Colombia seems to be a hotspot for constant conflict, yet the recent peace deal between the government and the FARC has been cause for hope.
Below, our student fellow Connie E spoke with Angelika Albaladejo about her on-the-ground observations as a freelance multimedia journalist based in Medellín, Colombia. Angelika’s work focuses on human rights, security, women’s rights, gender-based violence and social protest in Latin America, with an eye on U.S. policy and assistance to the region.
Between April 2015 and August 2016, Angelika worked as a Program Associate with the Latin America Working Group (LAWG) where she engaged in research, writing, advocacy and communications work for the organization’s campaigns on Colombia, Cuba, and the “northern triangle” countries of Central America: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Previous to working at LAWG, Angelika was the Latin America Rights and Security Fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP) in the fall of 2014 and the co-host and co-producer of Periphery, an independent podcast on security and rights in the Americas from 2014 to 2015.
Fun fact: “I ran a small business called ‘Vans-Gogh: Hand-Painted Shoes’ through college, painting shoes and other clothing items for clients around the world.”
FPI: Why have you chosen to report on Latin America and the issues around human rights, gender and security?
My interest in Latin America was sparked by my family’s background. My mother is from Cuba, her family was exiled after the revolution there and my father’s family is from Puerto Rico. Growing up in South Florida around a very large Hispanic population, I was very interested in Latino politics. When I went to study at George Mason, I thought I would focus on the United States, but my research on the conflict in Colombia set me forward on this path of working on security in Latin America. I started researching issues of human trafficking and girl child combatants in the Colombian conflict and that’s really where my interest was peaked in how security situations throughout the Americas are impacting various groups but particularly women and marginalized communities.
My career started off more on the think tank and advocacy side of things in D.C. I was working mostly on U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America and the impact that U.S. policies were having in the region.
After working in D.C. for about two years, I decided to pick up, move to the region and spend time doing more fieldwork. I’d had an experience doing fieldwork in El Salvador with the Latin America Working Group. It sparked my interest in doing more on-the-ground reporting and that’s why I decided to move to Colombia.
FPI: What did you find to be the biggest difference between reporting on the ground as opposed to policy research in D.C.?
There is a lot to learn from working in policy circles in a place like Washington D.C., particularly because I had so much exposure to visiting governmental offices such as the State Department and the offices of members of Congress. There is a different kind of policy understanding you can get from that work, but for me, I think it’s very important to spend time on the ground and to meet the people that are impacted by these policies in their daily lives. These people may have recommendations of what kinds of solutions might work in their communities when it comes to widespread violence or issues of inequality.
The United States has a significant impact on the region and part of the work I do is to help elevate the voices of the people who are being impacted by U.S. policies and those of their home country.
FPI: How has the transition into freelancing been for you?
Being a freelancer has been very exciting for me because it gives me a lot of flexibility to research and report on issues that I think are sometimes overlooked. For example, I’ve focused a lot on the impacts of the ongoing violence between gangs and security forces in El Salvador through the lens of its impacts on women, which is a group that isn’t always discussed in news articles because they aren’t necessarily the ones who are targeted and killed in quite as high numbers. But there are a lot of other indicators of violence and I’ve tried to focus on them through my work. Another example is my recent article for World Policy Journal’s all-women issue, guest-edited by Foreign Policy Interrupted. It’s about restrictive reproductive policies in El Salvador, Colombia, and the U.S.
Some of the difficulties are definitely having the confidence to put yourself out there and to build relationships with editors and other journalists in the field that are doing work that you respect and follow. I think I’ll have to be more open to asking for help from journalists who are a few steps ahead of me. It’s a steep learning curve, but also a great opportunity as well. If I hadn’t made the decision to just jump in straight away, then I might never have tried this new experience that has really helped me to delve into the issues that I’m very passionate about in a deeper way.
FPI: What’s it like to be living through this tumultuous time in Colombia? If you go by headlines alone, one might think the country is in a constant bifurcated struggle. Is that the feel on the ground?
Perception of how much violence is taking place in Colombia depends on what region you are in.
