The long road ahead after masterminds’ conviction

The conviction of the masterminds of José Emeterio Rivas’ murder did not surprise his colleagues in Barrancabermeja, a city in the northern Santander province, where the journalist was shot in 2003. The former mayor’s involvement in the crime and his relationship with paramilitary forces was a well-known secret in the city. Despite witnesses’ fear and lack of confidence in the judicial process, the truth finally saw the light of day.

This judicial decision is a small but relevant achievement in the fight against impunity. In Colombia, more than 100 journalists have been killed in the last 20 years. But Rivas’ killing is only the second case in which masterminds have been convicted. In the other case, that of humorist and journalist Jaime Garzón, whose 1999 murder was ordered by paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño, justice was not served. Castaño, convicted for masterminding Garzón’s death, disappeared in 2004 and is believed to have been killed by his own people.

Last week’s conviction of former mayor Julio César Ardila–along with two other public officials–confirms the strong influence paramilitary forces had over local administrations, as well as their implication in several journalists’ deaths. In 2007, demobilized paramilitary fighters confessed their involvement in the 2002 assassination of Efraín Varela and the 2004 murder of Martín La Rotta Duarte. However, the masterminds have not been convicted in either of these cases. Nonetheless, the participation of public officials in these killings is also a well-known secret.

The Justice and Peace process made some of these advances possible. The controversial Law of Justice and Peace was promulgated in 2005 by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. The law grants leniency to members of illegal armed groups in exchange for demobilization and full confessions to their crimes. Since paramilitary fighters have demobilized and been judged under this law, many crimes have been cleared–though not all have been solved. And the investigations are moving very slowly.

In the country’s rural provinces moreover, local NGOs and journalists remain fearful of the presence of many illegal armed groups, despite government assurances that authorities have dismantled paramilitary structures in Colombia.

Rivas’ case raised the expectations for truth and justice in crimes against journalists, although there is still a long way to go. The defense will appeal the decision, and the process will probably stretch on for years. In the other cases, though paramilitary confessions gave vital information, the process is at a standstill. And finally, we cannot forget that the leftist FARC guerrilla group is also believed to be responsible for the killings of journalists. They too must be brought to justice.