Varela, the owner of Radio Meridiano-70, was shot and killed in northeastern Colombia.
The journalist, who had recently alerted the public to the presence of paramilitary fighters in the region, was driving home from a university graduation in Arauca Department in the afternoon when gunmen yanked him from his car and shot him in the face and chest, said Col. Jorge Caro, acting commander of Arauca's police.
Varela hosted two polemical news and opinion programs for the station in the town of Arauca and criticized all sides fighting in Colombia's civil conflict, according to José Gutiérrez, who co-hosted an afternoon program called "Let's Talk Politics" with Varela.
A few days before the killing, Varela had told listeners during his morning news show that fighters from the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) had arrived in Arauca, which is on the border with Venezuela, and were patrolling the town's streets, according to Gutiérrez.
Tensions have been building in the oil-rich area since early June, when the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began threatening to kill civil servants in the region who refused to resign. The rebels are battling the paramilitary army for control over lucrative territory not only in Arauca but throughout the country.
Three years ago, Varela's name appeared on a list of people that the paramilitary army had declared military targets, said acting police commander Caro, adding that authorities were investigating rumors that the AUC was responsible for the killing. Caro, a frequent listener of the station, said that Varela seemed to reserve his sharpest criticism for the paramilitaries.
A spokesperson for the Public Prosecutor's Office told CPJ in mid-December that authorities have issued an arrest warrant for a paramilitary commander believed to have been involved in the killing. The spokesperson said it wasn't known when the warrant was issued and refused to reveal the name of the paramilitary leader for fear of jeopardizing the search for him.
Varela, who was in his early 50s, was also the secretary of a provincial peace commission as well as its former president, said Evelyn Varela, his 28-year-old daughter and Radio Meridiano-70's manager. In recent months, Varela had begun warning his only child that his life could be in danger. "He had us prepared for the worst," his daughter said.