John Kerry’s statement Colombian Army push-polling
Oct 172004

A Google search for English-language pages with the name “Alfredo Correa de Andreis” returned nothing from any media source, just a few alerts from international solidarity groups. That Correa’s case has slipped below the international radar is good news for Alvaro Uribe and his government’s controversial security policies, which deserve far more scrutiny than they are getting.

A month ago today, on September 17, two hitmen on a motorcycle killed Correa and his bodyguard, Edward Ochoa, in Barranquilla, Correa’s hometown and Colombia’s fourth-largest city. A sociologist, agronomist and a professor at Barranquilla’s Simon Bolivar University, the 52-year-old Correa was known as an outspoken advocate of human rights, organized labor and improved conditions for the poor. One of his last works was a study, funded in part by USAID, of displaced populations in Barranquilla. He described himself a “militant of the democratic [that is, nonviolent] left.”

Most observers suspect that the dominant paramilitary figure in the area, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo or “Jorge 40,” ordered the killing. Right now, “Jorge 40″ is in the Santa Fe de Ralito demilitarized zone, sitting at a table with government peace negotiators; while talks proceed, any outstanding orders for his arrest have been suspended.

The chain of events that led to Correa’s death may in fact have been triggered by the Uribe government’s policy of aggressively and often indiscriminately arresting suspected guerrilla collaborators. On June 17, dozens of heavily armed police arrested Correa on suspicion of serving clandestinely as a FARC ideologist named “Comandante Eulogio.” Prof. Correa became one of thousands of academics, labor leaders, human-rights activists and other left-of-center figures across Colombia who have been arrested on similar charges since the Uribe government began implementing its “Democratic Security” policy in 2002.

In July, as has occurred in the majority of such cases, the attorney-general’s office (Fiscalia) freed Correa for lack of evidence. The case against Correa depended on three informants, all of them former guerrillas, now part of the network of 1.9 million “eyes and ears” the Uribe government has put together with promises of payment for useful information. Their testimonies fell apart easily; El Espectador reported that several passages were in fact repeated verbatim in each of the witnesses’ statements.

Though found innocent, Correa was far from safe. The professor’s arrest had left him “señalado” (marked) in a country where hundreds of civilians are killed each year because someone suspects them of being guerilla auxiliaries. Though convicted of no crime, the mere suspicion – strongly ratified by the Colombian government’s decision to arrest him – was proof enough for the paramilitaries. “They didn’t kill Alfredo on Friday [September 17th],” Correa’s sister, Magda, told El Espectador. “They really killed him when they arrested him. That was the day they placed the tombstone over him.”

The case “reveals a perverse formula,” wrote Daniel Samper, an El Tiempo columnist and the former president’s brother. “The paid snitch denounces without proof, the prosecutor arrests in a frightening fashion, the justice system absolves and the hitman proceeds.”

According to the Permanent Assembly of Civil Society for Peace and the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners, two of Colombia’s most outspoken non-governmental groups, 4,846 civilians were arrested on charges of “rebellion” in 2003; as of early this year, 3,750 had been found innocent and freed.

Some of the arrests have occurred massively, in roundups of citizens in conflictive zones like Arauca, eastern Antioquia, Cauca, Caquetá, and Sucre. In a November 2002 report from Saravena, Arauca (where U.S. troops have been training Colombian personnel to guard an oil pipeline), Miami Herald reporter Frances Robles described a mass detention.

[T]he Colombian army rounded up hundreds of people before dawn one recent morning. Those who didn’t have any pending warrants or cloaked neighbors pointing an accusing finger went home with a black stamp. Of the 500 or so who waited hours in the Saravena town stadium, 85 went to jail. … [M]ore than half were later released.

Other arrests have taken place on a less massive, “case by case” basis, including the controversial jailings of several well-known local activists. Jose Luis Serna Alzate, the bishop of Líbano, Tolima, has faced a long struggle to clear his name. Luz Perly Córdoba of the Arauca Campesino Association has been imprisoned since February 2004. Barranquilla-based Presbyterian Church worker Mauricio Avilez has been imprisoned since June (he shared a cell with Correa). Barranquilla folksinger Yamil Cure was arrested in September and released late last week. Amaury Padilla, who served as a peace advisor to the government of Bolívar department, is now in exile after being detained and freed. Three prominent Cartagena residents – writer Rogelio España, union leader Román Torres and former local government official Rafael Palencia – have received threats after being arrested and freed. Most of those picked up in the Saravena mass arrests fear to return to their homes even though they have been found “innocent.”

