Colombia. On the wrong side of political justice

COLOMBIAN human rights lawyer Luis Perez thought he was safe. Death threats last year forced him to move his pregnant wife and young son to a secret location outside Bogota. He even stopped defending political prisoners and families of the tortured, murdered and disappeared. But it wasn't enough.

Colombia's paramilitary death squads run a wide network of terror and secretly benefit from the training and intelligence support of local police and military commanders.

As a representative of the Jose Restrepo Lawyers' Collective – a group of human rights advocates founded in 1980 – Perez agreed to speak at a European Parliament conference in Brussels last February.

Under the campaign banner, Basta La Impunidad. Derechos Humanos Ya! he attacked the “total impunity” from prosecution enjoyed by members of the military, police and paramilitaries – the three groups held responsible by international human rights organisations for the vast majority of violations in Colombia. Representatives of the Colombian military, also present at the conference, disguised their anger. Days later the death squad struck. Having located his wife through the birth certificate of their newly born daughter, a sinister calling card was left for all to see.

“The name of my eight-year-old son was graffitied on the apartment wall, which in Colombia represents a death threat,” Perez explains. “Armed men stood outside the flat day and night to make their presence known.”

The Perez family sought political asylum in Europe, where Luis joins other exiled human rights lawyers who denounce state-sponsored terrorism in Colombia. “The struggle for human rights is a struggle for justice, truth, dignity and for those who have died fighting the barbarity of state terrorism,” the 32-year-old lawyer declared during a recent talk in London's Bethnal Green. “The struggle for justice implies the need to create a democratic society in which no authority is above the law. Above all, it is a struggle against impunity.”

Colombia is the battleground of three wars: a war against the cocaine and heroin cartels; a dirty war against the popular movement – a loose coalition of leftist parties, trade unions, NGOs and human rights campaigners; and a counter-insurgency war against Latin America's biggest and oldest guerrilla movement.

Most of the past 50 years have been spent under a state of emergency, a situation used by politicians to pass draconian laws which seriously undermine civil liberties and make due process subservient to the military's 'national security' considerations. The Colombian judicial system has been both victim and protagonist in these three conflicts. While the drug cartels continue to corrupt, kill and intimidate the judiciary, in the other two theatres of war, the law itself has become a repressive political tool against 'subversion' and a protector of human rights abusers in the Colombian security services.

But it is the war on drugs and drug-related violence, or narco-terrorism, as the Colombian government calls it, which persistently grabs international headlines. Huge drug profits lubricated the Colombian economy in the 1980s, allowing cartel bosses to buy politicians, judges, banks and large tracts of land. Soon these violent neo-capitalists became the protected neighbours and political allies of Colombia's traditional elites in the fight against peaceful political reform and social justice.

When the US government forced Colombian politicians to confront the cartels, the narcos unleashed a 'total war' against extradition plans and threatened to kill 10 judges for every drug trafficker extradited in 1989. Members of the judiciary were offered plomo o plata – lead or silver. Many took the money. Others resigned en masse, went on strike or were assassinated. “Nowhere in the world do judges and lawyers work at such risk,” said the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists.

In the long run, narco pressure on bent politicians ensured that in 1991 extradition was declared unconstitutional. And although the entire Cali Cartel leadership was recently captured, years of corrupting the judicial system and secret negotiations with the government have led many, including Perez, to predict Colombia's suited narco-terrorists will be treated leniently.

Cali Cartel boss of bosses Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, el ajedrecista, the chess player, is 57. He faces a maximum sentence of 24 years but is more likely to serve fewer than 10 with mitigation and a law preventing any prisoner over 65 from serving time. The Cali and Medellin Cartel bosses, says Perez, will leave prison with their money and business washed for their Harvard-educated children to inherit.

Local politicians and Western governments and companies are quite happy to allow the war on drugs to obscure the much longer and more bloody guerra sucia, or dirty war, against Colombia's unarmed popular movement. For years unionists, teachers, doctors and lawyers like Perez have been the victims of a reactionary alliance between the Colombian armed forces and paramilitaries representing the 'anti-Communist' interests of business elites and drug-traffickers.

Political violence in Colombia makes The Troubles in Northern Ireland seem like a pub brawl. Colombia has the highest violent death rate in the world, said Carlos Mejia of the Andean Commission of Jurists in a recent interview.

