The inability to solve journalist murders in Arauca feeds an atmosphere of hostility and intimidation for the media there. By John Otis

Gen. Rodolfo Palomino, Colombian police chief, writes a message for a campaign supporting FARC demobilization in Tame, Arauca province, on September 18, 2013. (Reuters/Jose Miguel Gomez)
Gen. Rodolfo Palomino, Colombian police chief, writes a message for a campaign supporting FARC demobilization in Tame, Arauca province, on September 18, 2013. (Reuters/Jose Miguel Gomez)

One Province Illustrates
Colombia’s Struggle with Impunity

By John Otis

It took just 24 hours to arrest the gunmen who murdered Henry Rojas Monje, a journalist based in Arauca, a province of Colombia torn by guerrilla war. But for the Rojas family, the pursuit of justice lasted two full decades–and ended in frustration.

Gen. Rodolfo Palomino, Colombian police chief, writes a message for a campaign supporting FARC demobilization in Tame, Arauca province, on September 18, 2013. (Reuters/Jose Miguel Gomez)
Gen. Rodolfo Palomino, Colombian police chief, writes a message for a campaign supporting FARC demobilization in Tame, Arauca province, on September 18, 2013. (Reuters/Jose Miguel Gomez)

A correspondent for El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading national daily, Rojas often focused on government corruption and ties between Arauca politicians and Marxist rebel groups. On December 28, 1991, Rojas was shot multiple times while in his car. He bled to death on the lap of his 6-year-old son Henry, who was in the passenger seat.

The next day, the police arrested two soldiers, who confessed and were convicted. But the man accused of ordering the Rojas murder, José Gregorio González, the former mayor of the town of Arauca who had been the target of some of the reporter’s stories, was eventually cleared and released from prison. By 2011, when the 20-year statute of limitations on murder cases expired, there was still no clarity over who was behind the crime.

“We were very sad when the case was closed,” Henry Rojas, the journalist’s son, who is now an Arauca lawyer, told CPJ. “The slowness of the legal system breeds impunity.”

The legal netherworld of the Rojas case is not some egregious exception: the vast majority of murders of journalists in Colombia have gone unsolved and unpunished. True, the security situation in Colombia over the past decade has improved, which has led to a corresponding reduction in the number of journalist murders. Yet these improvements have outpaced any gains by prosecutors in closing cases and are of no comfort to the families of the many victims of past killings–especially as more cases expire under the 20-year statute of limitations.

Occasionally, the killers are caught and convicted, but the masterminds who target reporters nearly always remain free, CPJ research shows. Problems such as overburdened prosecutors, a lack of information sharing, mishandling of evidence, and malfeasance by judicial officials can delay criminal investigations for years. This favors the perpetrators because as the clock ticks, memories fade, evidence deteriorates, and securing convictions becomes even harder.

Since 1977, the Bogotá-based Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) has registered 140 killings of journalists that were job-related. Of this total, 62 cases, or 44 percent, have been closed because the statute of limitations has run out. The attorney general’s office could provide no information on 49 cases because the files had apparently been lost or misplaced. All told, there have been just 19 convictions.

CPJ, which began tracking killings of journalists in 1992 and uses different methodology, has documented 45 journalists and media workers killed directly for their work in Colombia, and an additional 33 killings in which the motive is not clear. In murder cases, impunity reigns in 88 percent, with most of the rest having achieved only partial justice.

As a result, CPJ’s 2013 Impunity Index shows little change for Colombia, listing it as the fifth-worst nation for deadly, unpunished violence against the news media, behind only Iraq, Somalia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. Colombia has ranked fifth for the past five years on the Index, which calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of each country’s population.

This lack of justice is by no means limited to crimes against Colombian journalists. In 2011, El Tiempo reported that 90 percent of all people arrested in Bogotá avoided prison sentences due to a judicial system riddled with procedural errors. A recent U.S. State Department report declared that the most serious human rights problems in Colombia are impunity and an overburdened, inefficient justice system that is hindered by subornation and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses.

