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Nelson Carvajal Carvajal
April 16, 1998

Case: Nelson Carvajal Carvajal

Nelson Carvajal is dead, but the threats continue:

October 1, 2006
Diana Calderón Fernández

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To reach Pitalito in the Colombian province of Huila you have to travel 307 miles overland from Bogotá. It takes some eight hours to get to this town of 120,000 residents, among whom there are left only six of the 12 family members of journalist Nelson Carvajal Carvajal, murdered on April 16, 1998. The rest of his family – three brothers, his widow and his two daughters – are now living in exile because of threats against them.

For more than a year now a rumor has been spreading through the town’s streets like wildfire – “They are again looking for the people who killed the journalist” – precisely since October 20, 2005, when the El Tiempo newspaper published the news that the IAPA and the Colombian government had held a working session in Washington, DC, to discuss an amicable agreement suggested by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to solve Carvajal’s murder.

Five days after learning of this news there began a systematic campaign of intimidation against the Carvajal family. On October 25 at 6:30 p.m. a man riding a motorcycle tailed Gloria Carvajal – one of the journalist’s seven siblings – to the front door of her home and told her, “Keep being a pain in the ass and you’ll see how you end up!” as he pointed to the page of the El Tiempo carrying the news item.

Then in December 2005, one week after the IAPA’s first meeting with representatives of the Colombian government in Bogotá, Carvajal’s widow, Estela Bolaños, reported that her 12-year-old twin daughters had been followed by strangers.

On April 24, 2006, 15 days after a second IAPA-Colombian government meeting to review progress in the new investigations, and despite the fact it was supposed to be confidential, Gloria Carvajal received a note thrust under the door of her home in which were drawn a skull and several graves with the words “Keep on investigating and this how they will end up.” On the graves were printed the names of the twins, Gloria and Ruth, and that of another of Carvajal’s sisters.

The threats, which began in October 2005, continued up to July 11 this year, when Gloria Carvajal received a call on her cell phone in which a man asked her, “Don’t you get the message?” and warned her, “The next gal is you.”

One month later, Gloria left the country along with Carvajal’s widow and the twins.

Who was it that was interested in scaring the family and making the new attempt to gather evidence difficult?

“I think there are many people who feel persecuted and haven’t understood that justice must be done,” Miriam Carvajal told the IAPA Rapid Response Unit in Colombia. “It’s not a question of persecuting anyone, it’s that society and we the family have a right to the truth.”

“What’s happening is that the Public Prosecutor’s Office went to the town looking for witnesses to provide testimony. And everyone found out. It’s quite clear that those who have anything to say won’t talk and once again they will be silenced,” a local journalist said.

The head of the Human Rights Unit in the Attorney General’s Office, Leonardo Cabana, said that all the threats to the family are being investigated, including in order to determine whether they are really linked to Carvajal’s murder. “We are working hard on this case, the threats clearly are aimed at scaring those who could say something during the investigation,” Cabana said.

A forthright and controversial journalist
In Pitalito on April 16, 1998 a contract killer fired seven shots mortally wounding journalist and teacher Nelson Carvajal Carvajal. He was 37 and married. His first wife died in giving birth to their first daughter. He had twin daughters with his second wife, Estela Bolaños Rodríguez.

Carvajal founded the Los Pinos School in Pilalito, which now bears his name. He was the school’s principal at the time of his death. He started out in journalism in 1986, when he took over as host of the news program “Momento Regional” broadcast by Radio Sur radio station, an affiliate of the RCN Radio national network. He soon became director of the news programs “Mirador de la Semana,” “Amenecer en el Campo” and “Tribuna Médica.” He reported in defense of community interests and called for openness in government. A number of his investigative reports were on political corruption in the Pitalito municipal administration and that of Huila province.

He was a forthright and controversial journalist. On occasions he used his microphone to confront his political opponents or enemies of Radio Sur’s owner, the late physician and conservative leader Manuel Castro Tovar. Carvajal was elected to the Pitalito city commission for the 1992-1994 and 1995-1997 terms on the ticket of the group headed by conservative politician Héctor Poliania, who was himself murdered on May 1, 2001.

On the day Carvajal was murdered at his Los Pinos School one of his five sisters, who worked there, noticed he was nervous. She remembers that at the end of the day he refused to take her home. “Nelson knew they were going to kill him,” she said. And it happened at 6:00 p.m., when a hitman shot him seven times as he was leaving the school on his motorcycle.

