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August 11, 1998

Case: Amparo Leonor Jiménez

Amparo Leonor Jiménez was murdered on August 11, 1998, in Valledupar:

August 1, 2001
Proyecto Impunidad

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Amparo Leonor Jiménez was murdered on August 11, 1998, in Valledupar, capital of Cesar province. That morning, after taking her son to school, she parked her car at a corner of the apartment block where she lived. Waiting for her there was a hit man, who shot her three times in the head. Although it was know who killed, and why, the crime remains unpunished.

Jiménez worked as a correspondent for a number of television news programs. She also served coordinator of Redepaz, a national non-governmental organization engaged in peace initiatives, and up to her death headed the Cesar Regional Peace and Rehabilitation Office.

As a correspondent, first for the news program "Q.E.P." and later for the newscast "En Vivo," she was subjected to various pressures and threats. But as investigations by the IAPA Rapid Response Unit and the Colombian Attorney General's Office found, the motive for her murder dated back to early 1996.
The news program "Q.E.P." sent her to Pelaya, a town in the southern part of Cesar, to report on the forced eviction of some 170 families occupying land on the Bellacruz Ranch owned by the Marulanda family.

Carlos Arturo Marulanda, a former congressman and cabinet minister who at the time was Colombian ambassador to the European Union, had inherited from his father more than 54,000 acres of land in what is known as the Bellacruz Ranch, where an agrarian conflict was raging. After a court ruling ordering a speed-up in giving title to settlers who had been occupying lands there since 1987, Marulanda was said to have instructed one Edgar Rodríguez Rodríguez, alias Caballito (Little Horse), a member of a paramilitary group operating in the area, to conduct an armed operation at the ranch.

According to testimony from the settlers, on February 14, 1996, on Marulanda's orders 40-armed men arrived at the ranch, beat up settlers and forced them to flee their homes and abandon their crops. Five years later, on July 16, 2001, Marulanda, for whom an arrest warrant had been issued, was arrested by Interpol agents in Madrid, Spain, from where he would be extradited to face charges of organizing paramilitary groups and in connection with the February 14, 1996, incident, in which members of the Army were also believed to have participated.

A witness, speaking on condition of anonymity, from the Community Action Board in Vistahermosa, an area near the ranch where a similar incident had occurred some months earlier, said soldiers were among those that took part in the Bellacruz eviction. "These were the same men that had asked me to tell the people at the Bellacruz Ranch that they were going to be evicted," the witness said in sworn testimony.

Three Army units were operating in Vistahermosa - the Pichincha Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Jorge Luis Betancur; the San Mateo Battalion under Lieutenant Juan Pablo Rozo, and the Palitas Battalion, headed by Major Henry Capacho.

When Jimenéz went to cover the story, the local police told her that this was a conflict zone, so she was not allowed to interview anyone or photograph the scene. Jiménez replied that she did not need permission. Later, as she was returning on the highway from Pelaya to the Cesar capital, paramilitaries ordered her to stop. She and her cameraman were ordered to hand over their work sheet, tapes and camera.

Jiménez filed a complaint about the incident and even told the local affiliate of the Telecaribe TV network about it. Some days later she received telephoned threats, presumably from paramilitaries, saying that if she wanted to get her things back she would have to go and collect them. According to her friend and colleague Clara Orozco, she managed to make contact with them and agreed on some kind of truce.

But that was not the only incident she encountered. After covering a massacre on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, in which Venezuelan border guards were said to have murdered a number of local farm workers, an army captain asked her not to send her report to the news program's headquarters in Bogotá. She did no comply.

On several occasions, according to information gathered from here colleagues, members of influential families in the Cesar capital city asked her to ignore certain reports, especially those that had to do with the capture of paramilitaries in the war that had been declared by the then police chief, Colonel Ciro Chitiva, on those outlaw groups.

Jiménez had acquired some notoriety already in 1997, while working with Redepaz on promoting the Citizens' Mandate for Peace and as director of the Colombian Presidency's rehabilitation program. She attempted to set up a Provincial Peace Council, advocated popular support for peace and no-combat zones in Bosconia, Palitas, Codazzi and San Diego districts. On July 20, 1998, in one of the last actions she took before she was killed, she organized a rally to counteract one by the military, which dubbed her effort anarchist.

In the middle of celebrations of Colombian Independence Day in a city square, Jiménez put a blindfold on a huge poster of independence hero Simón Bolívar to symbolize how horrified he would have been at the violence wracking the country. That afternoon she gave a speech in which she called on the paramilitaries and guerrillas to cease their confrontation and open up a dialogue.

