Oct 27
Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva on August 12, telling the armed forces that human rights prosecutions are the work of “enemies of the fatherland.”

On October 14, we shared an alarming El Tiempo article about an impending deadline for the prosecutions of seven Colombian army personnel accused of murdering young men in the slums of Soacha, a poor Bogotá suburb. In early 2008 the officers and soldiers allegedly arranged for the young men to be killed, and for their bodies to be presented hundreds of miles away as those of armed-group members killed in combat.

According to El Tiempo, Colombian military defense lawyers’ delaying tactics had brought both cases dangerously close to a deadline for deciding whether they must go before a civilian court or before a far more lenient military tribunal. If the October 22 deadline passed, the seven accused military personnel could have had the right to be freed.

We saw no further updates on these cases in the Colombian media, so we asked around. It turns out that the outcome is largely positive, so far.

The soldiers’ defense lawyers requested a hearing to determine whether the soldiers and officers could be freed. At that hearing, which took place on October 20, the judge refused to free them, arguing that the defense lawyers’ own tactics had caused the delays that brought the case up against the October 22 deadline. Shortly afterward, Colombia’s Supreme Judiciary Council finally gave the long-awaited order that the cases be tried in the civilian justice system.

One colleague in Colombia’s non-governmental human rights community affirms that the military defense lawyers’ delaying tactics, and the military justice system’s jurisdictional challenges, are very common in these “extrajudicial execution” cases. These tactics are likely to be strengthened by a newly created Military Public Defender’s system in the Defense Ministry, launched in August in line with a recommendation of the Colombian Defense Ministry’s 2008 human rights policy (PDF).

While a public defender program isn’t necessarily negative – most of the accused so far have been low-ranking soldiers who lack the resources to hire a lawyer – we must be troubled by the words uttered by Colombia’s defense minister, Gabriel Silva Luján, at the August 12 inauguration of the public defender’s office.

“May a colonel not tremble, may he have no fear before the codes [of justice], may a general or a soldier not tremble in the face of a [human rights] complaint, may their will to fight not be stopped by a judicial action by the enemies of the fatherland.”

Telling the assembled military brass that those who dare to try human rights cases are “enemies of the fatherland” is dangerous, irresponsible, and throws even more strongly into question the Colombian security forces’ commitment to end impunity for human rights abusers.

It also calls further into question the State Department’s September decision to certify that this commitment was somehow strengthening. And it makes Defense Minister Silva undeserving of the red-carpet treatment that the U.S. Defense Department and the Southern Command chose to give him during his visit to Washington and Miami yesterday and today.

Oct 14

El Tiempo reports today that Colombia’s judicial system is coming dangerously close to freeing army officers and enlisted men involved in the Soacha “false positives” case.

This serious human rights abuse case, revealed in September 2008, involved a group of military personnel who arranged for the abduction and murder of about 20 young men from the suburban Bogotá slum of Soacha, only to present the victims’ bodies hundreds of miles away as those of armed-group members killed in combat, a result that earned rewards like bonuses and time off.

The Soacha scandal forced the firing of 27 members of the armed forces in late 2008. But the judicial cases against the responsible officers have moved excruciatingly slowly.

Today’s El Tiempo piece reports on one case, in which the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) claims to have “solid evidence” that two officers and five enlisted men were involved in the murder of two young men from Soacha.

A year later, Colombia’s judicial system still has not decided whether their case is to be tried in the civilian criminal justice system or in a military court. Colombia’s military justice system has a long tradition of extreme leniency in such cases and is meant to try “acts of service,” not human rights crimes. Disputes over jurisdiction in human rights cases are supposed to be settled in favor of the civilian justice system. In this case, though, Colombia’s Supreme Judiciary Council (Consejo Supremo de la Judicatura), which is supposed to decide whether cases go to civilian or military justice, has still not produced a decision.

And time is running out. El Tiempo says that in seven days – October 21 – the deadline for deciding the defendants’ legal situation will run out, and they will have to be freed.

The same thing, on the same date, may also happen in a second case involving a sergeant, a corporal and a private linked to seven murders.

The article notes:

El Tiempo established that the Prosecutor-General’s Office has already sounded the alarms, as have the victims’ families. … Now, what is intended to be established is whether there have been any delaying tactics on the part of the defense of any of the soldiers.

“We believe that the delay in the Judiciary Council to reserve the jurisdictional conflicts is added to the fact that the military’s defenders are trying to entangle the process by making many absurd petitions, and the judges lack the character not to give the defense lawyers everything they ask for,” a high Prosecutor-General’s Office official told El Tiempo.

If soldiers accused of murder are allowed to walk free because of their defense counsel’s delaying tactics – as could happen in one short week, if nothing changes – it will be a blow not just to the victims’ families, but to the credibility of the U.S. government, which certified a month ago that “the Colombian Armed Forces are cooperating fully with civilian prosecutors and judicial authorities” in human rights cases.

Oct 07

Here is the first of what we expect to be a series of regularly updated fact sheets about Colombia and U.S. policy toward the Americas. Once we have made a few of these, we’ll add a section to this site and host them here in HTML and PDF format.

This first entry seeks to give a brief overview of Colombia’s “DAS” wiretapping and surveillance scandal, with links to all sources consulted.

Colombia’s Domestic Spying Scandal

By Adam Isacson, CIP Latin America Security Program. Last updated October 8, 2009.
A PDF version of this document is available at www.cipcol.org/files/factsheets/das_scandal.pdf

On February 21, 2009, Colombia’s most-circulated newsweekly, Semana, broke an important story. It revealed that the Administrative Security Department (DAS), the Colombian Presidency’s internal intelligence agency, had been carrying out a campaign of wiretaps and surveillance of human rights defenders, Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, and journalists. DAS agents also followed their targets’ children, wives, and assistants.

New evidence has emerged over the course of 2009. It indicates that the DAS was conducting warrantless wiretapping since at least 2003 through 2008, and possibly this year. The full extent of the illegal spying, and the identity of the individual(s) who ordered the program, remain unknown.

What does the DAS do?

  • In 1953, Colombia’s only military dictatorship of the 20th century created a Colombian Intelligence Service (SIC) within the president’s office. The SIC became the DAS in 1960.
  • The agency’s roles have since expanded. Its 6,500 members now gather intelligence about domestic threats, handle passports and immigration, guard threatened individuals, and serve as Colombia’s main interface with Interpol. The DAS has been a key counterpart for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

This is not the Uribe administration’s first DAS scandal

Jorge Noguera.
  • Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s first DAS Director (2002-2005) was Jorge Noguera, who directed Uribe’s 2002 campaign in the department (province) of Magdalena. In early 2006, Noguera was revealed to have collaborated closely with some of Colombia’s most notorious narcotraffickers and right-wing paramilitary leaders. He allegedly facilitated drug shipments and gave the paramilitaries lists of human rights defenders and labor leaders to assassinate. Since December 2008, Jorge Noguera has been in prison and facing trial for aggravated homicide.
  • In late 2008, the DAS was found to have been ordering illegal surveillance of opposition Senator Gustavo Petro, a revelation that forced the resignation of DAS Director María de Pilar Hurtado.
  • Four appointees and one interim director have led the DAS during Uribe’s seven years in office.

