Colombia uncovers assassination plot against researchers and journalist

Santos government believes hired hitman has traveled to Bogota to carry out murders

The Colombian government said Tuesday that it has uncovered a plan “by very powerful people” to assassinate a group of researchers who took part in a 2011 investigation into links between armed groups and candidates on the ballot in local elections. A journalist is also included on the hit list.

“Of course, I am scared,” said León Valencia, a 58-year-old political scientist who the government said is one of the murder targets. Valencia knows what it is like to live under threat. Since he began to expose “the connections between politicians and violent groups” 18 years ago, he has been afforded round-the-clock security, including bodyguards and a bulletproof vehicle.

Besides Valencia, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos said that researcher Ariel Ávila, journalist Gonzalo Guillén and the think-tank group Arco Iris (New Rainbow) Corporation are also on the list.

"These threats come from very powerful people who for years have been shielded by a lot of impunity,” Valencia said in a telephone interview from Bogota.

Andrés Villamizar, the government’s top security chief, met with Valencia and the others last Friday to warn them that a professional hitman from the north of the country has traveled to the capital to coordinate their “imminent” assassinations.

“We are not going to allow this plan to be carried out,” Villamizar said in his Twitter account on Tuesday.

These threats come from powerful people who have been shielded by impunity for years"

The supposed targets believe that the hits were ordered in retaliation for their 2011 investigation that disqualified 127 mayoral and gubernatorial candidates from ballots after they were linked to armed paramilitary groups. The Bogota daily El Espectador published the names under the banner: The Rainbow’s Black List, in reference to the think-tank’s name.

Even two years later, the shockwaves from this study are still being felt. Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office has opened investigations into many of former candidates based on the Arco Iris Corporation’s research.

“This quasi-attack has not been ordered by guerrilla groups or drug traffickers. It comes from a structure organized by an elected official who is now in power,” said 29-year-old researcher Ávila, who declined to give names but said the elected official comes from the north. “The hitman has not been captured but this political structure has been identified.”

Journalist Guillén, who has not spoken to the press since the assassination plot was uncovered, did not participate in the Arco Iris investigation, but he has worked in the north of the country. Recently, he was investigating a contraband network of weapons and gasoline in La Guajira, a region whose governor was named in the Arco Iris list, according to Ávila.

Many local Colombian politicians have come out against the government’s ongoing peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that have been taking place in Havana since last November. But investigators consulted by EL PAÍS say they are convinced that the assassination plot was hatched along other lines. “It could be a secondary reason, but it is not the main reason,” said Ávila.

Based on the investigation, Valencia believes that there are strong links between paramilitaries and organized crime.

As of now, the researchers and journalist have decided to remain in Colombia even though they were forced to leave the country on several occasions in the past after the list was first made public.

“Our decision is to remain because we have already had to leave the country on various occasions but we are not going to do that anymore,” said Ávila.

The assassination plot against the three is nothing new in Colombia. Some 90 journalists are living and working under government protection, the Santos administration revealed Tuesday. In its latest report, the Freedom of the Press Foundation said that 158 journalists in Colombia were the victims of violence or assaults last year alone.

On May 1, Ricardo Calderón, the editor in charge of investigations at the weekly Semana magazine, was attacked by gunmen who opened fire on his vehicle as he was returning from an interview. He escaped unharmed.

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