Colombian journalist Claudia Duque left without justice after 20-year fight against torture, threats and harassment

On the occasion of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, LatAm Journalism Review highlights four emblematic cases in the region that remain largely unpunished.

Every Nov. 17, Colombian journalist Claudia Julieta Duque remembers an anniversary she would like to forget: that of one of the attacks against her and the impunity that surrounds it. “Happy anniversary, Lady Impunity,” she wrote on social media when the date rolled around last year.

On Nov. 17, 2004, according to Duque, the worst and most cruel act in a chain of persecution and torture carried out by members of the defunct Colombian intelligence agency known as DAS (Administrative Department of Security) took place. That day, the journalist received a call and the voice on the other end of the line told her that the next victim would be her 10-year-old daughter. According to the threat, her daughter would be murdered and dismembered.

“That call was the final point of a series of attacks and made me surrender to the DAS, stop fighting and leave the country,” Duque said in 2017 during one of her many statements before a Colombian judge.

It’s not the only anniversary she would like to forget.

“I am full of quite tragic anniversaries,” Duque told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). “Every July 23 I remember; I wake up with my body hurting and I wake up really badly just remembering it.”

On July 23, 2001, Duque was abducted. This became the first time she was directly attacked because of her investigation into the Aug, 13, 1999, murder of Colombian journalist and comedian Jaime Garzón.

From there followed a series of direct threats, surveillance, and harassment that the Colombian justice system recognized as the crime of “aggravated psychological torture” committed by agents and senior managers of the DAS between 2001 and 2004.

Additionally, she said her complaints against DAS officials in search of justice led to more threats, surveillance, and harassment, among other attacks, since 2005. According to her, there has been no progress in investigations into these crimes.

Despite some convictions for the crime of aggravated psychological torture and a judicial decision that recognizes the responsibility of the Colombian State in this crime, Duque considers the crimes against her to remains in impunity and she criticizes the slow progress in the justice system.

"I calculate that I’ve made at least 18 statements before the prosecutor's office, recounting and making known the situations that I have suffered," Duque said. “At this time, I understand that there are four or five open investigations for threats, the last of which was opened in July this year. And none of these cases has advanced. There is absolutely nothing. In fact, the prosecutor's office has archived or closed almost all of them, because, according to them, there is no evidence."

According to the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP, for its acronym in Spanish), which has supported Duque in her cases, 98% of Colombian journalists’ complaints of threats go unpunished.

Since 2001, Duque has had to go into exile three times (2001, 2004 and 2008). In 2009, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted her precautionary measures. Duque has also received protection measures from the State, measures that in 2022 she was forced to return because, she said, she learned about a massive collection of her sensitive data that not only put her at risk, but also her relatives and journalistic sources.

More than two decades searching for justice

Despite the different crimes that have occurred at different times against Duque, the only little progress that has been made is related to the main crime of aggravated psychological torture that occurred between 2001 and 2004.

Although her complaints against DAS officials were made immediately after the attacks against her, it was not until 2013 that the Colombian Attorrney General’s Office took action against some former DAS officials for the crimes of aggravated psychological torture. Two years earlier, the former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed the decree that ordered the dissolution of the DAS due to the scandal known in Colombia as the “chuzadas,” referring to the illegal wiretapping by the DAS of journalists, politicians, and magistrates of the Supreme Court, among others.

During the investigation into the “chuzadas,” the prosecutor's office found in the DAS facilities the document “Manual to threaten” whose existence Duque had already reported. Knowing that Duque had caller ID, the manual had precise instructions on how to threaten her, on not staying on the line for more than 49 seconds or on making sure there were no security cameras when making the call.

Currently there is only one person in prison in her main case: Enrique Alberto Ariza Rivas, who served as intelligence director of the DAS when the crimes were committed. He was deported from the United States to Colombia first to serve a sentence in the larger case of the “chuzadas,” and now for the psychological torture of Duque.

At one point, there were 11 suspects with open cases, but only three were convicted: the former Director of Intelligence of the DAS, Carlos Alberto Arzayús; the deputy director of Technological Development of the Intelligence Directorate of the DAS, Jorge Armando Rubiano; and the former director of Intelligence Operations, Hugo Daney Ortiz. These three people are already free after completing their sentences.

Of the other eight defendants, seven remain free because the statute of limitations ran out. One of them was acquitted on May 30 in a decision criticized by the FLIP.

“We are concerned by the decision to acquit one of the former DAS agents, taking into account that this decision is made due to a deficient analysis that ignores some of the evidence [in the case],” Ángela Caro Montenegro, coordinator of legal affairs at FLIP, told LJR. “We hope that the Criminal Chamber of the Superior Court of Bogotá will revoke this decision, carry out a thorough analysis of each of the pieces of evidence and convict this person […], highlighting the seriousness of these events taking into account the individual impacts and the journalist’s exercise of her work.”

The only case that remains open is against José Miguel Narváez, then deputy director of the DAS who was also the person convicted as a “determiner” in the crime of Jaime Garzón. However, the case against him could expire in 2024, meaning the State’s time to solve the case is up next year.

FLIP views the “the slow progress” in the Narváez case with “alarm.”

“The administration of justice must take necessary measures so that this trial can move forward diligently, preventing the statute of limitations from expiring and therefore allowing these events to go unpunished,” Caro Montenegro said.