That same day early in the morning Carvajal had mentioned to a colleague at the school that he had some documents that would be a news bombshell which he would air the following day on the radio. “No sooner had Nelson finished talking to his colleague than several men arrived at the school and threatened him. After talking to the men he was scared and several hours later they killed him,” said a journalist who has been investigating Carvajal’s murder.

That version was confirmed by Judith Carvajal, another of his sisters, who was told by a Los Pinos School teacher that Carvajal had been chatting that day with teacher Jacob Gómez, who was said to have gone to the school with two men looking for him. Questioned by the IAPA, Gómez said he did not remember having been in the school that day. Teacher Berta Cecilia Parra said that during a cultural event at the school “Nelson was with some people in the principal’s office, but I don’t know who they were. I went to the office at one point and they were locked inside.”

The IAPA talked to a several teachers to confirm the version according to which someone had gone to the school to threaten Carvajal to get him to hand over some news documents a couple of hours before killing him, but no one wanted to provide any further details. Without exception they said they were nervous and worried by the interview.

Arms trafficking

There were several theories put forward about Carvajal’s murder, all to do with the exposures he had been broadcasting in the last few weeks he was alive.

A reporter with the newspaper Diario del Huila told the IAPA that according to a reliable source of his those documents contained evidence incriminating a local public figure presumably linked to arms and drug trafficking between the Pitalito area in Huila, Putamayo and Ecuador in complicity with certain members of the military.

The Pitalito area is known as the Southern Route for arms trafficking, due to the fact that the arms take the route Puerto-Asis-Santana-Mocoa-Pitalito-Neiva or Puerto Asis-Villa Garzón-Mocoa-Pitalito-Florencia to then supply the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas in Nariño, Putumayo, Huila, Caquetá and Cayca, as well as the paramilitaries operating in the south of the country.

A report in the newspaper El Tiempo says that between 1990 and 1998 the authorities seized more than 4 million missiles, 17,000 revolvers and 15,000 grenades. According to the Guayaquil, Ecuador, newspaper El Universal between January 1997 and August 1998 there was a sharp increase in the use of that route, when a shipment of arms from the former Soviet Union , Asia and Central America was intercepted.

In June 2001, with the arrest of Anglican priest Walter Crespo a network was broken up that had sought to provide the FARC with arms from the Ecuadorean Air Force. Killed in that action were retired colonels Carlos Vicente Tobar Alvarez and Jorge Delfin Merino Narváez.

Although the content of the documents that Carvajal was to reveal are unknown, radio new anchor Rafael Chaux, his colleague at Radio Sur, maintained that Carvajal had also commented to him about an investigation that he was doing, but “he didn’t tell me any more in order to avoid the information getting out.”

In his last Radio Sur broadcast before his death Carvajal aired a number of denunciations concerning the construction of housing units called Prado de las Acacias by the Bermúdez Llanos company, owned by Fernando Bermúdez Ardila. The purchasers complained on the radio that the houses were being built in a high-risk area and with poor materials.

Chaux said that was a hot issue. “He wrote the stories, I read them and he made editorial comment,” he said.

Carvajal also made other denunciations on the radio. Some weeks before his death he had brought to light wrongdoing in negotiations by the Pitalito municipal government, headed by Mayor Ramiro Falla Cuenca, concerning the El Topacio land tract, acquired for a public park at an exorbitant price. The land was valued at 49 million pesos but purchased for 584 million.

Ramiro Falla was linked to the Carvajal murder and ordered to be held under preventive detention during the initial stage of the investigation. But the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered his release for lack of evidence.

A third theory is that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas carried out the murder, but quite a few people dismiss this. Judith Carvajal said that the guerrillas themselves contacted her to assure her that they had nothing to do with her brother’s death.

The only time that the Radio Sur radio station had any problem with the FARC was in 1991, when the guerrilla movement blew up its transmission tower, according to Chaux, in reprisal for the station’s not having broadcast one of its communiqués.

The theory that the FARC could be behind Carvajal’s murder came from Bermudez’ defense attorneys during the trial, based on the testimony of a number of people belonging to State Security. One of them, José Moreno Ramírez, an investigator with the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), said, “On one occasion, while working at the Pitalito post, a man (Mario Rincón Contreras, an Army informant) came and said that he knew that the FARC had killed the journalist and that he had already given this information to the Public Prosecutor’s Crime Unit.

The informant said that the mastermind behind Carvajal’s murdered had been guerrilla Oswaldo Patiño, commander of the FARC’s 13th Front, while the one who had carried it out was guerrilla Fabio Córdoba. This information was given one year after the murder. Adding to the doubt about this was the fact that the DAS official who received the information from Rincón had not reported it to the authorities at the time.

The final theory suggests that Carvajal was murdered by members of a gang of criminals in reprisal for the death of their leader, known by the nickname Gallina (Chicken). The president of the Neighborhood Community Action in Porvenir, where a crime watch had been set up by the residents, said that Gallina’s death might have been the result of the denunciations Carvajal had been making in his broadcasts.

The investigation and legal process

Despite all the theories, the Colombian Public Prosecutor’s Office gathered evidence only on the second of them, the one that suggested Bermúdez was the mastermind, on the grounds that his interests were harmed by the denunciations Carvajal had been making about the construction of housing in the Prado de las Acacias. The Public Prosecutor’s Office felt the theory that the FARC was behind the crime was unfounded.

The first public prosecutor to take up the case was Vicente Ortiz in Pitalito. According to a lawyer close to the family Ortiz acted unlawfully, not protecting the identity of those giving statements and handling such things as line-ups of suspects incompetently.

In a note to the Public Prosecutor’s Office the family asked for the case to be transferred to the Colombian Attorney General’s Office in Bogotá. It was then that state attorney Claudia Ortiz of the Terrorism Unit took over the investigation in full. But Ortiz was transferred to the National Anti-Drug Unit and then to the Judicial Police Division (DIJIN), and the process changed hands again. This time the case went to Carlos Hernando Estévez. One of Carvajal’s sisters said that Estévez refused to receive the testimony of some witnesses that the family had obtained and he showed that “he was keen to get it over with.”

Finally, on August 24, 1999 the case was assigned to the unit handling crimes against journalists in the Human Rights Unit of the Attorney General’s Office, where Alfonso Rangel is continuing the investigation.

Since then more than 20 people have made statements under the now-abolished concept of keeping witnesses’ identities secret. Many of the identities were revealed and witnesses threatened, until the investigation, which was handled by four public prosecutors one after the other, was concluded on January 17, 2000 with the charging of Fernando Bermúdez Ardila with being the instigator and of Víctor Félix Trujillo Calderón and Alfonso Quintero Alvarado, a.k.a. Harold el Gordo, with being the perpetrators of aggravated homicide.

The investigation which was carried out in the Human Rights Unit of the Colombian Attorney General’s Office in Bogotá then passed, under terms of the law, to the Specialized Court in Neiva, the capital of Huila, the province where the incident occurred, and on December 15, 2000 this court acquitted the defendants.

After 23 months in prison in preventive detention while the investigation against him was under way, Bermúdez was released.

On April 8, 2001 the Neiva District High Court upheld the lower court’s decision to acquit “with the clarification that the grounds for acquittal are the full demonstration of the innocence of the accused.” This higher court ruling ruled out an appeal as sought by the Attorney General’s Office on February 5, 2001.

On December 22, 2000 Bermúdez told the Diario del Huila that he had been accused in the death of Carvajal because of political persecution by his opponent Fernando Manrique Alvarez (a friend of Carvajal’s), who would leave politics for good. Manrique is now living outside of Huila, also because of threats to his life.

Bermúdez filed libel suits against all those who had testified during his trial and claimed 96 billion pesos in damages of the Colombian government for his two years in prison.

He had come to Pitalito 19 years ago as a street vendor of cassette tapes and shoes. By 1998 he was the president of the Bermúdez Llanos Asociados Business Group in the construction industry. He served on the city commission for two consecutive terms from 1990 to 1998.


Carvajal’s murder continues to go unpunished. The last resort under Colombian law in such cases is an extraordinary appeal. But this measure is no longer available, as the appeal has to be lodged within 15 days of final notification of the higher court ruling, which was on April 8, 2001.

A formal appeal was not lodged because there were no civil proceedings in the case. Carvajal’s family did not have the money to pay lawyers and they also believed that if they took civil action they too would become victims of Carvajal’s killers.

Regarding the supposed involvement of the FARC in Carvajal’s murder, the Attorney General’s Office has not carried out any investigation, arguing that this was merely part of Bermúdez’ defense’s strategy to confuse the legal process.

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