I’ve been back from Colombia for almost two months now, and what stands out most in my mind was the day I spent in Barranquilla, in the northern region of the country. My regional group, comprised of lawyers from the UK, US, Canada and Spain, met with lawyers and victims groups, and I also had the opportunity to tour a prison and speak with political prisoners. These experiences underlined to me the very dire situation facing Colombian lawyers and citizens in general throughout the country.
Hearing from the victims groups was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I fought back tears as, one by one, a room with standing room only told me about the horrible things that had happened to members of their family, many of whom they were not sure were dead or alive. Sons, brothers, husbands – the stories were all so similar – they disappeared one day without a trace, with families left to agonize about their fate, with no grave or site upon which to focus their emotion.
Many of them were victims of the “false positives” phenomenon, in which members of the military were allegedly provided financial incentives for bringing in – dead or alive (but evidently mostly dead) – members of the ELN or the FARC, under former President Uribe’s strategy of cracking down on the guerilla groups. The result, we learned, was that community leaders, vulnerable people and others believed to be associated with one of the two guerilla groups were killed and then presented as guerillas, often being dressed in “guerilla-type” clothing after the fact. This happened in upwards of 2,400 cases of men who were killed, but perhaps the biggest injustice of all was the inability to prosecute those responsible because they had been extradited to the U.S. for reasons that were unclear to us.
I then visited a prison with two other members of my regional group: a law student from Laval University in Québec City, who was also part of the Canadian delegation, and a Spanish criminal defense lawyer. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we were the only three members of the delegation of 56 who would be permitted to tour a prison; based on what we saw and heard, it is not surprising that the permits for others were denied. I couldn’t help but notice that we were admitted into the prison before a small group of what appeared to be other visitors that had been waiting for some time to enter and, who would likely continue to wait if they were admitted at all.
After submitting our passports to the warden, we were led to a dank room where we were able to interview three prisoners who were members of the guerilla group, ELN. We spent about an hour asking them about the prison conditions, which we were not surprised to hear were quite atrocious. While two of the prisoners were measured in their criticisms, speaking only of their inability to access lawyers and doctors, the third prisoner described in detail some of the very disturbing conditions in which the prisoners live. In particular, he told us about the overcrowding of the prison (it held more than double the amount of prisoners it was built for), lack of sanitation (open sewage overflowed when it rained) and the permeation throughout the prison of old alliances between guerilla groups and paramilitaries (although the inmates were primarily the former).
Perhaps the most disturbing information we heard, however, was on our way out of the prison, where we were startled to find an individual peering out at us from what appeared to be an entirely enclosed cell, with only a six-inch space running from floor to ceiling in the concrete wall. He was sitting on a plastic chair, in the light that was cast from the space in the wall and said hello as we walked past. When we asked why he was in this place instead of the cell block, he explained to us that his sentence had been completed four months earlier but that no one had been able to facilitate his exit. In other words, he was simply waiting for someone to open the prison door so that he could leave. He went on to explain to us that it was not unusual for inmates in his position to have to pay the prison administration to look at their files in order to discharge them upon completion of their sentences.
We heard many stories about injustices like this from victims, lawyers and they were even corroborated by some of the officials who were responsible for making change in the area of justice. They were so numerous that it was hard to imagine how anyone could practice law in a country where justice was averted so frequently, in so many areas and at so many different levels. I left with a newfound respect for those who worked within the Colombian legal system to try to make change, even where doing so threatened their lives, as was the case with many of the lawyers we met.