As the final hearing began today in the trial of Juan Pablo Ortiz Agudelo and Edilberto Antonio Sierra Ayala, the two main suspects in the 1999 murder of journalist and humorist Jaime Garzón, Reporters Without Borders warned of the danger of a bad verdict resulting from a mishandled investigation.
"We are extremely concerned at the possibility of a miscarriage of justice in this case as several of the testimonies used by the prosecution against the two defendants are not credible," the organisation said.
Reporters Without Borders said it was particularly concerned about the fact that the prosecutor’s office and the Department for Administrative Security (DAS) - an intelligence service under the president’s authority - were sticking to a version of events that has been largely refuted in the course of the preceding hearings.
Garzón, who worked for Radionet and Caracol TV, was part of a commission set up to dialogue with leftist guerrillas.
"It is essential that an enquiry be carried out into the possibility the DAS and the prosecutor’s office deliberately mishandled the investigations with the result that those really responsible for Jaime Garzón’s death will get away with it," Reporters Without Borders said.
"It is also essential that a new investigation is opened into Garzón’s death, so that a murder that shocked all of Colombian society does not remain unpunished," the organisation added.
Reporters Without Borders has the status of a civil party in this case since 2002, when the courts accepted the argument that Garzón’s murder on 13 August 1999 in Bogotá was a serious blow to free expression. The organisation is represented by Alirio Uribe of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, who is also acting for the Garzón family.
The prosecution’s arguments
The lawyers for the various parties will present their closing arguments in the two-day final hearing due to begin today. In the previous hearing on 9 October, the prosecutor called for "an exemplary punishment" for Ortiz and Sierra, who are alleged to have carried out the killing. He also called for the conviction in absentia of Carlos Castaño, the head of the right wing paramilitary United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), who was allegedly responsible for this contract killing.
The accusations against the defendants are based on the findings of investigating judge Eduardo Meza, who concluded that Castaño instigated the murder, Ortiz fired the shots and Sierra drove the motorcycle used by Ortiz in the killing. Ortiz was arrested in January 2000, Sierra was arrested in September 2001 and a warrant for the arrest of Castaño was issued in June 2000.
The motive for the murder is supposed to have been Garzón’s participation in negotiations to obtain the release of persons kidnapped by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Castaño is alleged to have seen this as playing into the hands of the guerrillas. He is also supposed to have thought that Garzón received money in exchange for these services.
From the very outset of the investigation, it was the DAS who supplied the investigating judge with the main prosecution witnesses: Maria Amparo Arroyave Montoya, Wilson Javier Llano Caballero, Maribel Jiménez Montoya, Wilson Raúl Ramírez Muñoz and Bernardo Quintero Montoya.
Arroyave is the main prosecution witness against Ortiz, who is also known as El Bochas. There are several reasons for doubting the veracity of her evidence: the contradictions between her various statements; the distance from her apartment window to where Ortiz supposedly was when she saw him - at least 30 metres - which casts doubt on the detail of the description she gave of him; the failure of judicial investigators to obtain access to her apartment; and her disappearance since 2000 when questions began to be raised about her statements.
Although placed under the responsibility of the DAS since the start of the investigation, Arroyave has not responded to any of the summonses sent to her before and during the trial, so the various parties have been unable to question her about her statements.
Llano, a DAS informer known as "El Profe," is a prosecution witness against both Ortiz and Sierra. There are serious doubts about his credibility because he tried to force other persons to give false testimony. The evidence for this includes a letter written by Llano - a handwriting analysis confirmed he wrote it - in which he tells an individual by the name of Luis Guillermo Velásquez Mazo to testify against Ortiz and Sierra and even tells him what nickname he should give ("Mascotica") when he presented himself to the authorities. "Mascotica" was killed in May 2001 without ever making a statement.
Two of the other prosecution witnesses, Ramírez and Quintero, subsequently retracted their statements, saying Llano forced them to give false testimony. Only Jiménez has stood by her statement but it has emerged that she is a former girlfriend of Llano. Her mother and Ramírez have both said that Llano made her promises to induce her to give a false statement.
According to Ramírez, Llano’s motive in all of this was to pocket the reward offered by the authorities for evidence and at the same time take over the Medellín district of San Javier, where Ortiz and Sierra ran rackets.
Protecting the real criminals?
Both the DAS and the investigating judge have not only given credit to false testimonies, but they have also contradicted themselves or have ruled out significant leads without good reason.
A DAS agent said during the trial in January 2003 that Arroyave was sent to Mexico in December 2001 for her protection. This is contradicted by a report issued by the DAS international service in December 2002. Strangely, a later document issued by the same service in March 2003 finally confirmed the evidence given at the trial by the DAS agent. Moreover, DAS agents who supposedly met Arroyave have given contradictory descriptions of her. There is a further contradiction: Reynel Bejarano, an investigator named by another DAS agent as someone who could confirm Arroyave’s existence, says he has never met her.
According to the Garzón family’s lawyer, Uribe, about 50 leads or pieces of information - some implicating army officers - were never verified or given serious consideration by the investigating judge, Meza. The prosecutor’s office also never supplied the investigating magistrate’s case file with a military intelligence report on Garzón which it had in its possession from another case. This report stresses that Garzón had contacts with the guerrillas and it shows that the army was spying on him prior to his death.
This report was written by an NCO, Juan Evangelista Basto Bernal, who was subsequently convicted for the December 2000 attack against trade unionist Wilson Borja. It has proved that Basto’s intelligence reports on Borja were used by paramilitaries, in coordination with military personnel, to try to kill Borja. Like Garzón, Borja was a member of a commission set up to establish a dialogue with the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN).