In Colombian town where newsmen died, murders are tallied daily

May 17, 1991|By Ana Arana | Ana Arana,Special to The Sun

SEGOVIA, Colombia -- Green mountains surround this gold-mining town where folks don't venture out of their homes at night. The night belongs to gun-slinging members of paramilitary groups, guerrillas and plain common criminals who are responsible for five to six killings a day.

This is the town Colombian journalists Julio Daniel Chaparro and Jorge Enrique Torres Navas, a reporter and photographer for the daily El Espectador, visited April 24 to get an idea how perpetual violence affects people in Colombia.

They arrived before dusk, took a walk, asked a few questions and snapped a few photographs. Three hours later they were found dead. According to town residents, they had been gunned down by four men, making them the latest of at least 55 journalists killed in the past six years in Colombia.

Mayor Gilberto de Jesus Barrada, 37, who lives in a bunker in the town hall and doesn't go out without bodyguards, said the journalists should have made their presence known to him. He said they ran into trouble because they came "covertly to take pictures in a town that has been traumatized."

The "trauma" was a massacre of 46 town residents in November 1988. Five cars full of armed men entered the town. According to information released by the courts, the men drove around the square shooting indiscriminately, threw a hand grenade into a bar and drove down a few streets where they shot more victims.

The first army reports on the massacre said the killers were guerrillas, but a judicial investigation later showed they were members of self-defense groups paid by local landowners and trained by military officials then assigned to the town.

The left-wing Patriotic Union (UP) party was the target of the massacre, according to town residents and investigators.

The party had won the 1988 municipal elections, upsetting the traditional political structure.

"We lost seven party members in the massacre," said CarloGarcia, new president of the UP in Segovia. The party also lost support in town. None of the suspects in the killings are in jail, and the case has been closed.

Government sources and human rights monitors say there are five paramilitary groups in Segovia. But Mayor Barrada and the chief of police say the journalists were killed "because people mistook them for paramilitaries."

Mayor Barrada, an engineer, is a burly man with a mustache who appears to represent the powers-that-be in Segovia, a town that lives entirely off gold mining. Even with the bodyguards, Mr. Barrada carries a .38-caliber revolver because he is afraid of "people in town who might not agree with my policies."

"The town is not against journalists," emphasized Mr. Barrada. "I can guarantee the safety of any journalist who wants to come to Segovia for a week," he vehemently told 16 foreign and Colombian reporters who visited his town last week escorted by dozens of soldiers and policemen.

How would the 30,000 town residents know that a visitor was a journalist who had been cleared by the mayor's office? asked one journalist.

"I would inform them through a loudspeaker in the town square," the mayor said quickly, although he seemed irritated when reporters asked him to announce their arrival through the loudspeaker.

Maj. Mariano Jaimes, police chief, claimed that the only violence in the area was that caused by drunken miners and by guerrillas. "The guerrillas killed the journalists probably," he told reporters, as they visited a bar where the slain reporters had spent some of their last few hours alive, drinking beers and talking to a barmaid.

Mr. Chaparro and Mr. Navas died about a mile from the bar on La Reina Street, the same street where the paramilitary gunmen surprised many of their victims in 1988.

Carlos Garcia of the Patriotic Union agreed that the journalists probably had been killed by paramilitary groups. He also said 100 party members had been killed since 1988.

Residents near the area where the journalists were shot said the bodies were on the street for three hours before police arrived to pick them up.

Major Jaimes said it took them a while to get to the bodies because at first they thought it was an attempt to ambush local police.

Meanwhile, the investigation into the case advances at a snail's pace.

Few people in town have come forward to give testimony.

But Mayor Barrada believes that "Segovia is just a normal town. Nothing more than a normal town."

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