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Murder, Threats, Bribery : 'Law of Gun' Endangers Colombian Justice System

February 05, 1989|WILLIAM R. LONG | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — The brutal slaying of two judges and 10 judicial employees by a rural death squad in January jolted Colombians with the frightening realization that their country has become a land where the law of the gun prevails.

Colombian courts are a shambles. Murder, threats, bribery, inefficiency and under-funding have broken down the justice system, virtually giving legal immunity to growing hordes of killers, drug traffickers and other criminals.

Many Colombians fear that as justice fades, a dark night of criminal anarchy is closing in on the nation's democratic institutions.

"The institutions of this country are crumbling so rapidly that we don't even know what is happening," Eduardo Velez, a sociologist who has studied the problems of the justice system, said. "They are killing judges, and no one does anything."

According to figures compiled by the news agency Colprensa, at least 36 judges have been assassinated since the late 1970s, many of them in connection with drug cases.

The number does not include 11 Supreme Court justices who were killed in an eruption of violence in November, 1985, when guerrillas invaded the court's Bogota headquarters. Many officials believe that the so-called Medellin cartel of cocaine traffickers financed the invasion by a leftist guerrilla group known as M-19.

Another Supreme Court justice died of a heart attack at home after the attack, and yet another was assassinated by paid gunmen in 1986. Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara was assassinated in 1984. Numerous investigators and other judicial officials also have been killed.

In the latest major attack on the justice system, the victims were members of a special judicial commission working near the city of Barrancabermeja, 160 miles north of Bogota.

The commission, traveling in two utility vehicles, was conducting a field investigation of 22 killings and 17 disappearances blamed on "paramilitary groups," death squads whose sponsors are believed to include ranchers, drug lords and military officers acting unofficially.

Such groups have proliferated in the vacuum left by the collapsing justice system. Depending on who sponsors them, they kill suspected leftist guerrillas, politicians, union members, common criminals and others.

A squad of about 40 armed men, claiming to be guerrillas, intercepted the judicial commission Jan. 18 near the village of La Rochela. The armed men were friendly at first, offering to help the commission in its investigation. They persuaded judicial police agents on the commission to put aside their weapons. The two groups had lunch together in La Rochela.

But after lunch, all 15 commission members were put into their vehicles, with their hands tied, and then the gunmen opened fire on the vehicles with automatic rifles.

Two judges, two clerks, six judicial police agents and two drivers were killed. Some who were only wounded in the initial barrage were finished off with shots fired from point-blank range. Three wounded agents survived by playing dead.

The massacre first was reported as a guerrilla attack, but testimony from the survivors and other evidence soon made it clear that it was the work of a death squad. Beyond that, evidence was scarce. Frightened peasants in the area said they had seen nothing.

Message to Lay Off

Carlos Eduardo Lozano, the Justice Ministry official in charge of criminal investigation, said the killers were sending a clear message to the authorities, "for us not to investigate crimes that they don't want investigated."

After the massacre, other judges in the Barrancabermeja region requested permission to leave. Lozano said he persuaded them to stay on until they could be transferred and replaced.

"The hard part is to replace them," he said.

Alfredo Vazquez, president of Colombia's Permanent Commission on Human Rights, said the January massacre was an "extraordinarily grave" blow to an already paralyzed justice system.

Increasingly, Vazquez said, killers act with impunity. He said that more than 1,000 members and sympathizers of the Marxist-led Patriotic Union party have been killed, but none of the killers have been convicted.

"The impunity in Colombia is terrifying," Vazquez said. "We are faced with an abysmal phenomenon of collective insecurity."

In the justice system, the lack of security often makes judges reluctant to judge and witnesses unwilling to testify. The Omnibus Drug Bill recently approved by the U.S. Congress provides $5 million for judicial protection in Colombia. But no one believes that $5 million will be enough to ensure the safety of judges, court officials and witnesses.

Judicial Shortcomings

And while protection is an urgent need, analysts agree that rehabilitation of the justice system will require a series of other remedies.

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