The February 2009 revelations

The “G-3”

  • In 2003, then-DAS Director Noguera created the “Special Strategic Intelligence Group,” a unit known as G-3 which appeared nowhere in the agency’s organization chart. The G-3, whose very existence the DAS denied until March 2009, was created to carry out intelligence operations including, according to one folder found in the agency’s headquarters, “Surveillance of organizations and people with tendencies to oppose government policy in order to restrict or neutralize their actions.”
  • The G-3 was abolished when Noguera left in November 2005. However, many of its functions passed to another DAS unit, the “National and International Observation Group” (GONI). The G-3’s original coordinator, Jaime Fernando Ovalle, remained in the DAS until November 2008, when he was fired for his role in the illegal surveillance of Senator Petro. The GONI was dissolved in March 2009.

Spying on human rights defenders

The G-3 closely followed members of Colombia’s most prominent human rights groups, as well as some labor leaders and independent journalists. The extent of the surveillance is alarming.

  • Prosecutors showed Alirio Uribe of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective (no relation to President Uribe), a human rights group, some of his DAS files from the 2003-2005 period. According to the New York Times, they “included photos of [Uribe’s] children, transcripts of phone and e-mail conversations, details on his finances [including bank account information] and evidence that DAS agents rented an apartment across from his home to monitor him.”
Hollman Morris.
  • Investigative journalist Hollman Morris, reports Inter-Press Service, found a file with “photos and information on his parents, siblings, wife and children, and on his day-to-day movements, with a level of detail that reminded those looking at it of the thorough investigations carried out by hired killers while planning their hit jobs.”
  • International human rights workers were targeted by DAS too. Emails from Human Rights Watch ended up in DAS files, and the G-3 recommended carrying out “offensive intelligence” against the organization’s Americas director, José Miguel Vivanco. The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission protested revelations that the DAS had spied on a June 2005 visit of Special Rapporteur for Women’s Rights Susana Villarán.

Spying on judges

  • The G-3 appeared to focus principally on non-governmental activists. The GONI’s targets, however, included Supreme Court magistrates who have been investigating dozens of President Uribe’s political allies’ alleged ties to murderous paramilitary groups. (The charges of politicians’ support for paramilitaries, known in Colombia as the “para-politics” scandal, have put about one-quarter of Colombia’s current Congress [.doc file], nearly all of them government supporters, under investigation, on trial or in prison.)
  • Documents found in a DAS detective’s office contained brief biographies of Supreme Court magistrates, information on their families, and personal information ranging from their political affiliations to intimate details.
Iván Velásquez.
  • A chief target has been Iván Velásquez, the magistrate charged with leading the “para-politics” investigation against President Uribe’s political allies. Judge Velásquez “was never left alone for a minute,” reported Semana. During one three-month period in 2008, DAS spies recorded 1,900 of his phone conversations. The DAS also spied on members of Judge Velásquez’s investigation team and their families.

Spying on political figures

  • In May 2009, investigators found recordings revealing that all candidates running against President Uribe’s 2006 re-election bid were wiretapped. Colombia’s daily El Espectador published a list of 36 prominent politicians, nearly all from the opposition, and six noted journalists who were under surveillance at the time.
  • One DAS detective said he was assigned to monitor people like ex-presidents Ernesto Samper and Andrés Pastrana. This included wiretapping and wearing disguises to meetings and events, as well as following their children, wives, advisors, and assistants.
  • Semana columnist Daniel Coronell noted a series of “inexplicable coincidences” in which DAS agents made a series of searches into the agency’s restricted database for information about former president César Gaviria, a critic of President Uribe. Days later, on April 27, 2006, Gaviria’s sister was murdered.

August 2009 revelations of new spying

  • In its August 30, 2009 issue, Semana reported that, in the wake of the DAS surveillance revelations, “Things not only have not changed, but they have even gotten worse. The wiretaps and surveillance of [Supreme] Court members, journalists, politicians and some lawyers continue. And if that weren’t enough, they have extended to some presidential candidates [Colombia has elections in 2010] and, recently, to members of Congress.”
  • “Some of the [wiretapping] equipment being used was hidden from the Prosecutor-General [Fiscalía] and Inspector-General [Procuraduría] during the wiretap investigation,” an anonymous DAS source involved in the operation told Semana. “Two weeks ago, some of the equipment returned to Bogotá to monitor members of Congress, based on the referendum voting.” The “referendum” refers to a bill, passed by Colombia’s Congress in September, to schedule a plebiscite on whether to change the country’s constitution to allow Álvaro Uribe to run for a third straight term.
  • Among the new wiretaps are more recordings of Judge Iván Velásquez, the Supreme Court’s chief “para-politics” investigator. One recording (audio) is of a mid-2009 phone conversation between Velásquez and James Faulkner, a Justice Department official assigned to the U.S. embassy. “It worries me to hear the voice of my judicial attaché in a wiretapped call,” U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield told reporters.

The extent of the spying, and who ordered it, are unknown

Removing boxes (more photos).
  • Security videotapes from the first week of January 2009 show boxes and computers being removed from the DAS offices. Colombia’s prosecutor-general at the time, Mario Iguarán, told the Associated Press that when prosecutors first went to the DAS offices to start investigating, they were “given the run-around by DAS personnel, who directed them to the wrong offices or went searching for keys.” Much information is probably lost.
  • Jorge Lagos, the DAS chief of counterintelligence, told the Prosecutor-General’s Office that he gave information about some Supreme Court justices to President Uribe’s general secretary, Bernardo Moreno, and the president’s controversial personal advisor, José Obdulio Gaviria.
  • Former DAS Director Maria del Pilar Hurtado said in an interview that the warrantless wiretaps and investigations of Supreme Court magistrates were born out of concerns voiced by President Uribe.

The U.S. government’s response

  • In February 2009, U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield recognized that the United States provided eavesdropping equipment to the DAS.
  • “[W]e obviously think that the steps that have already been made on issues like extrajudicial killings and illegal surveillance, that it is important that Colombia pursue a path of rule of law and transparency, and I know that that is something that President Uribe is committed to doing.” – President Barack Obama, June 29, 2009, hosting President Uribe at the White House.
  • “Allegations of illegal domestic wiretapping and surveillance by Colombia’s Department of Administrative Security (DAS) are troubling and unacceptable. The importance that the Prosecutor General’s Office has placed on prosecuting these crimes is a positive step for Colombia, but media and NGO reports allege that illegal activity continues, so it is even more vital that the Colombian government take steps to ensure that this is not the case, and that the Prosecutor General’s Office conduct a rigorous, thorough and independent investigation in order to determine the extent of these abuses and to hold all perpetrators accountable.” – September 2009 Department of State press release announcing that Colombia, in the department’s view, meets human rights conditions in U.S. foreign aid law.

