Obituary: Jaime Garzn

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The Independent Culture
JAIME GARZON, who was shot dead in a Bogot street, was Colombia's leading television satirist. He made his name impersonating and lampooning presidents and public figures, but probably met his violent end because of his less-publicised efforts to bring about peace in a country torn for decades by political and social conflict.

Garzn was a law graduate, well- connected in influential circles, and in the late Eighties he dabbled briefly in politics. He worked first for the 1988 campaign that took his friend Andres Pastrana to the mayorship of Bogot, and as a reward was appointed mayor of a small town near the capital. Pastrana is now the President of the Republic, and remained a friend even though he became one of Garzn's favourite targets.

Garzn's approach was too idiosyncratic for his political career to last long, but his experience of town-hall manoeuvrings stood him in good stead for his subsequent work as a political humorist, on radio and television. Things began to take off for him in 1991 with a television show called Zoociedad, a neat pun on the Spanish words for both "society" and "dirt". In this programme Garzn virtually invented political satire in Colombia, and he subsequently developed an array of grotesque characters, which he used to poke fun at the corruption and posturings of Colombian public life. The most recent, and most successful, of these impersonations was Heriberto de la Calle, a grimy, toothless shoeshine "boy", who gave his own take on current events while shining the shoes of personalities who had just appeared on a nightly television news programme.

There were many other inhabitants of the Garzn political menagerie, notably Dioselina Tiban, the (imaginary) cook at the presidential palace, who served up for viewers the latest scurrilous gossip about her employers, and Nestor El, the concierge of an apartment block named Colombia Buildings, who watched, and commented sardonically, on the antics of the politicos and personalities going up and down in the lifts.

Garzn did not confine himself to taking the mickey out of the powerful and ambitious. He also advised successive presidents on social development programmes, helped to negotiate the release of the victims of kidnappings by armed groups of both left and right, and recently took part in efforts to open a dialogue between one of the main guerrilla organisations and representatives of "civil society".

This was probably his undoing. Colombia's numerous right-wing paramilitary organisations take a dim view of anybody talking to their left-wing enemies, and Garzn confided in colleagues a few days before he died that he had been approached by an emissary of a militia chieftain with the warning that he was now regarded as a military target. The paramilitaries denied they had killed Garzn, but few people believed them.

Garzn's assassination caused outrage in a country long inured to violent death. The politicians Garzn had mocked so mercilessly queued up to file past his coffin as his body lay in state in Colombia's congress building in Bogot, and President Pastrana swore that his murder would not go unpunished. His funeral procession became an occasion for a mass demonstration against political violence. But few of the perpetrators of Colombia's 20,000-odd murders a year are caught.

Jaime Garzn, journalist and mimic: born Bogot 24 October 1960; died Bogot 13 August 1999.