SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia — A local rancher had tried for weeks to collect a $500 debt owed him for some cattle when the buyer knocked on his door late one night, anxious to pay the money.
Puzzled at the haste after so much delay, the rancher investigated and learned that his foreman had mentioned the debt to the guerrillas who control San Vicente del Caguan and four other jungle counties in this "no-fire" zone in southern Colombia. The rebels had called the debtor down to their headquarters and told him to pay up in two days or face a $500 fine on top of the money he owed.
That's guerrilla justice: quick, crude and effective.
The no-fire zone--an area ceded to rebel control by the government in November as a prelude to peace talks--has provided a window onto the insurgents' idea of how to run a justice system for civilians.
Now the recent announcement by the nation's oldest and largest rebel movement that one of its own field commanders is being held in the no-fire zone and will be tried in the slayings of three Americans has placed a spotlight on the insurgents' equivalent of military courts.
Americans Were Visiting Remote Area
The rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have accused the commander of kidnapping and killing Ingrid Washinawatok, Laheenae Gay and Terence Freitas, who were found slain last month. The Americans had been visiting the U'wa Indians in a remote region of northeastern Colombia. Colombian intelligence alleges that the decision to kill them was made by higher-ranking commanders, and the government has issued an arrest warrant for German Bricenos, whose brother is on the seven-member rebel command council.
Human rights activists, who have criticized the military courts of the Colombian armed forces for failing to thoroughly investigate and punish crimes against civilians, worry that the guerrillas will be just as lax.
How the FARC conducts the commander's trial, as the rebels continue to administer the no-fire zone, is expected to shape the international and domestic perception of an insurgent force that the U.S. government has labeled narco-terrorists.
Clearly, neither Colombian nor American authorities will be satisfied with any FARC trial. U.S. officials have demanded that the rebels turn over the accused.
"So-called revolutionary justice is just terrorist justice," said a U.S. official who, like the rancher and many others interviewed, asked not to be identified.
"The FARC justice system is not credible," said Augusto Ramirez Ocampo, a Colombian diplomat who was an advisor for peace talks in three Central American nations and is now playing a similar role at home. "They are going to have to do better than that."
Still, diplomats and Colombians acknowledged privately that authorities can do little at present to arrest and prosecute a suspect in the slayings, although an elite armed forces unit was sent into the jungle early this month to search for a top commander blamed for the killings.
"The history of the FARC is that they have kidnapped people and managed to murder people with little criminal prosecution," said the U.S. official. But he added: "The U.S. government does not forget these things. Even if it takes years, we still go after people who kidnap, torture and kill Americans."
An Opportunity for Rebels to Shape Their Image
Meanwhile, representatives of the Colombian peace movement predict that attitudes toward the rebels will be shaped by how they proceed.
"This is an opportunity for them to conduct an exercise in justice in front of the whole world," said Camilo Gonzalez Pozo, director of the Institute for the Study of Development and Peace in Bogota. "If they will not turn [the suspect] in, they must have an open process that permits international observers and show their intention of taking responsibility by offering compensation to the families of the victims."
Public trials and compensation are not usually components of FARC justice.
The insurgent group has clearly defined statutes governing all aspects of a rebel's life, said Commander Jairo, the guerrilla representative here. A rebel accused of violating that code is brought up on charges by the FARC high command, he said. Between 50 and 100 members of the accused person's own front, the basic guerrilla unit, will judge him at an assembly.
The most serious crimes--being a traitor or infiltrator--usually bring the death penalty, according to Jairo. "We must eliminate the enemy wherever we find him," he said.
Normally, however, discipline is aimed at educating more than punishing, he said. For example, a person caught with alcohol when or where it has been prohibited by the group will be told to write two pages explaining the problems that drinking causes and will be assigned to clean roads as punishment.