The Colombian government’s response

  • The scandal has led to the exit of at least 33 DAS employees, including resignations of the deputy directors for counterintelligence, Jorge Alberto Lagos; intelligence, Fernando Tavares; analysis, Gustavo Sierra; and operations, Marta Leal.
José Miguel de Narváez.
  • In July 2009, the Prosecutor-General’s office [Fiscalía], which is a separate branch of government in Colombia, ordered the arrest of ten DAS officials in connection with the spying allegations. Those arrested include Lagos, Leal, Tavares, and José Miguel de Narváez, who served as the number-two DAS official under Jorge Noguera and is widely accused of very close ties to paramilitaries. The arrest orders came one day before Prosecutor-General Mario Iguarán left office, at the end of his four-year term. Lagos and Tavares were released in late September 2009 on claims that prosecutors committed “procedural errors.”
  • In mid-September 2009, acting Prosecutor-General Guillermo Mendoza revealed that two prosecutors in his office – not the DAS – had illegally wiretapped Justice Iván Velásquez, the “para-politics” investigator, in 2009. These recordings included the judge’s conversation with the U.S. embassy official. However, it is not clear why Justice Velásquez’s phone number was among those given to the Prosecutor-General’s office for wiretapping. An unknown party added the judge’s number to a list of numbers to be tapped for a routine extortion case of a hardware-store owner in a town near Bogotá.
  • The Uribe administration has repeatedly maintained that the spying occurred behind the president’s back. Following the September 2009 revelation that some phone numbers for wiretapping had been passed to the Prosecutor-General’s office, officials began to advance the theory that the entire scandal was the product of a plot to sabotage the Uribe government. In mid-September 2009, President Uribe spoke of “a criminal plot to discredit the government and affect its international relations.” Vice-President Francisco Santos claimed that the DAS spying and related revelations owed to “a big, well-orchestrated, well-funded defamation campaign.”

How is President Uribe proposing to reform the DAS?

President Uribe makes his September 17 announcement.
  • On September 17, 2009, President Uribe surprised many by declaring, “I’m in favor of eliminating the institution [the DAS] and leaving a small entity lending immigration and intelligence services, which can be managed by the National Police.”
  • Functions proposed to pass from the DAS to the National Police, or to the Prosecutor-General’s Technical Investigations Corps (CTI), include security for threatened individuals, liaison with Interpol (official as of October 7, 2009), and judicial police powers.
  • According to a September 18, 2009 DAS communiqué, “The DAS will be liquidated to give way to a new civilian intelligence agency. … The new intelligence agency will have as its only mission to produce the intelligence and counter-intelligence that the country needs.”
  • It remains unclear how this new agency will be safeguarded and monitored to avoid a repeat of politically motivated wiretapping and surveillance in the future.
Feb 27
In just three months, the Presidential Intelligence Service (DAS) recorded 1,900 of the phone conversations of Auxiliary Justice Iván Velásquez, the chief investigator in the “Para-Politics” scandal.

Apologies for the delay in posting about last weekend’s highly disturbing revelations that the intelligence service of the Colombian Presidency, the DAS (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad) has once again been systematically wiretapping and following private citizens.

The intelligence agency, which reports directly to President Álvaro Uribe, has been embroiled in several scandals in recent years. In late 2005 its director, Jorge Noguera, was accused of collaborating closely with paramilitaries on efforts ranging from facilitating narcotrafficking to developing lists of human-rights defenders and labor leaders to murder. Late last year, the supposedly “reformed” DAS was found to have been ordering surveillance of opposition Senator Gustavo Petro, a revelation that forced the resignation of DAS Director María de Pilar Hurtado.

The DAS continues to be a highly troubled institution, as the agency – or at least a large rogue element within the agency – is using much of its resources to spy on prominent citizens. Its “targets” include opposition politicians, social-movement leaders, journalists, and – perhaps most troublingly – Supreme Court officials trying to investigate ties between paramilitary narcotraffickers and dozens of President Uribe’s political allies.

The news outlet that broke the story, the Colombian newsmagazine Semana, has not added an English version of its cover story to its website. Here are some translated excerpts.

The DAS is still recording

Between the 19th and 21st of January, most of the “secrets” of many of Colombia’s top peraonalities were destroyed on the 11th floor of the main DAS headquarters. “We received the order to gather everything we had in several offices in the building, and in other buildings, and bring it to the Counter-Intelligence office. For two days external disk drives were gathered, hard drives were changed out of computers, CDs, voice files and confidential documents were collected. I alone, without counting my colleagues, carried two boxes full of those things,” one of the DAS detectives who participated in this unique collection told Semana. “Of all the boxes that were taken to Counter-Intelligence, with documents, recordings and the rest, only one remained, which was taken out of the 11th floor at the end of the afternoon of Wednesday the 21st. I don’t know what was left in that one, or where they took it. I just know that everything else was destroyed,” the source affirms.

The suspicious mission of recovering and destroying information was carried out by a small group of officials. Though they sought to do it in the most discrete manner, it was inevitable that a few DAS members would notice the unusual things going on during those days. But what was it that they were destroying with such urgency? Much of the files that don’t exist today were, among others, recordings, secret documents and intelligence analyses that contained information about a wide variety of personalities whom the DAS was watching.

Supreme Court justices, journalists, opposition politicians, generals in the armed forces, prosecutors, and even some high government officials made up the group that, for the past several months, was being monitored by the security body.

Many thought that it would be hard for the DAS to confront a situation worse than that of October 2005, when it ended up tangled in a scandal stemming from paramilitary infiltration that ended with the resignation, and subsequent jailing, of then-Director Jorge Noguera.

At that moment, deep reforms to the institution were promised so that this would not happen again. But it happened. Despite the subsequent directors’ good intentions, the information gathered by Semana makes clear that there is a powerful sector in this agency that is at the service of paramilitaries, guerrillas, and dark political interests.

“Here we work on targets and objectives who could become a threat to the security of the state and of the President. Among those are the guerrillas, the emerging criminal groups, some narcos. But among these targets is also, and obviously this is one of the functions of the DAS, to monitor some personalities and institutions to keep the Presidency informed. For example, how could it not be a DAS mission to monitor [Senator Gustavo] Petro, who is a former guerrilla and is in the opposition. Or [opposition Senator and peace facilitator] Piedad Córdoba, for her ties to Chávez and the guerrillas,” said to Semana a detective who works in the Subdirectorate of Operations of the DAS, part of this entity’s intelligence directorate. “Any person or entity who represents an eventual danger for the government has to be monitored by the DAS. As a result, more than a year ago, the activities of the [Supreme] Court, and some of its members, came to be considered and treated as a legitimate ‘target.’”

Targeting the justice system

This fact was corroborated to Semana by four other DAS officials, members of the intelligence, counter-intelligence and operational directorates. In addition to these testimonies, Semana obtained some of the analyses developed by DAS members, which make evident their efforts to follow, wiretap and monitor members of the Court. One of the most revealing reports is about Auxiliary Justice Iván Velásquez, the chief investigator for the “para-politics” scandal.

Velásquez has been subjected to a “man-to-man defense” since the “Tasmania” incident in October 2007, when President Álvaro Uribe accused the judge of fabricating testimonies against him, which ended up being a hoax. They don’t leave Velásquez alone for even a minute, as can be gathered from the DAS report.

