Paramilitaries suspected in killing of radio station owner

Bogotá, July 1, 2002—The owner of a radio station, who recently had alerted the public to the presence of paramilitary fighters in the region, was shot and killed in northeastern Colombia.

Efraín Varela Noriega, owner of Radio Meridiano­70, was driving home from a university graduation in Arauca Department on the afternoon of June 28 when gunmen yanked him from his car and shot him in the face and chest, said Col. Jorge Caro, acting commander of Arauca’s police.

Varela hosted two polemical news and opinion programs for the station in the town of Arauca and criticized all sides fighting in Colombia’s 38-year civil conflict.

“He criticized everyone,” said José Gutiérrez, who co-hosted an afternoon program called “Let’s Talk Politics” with Varela. “No one was spared.”

Gutiérrez said that less than a week before the killing, Varela told listeners during his morning news show that fighters from the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, had arrived in Arauca and were patrolling the streets in the town, which is on the border with Venezuela.

Tension has been building in the oil-rich province since early June when the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, began threatening to kill civil servants in the region who refused to resign.

The rebels are battling the paramilitary army for control over lucrative territory not only in Arauca but throughout the country.

Three years ago, Varela’s name appeared on a list of people that the paramilitary army had declared military targets, said Caro, the acting police commander, adding that authorities were investigating rumors that the AUC was responsible for the killing. A frequent listener of the station, Caro said Varela seemed to reserve his sharpest criticism for the paramilitaries.

Officials from Arauca’s Prosecutor’s Office investigating the case could not be reached for comment on July 1, which was a holiday in Colombia.

Varela, who was in his early 50s, was also the secretary of a provincial peace commission as well as its former president, said Evelyn Varela, his 28-year-old daughter, and the manager of the station.

In recent months, Varela had begun warning his only child that his life could be in danger. “He had us prepared for the worst,” his daughter said.