Shortly afterwards, along with her assistant, Beiro Mendoza, a rehabilitated former member of the demobilized M-19 guerrilla movement, a conference titled "For Peace in Cesar." They tape-recorded all the speeches by retired and active members of the military, labor union officers and local public officials, who all gave their support for formation of self-defense units. She several items was called and asked to hand over the tapes, but she did not do so.

She was killed several days later. Immediately her colleague Orozco transcribed the tapes and came across phrases that described people like Jiménez as being representatives of the guerrillas' political wing. Orozco faxed the transcriptions to the Redepaz and Rehabilitation offices in Bogotá, but they produced no more than an outcry. The subsequent silence was due to the fact that they were regarded as dangerous material containing sensitive information for those who support the paramilitaries, some of them linked to the Army and the labor unions.

Following Jiménez' murder, Redepaz decided to lower its profile. It transferred staff to Bogotá and the Rehabilitation office was shut down - but not before a low-intensity explosive device was set off there. The home of Beiro, Jimenez' colleague, was raided and he received constant telephoned threats for several days.

Eleven days after the murder, a detailed eyewitness description led to the arrest of a man suspected of having carried it out, Libardo Prada Bayona. Three eyewitnesses in turn identified him in a police line-up. In addition, a woman, Astrid Borrego, told of a conversation she said the suspect had had some days earlier in which he said a paramilitary boss had ordered him to kill Jiménez for a report she had given to Telecaribe television. This was a reference to an interview Jiménez had given following the Bellacruz Ranch incident. Despite having his own house, Prada Bayona rented a place just a few blocks from Jiménez' home where, police said, he organized the murder.

On April 16, 1999, eight months after his arrest, Prada Bayona was charged with aggravated homicide and unlawful arms possession. One year after Jiménez' murder, the Public Prosecutor's Office attached to the Bogotá District Court confirmed the charges against Prada Bayona, who is currently serving time in prison in Valledupar for a prior murder.

Up to this point the Colombian justice system had acted correctly. The prosecutor in the case indicted the suspect and investigation continued to determine who was behind the murder. But as the trial approached, the case became bogged down and attempts were made to intimidate judges and prosecutors. Since August 10, 1999, the Valledupar Criminal Circuit Court has set seven different dates (March 30, June 14, August 15, October 3 and December 19, 2000, and March 2 and May 7, 2001) for the public hearing, continued because the defendant said he had no defense attorney. Under Colombian law, no defendant may be tried without legal representation.

The trial finally began on July 10, 2001, and is expected to resume on September 17, more than two years after the formal charges were laid. However, if it were not for the fact that Prada Bayona is serving a prison sentence for another murder he would now be free - because in Colombia there is a one-year statute of limitation for trial proceedings and according to the Public Prosecutor's Office itself the deadline for a trial in connection with the journalist's murder was more than a year ago.

The criminal court that is hearing the case explained that the trial could not be held earlier because on the dates scheduled Prada Bayona still had no legal counsel, as well as the fact that for six months between 1999 and 2000 the regional justice system in Colombia underwent internal changes that created a backlog in trials.

Ricardo de la Hoz, a public defense lawyer, does not accept these arguments, saying that the five or six attorneys that Prada Bayona had in the pre-trial period alone had been forced to withdraw from his defense because they were allegedly threatened. "There are those who have an interest in the case not coming to trial," he said. "The people behind the crime know that without defense counsel a trial cannot be held. We have all received threats. At attempt was made on my brother's life in Riohacha in August last year. In the very criminal courts of Valledupar I have received the suggestion that I stay away from the hearings."

Documents from the Public Prosecutor's Office based on more than a hundred statements by settlers and former paramilitaries indicate that Marulanda and paramilitary chief Salvatore Mancuso have been working together since the early 1990s to protect their ranches from guerrilla forces. Marulanda's Bellacruz Ranch was made the base of operations for the Self-Defense Units of Colombia, while Mancuso's Bellavista Ranch became the organization's headquarters.

According to these statements, the paramilitaries operating in Magdalena and Cesar provinces were believed to have order the murder. The report indicates that the Public Prosecutor's Office in addition to Mancuso is also investigating other paramilitary chiefs, among them Santander Lozano and René Ríos González. It identifies Libardo Prada Bayona - the man charged with actually killing Jiménez - as one of the paramilitaries under the command of Ríos González' and the latter in turn as under Mancuso's command.

Meanwhile, the delay in coming to trial and the threats that have arisen are keeping the murder of Amparo Leonor Jiménez a crime that remains unpunished.

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