In the documents Semana has, it is revealed that during three months they intercepted 1,900 of his phone calls, in which he spoke with everyone: Supreme Court justices, Justice and Peace prosecutors to know what the paramilitary witnesses were revealing, with the Prosecutor-General’s Office’s witness-protection program to know who was ready to give evidence, with para-politics witnesses, among hundreds of other calls.

But Velásquez was not the only member of the Supreme Court being watched by the DAS. Investigators, other justices and auxiliary judges of the high court were also the object of “monitoring.” According to several detectives, among these “targets” was Francisco Ricaurte, until recently the President of the Supreme Court; the president of the court’s Criminal Chamber, Sigifredo Espinosa; and justices César Julio Valencia and María del Rosario González. “When the confrontation between the court and the presidency worsened, about a year and a half ago, the order was to know as much as possible about all the justices, using all necessary means, from human sources to technical measures. When the confrontation began to diminish, the monitoring was concentrated only on those deemed high-priority, like Velásquez,” one of the detectives who works in the intelligence directorate, and who participated in following some justices, told Semana.

Continue reading »

Sep 19

In commemoration of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s visit to Washington today, here is a collection of some of his some of his more outrageous or bizarre verbal attacks on his country’s human-rights defenders, judges, independent journalists, and political opponents.

  • Every time a security policy to defeat terrorism appears in Colombia, when the terrorists begin to feel weak, they immediately send their spokespeople to talk about human rights. … These human-rights traffickers must take off their masks, appear with their political ideas and drop this cowardice of hiding them behind human rights.” – September 8, 2003, addressing the military high command
  • Many of those who attack the government saying that the president is a paramilitary, basically what they are is enraged that the president attacks the guerrillas. They are not able to say that they defend the guerrillas, and that they are very bothered because the government is fighting them. They should be more authentic, more sincere.” – November 19, 2006
  • [In the early 1990s some demobilized ex-guerrillas] simply took off their camouflage, put on a suit and came to Congress wanting to teach the country about morality. Some have done it well. Others, unfortunately, went from being terrorists in camouflage to terrorists in business suits.” – February 3, 2007
  • I am very worried that the guerrillas’ political friends, who live here constantly posing as political enemies of yankee imperialism, frequently travel to the United States to discredit the Colombian government, for two purposes: the purpose of keeping the Free Trade Agreement from being approved, and the purpose of suspending the aid. … [These are] friends of the guerrillas, politicians who want the guerrillas to triumph in Colombia, but lack the authenticity to call for it openly.” – April 19, 2007
  • You’re biased to the guerrillas and everyone in Colombia thinks that.” – May 2007, addressing Human Rights Watch/Americas director José Miguel Vivanco at a dinner with members of Congress in Washington.
  • Behind this woman is Gonzalo Guillén, who has dedicated his journalistic career to slander and lies.” – October 2007. Uribe responded to a book published by Pablo Escobar’s onetime girlfriend, which alleged that the young Uribe helped Escobar, by attacking Guillén, a reporter for the Miami Herald’s Spanish-language sister paper. Guillén said that he hadn’t even read the book in question.
  • The only thing you do is shield yourself in your rights as a journalist, so that in my case you can wound me with lies. Enough of this cynicism behind your quote-unquote ‘journalistic ethics.’” – October 2007, to Daniel Coronell, a columnist for Colombia’s largest newsmagazine, who has probed questions about the president’s alleged past relations with narcotraffickers and paramilitaries.
  • May they not make the mistake there [in Bogotá] of electing mayors supported by the guerrillas.” – October 2007, before voters went ahead and elected opposition-party member Samuel Moreno, who has no ties whatsoever to guerrillas, to serve as mayor of Bogotá.
  • I have wanted to fight for a safe, prosperous and equitable country. The trap of the power of terrorism in its death agony – to which justices of the Penal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice have lent themselves – does not appear to have a judicial solution.” – June 26, 2008, referring to the Supreme Court’s questioning of the 2004 constitutional amendment that allowed the president to run for a second term, which only passed a congressional committee with the vote of a legislator who was bribed.
  • It is important that the justice system investigate what manipulations of witnesses have been carried out by [opposition legislators] Sen. Piedad Córdoba or Sen. Gustavo Petro. It is very important to do that.” – August 11, 2008, charging that allegations tying the president’s political allies to paramilitary death squads are the product of the political opposition’s manipulation of witnesses.
  • What we have here is … ‘trafficking in witnesses.’ – August 25, 2008, accusing the Supreme Court of trying to build a false case linking him to paramilitary death squads.
Aug 27

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, accompanied by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, is visiting Colombia during an especially agitated week.

The international representatives’ observation visit is taking place in the midst of a worsening conflict between President Álvaro Uribe and his country’s Supreme Court, which is investigating ties between paramilitary death squads and dozens of politicians, most of them Uribe’s supporters. The brother of the interior minister, until recently the chief prosecutor in Medellín, is facing allegations that he is linked to one of the country’s principal fugitive narcotraffickers and sponsors of “new” paramilitary groups. The country’s main newsmagazine revealed Sunday that paramilitary representatives had meetings in Colombia’s presidential palace earlier this year to discuss ways to discredit the Supreme Court’s investigations. And President Uribe has responded to the pressure by launching pointed verbal attacks on journalists and opposition politicians.

Here are translations of two columns that capture the present moment well. Both appeared in the Colombian daily El Espectador. The first, published today, is from veteran Colombian journalist Cecilia Orozco. The second, published yesterday, comes from César Rodríguez of the judicial-reform think-tank DeJuSticia.

Suicidal Desperation
By Cecilia Orozco Tascón
El Espectador, August 27, 2008

International Criminal Court Prosector Luis Moreno Ocampo and Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón found quite a spectacle upon arriving in the country:

  • The President of the Republic, live on television, shows a video reconfirming that two shady individuals tied to the narco-paramilitary “Don Berna” entered the “Casa de Nari” in their own vehicle, a privilege before reserved only for ambassadors and high-ranking personalities. ["Casa de Nari" is how the paramilitary representatives, in recorded conversations, referred to the presidential palace, the Casa de Nariño.]
  • The President of the Republic, speaking before some intimidated reporters at a press conference, says that there is “trafficking in false witnesses” at the Supreme Court; that [Supreme Court "para-politics" investigator] magistrate Iván Velásquez (whose mere existence is becoming a dangerous obsession for him) “gets drunk” with other witnesses; that Senator [Gustavo] Petro, from the Democratic Pole opposition, “manipulates” still more witnesses.
  • The President of the Republic states that the Prosecutor-General’s Office handed down a politicized finding in the case of “Tasmania,” probably because it found that case to have been an attempt to frame ["para-politics" investigator] Velásquez. ["Tasmania" was the nickname of a former paramilitary who, in a letter that Uribe read in a press conference last October, alleged that Velásquez had tried to induce him to testify against the president. "Tasmania" retracted this claim in June, explaining that his lawyer had put him up to it.]
  • The President of the Republic also criticizes Prosecutor-General [Mario] Iguarán because his entity is infiltrated by the mafia and because “it did not react” to the corrupt acts of [Guillermo] Valencia Cossio [the interior minister's scandal-tarred brother].
  • The President of the Republic accuses ex-president César Gaviria, head of the Liberal Party opposition, of having allied during his term with the “Los Pepes” gang. ["Pepes" = "People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar," a hit squad formed in the early 1990s by the Cali cartel, whose members included individuals who would become top paramilitary leaders later in the decade.]
  • The President of the Republic orders an investigation of journalist Daniel Coronell for covering up “crimes.” [Coronell had interviewed Yidis Medina, a one-term congresswoman who had confessed to him that her tie-breaking committee vote, which allowed President Uribe to run for re-election in 2006, came in exchange for bribes and favors.]

