This coming August will mark 20 years since the death of Jaime Garzón, an unlikely martyr in Colombia's long-running battles with organized crime, drug trafficking and government corruption. Despite studying law and working in politics, what eventually turned him into one of the country's most influential figures through the 1990s was his sense of humor. His comedy routines, often critical of corrupt politicians, earned Garzón enemies in the highest of ranks of Colombian public life. At the pinnacle of his fame on August 13, 1999, after getting involved in a hostage exchange and peace negotiations with the guerrillas, he was shot to death by two hit men on a motorcycle in Bogotá. He was 38. The entire country mourned the man who'd given Colombians an outlet for their frustration and hopes of changing a fundamentally violent and corrupt nation. Though progress has been made in Colombia, notably the end to decades of civil war, the case of his murder remains unsolved.
Place of Birth: Bogotá, Colombia
Date of Birth: October 24, 1960.
Education: Studied law and political sciences at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia.
Previous Experience: Mayor of Sumapaz, a district in Bogotá.
Breakthrough: In 1987, former director of newscast "Noticiero de las 7" Antonio Morales heard that "some mayor" had become a local sensation as a skilled and talented impressionist. Captivated by the story, Morales invited Garzón to his show for a demonstration, thrusting Garzón into the national spotlight.
Jaime Garzón mural: "...no more laughter...piece of sh*t country..." — Photo: Elberth 00001939
During his younger days, reports said that he attempted to join the ELN (National Liberation Army), a revolutionary left-wing armed group, something not uncommon for many youth in Colombia at the time. He also led efforts of inclusion towards indigenous communities under the presidency of César Gaviria, such as the translation of the Colombian Constitution of 1991 into various indigenous languages.
THE SHOE SHINER
Throughout the 90s, he could be seen on national TV interviewing prominent figures as shoe shiner "Heriberto de la Calle," the best-known of his many fictional characters emblematic of Colombia's lower working class. This ‘humble" persona was an effective way to disarm anyone who dared sit before him for a polish. His gifted intellect combined with a down-to-earth manner was a formula for pointed interviews of political figures, which eventually made him an enemy of a powerful few while beloved and respected by millions.
Not unlike the violence against human rights defenders in Colombia today, it was his work as a peace activist that got him murdered in 1999, when two hitmen approached his vehicle in a motorcycle and shot him to death, drive-by style. During those days, Garzon had been attempting to facilitate the release of hostages held by guerrillas. According to Revista Semana, as many as 2 million people attended his funeral at the Plaza de Bolívar, the main square in Bogotá.
THE DAY BEFORE
He had given an interview just one day before he was killed, where he said that if you live in Colombia, you have a basic task to transform the country. "The guerrillas, the paramilitaries and part of the government have a relationship with narco-trafficking," he added. "And in many ways they benefit from it. Some directly, some indirectly."
- Any kind of prosecution and follow-up on his case has been slow.
- In 2016, the Colombian State Council revealed for the first time that members from the Ministry of Defense, the national police force, the army, the AUC paramilitary group and the now-defunct DAS intelligence agency, were responsible for and participated in his assassination.
- In 2004, Carlos Castano Gil, AUC leader, was sentenced to 38 years in prison, but he was murdered before he could serve his time. Only last year in 2018, the first effective sentence carried out against Jose Miguel Narvaez, former top official of intelligence agency DAS, for actually ordering the killing of Garzón. He was sentenced to 30 years behind bars, according to Revista Semana. However, there are still two pending cases against a colonel and a general, who were also involved.
COMEDY IN POLITICS
Though he didn't run for national office, Garzón was a forerunner for other comedians around the world breaking into politics:
- In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky became the president of Ukraine. Before politics, Zelensky studied law and worked as a screenwriter, actor, comedian, director and owner of Kvartal95, a television entertainment production company.
- In 2015 he starred in Servant of the People, a Ukranian political satire television series of his creation where he played a high school teacher who unexpectedly becomes the president of Ukraine.
- In 2018, Marjan Sarec was elected Slovenia's prime minister, after a career as a comedian and political satirist. He did have extensive experience in politics beforehand though as mayor of Kamnik twice and while running unsuccessfully as a presidential candidate in 2017.
- In 2015, Jimmy Morales, a famous TV comedian, became the president of Guatemala on the slogan "Ni corrupto, ni ladrón" ("Neither corrupt, nor a thief"). Sadly, his presidency has been marred by corruption scandals of all sorts.
- In 2010, Jon Gnarr was elected as mayor of Reykjavík in Iceland. Before politics, he was a well-established comedian and actor. His political platform included promises such as free towels in all swimming pools, a polar bear display for the zoo, and a drug-free parliament by 2020.
- In 2009, Italian Beppe Grillo founded the Five Star Movement political party. However, he's not allowed to run for public office, as he was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after a fatal car accident.