A journalist protests the Venezuelan government's decision to shut down a TV station in 2007. The country has a number of laws in practice that run counter to press freedom. (AP/William Fernando Martinez)

Statute of limitations, the challenge for Colombian justice

The issue of impunity affects all Colombian citizens’ access to real justice; it is not only a problem for crimes against journalists. Several human rights bodies and non-governmental organizations agree that Colombia dwells in a striking situation of impunity, especially concerning crimes committed during the ongoing armed conflict.

In the case of journalists, we must remember that Colombia is the country with the highest number of murdered journalists in Latin America over the past 35 years, with 139 killed in direct retaliation for their work. That is more than in countries that are today very violent, such as Mexico and Honduras. Most of these murders happened in the 1980s, 1990s, and the first decade of this century.

The past 10 years have seen a decrease in the numbers of journalists murdered in the country. While in 2002, 10 journalists were killed, only one was murdered in 2011. This fact, in addition to clear improvements in security for journalists, also explains, at least in part, why Colombia is not ranked at the highest levels of CPJ’s Impunity Index.

If there is justice only when authorities are able to find, judge, and convict all those responsible — masterminds and assassins — for a crime against a journalist, then we can hardly affirm that Colombia has improved.

If we take a look back, we can see that there is still no justice for most murders committed during the 1980s. Statutes of limitations have expired for all because, according to the law at that time, authorities had 20 years to investigate murders. In the emblematic case of Guillermo Cano, the director of the national daily El Espectador who was killed in 1986, authorities were forced to declare it a crime against humanity and reopen the investigation in 2010. Even though it is known that the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar ordered the killing, only the local businessman Luis Carlos Molina Yepes was convicted, while none of the other alleged suspects in the crime — namely, several public officials — have been brought to justice. This case was declared a crime against humanity because authorities were incapable of finding the truth and had to turn to that unusual legal concept in order to have indefinite time to investigate. Cano’s murder is the only crime against a journalist that has been declared a crime against humanity in Colombia, but since authorities reopened the investigation, no noteworthy success has been achieved.

Now, the greatest concern is for murders committed during the 1990s, for which statutes of limitation are beginning to expire as well. It has been almost 20 years since many of those crimes took place. In 2011, statutes of limitation expired for 10 cases, including those of Julio Daniel Chaparro and Jorge Torres, also journalists with El Espectador, who were murdered in 1991 while on assignment in the town of Segovia in the central department of Antioquia. At first, two fighters with the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) were jailed, and then released because they apparently had nothing to do with the crime. No other suspects were identified. The investigation continued without results until 2010, when authorities closed the case after discovering that those responsible were indeed the two guerrilla fighters, who, by then, were dead. The case was closed with total impunity, and the Interamerican Press Association presented it for consideration to the Interamerican Comission for Human Rights at the end of 2011.

This year, the statutes of limitation will expire for two more cases, those of Jon Félix Tirado, murdered in Cartago in southwestern Valle del Cauca, and José Domingo Cortés, killed in Valencia in Córdoba. The two cases share particularities: nobody knows what their legal status is, nor who is leading the investigation. Although FLIP has requested this information from the Office of the Attorney General on several occasions, there has been no reply. It’s very possible that not even the Attorney General knows where the files are located, and that with time, the cases will be closed with impunity. The situation is the same for five other cases with statutes of limitation slated to expire in the next two years. In three of these cases, nobody knows the legal status; the investigation into another is inactive; and in the fifth, the investigation is ongoing.

And the situation is similar for crimes committed during this century, although we must recognize that there have been some steps forward, due in most part to greater pressure from local and international press freedom organizations, as well as the media, for results. In the murder of José Emeterio Rivas, for instance, the former mayor of the northeastern city of Barrancabermeja, Julio César Ardila, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for masterminding the crime. Several other local government officials were also convicted.

In cases like that of the journalist Orlando Sierra, murdered in Manizales, in the central Caldas department, there is partial justice since authorities have been able to convict the assassins but not the masterminds. In fact, in mid-2011, Ferney Tapasco, a local political figure, was called to trial for ordering the murder.

But in other cases, like that of Guillermo Bravo, murdered in the central Huila department in 2004; or José Everardo Aguilar, killed in southwestern Cauca in 2009; or Clodomiro Castilla‘s, shot in Córdoba in 2010, there are no developments.

The Colombian Congress approved a reform in 2010 that increases to 30 years the term for statutes of limitation in murders of journalists. This could be positive or negative. It could be positive because it could in fact give more time to investigators in complex crimes. But it could also be negative because it only applies to killings that occur after 2010, and because there is a fear that the new law could be used to draw out processes and spend too long on investigations.

Impunity is the incentive that criminals have to keep threatening and murdering journalists. As long as these criminals remain on the street and do not feel intimidated by the full weight of justice, the picture of impunity in Colombia will hardly change.

We are still owed justice.