On the other side the Court, Magistrate Velásquez, Senator Petro, the Prosecutor-General, César Gaviria, Coronell and, behind him, several journalists’ organizations, respond to these aggressions, making use of their legitimate right to presumed innocence. All of these taking place on the same day.

Moreno and Garzón, the representatives of international justice, must have been stupefied by the spectacle… and convinced that the black episodes that shake the country cannot be resolved internally because, under the present circumstances, there are no guarantees that anyone here can act with autonomy and liberty: neither the magistrates, nor the prosecutors, nor the politicians, nor the independent journalists. What a great paradox the President has provided, or perhaps, has crafted for his own enjoyment! Democratic security has allowed him to place the guerrillas on the verge of defeat and to demobilize – albeit partially – the paramilitaries, the reasons why he has awakened – until now – the nation’s almost unanimous admiration. But it was not enough for him to cloak Establishment Colombians, in whose name he serves as head of state, with a climate of tranquility and respect.

In his senseless decision to avoid democratic controls, he has been firing buckshot at anything that moves, and he gives the impression of reacting with the suicidal desperation of someone who has been cornered. Unfortunately his tactic of distraction in order not to contaminate himself with the double scandal covering his government – the shady messengers’ visits to the Palace, which will keep on occurring as we have been notified, and the recently named Interior and Justice Minister’s brother’s relations with the cartel of Don Mario – will not work at all, and will only manage to floor the accelerator on the country’s institutional chaos. When was it that the hero of 90% of Colombians lost his reason?

The International Criminal Court has arrived
By César Rodríguez Garavito (professor, Universidad de los Andes, founding member of DeJuSticia)
El Espectador, August 26, 2008

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Aug 20

President Álvaro Uribe’s cousin and longtime political ally, former Senator Mario Uribe, walked out of Bogotá’s La Picota prison today after being held for less than three months. He continues to be under investigation for working with paramilitary groups in his home department of Antioquia. The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) nonetheless determined this week that the evidence against Uribe was “not sufficient to justify imprisonment” while he awaited trial.

The Fiscalía and Colombia’s Supreme Court have placed 69 members of Colombia’s Congress under investigation or arrest on suspicion of having aided, abetted or collaborated with paramilitary groups. (Active members of Congress are investigated and tried by the Supreme Court, while former members are investigated and prosecuted by the Fiscalía.) These politicians are under investigation for a very serious charge: working with criminals responsible for tens of thousands of murders and the production and transshipment of hundreds of tons of cocaine. Nearly all of the legislators caught up in the”para-politics” scandal are supporters of President Uribe.

Mario Uribe’s release comes amid an onslaught of political pressure on the judicial system’s “para-politics” investigators. Despite the seriousness of the charges, President Uribe and his allies are carrying out, in the words of an unusually strong communiqué the Supreme Court put out last week, a “recurrent, systematic and even orchestrated” campaign “oriented exclusively to delegitimize the judicial public servants’ investigations or to undermine their credibility.” This campaign may be working.

The Uribe government’s pressure on the judiciary began to mount back in September 2007, when President Uribe angrily produced a letter written to him by a low-ranking imprisoned paramilitary leader nicknamed “Tasmania.” The letter alleged that the Supreme Court’s chief investigator, Iván Velásquez – a frequent target of those attacking the court – had sought to get the ex-paramilitary to give false evidence implicating the President in support for the paramilitary cause. “Tasmania” retracted his story in June, alleging that he had been put up to it by his lawyer, an individual closely tied to Mario Uribe.

Things heated up again in January, when President Uribe launched a slander lawsuit against the outgoing Supreme Court chief, Julio César Valencia. The judge had told Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper that Uribe had called him on his cell phone in September 2007 to talk about the allegations of “Tasmania,” and that during the conversation the President had asked him about the case of his cousin Mario. Uribe denies that he mentioned his cousin in the conversation, while Valencia insists that he did. The case is still before Colombia’s Congress, which has competence over charges against judicial officials and is controlled by a large pro-Uribe majority.

Last month, Colombia’s new interior minister, Fabio Valencia, announced that the Uribe administration would be sending Congress a package of constitutional reforms that would, among other things, strip the Supreme Court of its ability to investigate members of Congress. “This proposal serves no real purpose, other than to help members of Uribe’s coalition get off the hook,” read a statement from Human Rights Watch.

Last week, the pressure on Colombia’s para-politics investigators further intensified. Former Senate President Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez (whom we have praised in the past for her stance on peace negotiations, but who is now under investigation for para-politics herself) revealed a surreptitiously taped recording of a conversation with a Fiscalía investigator. In the recording, the investigator – Juan Carlos Díaz Rayo, a 33-year-old employee of the Fiscalía’s Technical Investigations Unit (CTI) – told the senator that he felt that the Supreme Court’s chief investigator, Iván Velásquez, was becoming so zealous in his pursuit of “para-politicians” that his work was becoming sloppy.

As Sen. Gutiérrez revealed her recordings last week, President Uribe told an audience that “a senator has told me that she has felt that sectors of justice have wanted to ask her for money.” This charge has no basis in Senator Gutiérrez’s tapes; it is not at all clear, in fact, what President Uribe was talking about.

In Sunday’s El Espectador, the disgraced CTI investigator, Juan Carlos Díaz Rayo, gave a lengthy interview. His words make clear that – despite what President Uribe and his allies have been insinuating – the Supreme Court investigators have not done anything illegal or unethical. The interview does indicate, though, that the Court could stand to make some adjustments to its approach – provided, that is, that constant attacks from a very popular president and his supporters won’t prevent them from doing their job.

Here are a few translated excerpts from Díaz Rayo’s interview. It’s a fascinating read; his final answer is especially incisive.

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Aug 14

This is the eighth and final entry in a series of posts from my April 2008 trip to Guaviare, Colombia. (Yes, there is no good reason why this last one should have taken so long.) The plan now is to take these, edit them down, and produce a written publication about security, human rights and U.S. policy in Colombia, as seen from a rural zone in southern Colombia.

“I have to say, I’m really tired of this. I don’t think I can do this much longer.”

These are not the words of someone prone to whining. Néstor Suárez served as a judge in the violence-wracked town of Saravena, Arauca (which the locals occasionally refer to as “Sarajevo”) for over a decade before being transferred in 2004 to San José del Guaviare. But a visit to the “Palace of Justice” on the edge of town makes clear why he – or anyone in his position – might be at the end of his rope.

Welcome to the Palace.

Suárez is the only judge in the entire department of Guaviare and the adjacent municipality of Puerto Concordia, Meta. He must hear all cases – civil, criminal, family – that come into the justice system from this vast and violent area. He must do it on an annual budget equivalent to about US$50,000.

