Imagine having police or soldiers seize you while you are walking down the street, charge you with aiding terrorists, parade you in front of reportersâ€™ cameras as a captured terrorist supporter, and throw you in jail. Imagine that your arrest was based on accusations from somebody whom you cannot question or confront (if you know who your accuser is at all). Imagine that, after a period of days, weeks, or months, you are released for lack of evidence and must begin your life again.
Last month, several Colombian human-rights groups released a report [PDF format] documenting one of the most troubling aspects of the Uribe governmentâ€™s security policies. According to Liberty: Hostage of Democratic Security, more than 6,000 people were arrested and charged with supporting guerrillas during the first two years of Ãlvaro Uribeâ€™s term in office. Of those, 5,535 were detained in mass roundups of ten people or more.
â€œIn the framework of the struggle against terrorism, entire populations are being classified as dangerous, and as a result are exposed to the risk of administrative detention. The arrest of more than 2,000 people in Arauca city, Arauca, on November 12, 2002 is still the worst example of what a state should not do with regard to personal liberty. However, it is not the only one: between August 7, 2002 and August 6, 2004, the report states, 5,535 people were victims of arbitrary arrest in 77 mass-detention events, in which the number of people simultaneously arrested was between ten (for example, the May 22, 2002 arrests in Villa Hermosa, Tolima) and two thousand (for example, the Arauca arrests).â€
The prominent national organizations who collaborated on the report (Center for Popular Research and Investigation [CINEP], JosÃ© Alvear Restrepo Lawyersâ€™ Collective, Colombian Commission of Jurists, Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, Humanidad Vigente, Freedom Legal Corporation, and Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners, in coordination with the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination [CCEEU]) define â€œarbitrary arrestâ€ as one in which the detainee is not informed of the reasons for his arrest, he is not granted an opportunity to inform a third party about his arrest, or he is not presented before a judge.
The growing rate of arbitrary detentions coincides with the beginning of the Uribe government. Between August 7, 2002 and August 6, 2004, the report found that at least 6,332 people were detained arbitrarily in Colombia (including events in which less than ten people were arrested). During the six previous years, by contrast, 2,869 people were detained arbitrarily.
The investigators attribute this explosion of arrests to President Uribeâ€™s active support for the imprisonment of â€œterrorist supportersâ€ as part of his â€œDemocratic Securityâ€ strategy. Speaking in December 2003 about the security situation in part of Colombiaâ€™s coffee-growing heartland, Uribe called for still more mass arrests.
"It may disgust many national and international observers, but it is a way of isolating the terrorists, of taking key supports away from them, of affecting their supply lines. Last week, I told General Castro Castro [the chief of Colombiaâ€™s National Police] that in this zone we cannot go on with mass arrests of 40 or 50 every Sunday, but instead 200, to accelerate the jailing of the terrorists and to deliver a blow to these organizations. Those captures have been massive, but not arbitrary."
According to the report, these detentions unfairly target human rights workers and other activists, as well as farmers who live in zones traditionally controlled by guerrilla groups. As is well known, Uribe has said in public on several occasions that human-rights groups serve the interest of Colombian guerrilla groups, as â€œterrorist spokespeople.â€ As a result, Uribeâ€™s plan to â€œisolateâ€ terrorists by capturing their alleged associates puts human rights workers at particular risk of arbitrary detention.
The majority of arrests, however, occur during military operations in which civilians are indiscriminately detained. A few examples from the report:.
- Operation Liberty, September 27, 2003, QunchÃa, Risaralda,116 people detained. The operationâ€™s mission was to arrest 60 people responsible for a May 2003 ambush by the EPL (a very small guerrilla group) that killed 3 police agents. Sixty-five people accused of aiding terrorists, including the mayor of QuinchÃa and four other public officials, were held without bond. Twenty months later, on August 2, 2005, all were finally released for lack of evidence. Despite charges of rebellion, extortion, and terrorist conspiracy, defense lawyers were never informed of linkages between the civilians and the EPL.
- Operation Sovereignty, September 7, 2003, Cartagena del ChairÃ¡, CaquetÃ¡, 74 people detained. Warrants had been issued for 94 people believed to be accomplices of the FARC. A few months later, a large-scale military offensive that continues today, usually known as â€œPlan Patriota,â€ would bring thousands of troops to Cartagena del ChairÃ¡.
