Prosecutor in Colombia considers 1999 assassination of journalist a “crime of the state”

Almost 17 years after the murder of Colombian journalist and humorist Jaime Garzón, one of the country’s head prosecutors finally identified the killing as a crime of the state due to the participation of members of the Army and the defunct department of intelligence (known as DAS) along with a criminal organization.

Although the linkage between state agents and this crime has been investigated in the country for years, this is the first time that a prosecutor publically categorized it this way. In his statements to Noticias Caracol, the director of the National Specialized Prosecutors, Iván Lombana, also reported on new lines of investigation involving other officials.

Lomabana said general (retired) Rito Alejo del Río; colonel (retired) Jorge Eliécer Plazas Acevedo; and subdirector of the Administration Department of Security (DAS), José Miguel Narváez, where among those who planned the crime in the company of the late leader of the paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC,) Carlos Castaño.

According to the prosecutor, Garzón became an “uncomfortable” person for part of the security forces and paramilitary following versions of alleged agreement between Garzón and Colombian guerrillas in an effort to mediate the release of hostages. He allegedly kept part of the money from the kidnappings, but the prosecutor has said that version is not credible, according to his statement to Noticias Caracol.

According to the investigation, to commit the crime in Bogotá, hitmen of the criminal gang of Medellín known as ‘La Terraza,’ were hired under the command of former paramilitary chief Diego Fernando Murillo, known as ‘don Berna,’ Noticias Caracol said. Although, in 2013, the prosecutor linked Murillo to the murder of the journalist, because of the Law of Justice and Peace (a process of peace with paramilitaries) and his extradition to the United States, the investigation was suspended, according to the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP for its acronym in Spanish).

Garzón’s murder was carried out by three men and a woman who had been staying at the house of colonel (retired) Plazas Acevedo. At the time, the official was the intelligence chief of a military brigade in Bogota, the prosecutor said.

Colonel Plazas also had indicated to the hitmen how to commit the murder, according to El Espectador. In fact, during a recent raid at the brigade to which the colonel belonged, maps and sketches of Garzón’s movement that had been made allegedly by security forces were found, Lombana said to Noticias Caracol.

“What this explains is that, clearly, members of the security forces followed Jaime Garzón. This was the information that was finally presented to commander Carlos Castaño so he would finally make the decision to kill him,” Lombana said in his statements.

Since 2014, colonel Plazas Acevedo has been imprisoned, linked to different investigations, among them the assassination of Garzón. Several former paramilitaries have ensured that it was he who coordinated the murder, El Espectador reported.

The linkage has to do with the signs that point to a relationships with paramilitaries, specifically with Carlos Castaño, and also because at the time, Del Rio was the superior of Plazas, Noticias Caracol added.

About the former assistant director of the DAS, José Miguel Narváez, who was said to have instigated Castaño to commit the murder, El Espectador reported. Narváez, who is also indicted for the crime, is identified as the ideologue of the AUC and as one of the men who would have diverted investigations into Garzón’s murder, the paper added.

One of these deviations was the capture of two other members of La Terraza accused by the DAS of being hitmen in Garzón’s case. Five years later, these men were released for lack of evidence against them, El Espectador said.

In this sense, another line of investigation was born in which police general, Mauricio Santoyo, former security chief for former President Álvaro Uribe, not only had covered up the investigation, but had kidnapped two of the actual hitmen to give them over to ‘Don Berna,’ who executed them, Noticias Caracol said.

At present, general Santoyo is in the United States serving a sentence for 13 years for links with another criminal gang in the country, El Espectador said.

“It seems positive to us that the prosecutor understands this is a crime of the state. However, it seems insufficient considering that it took several years of us asking for it to be cleared a crime against humanity.  It is clear that this murder took place in a context of persecution of representatives of human rights,” said the lawyer that represents the family of Garzón.

The crime that killed Colombia’s smiles

Jaime Garzón was killed in the early hours of Aug. 13, 1999 when the journalist was heading to the station of Radionet in Bogota. He was one of the most beloved and influential men in the country; and has become a national name thanks to his humorous programs and irreverence, according to Semana.

He was also famous for the different characters that he used for political humor. His last character was a shoeshine who interviewed the most recognized people in the country. He also was noted for his work for peace in Colombia.

His death was the beginning “of one of the most violent and difficult times for the Colombian press,” FLIP said. Between 1999 and 2002, 32 journalists were killed, and of these cases, 13 were at the hands of paramilitary groups.

During all these years, the only person condemned was former paramilitary chief Carlos Castaño who had died when the decision was handed down in 2004, according to FLIP.

Garzón’s family, lawyers and organizations like FLIP have sought for his murder to be declared a crime against humanity. Their principal objective is to avoid the prescription of the case that could mean the crime remains unpunished. In Colombian legislation, 20 years after the commission of a crime, it prescribes, meaning that time runs out to make investigations and find those culpable.

In June 2015, the prosecutor reiterated that Garzón’s homicide would not be declared a crime of the state.

Because of her investigations into the murder of Garzón, journalist Claudia Julieta Duque also has been victim of threats, intimidation and stalking. Currently, trials are underway against former officials of the defunct DAS who are accused of “psychological torture” against Duque.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.