“Each day 10 people die for political reasons. Five of these are political activists, unionists or peasants and three the victims of guerrilla activity,” he said. “In 1994 there were over 1,200 kidnappings. A disappearance is registered every three days and a case of torture every two. Last year 35 per cent of political assassinations were carried out by the guerrillas. The rest were committed by the state and paramilitary groups.”

Perez refutes government claims that abuses by the military are isolated cases. They are “systematic” and on the increase, he says, a view shared by Amnesty International.

The UN Human Rights Commission has agreed to send rapporteurs to Colombia. But violations will continue, warns Perez, until the investigation and trial of military officers and their paramilitary agents are brought within the jurisdiction of civilian courts.

The root of the problem is the fuero militar, a constitutional device which means Colombian soldiers can only be tried by a military court.

“The military try their own members for any crime from rape and all sexual offences to human rights violations. The result is complete impunity,” says Perez. “Even those who have been discharged are not punished for the actual crime, because under the military penal code these crimes were committed during active service and are therefore immune from prosecution.”

In 1991, the Colombian government reformed the constitution after public demands for greater democracy. The judicial system was re-modelled along US lines with the introduction of public prosecutors and defenders. But the fuero militar remained and was widened to include the police, who now function under military command and justice.

Recently, the government human rights prosecutor Dr Fernando Valencia Villa discharged a senior military commander for his role in the torture and disappearance of several M19 guerrillas. However, the president decorated the officer, while Dr Villa, after anonymous death threats, had to seek asylum in Spain.

The 1991 constitutional reform was also instrumental in turning ad hoc anti-terrorist legislation passed during one of the many states of emergency into permanent law. The most disturbing examples of this were the craftily titled Statute for the Defence of Democracy and the institutionalisation of the Regional Justice system.

The statute was introduced under a 1988 state of emergency and used an ambiguous, catch-all definition of “terrorist” and “incitement” to allow state security forces to arrest and imprison those seen as suspicious without a judge's order.

But it was the introduction of Regional Justice which constitutes the true assault on the due process of law. Special courts were set up throughout Colombia to exclusively try drug traffickers and so-called 'subversives'.

Judges sit behind a one-way mirror and talk through voice distorters to special prosecutors whose identity is also secret. Supporters say this is necessary to avoid reprisals, but critics, like Perez, argue the system of justicia secreta, as it is known locally, is simply another instrument of the dirty war against the popular movement.

Why else, he asks, can the prosecution rely solely on affidavits from witnesses whose identity they do not have to reveal? Why is there no presumption of innocence, no bail and no prospect of a fine in place of a custodial sentence?

Recent events in Colombia make Perez fear a further assault on the legal rights of those accused of political crimes and an increase in unpunished human rights abuses.

President Ernesto Samper is currently being investigated by a Congressional Committee after allegations that millions of narcodollars from the Cali Cartel financed last year's election campaign. He is still in power, thanks to a bi-partisan pact and US government support.

Last August Samper declared a state of emergency. Citing “national security” reasons, the military budget has been increased, human rights promises ejected and peace negotiations with the guerrillas rejected – the price exacted by the far right, say observers, for keeping him in power. Shopkeepers who unwittingly sell goods to a guerrilla, doctors who treat a wounded insurgent and human rights lawyers who defend political prisoners are now liable to arrest and imprisonment. Furthermore, Amnesty is concerned about the government's obstruction of a draft law to exclude 'disappearances' from military jurisdiction.

In addition, despite government rhetoric that paramilitary groups will be pursued and punished, plans were recently announced to organise 500 Rural Defence Groups by the end of 1995. The civilian opposition see this as an attempt to legitimise underground paramilitary groups and harness their terror tactics to the army's counter-insurgency war.

If the government is serious about cracking down on paramilitary death squads, asks Perez, why does Colombia's most notorious paramilitary chief continue to live and work freely in Northern Colombia?

The answer, says local human rights organisation Justicia y Paz (Justice and Peace), is the judiciary, which represents “the spinal cord in the protective wall around the paramilitaries”.

As Perez tries to rebuild his life in exile, Latin America's oldest democracy prepares for another bloody week.