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Popular Colombian satirist murdered

A satirist who was beloved for his irreverent parodies of political figures yet played a serious role as an intermediary for families of kidnap victims was shot to death Friday morning by two unknown gunmen on motorcycles while driving to work here in Bogota.

Jaime Garzon, 39, was shot several times in the head and chest while sitting in his Jeep Cherokee at a traffic light three blocks from the offices of Radionet, where he had a morning radio show. A witness told the station that one of the gunmen jumped off his motorcycle behind the jeep and fired five shots into the vehicle, leaving Garzon slumped over the steering wheel.

Although no one had claimed responsibility for the slaying late Friday, law enforcement authorities said the assassination was likely the work of right-wing paramilitary death squads.

Garzon's killing prompted a national outpouring of grief. Throughout much of the day, taps was played over Radionet's airwaves behind a litany of tributes to the fallen comedian, magazine columnist and political activist, many of them by openly weeping callers.

Messages of sorrow from children were read over the course of the programming, which was punctuated by the somber refrain, "They killed the laugh." Television stations broadcast some of his old skits.

President Andres Pastrana, a longtime friend of Garzon's dating back to the days when both were broadcasters, announced a $270,000 reward for information leading to the capture of his killers. "This is very lamentable," Pastrana told Radionet. "A friend and a colleague has been killed. This is contemptible from all points of view, and once again I want to reiterate that Colombians are tired of this type of violence and we must look for reconciliation."

In response to the network's incantation of "They killed the laugh," Pastrana added: "It was not just the laugh, because he was much more than that. Jaime in large part identified with the feelings of Colombians, with what we were thinking."

Garzon had recently been named by Pastrana to a team of civilians put together in an effort to start peace talks with Colombia's second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish initials, ELN.

He was said to have close contacts with the ELN and had on occasion served as an intermediary between guerrillas and the families of some of those kidnapped, negotiating releases and ransoms. "It could be he was murdered for his humanitarian efforts," the national police commander, Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano, said Friday.

Scattered demonstrations were reported around the city Friday in protest of Garzon's death.

"What little laughter we had is gone. All his wonderful characters that made us forget about how bad things have been are gone with him," said Anita del Sol, 44, a beautician in northern Bogota.