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. NÃ©stor SuÃ¡rez 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 JosÃ© 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.
SuÃ¡rez 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 SuÃ¡rez 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 SuÃ¡rez’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 SuÃ¡rez 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 SuÃ¡rez’s courthouse is no exception. The only U.S. assistance he has received, he said, was attendance at a one-week course in BogotÃ¡ in 2007. After this course, SuÃ¡rez 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 SuÃ¡rez said. He noted that the courthouse in the town of Granada, Meta – about 100 miles north of San JosÃ©, roughly halfway along the road to BogotÃ¡ – 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 JosÃ© 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 (FiscalÃa), which receives millions of dollars in U.S. government assistance each year.
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 JosÃ©’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 SuÃ¡rez’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 BogotÃ¡ – 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 SuÃ¡rez seemed so close to doing himself – then the region’s whole security and goverance effort, which has begun to yield some results, will collapse.