BY Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas

Authorities investigate motives behind murders of two journalists killed in southwestern Colombia

The regions of Cauca and Valle del Cauca recently saw the loss of two journalists in less than 24 hours early this month. Although neither had previously reported any threats, their deaths occur at a time of increasing violence against the press.

In the town of Suárez in Cauca, radio host Valentín Tezada Rúa, 34, was shot dead on Aug. 1 after leaving his home upon receiving a phone call. Journalist Jairo Alberto Calderón Plaza, 29, was shot in the head while driving his motorcycle. Both crimes happened on August 1 in southwestern Colombia, El Tiempo reported.

Tezada Rúa worked for 15 years at community radio Salvajina Estéreo, in the municipality of Suárez, in the Cauca region, the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) reported via Twitter. The commander of the Cauca Police, Col. Fabio Rojas, declared that Tezada had not reported receiving any threats and that his family members were surprised by his death, according to site LaFM.

The news site reported that Harold Ambuila, director of the station for which Tezada worked, said that the announcer did not produce journalistic works that could have put his life in danger.

Calderón Plaza, journalist and director of the portal Contacto in the town of Tuluá, in Valle del Cauca – and son of the former mayor and former secretary of Public Works of that town – was approached by a hitman in the middle of the street, according to El Tiempo.

The Tuluá Police commander, Julio Fernando Mora, reported that minutes before his death, Calderón Plaza had talked with someone they were trying to identify, LaFM published.

In Valle del Cauca, where the small municipality of Tuluá is located, the highest homicide rate in the country was registered in 2017, according to El País de Colombia.

While there are no clear indications so far that allow authorities to determine a motive for the murders, according to Sebastián Salamanca of FLIP, as journalists, both Tezada and Calderón were given a certain level of visibility to the public.

"Territories like Tuluá and (the town of) Suárez are very complex; there is illegal mining, there are armed actors, there is a lack of institutionality," Salamanca said. "In those contexts, any comment or any rumor that is generated around a person who has such levels of public visibility, like a journalist, an announcer, can create a risk," he explained.

Meanwhile, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) denounced Tezada’s death as a “setback” in the protection of journalism in Colombia. According to the organization, Tezada reported on community issues and the needs of the population.

“We call for a swift and transparent investigation because we know that in several parts of Colombia there exists an atmosphere of insecurity for the work of journalists that have reported threats against them,” said Roberto Rock, chairman of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information at IAPA and director of the Mexican news site La Silla Rota.