Paramilitaries suspected in two Colombian press murders

Bogotá, November 17, 2000 — Colombia’s violent right-wing paramilitary underground is probably to blame for the recent murders of two local journalists, according to CPJ sources.
Two gunmen killed regional radio correspondent Gustavo Rafael Ruiz Cantillo with two close-range shots to the head as he crossed the market square in Pivijay, a town in northern Colombia, at around dusk on November 15, police and colleagues said.

Police said they were still investigating the identity of the attackers. But senior colleagues at Radio Galeón, based in the port city of Santa Marta, alleged that Ruiz was killed by members of a right-wing paramilitary group that operates in and around the town of Pivijay, in central Magdalena Province.

These sources told CPJ that the group was not linked to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a nationwide alliance of right-wing groups, but was rather a gang of hired gunmen financed by “the rich people in the area.”

“That whole area is virtually off limits for the press, the police and the army. It’s an island where an illegal group is in charge,” one of Ruiz’s colleagues said, referring to the area around Pivijay.

One of the dead man’s relatives told his colleagues that Ruiz had been threatened by the armed gang twice in the recent past. Gang members told him to stop reporting bad news about Pivijay and to “give up that big mouth’s job.” The relative could not immediately be contacted for comment.

Ruiz had worked for Radio Galeón on a free-lance basis for the last three years, covering politics, crime, and general news in and around Pivijay. He was a self-taught journalist who began radio reporting about 15 years ago for Radio Libertad, another regional station headquartered in the port city of Barranquilla.

Ruiz also worked with a community radio station in Pivijay and ran a small grocery store in the town.

Meanwhile, a government investigator told CPJ that community radio director Juan Camilo Restrepo Guerra, who was shot dead in northwestern Colombia on October 31, was murdered by another suspected right-wing paramilitary gunman, apparently in retaliation for his sharp criticisms of the local administration.

Restrepo, 26, had headed Radio Galaxia Estereo in Sevilla, a village in the municipality of Ebejico, for the past one-and-a-half years. He was also chairman of the village council, which owns the radio station.

He was shot at least five times, once through the head, according to a local source who did not wish to be identified. The source told CPJ that Restrepo presented a variety of music shows on Galaxia, but claimed he had not been involved in news gathering and had never had any problems with the paramilitary fighters as a result of his work at the radio station or on the village council.

The source declined to say who might have murdered Restrepo, saying: “Telling you that would be like signing my own death sentence.”

But a government investigator based in the area said initial inquiries showed Restrepo had used his radio broadcasts to discuss several cases of alleged corruption by officials in Ebejico.

The investigator said a member of the paramilitary group was responsible for the killing. No arrests have been made, and the investigator said the prospects of apprehending the gunman were slim to nil.

The murderer summoned Restrepo to a meeting in the nearby village of Aragón. The radio director’s brother drove him to the rendezvous on a motorbike and actually witnessed the killing. He has, however, declined to make a statement to the authorities and has gone into hiding, according to a relative.

Both police and relatives said a right-wing paramilitary group maintains a permanent presence in the region, which lies about 38 miles (60 km) northwest of the provincial capital, Medellín.

Restrepo completed two years of a five-year university degree program in communications studies in Medellín. He worked initially doing odd jobs and later as a presenter in the Medellín studios of the nationwide RCN radio network before returning to his home village of Sevilla.