(WOMENSENEWS)--In 1999, Margarita Martinez was offered a job in the news department at NBC. It was an opportunity to get on a lucrative career path with a major television network and remain in New York City, where she had been living for three years.
Martinez rejected the offer. Instead she returned to her native Colombia to cover the violence that has engulfed her homeland for more than four decades.
"I feel Colombia is the only place where everything really matters for me," said Martinez, 35, by phone from Bogota. "This is where I care about everything, where everything is very personal for me."
A reporter with The Associated Press for the past six years in Bogota, Martinez has built a thick portfolio of breaking news, feature and investigative stories that offer an intimate glimpse into the lives of everyday people caught up in the ongoing war among Colombia's leftist guerillas, the outlawed right-wing paramilitaries and the national army.
Many of her stories focus on women. She spent days living with female members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the oldest rebel group in Latin America, where she uncovered the discrimination and dangers facing women fighters, writing a vivid piece of reportage for Women's eNews.
She has also reported for international outlets, including Women's eNews, on the rising number of HIV cases among married women in ostensibly monogamous relationships and the judicial discrimination facing women throughout the southern hemisphere.
Co-Produced 2005 Documentary
Most recently, Martinez co-produced "La Sierra," a 2005 documentary about three young people in Medellin who live in the violent and impoverished neighborhood for which the documentary was named.
Like many urban neighborhoods across Colombia, La Sierra is racked by turf battles between guerillas and paramilitaries, who over the past decade have moved their fight for control from the countryside into the cities.
The documentary, which premiered in January at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, will be shown at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York City on June 16, 18 and 20. The winner of several awards, including the jury award for best documentary at the 2005 Miami International Film Festival, La Sierra depicts daily life in the kind of neighborhood that normally only earns news attention when there is a deadly battle.
"We wanted to show a portrait of violence that was not what you see in the news," said Martinez.
La Sierra chronicles a year in the lives of three residents of La Sierra: Edison Florez, 22, Cielo Munoz, 17, and Jesus Martinez, 19.
As leader of Bloque Metro, a paramilitary front battling the guerillas around La Sierra, Edison, aka "The Doll," is the de facto head of the barrio. Jesus is a mid-level paramilitary gunman with a penchant for marijuana and cocaine. Cielo is a teen-age mom with a sixth-grade education.
Guns, Drugs and Unprotected Sex
The documentary chronicles the three as they make decisions to take up arms, use drugs and have a lot of unprotected sex even as they contemplate the possibility of a better life. In one moving scene, Edison says he hopes to one day put down his arms and build clinics for the community. Despite reflective moments like this, the three continually make choices that only sink them deeper. Yet, in the hopeless context of La Sierra, it becomes difficult to blame them.
By weaving these three stories together, Martinez and her co-producer, Scott Dalton, reveal just how alluring guns, drugs and sex can be in a broken-down neighborhood that offers few alternative paths.
"After making this film I now see the victims and victimizers as the same person," Martinez said. "Now that I have seen these things, I feel very humble. I cannot judge as easily now as I used to. I see things in a more complex light."
Not surprisingly, La Sierra ends on three unhappy notes.
Jesus, who puts down his gun and joins the ranks of a number of demilitarized paramilitaries, is committed to leaving the violence behind but still has few prospects for escaping La Sierra.
Cielo, broke and tired of selling candy on city buses for a not-quite-livable living, resorts to working in Medellin's red light district.
Edison's fate is the worst. The cameras end with him lying lifeless on the ground, killed by government troops patrolling La Sierra.
Networking With Guerillas, Paramilitaries
After returning to Colombia in 1999, Martinez worked the phones and traveled the country building her network of contacts with the guerillas and paramilitaries.
Through one man, Carlos Mauricio Garcia, aka "Double Zero," a paramilitary leader who was killed last year, she got the nod to make La Sierra. She and Dalton then rented an apartment in the neighborhood and began selecting people to feature in the documentary.
This kind of behind-the-scenes work shows the tightrope that journalists walk, without any net, as they cover extremely dangerous people in a country with limited rule of law. Often there is little distance between a reporter and a bullet.
Since 1995, 30 Colombian reporters have been killed in the line of duty and the country is consistently ranked by the Committee to Protect Journalists as one of the most dangerous countries for reporters.
At a time when many reporters in Colombia have simply put down their pens, Martinez attributes her ability to get in with people like Double Zero, Edison, Jesus and Cielo to her infinite curiosity about their lives and circumstances.
"I feel that when you show genuine interest, have information to make a conversation and hear, really hear, those are things that work in your favor," said Martinez.
Martinez's ability to listen is something that has caught the attention of other journalists.
"She listens to people and hears their voice," said June Erlick, a journalism professor who mentored Martinez while she was studying for her master's degree in journalism at Columbia University. "She's committed to telling people's stories and bearing witness."
Martinez plans to continue mining her country and bearing witness through both her writing and documentary film work. Her next project is a documentary about a group of indigenous people in Colombia working to retain their ancient culture.
"There are so many different things going on here at the same time," Martinez said. "You have 21st century cities and then this ancient history." And, of course, there's always the war.
Jennifer Friedlin is a writer based in New York.
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