“They arrested me on June 10th, 2004. I was having a medical examination at some private clinic in Comeo when three men in plain clothes came into the consulting room and dragged me out by force. They were armed. They said I was detained.” This is how Mauricio Avilez, a 26-year-old from
Mauricio was arrested by soldiers. They took him to
During the trial that followed, Mauricio had to face a long list of charges, which included, among other things, rebellion, terrorism, blackmailing, and murder. “Those charges were based on the bombings of two shopping malls in
The case went on for four months, and it finally came to an end only when judicial authorities admitted to having no solid evidence to sustain the accusations.
Uribe’s “democratic security” era
“This government wants to increase the number of detentions,” said David Martinez, the coordinator of the BogotÃ¡-based Observatory of human rights and humanitarian law. In his view, it was President Uribe’s speech to the coffee industry businessmen on December 10th [by the way: the international human rights day], 2003, the one that provided the first glimpse into an era where massive arbitrary arrests would play an important role. It is well worth to recall once again the President’s words: “Last week I’ve said to General Castro Castro [the head of Colombia's police forces] that in this region we cannot continue every Sunday with massive detentions of 40 or 50 people, but of 200 people, if we want to accelerate the imprisonment of terrorists and crack down on those organizations.” This statement was referring to the western part of the Caldas region, but it nevertheless soon became evident that it was adopted as a guiding principle all over the country. According to
Data gathered by the Observatory confirm the advent of a new era. According to these figures, an exceptional increase in arbitrary detentions came into sight immediately after 2002, the presidential election year that brought Ãlvaro Uribe VÃ©lez to power. From August 7th, 2002, to August 6th, 2004, at least 6332 people were detained arbitrarily in
On a chart showing the number of detentions for each single year, the year 2003 -with more than 4000 arrests- dramatically surpasses all others. What caused this record breaking number? “The detention in Arauca, with more than 2000 people closed inside a stadium, took place,” explained
The Pacheco case
An ex-prosecutor from
Yet, as it soon became painfully evident, it was precisely the fact of acting according to law that brought Pacheco unexpected troubles. “After I had released those people, the general public prosecutor began to talk on national media about my immediate removal. And then came the minister of defence Marta Lucia Ramirez, today an elected senator from Uribe’s party U, and said that judicial measures to detain yet again all those released by me had already been taken. That was a clear, inappropriate interference of the executive branch in judicial matters,” observed Pacheco who after those events also started to receive threats from local paramilitary groups. To stay safe, he had to move to BogotÃ¡, where he still lives with his family.
The then general public prosecutor, Luis Camilo Osorio, ordered to his subordinates to investigate Pacheco’s approach to the case which resulted in a charge of neglect of duty. Moreover, as part of the measures taken against him, Pacheco also had to spend some time under house arrest. The litigation went to the Supreme Court where it ended abruptly after the arrival of a new prosecutor. The newcomer realized there was no real evidence against Pacheco so he withdrew the charge and asked for exculpation. This was delivered by the Supreme Court on March 23rd, 2006.
Arbitrary detentions, Colombian-style
The principal allegation used against citizens arrested in massive raids is the collaborators-of-the-guerrilla-movement clichÃ©, although many difficulties arise when this allegation has to be supported by plausible evidence. Numerous irregularities occurring during detention operations as well as subsequent show trials indicate that involved officials operate in an extremely capricious fashion.
“One example of arbitrary detention occurring in the armed conflict is also the detention of the peasant population, of adult men and women, teenage boys and girls, in order to use them as guides of the security forces during military operations,” observed Martinez. Over and over again, army members detain locals who know well the environment where the operation is taking place, and they force them to help orientating the troops. “They can detain him [a local] for two days, which is a clear example of an arbitrary detention since there is no reason to hold him.” It seems that in these cases the act of detention is probably the last thing worrying the guide since the fact that he worked for the army brings forward much more serious concerns. Guerrillas usually interpret such actions as collaboration and target those involved.