Declaration of a crime against humanity and the slowdown of the judicial process

In October 2017, the aggravated psychological torture against Duque was classified as a crime against humanity by the Colombian Attorney General's Office. Since then, though, the process for obtaining justice has slowed down, Duque said.

“I see that there is a before and after the declaration of my case as a crime against humanity,” Duque said. “Until that moment, we had a very important pace of investigation and progress. We already had trials in process, we were finishing trials, anyway. [But] from that moment on, the prosecutor’s case is paralyzed.”

Duque noted how immediately after the declaration as a crime against humanity, the case against the former director of the DAS, Jorge Noguera, was closed, despite the fact that there was “sufficient evidence to have continued it, but a prosecutor decided not to.”

“That broke the chain of command because everything was left to those middle managers who were being prosecuted in my case,” Duque added.

Additionally, there was a change in judges. One of the judges, in Duque's opinion, paused the case, released defendants and even imposed a “legal censorship” on her, prohibiting her from speaking about her own case. That judge was replaced a year ago.

“I feel that after the declaration of the crime against humanity, someone, at a very high level, said 'no more. That is enough justice that was given to this person,’” Duque said. “The State was condemned for the events of which I was a victim. And it is evident that the State prefers to pay compensation rather than find those guilty, rather than carry out investigations to find the person most responsible for what I suffered. So, for me it is a political decision.”

In 2018, Duque decided to present her case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2018 for the violation of her human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, judicial protection, personal integrity, among others.

According to Duque, this case before the IACHR is in the merits stage, that is, the stage in which the IACHR decides whether or not there were human rights violations. Subsequently, the IACHR could send the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Seeking refuge in journalism

In one of the most important achievements in her search for justice, the Council of State condemned Colombia for violating the human rights of Duque and her family.

In the ruling of June 17, 2022, the Council of State indicated that it was proven that the journalist was the target of illegal wiretapping, surveillance and psychological torture, and sentenced the former DAS to repair the damage caused to Duque and her family. This reparation of 2.2 billion Colombian pesos, indicated the Council of State, should be paid by the entity that succeeded the DAS.

“In the case, there are multiple pieces of evidence that show that there was a plan against Mrs. Claudia Julieta Duque Orrego to punish her for the activity she was carrying out, especially through threats against her daughter,” the ruling from the Council of Estate said.

Although the sentence brought Duque some relief, the journalist said that a large part of the crimes against her remain unpunished, especially because the few convictions in her case were against “middle management:” those who authorized the torture against her have not been punished.

Duque has also expressed her disagreement with the fact that four people implicated in her crime have been accepted before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) – the transitional justice mechanism created within the framework of the government's peace process with the former guerrillas of the FARC.

“I feel that in recognizing the crimes committed by the DAS against civilians during the government of Álvaro Uribe as crimes within the framework of the armed conflict is revictimizing all of us, not just me,” Duque said.

“I have always told them 'but what do I have to do with the conflict? I didn't even cover conflict.' They make me a victim because I investigated the case of a murdered journalist. So, you are trying to say either that Garzón was a guerrilla or that I was a guerrilla, or that the DAS had reasons to consider us subversives. To me that seems super strong, re-victimizing, and I, of course, have always opposed and will continue to oppose JEP jurisdiction in my case.”

LJR contacted the national Attorney General’s Office and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) for comment, but did not receive comments as of publication.

“I would say that, in reality, in Colombia the norm is impunity and I think that a very great power in Colombia has already made the decision that I was given enough justice by having three guys convicted,” Duque said. “There is already a political-judicial decision not to allow progress either in the case of torture or in the other cases.”

Regarding the threats she has received systematically for 20 years, the FLIP pointed out a lack of progress by the Attorney General’s office. According to the organization, 98% of the complaints made by journalists in Colombia for threats go unpunished, an issue for which the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has also called attention to.

Given this impunity, this year Duque decided to stop focusing on achieving justice in these cases of threats and to dedicate herself to what really makes her happy: journalism.

“I'm really planning to be done with it and admit what I never wanted to admit and that is that those people won and that in Colombia justice is not possible when it comes to serious violations of human rights by the State. It is not possible,” said Duque, who added that she will stop investing almost 50% of her time in investigating her own case to work on journalistic investigations.

For example, she recently published, together with the Forbidden Stories project and the Colombian media outlet Cuestión Pública, the second part of the investigation into the 2002 murder of Colombian journalist Rafael Moreno. Duque had already supported the first part of the investigation.

“That report was quite painful because it is a very sad case of how in Colombia critical journalism continues to be silenced after so many years and so much pain,” said Duque, who knows from experience that she must take the best security measures. For this reason, part of her time is also dedicated to training other journalists in security techniques.

“It has been an exciting return because journalism is what is in my blood, what makes me happy. Investigative journalism is something that I feel I was born for and I love doing it. And I love being able to do my part in the investigation of the cases of other journalists who have been murdered or who have been attacked,” Duque said. “Returning with the case of 'Rafa' Moreno has been very important for me as a professional, not only because it was a media consortium of more than 25 international media outlets that trusted me to do that field work […] , but also because it is being able to return to the field to do what you do, to what you know how to do and to be able to reflect it in a professional way.”