Latin American Report
By Serge F. Kovaleski
BOGOTA -- With beloved satirist Jaime Garzon's open casket shrouded in flowers, thousands of mourners filled Bogota's main plaza today in an extraordinary outpouring of grief over his murder. The mourners issued a clarion call for an end to the violence that is ravaging this South American country.
The emotional multitude at Plaza de Bolivar waved a sea of white leaflets inscribed with the words "No More!" and filled the drizzly air with placards of defiance amid chants and hymns. One banner declared "Fascism Will Not Happen," while nearby a man waved a Colombian flag splattered with red paint.
Garzon, 39, who captured the Colombian psyche with his irreverent and zany parodies of political figures, and had served as an intermediary between Marxist rebels and families of kidnapping victims, was shot to death Friday morning by as-yet-unidentified gunmen while driving to work at Radionet, where he had a morning show.
Throughout Friday night and most of today, thousands of people in line from one end of the sprawling plaza to the other solemnly filed passed by Garzon's wooden casket, which was set atop the stairs of the nearby capitol.
"I feel so much pain in my heart and in my mind and pain for my country because his death shows that there are too many people in Colombia who have no respect for human values," Emilce Buitrago, 32, a nurse, said. "It is going to be a long wait, but I am here to say my final goodbyes. I still believe in him."
After an open-air Mass attended by Colombia's top functionaries, Garzon was buried this afternoon.
Meanwhile, human rights activists called on Colombians in the coming weeks to turn out by the millions for marches calling for an end to a 36-year-old civil conflict in which more than 35,000 people have been killed. Violence and atrocities have been mounting, largely at the hands of right-wing paramilitary death squads and leftist guerrillas.
Although no one has claimed responsibility for Garzon's death, law enforcement authorities have said they suspect paramilitary groups carried out the attack. Garzon had reportedly told friends that he had received threats via third parties from Colombia's most powerful paramilitary leader, Carlos Castano, with whom he was to meet this weekend. Castano has strongly denied that he had anything to do with the slaying.
Other theories abound, including speculation that a far-right segment of the armed forces might have ordered the killing because it was displeased with Garzon's supposed close contacts with the country's second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). Others believe that a rogue element of the country's largest rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), might have carried out the killing to undermine peace talks with President Andres Pastrana.
According to authorities, two gunmen on motorcycles fatally shot Garzon while he was stopped at a traffic light in his Jeep Cherokee several blocks away from his office. The gunmen are said to have covered the license plates of their motorcycles with red cloth.
One witness, however, said he got a look at the gunmen and helped authorities draw up a composite sketch, which was published in today's newspapers. Despite Garzon's concerns about the threats he said he received from Castano, police officials said he never asked for protection.
Today's newspapers devoted large amounts of space to stories about Garzon's death, with El Tiempo, Colombia's leading paper, running the front-page headline, "They Killed the Laugh. What Next?"
At the signpost where Garzon's Jeep came to rest, dozens of mourners paid tribute to the satirist, laying mounds of flowers and cards at the site and handing out a poem written in his honor. There were placards calling for justice and the end of impunity in this country. Observers compared the public ire over Garzon's death with the uproar that followed the 1989 murder of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan, of the Liberal Party.
"Jaime, they have taken away the light of your life, but they will never be able to turn off the light that you left burning in all our hearts that will shine on forever," one of the cards read.
Silently standing nearby, Cesar Ruiz, 30, a business administrator, said, "This is a loss of hope. The country is alone without Jaime and his words, smiles and jokes. His popularity cut through all classes and ages. He provided us with a chance to laugh in a country where there is not a lot of opportunity to laugh."
One of Garzon's most popular characters was Heriberto de la Calle, a shoeshine man with a scathing mouth who interviewed top politicians, peppering them with unsettling questions about their political and personal lives.
Garzon, who also a magazine columnist, had recently been named by Pastrana to a team of influential civilians put together to start peace talks with the ELN. On Tuesday, he was to reassume for a day his job as mayor of the municipality Sumapaz, a position to which Pastrana named Garzon when Pastrana was mayor of Bogota. Garzon was later replaced, prompting him to sue that he was wrongfully stripped of the position. He recently won the suit, clearing the way for him to collect back pay.