, accusing journalists of political militancy, libeling them, pressuring their editors, insulting them, and, in the most extreme cases, threatening them with physical harm. The methods might have changed, but the goal is still the same: adjusting the truth to fit their ambitions, to preserve the status quo.

"I resist any censorship and burying or taming of truths. The weapons to do so are the only ones pedigree journalists have: courage and words," Laura Ardila writes. "Sometimes, or almost always, these are just David's sling, but it doesn't matter. Because silence is never an option."7

This was Laura's last journalistic lesson for me. Societies can't flourish in silence. If a community wants to acknowledge, as democracy implies, that every human being has the same, inalienable rights, it needs to allow, even nurture, public conversations about the truth; even if these are uncomfortable, the truth is worth it. This is where journalism and journalists come in.  

From Nazi Germany to Putin's Russia, to the Trumpist U.S., and even boiling-over Latin America, journalists have known that there can be no real democracy if silence reigns. Authoritarianism rears its head when there is no space for public discussion. Our weapons for this battle seem weak; courage and words feel like a tiny sling compared to the money, the lawyers, and the guns readily available to the enemies of truth. Sometimes, writing about the powerful feels like shooting pebbles at a giant. At times, it all seems pointless. But, when this bleakness looms, it's worth remembering that, just as Laura taught me, words are slings. Indeed, they are. But, despite their tininess, they are the slings that threaten our modern-day Goliaths.

Juan Pablo Pérez-Burgos was a 2023 FASPE Journalism Fellow. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.


  1. Ardila Arrieta, Laura. 2023. “El libro sobre los Char que Planeta censuró.” ELESPECTADOR.COM, July 10, 2023. https://www.elespectador.com/opinion/columnistas/laura-ardila-arrieta/el-libro-sobre-loschar-que-planeta-censuro/.
  2. Ibid. https://www.elespectador.com/opinion/columnistas/laura-ardila-arrieta/el-libro-sobre-los-charque-planeta-censuro/.
  3. Staff, Forbes. 2020. “Hermanos Char Abdala e hijos | Millonarios en Colombia 2020.” Forbes Colombia, April 12, 2020. https://forbes.co/2020/04/10/actualidad/hermanos-char-abdala-e-hijosmillonarios-en-colombia-2020.
  4. Ardila Arrieta, Laura. 2023. “El libro sobre los Char que Planeta censuró.” ELESPECTADOR.COM, July 10, 2023. https://www.elespectador.com/opinion/columnistas/laura-ardila-arrieta/el-libro-sobre-loschar-que-planeta-censuro/.
  5. Ibid. https://www.elespectador.com/opinion/columnistas/laura-ardila-arrieta/el-libro-sobre-los-charque-planeta-censuro/.
  6. Cambio. 2023. “Esta Es La Carta de Renuncia de Juan David Correa a Editorial Planeta Colombia Por No Publicar Libro Sobre El Clan Char | Cambio Colombia.” Cambio Colombia, July 12, 2023. https://cambiocolombia.com/cultura/esta-es-la-carta-de-renuncia-juan-david-correa-editorialplaneta-colombia.
  7. Ardila Arrieta, Laura. 2023. “El libro sobre los Char que Planeta censuró.” ELESPECTADOR.COM, July 10, 2023. https://www.elespectador.com/opinion/columnistas/laura-ardila-arrieta/el-libro-sobre-loschar-que-planeta-censuro/.