Historically, in the more than 50 years of conflict between the Colombian security forces and the FARC, most violence has been concentrated in rural areas and has disproportionally impacted Afro and indigenous Colombians. In urban cities like Medellín, there have also been very clear impacts of the conflict. In Comuna 13, a neighborhood very close to where I’m living, there was a major military operation called ‘Operation Orion’ in 2002. Many of the disappeared members of the community have still not been located fourteen years later.
There is tension in the country, but also excitement about the peace agreement. There is a lot within the agreement that civil society groups and human rights defenders have supported. But there are also a lot of obstacles to peace in the country that need to be addressed and monitored. There is still another guerrilla force, the ELN, that has only just begun peace talks with the government and there will be defectors from the FARC who will not demobilize. There are also several powerful organized crime groups that control large swaths of the country. So there’s a lot that will still need to be monitored in order for the implementation of the peace agreement to move forward.
FPI: Have you ever felt your being a woman was a challenge?
I have been very lucky throughout my career to come across organizations that are very embracing of having women’s voices present. I also worked under very strong female bosses, which gave me more confidence in my work because I was able to see other women who are already advanced in the field. But there are definitely still situations of discrimination. I’ve experienced a few of these situations myself because I’m very young and I am a woman. I’ve butted heads at times with male bosses who have not always valued how outspoken I am or perhaps felt threatened by it.
I think anywhere in the world, there is always going to be some aspect of gender discrimination even when interviewing sources for reported piece, I can sometimes feel I’m not taken very seriously, particularly by men. However, at times this can work to my benefit if someone underestimates me and feels more comfortable opening up to me about sensitive information.
FPI: What do you tell yourself to overcome those challenges? Do you have any tips for fellow interruptors?
I’ll admit that I have a lot of anxiety about a lot of the work that I do and feel the pressure of wanting to produce quality work that will elevate the voices of those that I’m speaking to.
As an introvert, I also sometimes have difficulty with feeling comfortable reaching out to others, whether it’s to conduct interviews or to get advice from others in the field, but I’ve had to learn ways to push myself pass that. For anyone who is just starting to break into any field, it’s incredibly helpful to just have casual conversations with those who are already in the field. It can be a chat over coffee or even a message on Twitter letting them know that you’ve been following their work and would love to talk about it. Those kinds of interactions have been helpful for me to figure out my next steps.
FPI: Any film or book recommendations for those looking to learn more about the region?
AA: For those new to U.S.-Latin America relations, Lars Schoultz’s Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy toward Latin America is a solid historical introduction.
For a beautifully written and haunting account of Central Americans fleeing violence and making the dangerous journey through Mexico, check out Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail.
When it comes to female foreign policy experts focused on Latin America, there’s no shortage.
- In the Washington D.C. policy world, Virginia “Ginny” Bouvier of the U.S. Institute of Peace is the go-to expert on conflict and peace in Colombia and her blog, Colombia Calls, provides updates on the situation on the ground.
- Sarah Kinosian of the Washington Office on Latin America, analyzes issues of security, arms trafficking and policing in Latin America, with an emphasis on the northern triangle countries of Central America: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
- For a grassroots and coalition-based approach to improving U.S. policies and assistance to Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Central America, sign up for action alerts from the Latin America Working Group.
I also recommend digging into the powerful in-depth investigative reporting being done by outlets like El Faro in El Salvador, La Silla Vacía in Colombia, The Intercept in Brazil and the United States, InSight Crime across the Americas, and so many others.
FPI: What is your favorite thing about Latin America?
Working in Latin America makes me feel at home because I grew up speaking Spanish with my grandparents, eating Cuban and Puerto Rican food and being with my big, loud family. Working on and living in Latin America, I feel I can understand the culture and the social interactions in a way that may not be possible for me in another region. It’s a personal connection for me in many ways, which drives me to do what I can to bring attention to the diversity of the region and the presence of complex and constantly evolving situations of violence, militarization of security and human rights concerns that need to be addressed throughout the Americas.