Historic conviction of mastermind in Colombian journalist's murder

June 25, 2015 4:06 PM ET

Bogotá, June 25, 2015 - A Colombian court sentenced the mastermind of a journalist’s murder to 36 years in prison on Wednesday in a landmark conviction that followed years of lobbying for justice by local journalists.

Politician Francisco Ferney Tapasco González was convicted for ordering the 2002 killing of Orlando Sierra Hernández, a muckraking columnist and deputy editor of the daily La Patria in the central city of Manizales, media reported. Sierra, 42, was shot in the head three times in front of his daughter.

The ruling was a victory for journalists who have been battling for years to end chronic impunity in Colombia. The Bogotá-based Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) said it was the first time that everyone involved in a journalist’s murder had been jailed.

“After 13 years we finally have justice for Orlando Sierra whose case highlighted all that was rotten in the Colombian legal system,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas, from New York. “This shows what journalists can achieve when they band together: impunity does not have to be the norm and the powerful can be held accountable.”

The Manizales court decision came after years of delays, the killings of witnesses, and controversial judicial rulings. The court also convicted Fabio López Escobar and Jorge Hernando López Escobar in the Sierra case and sentenced them to nearly 29 years in prison. Tapasco, who has a lengthy criminal record, was also convicted in 2010 for working with paramilitary death squads, according to news reports.

Sierra frequently accused prominent politicians from the local Liberal and Conservative parties of nepotism, vote buying, and looting public coffers. Tapasco was a former mayor and veteran political boss in Manizales, capital of Caldas province, northwest of Bogotá. He also served in the state assembly and was president of the Liberal Party in Caldas.

Sierra began receiving death threats in the late 1990s after writing about how Tapasco had been removed from office following the discovery that in the 1970s he had been convicted of selling military ration cards while serving as mayor of Supia, a municipality in Caldas.

According to CPJ research, Sierra publicly backed the legal process to remove Tapasco and also used his column to highlight Tapasco’s conviction for concealing information about the 1991 murder of a schoolteacher in Caldas. Sierra also investigated possible links between Tapasco and a death squad. Shortly before his death he had told colleagues that if anything happened to him Tapasco would be to blame.

Sierra was shot and wounded on January 30, 2002 outside the La Patria office. He died two days later. On the day of the shooting police arrested 21-year-old Luis Fernando Soto Zapata, who later confessed to the crime. Soto was sentenced to 19 years in prison but served only five due to good behavior. In July 2008 Soto died in a clash with the police in the city of Cali.

Fearing the Sierra murder would remain unsolved, seven Colombian newspapers and magazines formed Project Manizales to try to investigate the case. The Sierra killing was also the subject of a documentary, “The Battle of Silence.”

But despite a mounting body of evidence, Tapasco was only linked to the case three years later and his trial started a full decade after the killing, according to FLIP. By then, FLIP said in a statement, nine witnesses had been murdered. In 2013, a judge declared Tapasco innocent of the Sierra murder.

But the case was appealed by government prosecutors and by the Inspector General’s office which monitors the behavior of judicial officials. In handing down the sentences on Wednesday, the court said that Sierra’s columns criticizing Tapasco “generated resentment towards Sierra Hernández for asking questions about his power, his political leadership. (Tapasco) would not allow anyone to interfere with him,” according to news reports.

“This Attorney General’s office has been on top of this case for many years and we have had many roadblocks, such as the earlier not-guilty verdict,” Assistant Attorney General Jorge Fernando Perdomo said in a statement. “That decision has now been overturned. We hope this brings to a close a very important case.”

Although security in Colombia has improved in recent years, impunity is entrenched and threats and violence against journalists continue, according to CPJ research. Problems such as overburdened prosecutors and mishandling of evidence have delayed criminal investigations for years. Colombia ranked eighth on CPJ's 2014 Impunity Index, an annual survey spotlighting countries where journalists are slain and their killers go free.  On May 26, President Juan Manuel Santos told CPJ he would prioritize combating impunity in attacks against the press and would urge judicial authorities to speed up investigations.

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