His caseload is staggering. Judge Suárez flipped through the clipboard he uses to track his docket, one month per page. Every weekday on every page from April to December was already filled with entries for cases scheduled to be heard, and spaces were already beginning to be filled for 2009.

Judge Suárez’s docket looks like this for the next 7-8 months.

These cases are being tracked in 19th-century fashion: in color-coded ink. Judge Suárez has no government-issued computer (he writes documents and corresponds using his personal laptop). He goes out-of-pocket for work-related cellphone calls. Case files – enormous stacks of paper, bound with string – molder on shelves in two storage rooms.

Case files turn yellow on the courthouse shelves.

Though Guaviare has been a frequent focus of U.S.-funded herbicide fumigation and military aid, it has seen very little U.S. economic assistance. Judge Suárez’s courthouse is no exception. The only U.S. assistance he has received, he said, was attendance at a one-week course in Bogotá in 2007. After this course, Suárez was considered qualified to judge cases under Colombia’s new oral trial system. (U.S. aid has helped Colombia undergo a gradual but difficult transition from its traditional written trial system to a presumably faster U.S.-style “accusatory” system.)

The judge showed us a small storage room that had been converted into a courtroom by the placement of desks and chairs. He showed us the robe, hanging on the door of his office, that he now wears when officiating cases.

This roughly 12-by-15 foot room, formerly used for storage, is now Guaviare’s only courtroom for holding oral trials.

What, I asked him, would his priorities be if he had a larger budget, whether from U.S. aid or from Colombia’s own resources? “At minimum, another judge” to lighten his caseload, Judge Suárez said. He noted that the courthouse in the town of Granada, Meta – about 100 miles north of San José, roughly halfway along the road to Bogotá – has three judges.

What difference would even a small amount of U.S. aid make for justice in Guaviare? Quite a bit, I think. In fact, the effect of U.S. aid was placed in sharp relief during my visit.

On my last morning in San José de Guaviare, I had a few moments to meet with Sandra Castro, the head of the Human Rights Unit of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía), which receives millions of dollars in U.S. government assistance each year.

Sign on entrance gate of one of San José del Guaviare’s main parks: “Families of victims of forced disappearance are informed that the meeting will take place today, April 15, in “Cenpagua” at 3:00, in front of the fire station – not in the cultural center. – Office of the Prosecutor-General.”

Ms. Castro was in Guaviare to help inaugurate a temporary commission of twelve prosecutors that, in part with U.S. aid, would spend 60 days investigating cases of forced disappearances in Guaviare’s recent past. The Prosecutor-General’s Office had registered about 550 cases of disappearances between 1989 and 2005, with most occurring in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when paramilitary groups first moved into the zone.

During its 60 days, the commission would be gathering evidence and taking testimony from witnesses about new cases, including the likely locations of mass graves dug by the paramilitaries. A sign on the gate to San José’s riverfront park referred to a meeting later that day with “victims of forced disappearance” (their relatives, of course).

A temporary commission from the Human Rights Unit of the Prosecutor-General’s Office moves into the office from where, for 60 days, it will gather information about forced disappearances in Guaviare.

A quick visit to the office from which this commission would operate, a space in the municipality’s small Cultural Center, quickly made clear what a difference even a small amount of foreign assistance can make.

In sharp, stark contrast to conditions in Judge Suárez’s office, the Human Rights Unit commission had a series of computers with dedicated Internet access, telecommunications equipment, scanners and printers – as well as a sizable staff.

While this commission’s work has yet to be evaluated – and I have heard mixed reviews about the work of similar commissions elsewhere, which can achieve only so much in 60 days – it is clear that they at least had the resources they needed to do their job.

If the United States has an interest in helping Colombia to govern a violent, drug-producing region like Guaviare, then our assistance must help ensure that the local justice system – not just worthwhile, but temporary, commissions from Bogotá – has more of the tools it needs to be effective. Justice is one of the most important ingredients needed to help Colombia establish a state in long-ungoverned territories. It is a critical link in the chain.

It is unacceptable for the justice system in a crucial zone like Guaviare to be so underfunded and overburdened, when a small amount of resources could make such a big difference. If justice in Guaviare “burns out” – as Judge Suárez seemed so close to doing himself – then the region’s whole security and goverance effort, which has begun to yield some results, will collapse.

Aug 12

Here is Colombian President Álvaro Uribe yesterday, in another attack on judicial investigators of the “para-politics” scandal, as well as opposition members of Congress:

A senator [Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez, a former Senate president now under investigation for paramilitary links] has told me that she has felt… that sectors of justice [investigating the scandal] have wanted to ask her for money. Why didn’t she denounce it? She said that they did it so subtly that it would have been difficult to denounce, and that she was afraid to do it. And we also know of interferences… interferences of justice. It is important that the justice system investigate what manipulations of witnesses have been carried out by [opposition legislators] Sen. Piedad Córdoba or Sen. Gustavo Petro. It is very important to do that.

The accusations against Córdoba and Petro have no evidence to back them up, and Sen. Gutiérrez’s accusations, based on a recorded conversation with an investigator from the prosecutor-general’s office [Fiscalía], are troubling – the investigator has since
been taken off of the “parapolitics” investigations – but vague and hardly indicative of a pattern.

President Uribe’s accusations, obviously intended to impugn the character of Supreme Court investigators and weaken the political opposition, may play well in Colombia’s internal political battles and in Colombian public opinion. Viewed from outside, however, the President is sending a terrible message.

A foreign government – or investor, or journalist, or anyone constantly evaluating their country’s relations with Colombia – would feel most confident if President Uribe’s reaction to the “para-politics” revelations were something like: “The idea that top officials could have been supporting mass-murdering drug-trafficking terrorists is shocking. Let’s give the judicial system the tools and support it needs to investigate this, punish it, and make sure that it never happens again. Colombia has to be a country of laws, and we can no longer be tolerant of those who benefit from corruption, organized crime, and even crimes against humanity. Let’s let the justice system do its job.”

Sounds reasonable, right? We should be disturbed, then, that President Uribe’s reactions have so often been the exact opposite. This is the latest in a string of verbal attacks – some of the most high-profile of which have turned out to be baseless – seeking to undermine the credibility of Colombian judicial investigators. The Supreme Court’s chief “para-politics” investigator, judge Iván Velásquez, told El Tiempo that the constant pressure has him thinking about submitting his resignation.

The President is making the “para-politics” investigators’ work more difficult. Viewed from outside Colombia, this behavior sends up very strong warning signals.

Jul 02

John McCain’s trip to Cartagena has occurred at an odd moment in Colombia’s political development. The Republican nominee is heaping praise on President Álvaro Uribe at a time when the popular president’s confrontation with his country’s judicial system – a byproduct of his unexpressed but obvious desire to run for a third term – has polarized the country.

Things are so bad that yesterday, the President of the Supreme Court had to call a press conference to affirm that “We haven’t pressured the President or the Congress nor do we legitimize terrorism.”

