A bridge during sunset in Bogota, Colombia in May 2018. A Bogota court sentenced José Miguel Narváez to 30 years in prison for instigating the murder of Colombian journalist, comedian, and peace activist Jaime Garzón. (Reuters/Henry Romero)

Mastermind convicted in 1999 murder of Colombian journalist Jaime Garzón

August 15, 2018 5:11 PM ET

Bogotá, Colombia, August 15, 2018--The Committee to Protect Journalists today welcomed the conviction and sentencing of the organizer of the 1999 murder of Colombian journalist, comedian, and peace activist Jaime Garzón, and expressed disappointment that the court did not consider Garzon's work as a journalist in its decision.

A Bogotá district criminal court on August 13 sentenced José Miguel Narváez, a former top official of Colombia's now-disbanded intelligence agency, to 30 years in prison for instigating Garzón's murder and ordered him to pay 390 million Colombian pesos (US$130,000) in compensation to Garzon's family, according to court documents cited in news reports. Narvaéz has been in custody since 2009 on unrelated charges.

"Nineteen years to the day after Jaime Garzón was killed, the mastermind responsible for his death is finally facing justice," said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick from New York. "This ruling is a powerful breakthrough in the impunity that has characterized one of Colombia's most infamous journalist murders, but it is disappointing that the court did not consider Garzón's reporting as a factor in his death."

According to the reports, Narvaéz convinced right-wing paramilitary death squads to kill Garzón, who was shot dead inside his SUV on a Bogotá street on August 13, 1999, for allegedly collaborating with leftist guerrillas.

When convicting Narvaéz, the court did not take into account Garzón's work as a journalist as a motivating factor in Narvaéz's plan to kill the reporter.

In a communiqué, the Bogotá-based Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) criticized this omission, and wrote that, during the trial, witnesses said that Garzón's frequent criticism of the paramilitaries on TV news programs was one of the reasons he was targeted for death.

Garzón, who was 38 when he died, was a beloved figure in Colombia whose life story inspired a recent television mini-series.

He was best known for his TV character Heriberto de la Calle, a humble shoe-shiner who would comment on society's ills and carry out sardonic interviews with Colombian politicians in a regular segment for one of the country's main news programs. He also created Zoociedad, a TV program that focused on political humor.

With Colombia's guerrilla war raging in the late 1990s, Garzón, who had previously served as mayor of a Bogotá suburb, became a peace activist and mediator between the guerrillas and relatives of hostages held by guerrillas to negotiate their releases. These activities may have prompted the paramilitaries to label him as a rebel collaborator and mark him for death, according to news reports.

In its August 13 decision, the court said that Narváez was a constant presence in paramilitary camps and provided its troops with information on Garzón's daily movements, which allowed them to track and kill him.

"He constantly besieged the paramilitary's leader to carry out the crime," the court said, according to extracts of the decision published in the Colombian media.

At the time of the killing Narváez, who according to news reports was a fierce anti-communist, was a professor at the Colombia's war college, Escuela Superior de Guerra. He was later named assistant director of the Department of Administrative Security (DAS), Colombia's domestic intelligence agency. The DAS was disbanded in 2011 amid a massive wiretapping scandal in which the agency was revealed to have spied on journalists, human rights activists, and opposition politicians.

In 2016, Narváez was sentenced to eight years in prison for his involvement in the scandal, often referred to as DAS-gate.

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