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National Agenda : Fear & Loathing in Colombia : Abuse and corruption by the police are now part of the daily violence. Some say reform is impossible.


BOGOTA, Colombia — Sandra Guzman took her 9-year-old daughter with her when she went to a downtown Bogota police station to confront the girl's father, a policeman behind in his child support payments. Not 15 minutes had passed when Guzman noticed that the girl was missing.

A frantic search confirmed Guzman's worst fears: She discovered the girl's raped and strangled body in one of the station's bathrooms.

Months later, Guzman still catches her breath every time she remembers her daughter, who loved to dance and go to kids' parties. And her voice hardens when she says she believes the girl was killed by a policeman, and that the crime is being covered up.

The case and a string of similar incidents have outraged public opinion here and given new impetus to calls for the reform of a police force that critics say is abusive, brutal and corrupt. While overshadowed by flashier news about deadly drug wars among cocaine barons, police brutality and corruption are added elements in the insidious daily violence that claims hundreds of Colombian lives annually.

Human rights groups accuse police agents of carrying out "social cleansing" operations, involving the killings of street children, beggars, prostitutes and homosexuals. They say police regularly shake down drug dealers and thieves.

"Nearly every person detained by the police in this country is subject to some form of mistreatment, ranging from soft blows to the application of electricity," said Eduardo Carreno Wilches, a human rights attorney.

Ordinary Colombians are afraid of their police. "The last person I call if I am attacked or robbed is a policeman," one Bogota resident said.

Colombian President Cesar Gaviria appointed a special commission to look into reforming the police after the murder of the Guzman girl.

But police reform has always proved difficult in this violent nation, home to the world's highest homicide rate and to conditions of extreme danger that have hardened many police agents into viewing the average man on the street as a potentially deadly enemy.

Colombian police do face regular attacks by guerrillas, drug traffickers and common criminals. Nearly 3,000 were killed between 1982 and 1992.

Compounding the situation, police here are part of the Colombian armed forces, and critics say that contributes to a military mentality among them. They act as if they are in a war, dealing out shocking doses of brutality in situations that would be handled routinely by civilian police forces around the world, human rights experts say. Beatings and electrical torture are not uncommon.

Their military status also means that the police are not subject to civilian overview; Colombia's 1991 constitution gives the military the right to investigate and discipline itself. The arrangement makes it difficult to probe abuses and allows officers to act without fear of punishment, critics say. Even honest investigators are thwarted by their duty to obey superior officers, they add. A recent human rights report by Colombia's attorney general says the police account for 58% of complaints registered against security forces, and it is the group within the military most often blamed in cases of beatings and homicides.

Last February, according to local news reports, a police patrol stopped two used clothing dealers in their car, robbed them, killed them and then placed dynamite and a pistol in the car, claiming the pair were drug terrorists on the verge of setting off a car bomb.

Coming amid the all-out war against drug fugitive Pablo Escobar, no questions were asked and the two police agents even received letters of congratulation from their superior officer.

Only later did the truth come out.

Last year, Mazda Motors Vice President Soyoshi Mokuda, a Japanese citizen living in Bogota, was stopped by two policemenat a roadblock and killed when he resisted their attempt to steal his car. A flurry of reform measures proposed at the time did little to prevent subsequent atrocities.

The reform commission appointed by Gaviria proposed more stringent standards of police education and training, appointment of a civilian magistrate empowered to discipline police for human rights abuses, and creation of a civilian commission to take citizens' complaints and channel them to the proper authorities.

The measures were approved this month, but human rights groups nevertheless remained skeptical.

"This is going to end up being a crippled reform which does not touch on the police as a promoter of violence, or on the dirty war waged by the police against people on the street," said Guido Bonilla, a sociologist at the Andean Commission of Jurists.

Nor, he adds, do the new measures do anything to examine the records of officers who may have risen in the ranks despite evidence of human rights abuses.

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