Such threats and coercion are rife in far-flung Colombian provinces where regional authorities rarely manage to solve journalist murders, according to Pedro Vaca, executive director of FLIP. To overcome such obstacles, most cases since 2000 have been shifted to special units within the federal attorney general’s office in Bogotá. But changes in jurisdiction, as well as the introduction of a new penal code in 2008, have opened the door to even more procedural delays, confusion, and corruption.

A dismal example is the Henry Rojas case, which was transferred to judicial authorities is Bogotá. Part of the legal process involved his family’s quest for government reparations. Though ultimately successful, the effort turned into a 16-year nightmare because Bogotá court officials somehow “lost” the Rojas case file, a mammoth set of documents that stood three feet high and weighed more than 100 pounds.

“Case files don’t just get up and walk out the door by themselves,” Alejandro Ramelli, a prosecutor for the attorney general’s officein Bogotá and an expert on crimes against reporters, told CPJ.

Ramelli blamed two factors for widespread impunity: structural problems within the judicial system, and a single-minded focus by prosecutors on the last link in the chain–those directly responsible for killing journalists–rather than the criminal organizations and corrupt politicians who are often behind the murders.

There have been a few notable breakthroughs.

In 2009, a court in the northern province of Santander sentenced former Barrancabermeja Mayor Julio César Ardila Torres to nearly 29 years in prison on charges of aggravated murder and conspiracy in the 2003 shooting death of local radio reporter José Emeterio Rivas, who had accused Ardila of corruption and ties to paramilitary death squads.

In 2011, the authorities arrested former provincial legislator Ferney Tapasco González, one of the suspected masterminds of the 2002 killing of Orlando Sierra, the deputy editor and muckraking columnist for the Manizales daily newspaper La Patria. Sierra had been investigating possible links between Tapasco González and a gang of assassins. The former politician has denied involvement in the killing, and as of this writing the case was still pending.

But such hard-fought advances are rare, and even victories have often turned out to be partial or been reversed on appeal.

“There are so many problems with the legal system in Colombia that people have come to accept the bare minimum,” Vaca told CPJ. “That means if there is a conviction, any kind of conviction, we are willing to think that justice has been served. But we must demand full justice.”

Getting to the bottom of journalist murders is challenging throughout Latin America, but the task can be especially difficult in Colombia, the only country in the hemisphere with an active guerrilla war. The fighting, which began in the 1960s, pits two Marxist rebel groups against the government. Until recently, the mix also included right-wing paramilitary death squads that often collaborated with the national army to fight the guerrillas and with corrupt politicians to intimidate their rivals.

All of these players have been active in Arauca, a sparsely populated but oil-rich province on the Venezuelan border, where six journalists have been killed since 1991, according to FLIP. But no matter the culprit, the Colombian legal system has thus far failed to convict any of the masterminds behind the six murders. Some of the killings may not have been related to the victims’ work as journalists, but the inability to solve these crimes feeds the atmosphere of hostility and intimidation for reporters in Arauca.

Take the case of Danilo Alfonso Baquero, a reporter for the now-defunct Emisora Bolivariana radio station in Tame, a town in southwest Arauca province. On Dec. 26, 1993, he was shot dead by men suspected of being guerrillas of the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN, the smaller of Colombia’s two rebel insurgencies.

Besides the Baquero murder, the ELN also took responsibility for the 1995 murder of Iván Dario Pelayo, a radio reporter in the town of Puerto Rendón, and the 1996 killing of Alfredo Matiz. A lawyer, politician, and founder in 1965 of Arauca’s first radio station, La Voz del Cinaruco, Matiz often used the station to denounce rebel violence, according to his son, Alfredo Matiz Brando.

Relatives have never been able to confirm why the ELN sentenced Baquero, Pelayo, and Matiz to death, nor have they been able to testify at a trial. Arauca province remains an ELN stronghold, and the authorities have been unable or unwilling to arrest the guerrillas who killed the three men or the rebel commanders who presumably ordered the executions. The statute of limitations on the Baquero case expired in December 2013, while it is due to lapse in 2015 in the Pelayo case and in 2016 in the Matiz case.

“Justice is now in the hands of God,” Claudia Baquero, the slain journalist’s sister, said.

