February 1, 2002, in Manizales, ColombiaSierra, a deputy editor and columnist for La Patria newspaper in Manizales, a town in Colombia's coffee-growing region, was shot while walking to work on January 30. He died on February 1.
Authorities believe that any number of local political bosses whom Sierra had denounced in his columns hired an assassin to kill the journalist. "The most likely hypothesis points to politicians, and that's the angle our investigators are continuing to pursue," a spokesperson from the Public Prosecutor's Office told CPJ in mid-December.
Sierra wrote a Sunday column for the 80-year-old newspaper in which he frequently highlighted political corruption and human rights abuses committed by leftist guerrillas, a rival right-wing paramilitary army, and state security agents, said Alvaro Segura López, editor of La Patria.
However, the 42-year-old journalist was most critical of local political bosses who, according to a March 6 editorial in El Tiempo, Colombia's top daily newspaper, "run the department like a feudal colony." Sierra frequently accused prominent politicians from the local Liberal and Conservative parties of nepotism, vote buying, and looting public coffers.
Following death threats in 1998, Sierra was assigned bodyguards for a short period but later stopped using them, according to a joint investigation into the journalist's murder carried out by seven of Colombia's leading newspapers and news magazines, published in late February and early March.
The threats came after regional assemblyman Ferney Tapasco González was removed from office after authorities discovered that in the 1970s he had been convicted of selling military ration cards while serving as the mayor of Supia, Caldas Department, according to the investigation.
Sierra publicly backed the legal process to remove Tapasco González and also used his weekly column to revisit another incident in which the lawmaker was convicted of concealing information about the 1991 murder of a schoolteacher in Caldas, according to the investigation.
Since April 2001, Sierra had also been investigating possible links between Tapasco González and a gang of assassins. The former politician has denied involvement in the killing.
On the same day Sierra was shot, police arrested 21-year-old Luis Fernando Soto Zapata, who later confessed to having shot Sierra and was sentenced on May 8 to 19 and a half years in prison.
Soto told the court that he shot Sierra on a whim after mistaking him for a man who allegedly killed a relative several years ago. However, a public prosecutor told CPJ that he doubted the claim, pointing out that footage from a hidden police camera showed Soto lingering for more than two hours before the shooting at the spot where Sierra was killed.
Police also arrested Luis Arley Ortiz on the day Sierra was shot. Authorities released Ortiz soon after but issued a warrant for his arrest again in May, alleging that he acted as a middleman between a gang of assassins and the person or people who allegedly ordered Sierra's death. He was convicted, along with Luis Tabares Hernández, a.k.a. Tilín, to 28 years in prison.
On July 17, authorities charged Francisco Antonio Quintero Tabares with homicide for Sierra's killing. Quintero is believed to be the boss of the gang of hit men that allegedly included Soto. Authorities have been questioning Quintero but have yet to learn anything new, the spokesperson from the Public Prosecutor's Office said.
In 2011, nine years after Sierra was killed, authorities arrested former assemblyman Tapasco González and charged him with being one of the suspected masterminds of the crime. In late 2013, González was acquitted but prosecutors said they would appeal.
Job: Columnist / Commentator, Editor
Beats Covered: Crime
Local or Foreign: Local
Type of Death: Murder
Suspected Source of Fire: Government Officials
Taken Captive: No