In Colombia, authorities lose track of crimes against journalists until they expire
The complaints Colombian journalist Manuel José Martínez Espinosa used to air through his community radio program on Popayán, Cauca cost him his life. He was killed on Sept. 28, 1993 in front of his house as his wife opened the gate to their garage.
According to Colombia's Freedom of the Press Foundation (FLIP), in 1997 the case led to one prison sentence for one of the material authors of the crime and an order mandating the Colombian government to indemnify Martínez Espinosa's family for their loss.
However, criminal charges were never presented against an army colonel who, according to FLIP, helped plan Martínez Espinosa's murder. The intellectual authors of the crime were never brought to justice -- and they never will.
That's because the deadline to solve the crime expired last Saturday: in Colombia, crimes against journalists committed before the year 2000 must be solved within a 20-year window before they're permanently filed away under the country's statutes of limitations.
Martínez Espinosa's case is the most recent one to succumb to Colombia's statutes of limitations in 2013. According to Reporters Without Borders, the murders of journalists Gerardo Didier Gómez, Carlos Lajud Catalán and Nelson de la Rosa Toscazo expired in February, March and August this year, respectively.
“If (authorities) were to find those responsible tomorrow, they wouldn't be able to charge them," said Pedro Vaca, FLIP's executive director, in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. "Even if they wanted to they wouldn't be able to punish them."
If nothing changes, the next cases to be discarded will be those of journalists Eugenio Orejuela Micolta, killed on Nov. 18, 1993, and Danilo Alfonso Baquero Sarmiento, killed on Dec. 26, 1993.
But for Vaca, the problem isn't the statutes of limitations -- a common legal figure in other parts of the world meant to protect defendants' rights -- but the administrative abyss in which investigations become lost.
"We know that they expire because their time goes by but in conversations with the attorney general's office, they weren't capable of locating the case files," Vaca said. "It's a very persistent problem. Colombian authorities do not completely control the information, where the investigation is located, where the file is, or which agent is in charge of it."
FLIP, along with other organizations, have sought to pressure Colombia's attorney general's office to locate all the files pertaining to crimes against journalists, reactivating the cases that haven't expired and taking the necessary measures to prevent others from expiring.
The attorney general's office did not respond to an interview request.
FLIP has registered 140 killings of journalists between 1977 and 2012, of which more than 60 have expired. Information provided by the attorney general's office contrasted sharply with FLIP's figures, having just registered 40 homicides of journalists since December 1986, which led to 29 sentences (nine out of the 40 cases expired). The attorney general's office did not respond to a request asking to clarify the discrepancy.
Vaca said that the group of cases that have recently expired or are about to do so belong to one of two time periods of extreme violence against Colombian journalists: the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Identifying these waves of violence has helped reclassify some of these cases as crimes against humanity, which can never expire.
To be classified as a crime against humanity, a crime must be part of a series of systematic or generalized aggressions against a specific group or populations. The murders of journalists Guillermo Cano and Eustorgio Colmenares Baptista are the only two that have been deemed crimes against humanity in the context of those two waves of organized crime violence against journalists in Colombia.
However, Vaca warned that reclassifying crimes against journalists will not solve the authorities' ineffectiveness and the stagnation of so many investigations.
"There are cases that (officials at) the national level of the attorney general's office don't know about," he said. "They have a problem that's bigger than them."
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