Colombia’s Attorney General orders detention of former hitman, links him to murder of journalist Guillermo Cano Isaza

The Attorney General of Colombia ordered the detention of a former hitman it linked to the 1986 murder of journalist and editor of newspaper El Espectador, Guillermo Cano Isaza.

A bust of journalist Guillermo Cano Isaza located in Bolívar park in Medellín, Colombia. The sculpture is a work of Rodrigo Arenas Betancur. (I, SajoR [CC BY-SA 2.5])
A bust of journalist Guillermo Cano Isaza located in Bolívar park in Medellín, Colombia. The sculpture is a work of Rodrigo Arenas Betancur. (I, SajoR [CC BY-SA 2.5])

Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, alias ‘Popeye’ and former chief of hitmen of the Medellín Cartel, led by the drug trafficker Pablo Escobar, is linked to the investigation as alleged co-author of the crime of aggravated homicide, the Attorney General’s Office added.

According to the chief prosecutor, after the emergence of new testimonies from other former members of the cartel as well as gathered evidence, a prosecutor of the Specialized Directorate against Violations to Human Rights issued an assurance measure for Velásquez Vásquez. In its statement, the entity explained that the case against 'Popeye' is under the old Colombian criminal system. This allows it to impose the assurance measure.

'Popeye' allegedly participated in a meeting "in which the leaders of the Medellín Cartel, including Pablo Escobar, arranged to attack Guillermo Cano Isaza for his publications against the drug trafficking organization and defined the way and who allegedly would execute the crime," the Attorney General’s Office said in a statement.

According to El Espectador, in a Nov. 28, 2018 statement, Velásquez Vásquez denied having knowledge of the attack against Cano Isaza and said he was innocent.

The former chief of hitmen of the Medellín Cartel spent a little over 23 years in prison after surrendering to the authorities in 1991 and confessing to having committed 300 murders and participating in at least another 3,000, El Tiempo reported. He said he coordinated 200 car bombings and participated in the assassinations of Luis Carlos Galán (former presidential candidate) and Carlos Mauro Hoyos (former Inspector General), the newspaper added.

However, after nine months in freedom, Velásquez was recaptured and is serving a sentence for the crime of extortion in Valledupar's maximum and medium security prison, it added. The recent decision from the Attorney General’s Office was told to the Penitentiary and Prison Institute (Inpec, for its initials in Spanish) so that it "becomes effective" once ‘Popeye’ finishes his current period in confinement, the Attorney General’s Office said.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, the other person linked to the crime is Gustavo Adolfo Gutiérrez Arrubla, alias 'Maxwell,' who it said "allegedly did the intelligence work in Bogotá and identified the movements and routines of the communicator." The information compiled by Gutiérrez was allegedly given to the hitmen who killed the journalist, it added.

Although the prosecutor on the case dictated a non-custodial measure against him, Gutiérrez Arrubla must periodically appear before a competent authority, not leave the country, not have contact with the victims and pay a bond equivalent to approximately U.S. $2,500, among other obligations.

“We have been waiting for justice and to learn what happened for 32 years, since 1986. We hope this decision serves to get to the bottom of everything," Cano's wife and children wrote in a statement, according to Semana magazine. "We also want to make a call to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights [IACHR] to follow the example of the Attorney General’s Office and help us establish the truth about the circumstances, authors and background of the death of Guillermo Cano Isaza. The response that we have had so far from this important international body has been evasive. The truth in this case and in that of many other innocent journalists and Colombians, the country needs it!”

Although it recognizes "the importance of the adopted decision," the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) considers it "late and does not mean to conclude that the Colombian State has complied with the obligation to investigate, try and punish this serious violation of human rights.”

“It is disconcerting that the adopted decision is supported by evidence that, in most cases, was collected during the years 1993 and 1994. This shows that the Attorney General’s Office was negligent in discarding investigative hypotheses present in the case more than two decades ago. This reinforces the need for international observance, especially by the IACHR, concerning the responsibility of the State in this case," FLIP added.

FLIP also requested the prosecution continue its investigation to determine whether members of the State were involved in the crime in obstructing their investigation and prosecution.

Cano Isaza was the editor of the newspaper El Espectador from the age of 27 until the day of his murder on Dec. 17, 1986, at the age of 61. Hitmen sent by the drug trafficker Pablo Escobar shot him several times at the newspaper's exit, according to that publication.

The editor was characterized by his constant denunciations of the drug trafficking mafia in his column "Libreta de Apuntes” (Notepad). The day before his death, in an interview, Cano Isaza said he knew something could happen to him, said Ana María Busquets, widow of Cano, for a UNESCO special.

El Espectador remained a victim of the mafias. In the early morning of Sept. 2, 1989, a car bomb exploded near its facilities in an incident that left 73 people injured. Likewise, some correspondents in the regions were murdered, according to Busquets, and even the Medellin headquarters was closed that same year when they killed the administration and circulation managers in that city, the newspaper added.

In 2010, the Attorney General of Colombia declared his murder a crime against humanity. This prohibits the crime from prescribing, meaning authorities are not restricted to investigate it within a certain period of time. However, this has not necessarily guaranteed its advance. In fact, FLIP noted that the recent decision from the Attorney General is the first “relevant” decision since Jan. 16, 2008 when the investigation of the crime resumed.

So far there are only two convictions for this homicide, according to FLIP. One against Castor Emilio Montoya, for having been the intermediary to hire the hitmen who committed the murder, FLIP added. However, he was never captured. Luis Carlos Molina Yepes was sentenced to 16 years and 8 months in prison, although his sentence was reduced to 6 years. The check to pay the hitmen was drawn from the account of Molina, the so-called banker of the Medellín Cartel, according to FLIP.

Cano Isaza's murder has marked the history of journalism in Colombia and was pointed out by UNESCO as "representative in that it points to impunity in crimes against journalists." The UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize is named after him.