Arbitrary Detentions in Colombia

 “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 Barranquilla who worked at the Cedernos human rights group at the time of the arrest, recalls the first events that led him into serious troubles. “They dragged me out of the consulting room, and there was a car, a Mazda without number plates, waiting for me outside. This set me thinking. If they are in plain clothes and with a Mazda without number plates, then this can’t be a real detention. And when I asked them to show me a warrant, they showed me nothing. After seating me in the car, one of them said to me, ‘Mother fucker, you are a guerrilla. All those of human rights are guerrillas.’”


 Mauricio was arrested by soldiers. They took him to Barranquilla‘s 2nd Brigade barracks where he was thoroughly grilled in “a small, dark room.” They were threatening him, saying things such as “If you don’t talk, you’ll regret it afterwards”. They did not beat him, but for 24 hours he stayed illegally detained in the barracks, until he was -at the insistence of various NGOs informed about the event by Mauricio’s doctor- finally transferred to a proper detention centre.


 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 Barranquilla, presumably carried out by the FARC. They said I had been involved in those attacks, and that I was the third most important man in the FARC unit operating on the coast,” said Mauricio. Furthermore, prosecutors also argued that Mauricio had diligently worked as a recruiting agent for new guerrilla members and as a propagator of radical leftist ideas at the university where he studied. The office where he was working was said to be just an astute cover for FARC’s operations on the coast.


 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 Bogotá-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 Martinez, a new trend gradually developed during Uribe’s term: “In the past, arbitrary detentions were more individual but under this government massive detentions of the population have gained momentum.”


 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 Álvaro Uribe Vélez to power. From August 7th, 2002, to August 6th, 2004, at least 6332 people were detained arbitrarily in Colombia, while in the six years going back from June 2002 to July 1996 only 2896 citizens were held under arrest without any substantial evidence. From these figures it is possible to conclude there is a direct link between Uribe’s political activity, which promotes itself through a program known as “Democratic security”, and the violations of human rights in terms of arbitrary detentions.


 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 Martinez. “They [the police] charged some of them, and held under arrest the others for 12, 14, even 36 hours with the excuse of checking their records.”


The Pacheco case


 An ex-prosecutor from Sincelejo, Orlando Pacheco, still vividly remembers some details of a massive operation in which 156 people were detained, an operation which dramatically changed his life: “The raid took place on August 17th, 2003, and it involved the police, army, marines from Corozal, prosecutors, the whole world… save three or four officials from the public prosecutor’s office. It happened between 3:30 and 5:30 in the morning. They violated the rights of peasants, of the civilian population.” The case was assigned to the then prosecutor Pacheco, and after he realized that all those people had been detained without any acceptable reason, he set them free. “On the basis of a report made by informers it was concluded that they [the police, army…] would find kidnapped persons, explosives, subversive propaganda, and firearms. But none of those raids gave a ‘positive’ result since nothing was found,” Pacheco explained which was just one of the factors that convinced him to release all those taken into custody.


 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 Bogotá, 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 cliché, 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. Martinez gives some examples: “In many cases there is no warrant. In some cases we noticed that they wrote the arrest warrant during the course of the military operation. For example, prosecutors follow the army, identify people and then issue a warrant. Or, as it happened in many cases, a warrant is written after the operation in order to legitimize the activities of the public forces.” Moreover, judicial authorities frequently use information from intelligence service’s reports as evidence on trials, a practice deemed unlawful according to Colombian Criminal Law.


 “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.


 Martinez said that not only civilians work as informers. The majority of them are “reinsertados, people who were actually or presumably members of the irregular armed groups, above all guerrilla groups.” Ex-guerrillas are supposed to possess a great deal of information about their still active colleagues, so the army uses them in massive detention operations. In these operations, informers, usually covered with balaclavas, indicate to soldiers who are the persons that have to be detained.


 Many times informers also take part in trials where they testify against the detained. “We noticed a lot of inconsistencies,” said Martinez. “For example, one person who works for the public forces has testified on a trial in Barranquilla, then in Cali, then in Bogotá, and then in Villavicencio. How can this guy have information about such different guerrilla groups? Are his accusations genuine?”         


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 Cartagena where he worked. The agents showed him an arrest warrant. He was accused of rebellion and collaborating with the FARC guerrilla.    


 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 Cartagena to Bogotá. After getting the case into his hands, the prosecutor in the capital quickly grasped that there is no evidence against Padilla, so he not only asked the Supreme Court for his release but also for his reintegration to his previous job and the restitution of the material damage caused to him because of the illegal detention.        


 Unfortunately, Padilla could not continue living in Cartagena for he started to receive anonymous threats, while on three different occasions unidentified men waited for him in front of his house. According to Padilla, on the last occasion “four men on motorcycles who didn’t show their faces” were waiting for him. Who was responsible for these threats? Who wanted to get rid of him? “I can’t say who it was for I never got to know that,” said Padilla. Only an assumption can be made: “Investigations published in the Semana weekly said that the director of Bolivar’s branch of DAS, who was of course also involved in the trail against me, was the boss of the death squads in the region.” So this is where the menace supposedly came from. 


 Because of all these problems Padilla had to leave the country for a year; he moved first to Uruguay, and then to Chile. Now, he is back in Colombia, working at a Bogotá-based NGO called Minga where he is making an effort to help war-afflicted indigenous tribes in Putumayo. 


Political witch-hunt


 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 Martinez. This trend only intensified under the Uribe administration


 It is worth mentioning that the link between human rights activists and guerrilla terrorism has been promoted from the very top of Colombia‘s currently governing political entity. Once again we should recall the President’s message: “I also observe writers and politicos that finally serve only to terrorism when they cowardly shield themselves behind the flag of human rights. […] Politicos at the service of terrorism who cowardly wave the flag of human rights in order to give back some space to terrorism in Colombia, a space which was previously taken away by the public forces and citizens.”


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.


 Martinez said the number of arbitrary detention cases that ended with an assassination is not negligible. “We have information about 40 cases.” According to him, it is very difficult to prove who is responsible for these acts, but it seems that “the security forces hand over [the victims] to paramilitaries or coordinate these actions together with paramilitaries.”


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 Martinez. It seems that authorities have no time to investigate disregards occurring during arbitrary detentions, or to launch disciplinary proceedings against those who breached the law. And what is the exact number of investigated cases? “I know of three cases,” said Martinez.


 “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.



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