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Humorist’s Death Stuns Colombia

August 14, 1999

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ A motorcycle gunman shot and killed Colombia’s most popular political satirist Friday, silencing an irreverent peace activist esteemed as much by garbage collectors as by political heavyweights.

Jaime Garzon, who juggled radio and television appearances with discreet efforts to free hostages held by leftist rebels, was killed as he drove to work just blocks from Radionet, the all-news network where he was a morning co-host.

The gunman got off a motorcycle driven by an accomplice and fired five shots into Garzon’s head and chest as he waited at a red light, a witness told reporters.

Garzon’s green Jeep Cherokee rolled over a curb and hit a post. A colleague found him slumped over the gear box.

The killing comes amid stepped-up rebel and paramilitary violence while a peace initiative begun a year ago by President Andres Pastrana appears to be faltering. Dozens of human rights activists and several journalists have fled the country this year amid rising threats and instability.

Colleagues said the satirist had told them, as recently as Thursday, of receiving death threats from right-wing paramilitary militias. In the past, Garzon also had told friends of getting threats from rebels.

``It could be he was murdered for his humanitarian efforts,″ said national police commander Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano.

Several radio stations received anonymous claims of responsibility by callers who said they represented paramilitary groups. However, a radio network, Caracol, received a communique signed by the paramilitary umbrella group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, denying responsibility for the crime.

Garzon’s death shocked Colombians, often numbed by political violence, who loved his iconoclastic humor and impressions of leading personalities. Scores flocked to the scene to lay flowers, affix placards and bear witness to the passing of a man many considered a martyr for peace.

``They killed him for telling the truth,″ said Norma Gonzalez, a misty-eyed dental technician.

University students and activists marched in Bogota’s streets and 200 of them converged on Radionet’s offices, chanting ``Jaime, friend, Colombia is with you.″

Hundreds lined up to pay homage at the Capitol, where his coffin was placed, on Friday evening and a protest march was scheduled for Saturday followed by an afternoon funeral.

The 39-year-old comic’s caustic, scatological wit was grounded in political acumen and produced social criticism inspired, friends said, by a profound patriotism.

``Colombians’ lost some of their laughter,″ government peace commissioner Victor G. Ricardo said in a speech, calling on the nation to bind together to demand an end to ``this unfathomable war.″

In a joint communique, the country’s human rights groups denounced the slaying as a deliberate attempt to silence the voices of peace and force Colombia into total war.

The president, a longtime Garzon friend who had worked with him in broadcast news and politics, expressed outrage. The government announced a $270,000 reward for the killers and said 600 motorcycles fitting the description of the one used in the killing were impounded.

``Jaime in large part identified with the sentiments of Colombians, the things in our subconscious that we couldn’t say,″ said Pastrana.

Garzon became a household name with hugely popular political satire television shows _ Zoociedad and Quac. Weekly from 1993-97, the shows poked fun at Colombia’s biggest political corruption scandal _ the entry of millions of dollars in drug money into the election campaign of former President Ernesto Samper.

Garzon, a magazine columnist and former small-town mayor, created personas for his scathing satires that were nearly always lower-class Colombians.

His latest was Heriberto de la Calle, a humble but perceptive shoeshine man whose conversations with the high and mighty were heard and watched by millions.

Colleagues at Radionet cried on the air as they broke the news. Taps played in the background. Tributes arrived in hundreds of faxes and phone calls. Friends and fans placed mementos _ a portrait, a shoeshine box _ at the restaurant booth where Garzon regularly lunched.

``Here we’re all very confused, in a lot of pain,″ said Radionet news director Aida Luz Herrera. ``Feeling impotent.″

In recent months, Garzon had worked closely with leftist rebels in facilitating the release of hostages and even organizing guerrilla news conferences in a southern rebel-controlled area.

On Friday, he had been scheduled to help negotiate the release of civilian hostages held by the National Liberation Army, Colombia’s second-largest rebel group.

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