- Operation Orion, October 16, 2002, MedellÃnâ€™s Comuna 13 neighborhood, 422 people detained. The mass arrests occurred in the context of a military operation that evicted ELN militias from this hillside slum. The operation failed, however, to affect the paramilitary presence in Comuna 13, which has since been largely under the control of paramilitaries commanded by â€œDon Berna.â€
The report raises several tough questions not just about mass arrests, but about the â€œDemocratic Securityâ€ strategy in general.
What counts as a credible intelligence report? One of the Uribe governmentâ€™s signature security efforts has been its â€œNetwork of Cooperators,â€ in which civilians offer tips to army and police officials, usually in exchange for financial compensation. But what is â€œsuspiciousâ€ enough to warrant action?
â€œIt is suspicious to me if the person is not from this town,â€ one civilian informant from Cesar department told an interviewer for the NGOsâ€™ report.
"If a street vendor goes down the same street several times, I call the police right away. â€¦ If some guy is dressed like a campesino, he doesnâ€™t know how to match his clothing, he puts on a red shirt with green and has scratches on his arms, right away I look at his waist [where a pistol might be] because he could be a guerrilla. â€¦ If he has tattoos or an earring, he could be a paramilitary."
â€œBased on criteria such as these,â€ the report informs, â€œmany people have been arbitrarily detained in Colombia.â€
In addition to civilian reports, the Colombian state relies on the testimony of â€œreinsertados,â€ former guerrilla members, who accompany the security forces on operations, identifying those who they believe are guerrilla collaborators. In some cases, suspected guerrillas have been arrested based on accusations from demobilized paramilitaries.
How solid is the proof connecting those arrested to guerrilla organizations? Frequently, the report contends, those arrested are let go shortly afterward due to a lack of evidence against them. While it is unfortunate that the reportâ€™s authors were unable to give a more exact estimate of how many detainees are subsequently released, we do know that the case of Alfredo Correa de AndreÃs â€“ a Barranquilla profesor arrested for being a FARC supporter in mid-2004, then released for lack of evidence â€“ is not unusual. (Correa was killed, probably by paramilitaries, weeks after his release.)
Investigators found various inconsistencies within the â€œsolidâ€ evidence underlying cases against detainees. For example, Operation Orion documents held that a single defense attorney was assisting different detainees in different places at the same time. In addition, various prosecutors were questioning and identifying people in different places at the same time. Police officials added to data provided by informants. Occasionally, â€œreinsertadosâ€ provided identical testimonies, altering only names, for different cases.
Where does the â€œburden of proofâ€ lie? The defendants are not given access to intelligence-based evidence against them. The defense must prove a negative â€“ no ties to guerrillas â€“ while testimony given by â€œreinsertadosâ€ is not submitted to a credibility check.
Are some accusations coerced? In some instance, witnesses were trained and prompted before giving their testimonies. In fact, informant Jampiero Grajales Correa admitted in November 2002 that during Operation Orion heâ€™d been forced to â€œidentifyâ€ a man that heâ€™d never seen before.
In addition to these concerns we must add the rather obvious point that mass arrests on flimsy evidence are a terrible way for the Colombian government to win the populationâ€™s support. Many of the mass arrests have taken place during military operations aimed at re-taking territory that has been in guerrilla hands. The government has long been absent in such zones, and will need the populationâ€™s support in order to hold on to this territory. It is a mistake, then, to make its first appearance in the zone by antagonizing the population, locking up dozens or hundreds of citizens. In areas already under government control, the policy of large-scale arrests has a chilling effect on democracy and free speech, when so many of those detained are human-rights workers, activists and others who criticize the Uribe government.
â€œHow many more innocent people have to be arrested,â€ asked an August El Tiempo editorial, â€œbefore it is recognized that the costly and counter-productive strategy of mass arrests is a mistake and should be suspended?â€ The practice of mass and arbitrary arrests must stop â€“ it is a black mark on the record of the Uribe government, and on its number-one supporter, the United States. The Colombian groups who authored this report deserve congratulations and thanks for making this information public.
(This entry was largely written by CIP Intern Robin Rahe.)