The Colombian newsmagazine Semana reported on many of these cases in a recent story. As this and other sources indicate, several former detainees, like Correa, have been subsequently murdered. Six people in Bolívar have been killed this year after being arrested and released, Semana reports, citing local Public Ministry authorities. Marco Antonio Rodríguez, picked up and freed after a mass arrest in Cajamarca, Tolima, was killed shortly afterward in November 2003. Ana Teresa Yarce, a local women’s group leader, was arrested during an October 2002 government offensive against guerrilla militias in Medellín’s Comuna 13 slum, only to be freed ten days later; suspected paramilitaries killed her earlier this month.

It is remarkable how little attention the mass arrest policy has received overseas, though the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights did express concerns in its last annual report on Colombia. (British EU diplomat Chris Patten also pointed out the mass arrests’ counterproductive nature during an early 2004 trip to Colombia, recalling that “in Northern Ireland in the 1970s we committed one of our worst errors by massively detaining people suspected of ties to the IRA. The reaction to this abuse was greater support for the other side.”)

The lack of outside attention owes partly to the fact that it’s all perfectly legal, according to Colombian law; technically, none of the detainees is denied due process. Most everyone is arrested and promptly charged with a crime – though often they are paraded before reporters, their pictures published in the media as suspected guerrilla collaborators.

If Colombia’s guilty-until-proven-innocent system finds that no crime occurred, the accused is released. But common sense dictates that the practice should not be so widespread when the accusation is so serious, and the potential consequences so great for the accused. While Colombia’s judicial system frequently frees those wrongly accused, it cannot protect them from some powerful figures on Colombia’s right wing, who may see the arrest as evidence enough to target them. Even without this risk, the possibility is too great that an unscrupulous government or prosecutor can use such accusations to jail political enemies, who must then prove their innocence.

“This is a nightmare, incomparable as a violation of all my rights as a citizen,” Correa wrote to President Uribe from jail last June. “I trust that you will not only read my letter but, from a humane perspective, will adopt a course of fairness so that nobody else in this country suffers similarly.”

It is inexcusable that Professor Correa’s circumstances, and the Uribe government’s practice of rounding up suspected guerrilla collaborators on flimsy evidence, are so poorly known outside Colombia. We are certain that most members of the U.S. Congress who claim to support Alvaro Uribe’s security policies have no idea this is happening. (Who can blame them; they are usually getting their information from a U.S. government that has proven reluctant to criticize President Uribe’s policies, other than some aspects of the paramilitary peace talks).

Those of us outside Colombia need to be following this more closely. The practice of mass arrests threatens to close the political space on which Colombian democracy depends, and it should bear consequences for our governments’ relations with Bogotá.

One Response to “When arbitrary arrests become death sentences”

  1. jcg Says:

    A completely understandable protest against a flawed procedure.

    Of course the U.S. government and/or legislators should take this into account, but framing this within the current anti-terrorism mentality, it’s not as clear cut as it may seem….You mention the example of Britain applying similar procedures in its fight against the IRA back in the 70’s, and to an extent the U.S. itself has also applied such methods, perhaps on a smaller scale, in Afghanistan and Irak (many of the detainees ending up in Guantanamo (and probably in other equivalent locations) for months until they are freed. Those are only two examples, I’m sure that there’s been plenty of others. Can the U.S. really claim too much moral superiority here (not that it’s really necessary, in practice, as it’s still the wrong thing to do)? That might or might not be holding some people back.

    Also, as the article points out, this issue is related to the Uribe administration’s policy of employing informants that, while they may sometimes provide valuable info leading to the capture of real insurgent operatives, some of them are decidly being deceptive, accusing many innocent people in exchange for benefits, apparently with little or no accountability.

    If such a system will continue to be used, much stricter restrictions and requirements should be put into place before arrests are made, in order to protect those wrongfully accused from falling into the potential death-trap that the blog highlights. This is something that definitely could use far more lobbying by the internationl community.

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