It is important at this point to express support for Colombia’s judicial institutions. Though they have never had an easy time of it, at this moment they are critical for the many efforts Colombia must undertake if it is to put behind it the nightmares of the past few decades.

Making “justice and Peace” work, guaranteeing victims’ rights, punishing all “para-politicians,” clarifying state responsibility for human rights abuses, breaking narcotrafficking organizations’ power, even enforcing property rights – pursuing all of these goals means following a path that leads right through Colombia’s judicial system.

Despite their crucial importance, Colombia’s judicial institutions normally don’t get much attention. Here are a few quick readings to put things in perspective.

President Uribe is the most popular president, possibly in all of our history, and even exceeds most of his colleagues in today’s world. But popular support is no substitute for the norms that regulate the exercise of power and is not an argument to lengthen presidential terms beyond what the constitution specifies. Nor to risk the checks and balances that are indispensable in a democracy. Popularity does not exempt government officials from obeying the law. The country has never before needed as much reason and wisdom as it does now.

- From Sunday’s editorial in El Tiempo.

Instead of respecting the separation of powers and waiting for the procedures designed under the law to run their course – and giving the Constitutional Court time to resolve the reelection issue – the institutions are being jumped over [through the referendum proposal] in order to appeal directly to the public. The message has a strong authoritarian component: the judicial branch can say what it wants, but ultimately, he will do what the masses demand.

- From the cover story in this week’s Semana magazine.

After what happened last week, I fear that the country is literally divided in two, and that each of the two parts seems ever more distant and irreconcilable. One one side is Álvaro Uribe, the most popular president in Colombia’s recent history, but also the most uninterested in norms and laws. … On the other side is the Supreme Court of Justice, which does not measure its greatness by its popularity in the polls, but by its adherence to norms and law; a brave court that is not intimidated by anything and that has been able to confront the monster of para-politics when many thought that nobody had the guts to do so. … What we Colombians never imagined was that we would one day be forced to choose sides between these two Colombias.

- From Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán.

In less than a decade, this thousand-headed monster [paramilitarism] has taken over the state, infiltrating it at all levels. It is serious that this far into their supposed demobilization, it is still not possible to know how far they have penetrated the political sphere, much less the military, financial or business spheres. The scandals of the last few months (’para-politics’ in Congress) are nothing but the tip of the iceberg. … The violent ones, and their accomplices in power, never imagined that some men in togas, like a true suicide squadron, would stand up to defend the fatherland. The Penal Tribunal of the Supreme Court is the institutions’ last bastion against the barbarians.

- Parmenio Cuéllar, former Colombian justice minister, senator, and governor of Nariño department.

To be a judge, a good judge, in Colombia, is a thankless and frequently dangerous occupation. Traditionally, members of the judiciary come from the despised middle class. Consequently they play little or no role within the social structures of the elite. Intellectuals in a philistine and aggressive society, they are shamefully undervalued and wretchedly paid. To survive in the Colombian judiciary requires special qualities: integrity, idealism, and, in a violent land, unremitting courage. The same dedication to the rule of law that drives them to the top of their profession necessarily exposes them to the most danger.

- From The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy by Ana Carrigan (1993).

May 23

At dinnertime this evening, I had just lit the grill when the phone started buzzing in my pocket. Two calls in a row from U.S. reporters.

How strange to be standing in my backyard, barbecue tongs in hand, answering questions about a criminal investigation of several colleagues and acquaintances. (I suppose, though, that there are many people here in Washington to whom this sort of thing happens all the time.)

Only a little while before, Colombian Prosecutor-General Mario Iguarán had announced that several Colombian politicians and peace facilitators, as well as a few citizens of Ecuador, Venezuela and the United States, were being formally investigated for ties to the FARC. The allegations are based on information culled from laptop computers and other media recovered at the site in Ecuador where, on March 1, Colombia’s army killed FARC leader Raúl Reyes.

While several of the names are unfamiliar, Prosecutor Iguarán’s list of those under investigation includes people who are well known for their efforts to convince the FARC to participate in negotiations. Because of their work, this weblog has interviewed or discussed some of them.

Those under investigation include:

  • Liberal Party Senator Piedad Córdoba,
  • Democratic Pole Party Congressman Wilson Borja,
  • Democratic Pole Party Congresswoman Gloria Inés Ramírez,
  • U.S. development consultant Jim Jones,
  • Colombian politician Álvaro Leyva,
  • Carlos Lozano, editor of the Colombian Communist Party newspaper Voz,
  • Telesur reporter William Parra,
  • Columnist Lázaro Viveros,
  • Liliana Patricia Obando, director of an NGO called Frunceagro [edit 5/27: the NGO is Fensuagro, the National Federation of Agricultural Farming Unions],
  • Venezuelan politician Amílkar Figueroa,
  • Ecuadorian politician María Augusta Calle, and
  • Iván Larrea, brother of Ecuador’s interior minister.

Beyond expressing relief that I’ve never written the FARC any e-mails, I found it hard to offer any useful observations in this evening’s phone conversations. (As evidenced here.) There is too much that we don’t know, particularly about what the computer files say, and what possible criminal charges these individuals might end up facing.

But we can speculate, which is still a useful exercise because it shows how complicated this issue is. Let’s start by asking: What, in the end, might these people be charged with?

  • Unauthorized contact with an armed group? If that is indeed a criminal offense in Colombia, they are all guilty, as is anyone else who has e-mailed, called or visited the FARC without express prior authorization from the Colombian government. If a law against such contacts exists, however, I have never seen it enforced before.
  • Offering material support, like weapons, money or protection? In the case of those under investigation whom I know personally, I highly doubt it. All of them are repulsed by Colombia’s violence and alarmed by the conflict’s degradation. I cannot imagine them doing anything that would add to the killing. (According to El Tiempo, though, the Venezuelan individual – whom I don’t know – may have been a go-between in the FARC’s efforts to get weapons from Caracas.)
  • Offering advice? Perhaps advice was offered, and this is where it gets tricky. Whether advice constituted support for the FARC depends on what kind of advice it was.

Tactical or strategic advice? This is unlikely – the list includes no military masterminds who would have much to teach the FARC about guerrilla warfare.

Political advice? Again, perhaps – but there are two kinds of political advice in question here, one malign and one benign.

  • Political advice intended to help the FARC achieve power, including local power, or to enter into power-sharing alliances? If the advice is found to fit in this category, those who offered it are in some trouble. This is the sort of support that many of the “para-politicians” are accused of providing. (Though of course many of them are accused of far more serious crimes like conspiring to kill or intimidate opponents, or to steal elections.)
  • Political advice to move the FARC’s thinking in a less militaristic, more flexible, more peace-friendly direction? Let’s assume the goal of a communication with the FARC is to encourage them to free hostages, be more open to negotiations, or simply to stop violating international humanitarian law. Clearly, one strong way to make the case is to convince the FARC that it is in their own self-interest to do so. That essentially means offering political advice.

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Apr 17

(I’m writing from the Bogotá airport, where I’m on my way back to Washington. Expect some posts over the next few days about my visit earlier this week to San José del Guaviare, the town in southern Colombia where the U.S.-funded aerial fumigation program began 14 years ago.)