If not justice, some sort of reckoning for these crimes may still be possible. The Colombian government is currently engaged in peace talks in Cuba with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the larger of the country’s two rebel groups. In July 2013, the FARC asked the government to broaden the peace process to include the ELN, an idea that President Juan Manuel Santos appears to support.

Should a final peace accord with the FARC and ELN emerge, it would likely include a process of transitional justice, which refers to judicial and alternative measures to redress widespread human rights abuses in societies transitioning from war to peace. In the broaderinterest of persuading the rebels to demobilize,the vast majority of their crimes would go unpunished. However, such a framework could allow for the prosecution of military commanders on all sides who were most responsible for the most serious crimes during the conflict, according to the International Crisis Group.

It’s unclear whether such a process would include prosecutions for some of the killings of Colombian journalists. However, both the FARC, whose fighters have also gunned down numerous reporters, and the ELN have endorsed the idea of an independent truth commission to establish the responsibility for crimes and provide reparations.

“Without a doubt, there has also been cruelty and pain provoked by our forces,” FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo stated in September 2013 on the sidelines of the peace talks in Havana. “We must recognize the need to approach the issue of victims, their identification and reparations with complete loyalty to the cause of peace and reconciliation.”

For the families of two other murdered Arauca journalists, transitional justice has helped shed some light on the crimes, but it has also proved to be a slow, frustrating, and perplexing legal maze.

On March 18, 2003, Luis Eduardo Alfonso Parada, a correspondent for El Tiempo and for the Arauca radio station Meridiano-70, was gunned down by paramilitaries on his way to work.  His death came just nine months after paramilitaries killed the station’s owner, Efraín Varela Noriega, who, like Alfonso, was an outspoken critic of the death squads that had recently deployed in Arauca.

Several paramilitary fighters involved in the two murders turned themselves in under Colombia’s 2005 Justice and Peace law. This transitional justice legal mechanism, which over the past decade has helped bring about the demobilization of about 30,000 paramilitary members, offers reduced sentences–with a maximum of eight years in prison–to former fighters who tell the truth about their crimes and agree to provide reparations.

Under the law, a former paramilitary fighter confessed in 2009 to killing Alfonso. But the Alfonso family lawyer, Ramón del Carmen Garcés, told CPJ that the man has yet to be convicted in the murder due to procedural delays.

More allegations about the Alfonso and Varela killings emerged from Miguel Ángel Mejía, who commanded paramilitary forces in Arauca in the early 2000s. In testimony in 2009 under the Justice and Peace law, Mejía accused former Arauca Gov. Julio Acosta Bernal of receiving financial backing from the paramilitaries and of ordering the militiamen to kill the two journalists. Acosta has since been arrested and imprisoned on charges of murdering a rival Arauca politician. But no charges have been filed against him in the deaths of Alfonso and Varela, who often criticized Acosta in their reports. The former governor has denied any involvement.

In any case, eight years after the Justice and Peace law went into effect, it has led to just 14 convictions of paramilitary fighters. In a 2013 report, Amnesty International called the law “another example of how the state fails to meet international standards on the right of victims to truth, justice, and reparation.”

Efforts by CPJ to interview government prosecutors handling the Alfonso and Varela cases were unsuccessful.

“To achieve justice, we have to get the person who gave the orders,” Garcés told CPJ from his law office in Arauca. “That person is much more of a criminal than the one who pulled the trigger.”

Garcés points out that even though it’s been more than a decade since a reporter was killed in the province, local journalism has never recovered. Those who dig too deeply into government corruption, ties between politicians and criminals, or guerrilla actions, are quickly warned off.

“These are untouchable issues,” said one Arauca reporter who was assigned a government escort last year after receiving numerous death threats. “The objective of the killers to silence the press in any way possible was achieved. Those of us who survived received a very strong message.”

John Otis, CPJ’s Andes correspondent for the Americas program, works as a correspondent for Time magazine and the Global Post. He is the author of the 2010 book Law of the Jungle, about U.S. military contractors kidnapped by Colombian rebels, and is based in Bogotá, Colombia.

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