The gunshots that killed Archbishop Isaias Duarte Cancino outside a church in Cali, Colombia, on Mar. 16, 2002, echoed around the world. Swift condemnation followed, including harsh words from Pope John Paul II.
“He paid the highest price for his energetic defense of human life, his firm opposition to all types of violence and his dedication to social development according to the Gospel,” said the late pope.
Nearly a decade later, a Colombian court has placed responsibility for Duarte Cancio’s murder with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, convicting FARC’s supreme leader, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry (alias “Timochenko”) of involvement in the assassination along with three other FARC luminaries: Noel Mata Mata, Jorge Torres Victoria and Luciano Arango.
All four were tried in absentia and sentenced to 25 years each. They also were ordered to pay the equivalent of $543,000 to the prelate’s family. In delivering the judgment, the Cali criminal court said: “There is no doubt that the murder of Archbishop Isaias Duarte Cancino was related to his religious status and position. As archbishop of Cali, he protested the reprehensible acts constantly carried out by guerrillas in this country.”
The judge reiterated calls for the capture of all four convicted rebels. The convictions came seven years after another guerrilla, Alexander de Jesus Zapata (alias “Cortico”) was convicted of the same crime in January 2005 and sentenced to 36 years in prison.
Timochenko, 52, took over control of FARC after his predecessor, Alfonso Cano, was killed in a military operation last November.
Duarte well-known for criticizing FARC violence
Archbishop Duarte was 63 when he was gunned down, becoming the oldest of more than 30 Colombian clerics to have been assassinated in an apparently uncontrollable cycle of revenge murders.
An outspoken critic of political and drug-related violence, he was appointed archbishop by John Paul II in 1995 after serving several years as bishop of Apartadó, a banana-growing region near the Panamanian frontier. For years, Apartadó had been plagued by guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug-traffickers and arms smugglers. Duarte tried to kick-start peace negotiations, but had little success.
Arriving in Cali, the southwestern base of some of Colombia’s most powerful drug-trafficking cartels, Duarte wasted no time in denouncing criminals and guerrillas alike. Within weeks, he accused drug bosses of corrupting the country’s congressional elections by their pouring money into the campaign coffers of local candidates.
Unafraid of political controversy, he didn’t pull any punches with the guerrillas either. In 1999, he excommunicated leading members of Colombia's second-largest left-wing guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), after the group abducted more than 150 people attending Mass in a Cali church.
And while maintaining tireless pastoral and educational work, he continued to agitate against all forms of violence and those who carried it out. He goaded the government and blasted then-President Andrés Pastrana, for his peace overtures to FARC, arguing that attempting to negotiate with the country's main guerrilla army was absurd when it refused to implement a ceasefire while talks were going on.
“A rebel who kidnaps and kills, eliminates entire populations and mocks the whole process of peace lacks the virtues proper to a human being and becomes the most miserable of men,” Duarte wrote in 2000. “We ask God that the guerrilla fighters in Colombia may feel deep sorrow in their souls for the evil they commit when they kill an innocent, defenseless brother or sister, that they may understand that theirs is not a just war, but merely a repeating of savage acts of the saddest times of human history.”
Duarte’s unrelenting criticism earned him praise from right-wing paramilitary leaders, but he shrugged that off and turned his attention to their killings.
Assassination sparked outrage
The archbishop was born in San Gil in the province of Santander and attended secondary school in nearby Bucaramanga before entering a seminary in Pamplona, Spain. He went on to study theology in Rome. On graduation, he returned to Bucaramanga to become a parish priest until 1985 when he was appointed bishop of Germania de Numidia. Three years later, he became the first incumbent bishop of the newly created diocese of Apartadó in northern Antioquía province.
It was in Antioquía that Duarte developed a close working relationship with Alvaro Uribe Vélez, then a no-nonsense provincial governor who would later become president.
Duarte’s assassination was shocking but in some ways not surprising. It was brutal, and the gunmen made sure the prelate would not survive. The killing came after guerrillas stormed the Good Shepherd church in Aguablanca, one of the poorest districts of his Cali archdiocese.
He had just finished officiating at a collective marriage ceremony for 105 couples when armed men broke into the church and fired repeatedly at the archbishop, according to witnesses. A parish priest was wounded also in the assault.
Edilberto Ceballos, Duarte’s driver, told Caracol Radio that the archbishop had been shot several times by two of the gunmen.
“Two guys came and opened fire and hit him three or four times, maybe even six times,” the driver said. “I saw him dead.” The director of Carlos Holmes Trujillo Hospital in Cali, Ricardo Vanegas, confirmed that the prelate was dead on arrival at the hospital. The government launched a special task force to identify and hunt down the perpetrators. Colombian authorities immediately blamed left-wing rebels, but amid a flurry of accusations, they later said they were working on other theories.
One theory was that FARC had not acted alone — that drug-traffickers and narco-linked paramilitaries also had a hand in the assassination’s planning.
Bishop Julio Cesar Vidal Ortiz of Monteria, a close personal friend of the archbishop, was persistent in arguing there had been a wider conspiracy behind the murder, basing his allegations on a meeting he had with paramilitary leader Carlos Castano Gil, who himself was killed. The bishop denounced the nature of armed conflict in Colombia “in which Marxist ideologies and their archrivals join together to defend their business, that of cocaine.”
But a prosecutor attached to the National Human Rights organization dismissed the wider conspiracy theory and linked the slaying directly to FARC leaders.
Following the assassination, the Pastrana administration came under criticism for failing to protect the archbishop. The president said police had offered to provide Duarte with bodyguards but that he had always demurred. However, Duarte’s assistants insisted after his death that they had requested police protection for him but never got a response.
Speaking about the archbishop a few days later, John Paul II remarked: “While I lift up my prayers for the eternal rest of the late prelate and express my closeness to the Colombian church that weeps over his tragic demise, I urge Colombians once again to follow the way of dialogue, excluding all types of violence, blackmail and kidnapping and to firmly commit themselves to what are the true roads of peace.”