New York, January 22, 2009–The convictions of three former public officials on charges of plotting the 2003 murder of Colombian radio commentator José Emeterio Rivas represent a historic step forward in the campaign to end impunity in the killings of journalists, CPJ said today. The three are the first masterminds to be convicted and imprisoned in a journalist killing in Colombia since 1992, CPJ research shows.
On January 15, a court in the northern province of Santander sentenced Julio César Ardila Torres, former mayor of Barrancabermeja, to 28 years and eight months in prison on charges of aggravated murder and conspiracy, according to a statement issued by the attorney general’s office. Two public works officials, Fabio Pajón Lizcano and Abelardo Rueda Tobón, were sentenced to 26 years and eight months in prison apiece on aggravated murder charges. Ardila was also fined 1,192 million pesos (US$531,000).
In its statement, released Wednesday, the attorney general’s office said Rivas was murdered in retaliation for his reports on official corruption and links between Ardila’s administration and right-wing paramilitary groups. The three former officials, whose sentences began immediately, said they would appeal the conviction, according to Colombian press reports. A fourth defendant, Juan Pablo Ariza Castañeda, was acquitted.
Ardila, Pajón, and Lizcano had faced allegations in the case as early as September 2003, according to CPJ research. In 2007, the human rights unit of the attorney general’s office restarted the investigation after a demobilized paramilitary fighter Pablo Emilio Quintero Dodino confessed to shooting Rivas at the behest of the local officials.
Quintero, a one-time member of the far-right paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), made the statement during Law of Justice and Peace proceedings. The law grants leniency to members of illegal armed groups in exchange for demobilization and full confessions to their crimes. Quintero was convicted of engaging in paramilitary activities but not in the killing itself.
Colombia has the highest rate of unsolved journalist murders per capita in the Americas, according to CPJ’s Impunity Index. Paramilitary chief Carlos Castaño was convicted in absentia of ordering the 1999 murder of political satirist Jaime Garzón; Castaño, who disappeared and was believed murdered, was never imprisoned in the case. In the 2002 murder of newspaper reporter Orlando Sierra, the killer received a lengthy prison sentence, but those who ordered the hit were never charged.
“We welcome the sentencing of these three former officials for plotting the murder of José Emeterio Rivas,” said CPJ Senior Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría. “This is the first time in recent Colombian history that the masterminds of a journalist’s murder were effectively prosecuted and punished. We commend the attorney general’s office and its human rights unit for taking this crucial step forward in the campaign to end impunity in the murders of journalists around the world.”
Rivas, a 44-year-old commentator for the Barrancabermeja-based Radio Calor Estéreo, was killed on April 6, 2003. Rivas hosted a morning program on Radio Calor Estéreo called “Fuerzas Vivas” (Live Forces). In the weeks before his death, he had publicly accused Mayor Ardila of corruption and collaboration with members of the AUC. Diego Waldrón, his colleague at Radio Calor Estéreo, told CPJ that Rivas had received repeated death threats prior to his murder.