“The state has recently made some very negative decisions. It has entangled civilians into war through a program known as civil informers. These informers don’t work for judicial entities but for the armed forces, which means they have a military function,” noted Marco Romero, president of the COHDES human rights group. The introduction of civil informers into army operations is a new phenomenon that also emerged during Uribe’s presidency, and has already brought about some adverse consequences. According to Romero, informers gain a lot of power in their communities since they can use information selectively and sometimes accuse people arbitrarily. As a result, a deep feeling of mistrust permeates the communities: everyone is suspicious, anyone might be a spy.
Many times informers also take part in trials where they testify against the detained. “We noticed a lot of inconsistencies,” said
The Padilla case
When Amaury Padilla returned from lunch on December 26th, 2003, four agents of the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) stopped him in front of the Conventional Centre in
When the case came to court, mysterious informers supposedly possessing a great deal of knowledge about Padilla’s double life begun to pop up. What kind of evidence did they submit? “No evidence,” said Padilla, “everything was based on the arguments of these supposed witnesses who saw me in places that I had never been to.” Padilla’s lawyers successfully impugned all these false statements, but when they disproved one informer a new one quickly appeared. “I started with two witnesses, but ended up with five,” said Padilla.
However, Padilla’s court nightmare came to an end on June 4th, 2004. He was released when the authorities moved the case -at the insistence of a group of NGOs’- from
Unfortunately, Padilla could not continue living in
Because of all these problems Padilla had to leave the country for a year; he moved first to
Since Padilla had an important political function -he worked for Bolivar’s governor, where he, among other things, coordinated the office for national and international cooperation- at the time of the detention, his case needs to be put in a broader political context. When I asked him what had been, by his opinion, the reason that provoked such an evidently unfair campaign against him, he started to talk about what was going on at his working place. “We openly fought against the politics of militarization, the politics of freedoms restrictions, against all politics of power abuse by the army and marines, which were made possible in the region by the national government,” said Padilla. They also opposed the coca-plants fumigation project since it had been destroying not only the illicit crop but also the entire environment and, therefore, peoples’ lives depending on it. All these initiatives were trying to provide a critical view on Uribe’s government policies, which is why, according to Padilla’s supposition, the fake accusations aimed at discrediting him surfaced. Padilla says there are no certainties, just a hypothesis: “I believe that the position of direct antagonism that we adopted triggered the detention.”
“The use of detentions and show trails became extensive in many sectors of the population, but in the last decades these measures were used especially against those who were identified by them [the government] as the so-called internal enemy, i.e. union leaders, leaders of the opposition, human-rights activists, peasant leaders,” said
It is worth mentioning that the link between human rights activists and guerrilla terrorism has been promoted from the very top of
First detained, then murdered
“We had a friend, Alfredo Correa, a professor who worked in Cartagena and who was a man of theory in cultural matters, which means that he was totally incompatible with a pragmatic guerrilla as we have here in Colombia,” told Romero. Professor Correa was detained arbitrarily in 2004 but when it became obvious that accusations against him were unfounded, they released him. “He returned to Barraquilla, the city where he worked, but soon afterwards he got killed,” said Romero. He was supposedly murdered by members of paramilitary groups.
No disciplinary proceedings
“The 95 per cent of people who had to be released prove beyond any doubt that mechanisms used during detentions are clearly arbitrary and of very bad quality,” Romero indicated how high was the percentage point of those who were detained and later set free for lack of evidence. But if so many violations of rules that regulate criminal procedures during and after detentions are committed, do the authorities at least investigate them? “The number of investigated cases is minimal,” responded
“People are afraid. They don’t want to say anything against the state; they don’t want to file demands against the government. This [arbitrary arrests] became almost such an ordinary thing that for human-rights activists is not so bad if they get detained for it is much worse if they get killed,” said Padilla who nevertheless decided to file a demand to clarify his case. He also expects a reimbursement of the financial damage that was caused to him during his long calvary. “More than being repaid, I hope that it will become clear what happened,” he concluded.