The best defense is to be offensive Friday links
Aug 142008

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.

11 Responses to “A justice system nearing burnout”

  1. jcg Says:

    Like the rest of the entries, this final installment manages to be both informative and, in certain respects, worrying.

    It would be somewhat interesting to know if the judicial system has always been so precarious in Guaviare, or if it has seen relatively better days in the past, to better measure just how underfunded and overloaded it is.

    “Burning out” is not going to help anyone, least of all the inhabitants of the department, but it is necessity to make this situation known, somehow. Even mild increases in government funds or U.S. aid could definitely make a difference.

  2. Jaime Bustos Says:

    jcg, you don’t seem to understand. US aid is immediately translated into government funds. In a recent article in Semana, the price of silence, I was reading about the Minister of Defense, spending half the US budget on propaganda to bolster the military’s public image.

    Aside from being contrary to one’s self-esteem, living under someone else’s charity, an old practice by the GOC, it might be one of so many factors leading to corruption and not aptly focusing on the correct policies the nation should exercise in order to maintain the whole Colombian territory under similar conditions of inversion and care.

  3. Jaime Bustos Says:

    I correct myself, maybe I did not read that in the aforementioned article. :mrgreen:

  4. jcg Says:

    Jaime Bustos: “jcg, you don’t seem to understand. US aid is immediately translated into government funds.”

    Would Adam, who knows more about this subject than any of us (not because I say so, but this website is proof of it), back you up on that?

    I’d say that it depends on what part of the aid you are talking about.

    “In a recent article in Semana, the price of silence, I was reading about the Minister of Defense, spending half the US budget on propaganda to bolster the military’s public image.”

    Not here…

    Or do you mean here?

    “I correct myself, maybe I did not read that in the aforementioned article. ”

    Yes, apparently not…making the links above partially irrelevant, but at least the first question still stands.

  5. Jaime Bustos Says:

    “Según trascendidos de prensa, casi 50 por ciento de la ayuda estadunidense para el Plan Colombia se dedicó a una campaña de imagen del Ministerio de Defensa, encabezado por Santos. RG empezó con recursos de perfil bajo, como el empleado en los meses previos a la invasión de Irak: un mazo de naipes de póker, con las imágenes de los jefes de las FARC.”

  6. jcg Says:

    That is claim, and not exactly one with a proper source, not to mention evidence.

    Is that referring to all aid to date, or just yearly aid?

    What “trascendidos de prensa” are those?

    The article reads like a mix of truths and half-truths being twisted into a conspiracy, without properly backing up most of its statements.

  7. Jaime Bustos Says:

    jcg, it’s just like the garbage you can read in EL TIEMPO or Semana. It’s a matter of who you choose to believe. Apart from that, we are all blind. :-(

  8. jcg Says:

    Ultimately, but in this case…I’d think CIP, or even EL TIEMPO and especially SEMANA, have a better “batting average” than a guy from Argentina writing an opinion column for a Mexican newspaper.

  9. Adam Isacson Says:

    Most US aid is in-kind – helicopters, herbicides, training, the services of contractors, etc. Very little comes in the form of cash that the Colombian government has any discretion in how to spend…

  10. Camilla Says:

    I’ve got a question with the general premise of this argument: why is it the US’ job to pay for some foreign country’s justice system. Does this guy have no recourse to Bogota? Is there a reason there is no tax base to sustain a credible judicial system? Maybe free trade would bring some opportunities for developing a genuine private sector that could provide a tax base. But not a snowball’s chance in hell of that with Colombia’s two far-left unions informing their AFL-CIO counterparts to oppose it at all cost. I don’t think the US should be obliged to pay for Colombia’s judges under such circumstances.

  11. E Says:

    I didn’t see any reference to USAID’s efforts to create virtual courtrooms that link judges in remote and isolated locations with regional courtrooms in cities like Villavicencio. I actually believe San Jose del Guaviare is linked to Villavicencio. This may not reduce caseloads per judge, but it certainly helps speed along the wheels of justice.

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