The Colombian newsweekly Semana has posted to its website a remarkable and troubling PowerPoint presentation (PDF version here, accompanying an article here) from Colombian Senator Armando Benedetti. Though Sen. Benedetti is a member of the pro-Uribe “La U” political party, he is one of a handful of uribista legislators who have criticized the government’s handling of efforts to demobilize, prosecute and reintegrate former paramilitaries while attending to their victims.

Two and a half years after these efforts – known as the “Justice and Peace process” – began, Sen. Benedetti’s slideshow paints a distressing picture. Here are a few current statistics that should make you very angry:

  • 125,368 Colombians have registered as victims of the paramilitaries, seeking reparations, restitution of stolen assets, or simply the truth about what happened to disappeared and murdered loved ones.
  • Though Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría del Pueblo) is required by law to offer legal assistance to the victims, only 13 percent of registered victims have come to the ombudsman for assistance. Only 9 percent of victims are represented by a lawyer. The Defensoría has assigned a total of 68 ombusdmen to assist paramilitary victims; they are present in three cities. That means each ombusdman has a caseload of 815 of the victims who have requested help from the Defensoría.
  • 15 victims inscribed in the Justice and Peace process have been killed under circumstances believed to be related to their claims. 92 have reported receiving threats as a result of their claims.
  • The Justice and Peace unit of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía), which is handling 3,257 cases of armed-group leaders accused of serious crimes, has 23 prosecutors.
  • The Justice and Peace unit of the Attorney-General’s Office (Procuraduría), which is supposed to oversee the prosecutions, has 12 lawyers assigned to it.
  • Of the 3,257 paramilitary leaders accused of serious crimes in the “Justice and Peace process,” only 127 have even begun the process of giving voluntary confessions, and only 4 have completed the initial versión libre (”free confession”) stage. At this rate, Sen. Benedetti estimates, it will take 2,157 years to complete the “Justice and Peace” judicial process.
  • 9,467 victims have come forward to denounce that the paramilitaries forced their displacement from their homes. (The actual number of people displaced by the paramilitaries is far higher.) But so far, paramilitary leaders have confessed to only 48 cases of forced displacement.
  • 91 victims have come forward to denounce that they were subjected to sexual violence by the paramilitaries. (The actual number of such victims is far, far higher.) But so far, paramilitary leaders have confessed to only 2 acts of sexual violence.
  • The Defensoría has only 12 psychologists on hand to provide psycho-social support to the 125,368 victims registered so far.
  • The Justice and Peace law requires paramilitary leaders to turn over all illegally required assets to fund reparations to their victims. So far, only 12 of the 3,257 paramilitary leaders have so far turned in any goods. (The list of goods, which includes 70 pairs of used shoes and a 29-inch television in bad condition, can be found here [PDF] as part of a scanned document from the Procuraduría.) The total value of cash and goods turned over by paramilitary leaders so far totals US$470,685 – or US$3.75 per registered victim.
Jan 31

Judge Julio César Valencia.

Remember the “para-politics” scandal? (There are many in Colombia who hope that you don’t.) It took a very odd turn last week, as President Álvaro Uribe announced that he is pressing charges of slander against César Julio Valencia, who until two weeks ago was the chief justice of Colombia’s Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is charged with investigating and prosecuting the more than 40 members of Colombia’s Congress alleged to have supported paramilitary groups. Among these legislators is President Uribe’s cousin, Mario Uribe.

In September, Álvaro Uribe called Judge Valencia on his cellphone. The president was enraged because a low-ranking imprisoned paramilitary leader nicknamed “Tasmania” had written him a letter alleging that Supreme Court investigators had sought to get him to give false evidence implicating Uribe.

Earlier this month, in an interview with the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, Valencia said that during the same conversation, President Uribe also asked about his cousin’s case.

President Uribe vehemently denies that he inquired about his cousin. Judge Valencia, whose term just ended, refuses to retract what he said. So President Uribe is now pressing charges against the outgoing supreme-court chief justice. The charge is slander, which is a criminal offense in Colombia.

A statement from the Polo Democrático, Colombia’s leftist opposition party, explains why Valencia will have little opportunity to defend himself, and why the truth about that telephone conversation is unlikely to emerge.

The only possible witnesses in the procedures are three high employees of the Uribe government. The trial will begin with the Prosecution Commission of the House of Representatives, an entity controlled entirely by the political friends of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the very same people who systematically refuse to comply with the law when he is the accused and who constitute part of the bureaucratic apparatus that is also controlled by the head of state. Will there be justice for the President of the Supreme Court if the accuser, the witnesses, and the judges all share the same interests and belong to the same para-politician group under investigation by that Supreme Court?

Is President Uribe so distressed by this alleged smear on his record that he is willing to clash at such a high level with the judicial branch? Or is this an effort to distract and even to intimidate the Supreme Court, which has been taking seriously its duty to investigate and punish the dozens of Uribe supporters facing “para-politics” accusations?

Jan 10

Former Colombian Prosecutor General Luis Camilo Osorio.

El Espectador, Colombia’s second-most-circulated newspaper on Sundays, ran an important article in its last edition. It is a confirmation and a reminder of an especially nasty 2001 episode from which Colombia’s judicial system has not fully recovered.

Immediately after taking office in July 2001, Prosecutor General Luis Camilo Osorio acted aggressively to end investigations of both military human-rights abuses and alleged ties to paramilitary groups. For four years with Osorio at the helm, the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía, a separate branch of government whose leader is nominated by the president and ratified by the congress) did remarkably little to pursue human-rights cases, while its Human Rights Unit – a beneficiary of generous U.S. aid over the years – was rendered toothless.

This huge step backward for Colombia’s fight against impunity got some international attention; it was the subject of a 2002 Human Rights Watch report entitled A Wrong Turn. But Colombia has yet to have a real reckoning with what happened under Osorio’s four-year tenure.

That is why El Espectador’s interview with Marcela Roldán, one of several effective prosecutors fired from the Human Rights Unit in 2001, is so important. As you read the translated excerpts here, keep in mind:

• Generals Rito Alejo del Río and Fernando Millán, the two officers whose charges of aiding paramilitaries were dropped upon Osorio’s arrival, had been fired in mid-1999 by then-President Andrés Pastrana. A few weeks after their firing, an association of retired officers, along with a cross-section of Colombia’s right wing, held a large dinner in a Bogotá hotel to honor the two generals.

The keynote speaker at this event was the former governor of Antioquia department, Álvaro Uribe. (”The extreme right, just days before the year 2000, has become as obsolete as the radical left,” read an El Espectador editorial at the time. “For these reasons so many concerns have been raised by the presence of Ex-Governor Álvaro Uribe Vélez. … It is inexplicable that for his return to politics after several months of reflection, he has chosen a forum that lends itself to useless confusions.”)

• The ultraconservative journalist who wrote a column accusing Judge Roldán of being a guerrilla supporter, Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, went on to become the Uribe government’s ambassador to Portugal.

• And Prosecutor-General Osorio? He went on to be the Uribe government’s ambassador in Italy, and today is Colombia’s ambassador to Mexico.

“Osorio devastated the Fiscalía” – El Espectador, January 6, 2008

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