(AA) 'Living' and.... '(1/2)

esperanto (lingvoj@lds.co.uk)
Tue, 29 Oct 1996 21:33:23 +0100

Reproduction of articles:

Permission is hereby granted, provided Justicia y Paz is cited as follows:
Reproduced from Justicia y Paz, A Magazine of Human Rights for Colombia,
published by CSN, P.O. Box 1505, Madison, Wl 53701 USA.

Subscriptions: 4 issues: US$25 for individuals and non-profits, US$50 for
institutions, US$12.50 for studen/low income. For outside U.S. and Canada,
add US$10


Social and Human

Colombia is a country with -absolutely staggering indices of
criminality and political violence. The 31,000 murders in
Colombia in 1995 translate into a per capita murder rate of 85 per
100,000, the highest in the world for any country not at war and
almost four times that of second place Brazil. Political violence
claimed almost 3,000 victims which is more than the total number
of cases of disappearances and murders (2,666) denounced to the
Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Chile as having taken
place during 17 years of brutal military dictatorship. Sixty five
percent of these (in cases where it was possible to identify an
individual or individuals responsible) were attributable to the
government, either directly (army, police and state security
organisms) or indirectly (paramilitary groups and death squads).

Since 1990, more than 10 people have been killed daily for
political reasons and there are now more than 800,000 people who
have been displaced by political violence in the countryside. Last
year there were 65 massacres (the simultaneous killing of 4 or
more individuals), 122 documented cases of torture, and every
three days a person was "disappeared." Not surprisingly, military spending in
Colombia increased 250% between 1990 and 1993 and today as
a percentage of the country's GDP is, along with Cuba, the
highest in Latin America. Since 1988, the United States has pro
vided over $691 million for various military and "counter
narcotics purposes, 74 percent of which was provided between
1990 and 1993. In spite of, or rather because of, such "law
enforcement" initiatives, the Colombian govemment's own figures
show that 97% of the country's crimes go unsolved and the
perpetrators unpunished.

In August 1994, during the 46th
session of the UN Subcommission on the Prevention of
Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, Colombia was the
second most criticised county in the world after Iran. Unless they
look beyond the headlines and read between the lines in what they
hear about the country, observers outside Colombia run a distinct
risk of not seeing the forest for the trees. No sector escapes the
violence. Between 1990 and 1995, there were more union activists
murdered in Colombia than in any other country in the world.
Since 1992, an annual average of 25 judges and lawyers have
been murdered or the victims or murder attempts. According to
Colombia's national statistics bureau, DANE, there were 2,190
children murdered in 1993, an average of six per day, with the
State directly responsible for a significant percentage of them

Grappling with
Colombian Violence

On an average day, 24 bodies are brought to the Bogota morgue
- lO murder victims, 6 accident fatalities and 8 others of
undetermined violent causes. Last year in Bogota, violence
claimed more than 8,700 victims.

Ask a foreigner what's behind
so much violence and the answer will probably be ''drugs' Ask Dr.
Gloria Suarez the same question, though, and she'll single out
intolerance and impunity. Take the case of 24 year old Bertha
Concha. After finishing Christmas shopping on December 11,
Mrs. Concha and her husband stopped a taxi on a downtown
Bogota street in rush hour. As they loaded their parcels into the
cab, another taxi began honking impatiently. When Mrs. Concha
told him to "hold his horses", the driver responded by getting out
of his car and, in front of a dozen or so witnessesj shooting her
twice in the head. Mrs. Concha died instantly, the killer
drove off and, after a week or so, public outrage gave way to

Dr. Suarez works at the National Institute of
Forensic Medicine, a modern 7 story building just behind the
Bogota morgue. She co-ordinates the National Documentation
Centre on Violence, the country's most comprehensive data and
research centre on violence. The Centre -receives monthly reports
and statistics of violence from 133 checkpoints around the
country. Dr. Suarez - an epidemiologist who helped the Institute's
clinical forensic unit for two years before joining the Centre - and
her staff are involved not only in documenting cases and analysing
t@en@s but in designing strategies to try and halt the violence.
Early last year, she was one of two Colombian doctors invited
to a month long specialisation course in violence prevention at the
Centre for Disease in Atlanta.

She retumed with a
renewed sense of purpose, she says, and today is convinced that
only drastic changes in the laws and the behaviour of Colombians
will have any real effect on the levels of violence. Among her
recommendations are that school curricula include classes
introducing mechanisms to resolve conflicts peacefully and on
the futility of violence; that illegal handguns ~ (there are an
estimated 3-5 million of them in circulation) be controlled; that
the willy-nilly sale of alcohol "on almost every street corner
in the city" be stopped (Dr. Suarez says that between 30% and
40% of the bod ies admitted to the morgue show elevated blood
alcohol levels3 and that campaigns to promote civic solidarity
be initiated in cities throughout the country. The first step,
though, she insists, is an acknowledgement of the real
magnitude of the problem. "There is no question that violence
and the scars it leaves on families and in communities is
the,country's number one problem. We simply cannot deny it
any longer."

Statistics of the social costs of violence in Colombia bear out
Dr. Suarez's analysis. Health Minister Augusto Galan - whose
politician brother was assassinated in 1989 - calls it the country's
"number one public health problem." Bogota's largest hospital,
San Juan de Dios, devotes more than 65% of its already scanty
operating budget to treating victims of violence and trauma. T @ct
year, a study by the Health Ministry found that the total amount
Colombian hospitals spend annually on victims of violence is
enough to provide basic health care to 4 million of the estimated
15 million poor Colombians who have no access to health care.
But the violence is only half the story with nation-wide impunity
at 97%. For the over 3,600 murders last year in the city for
example, Bogota police arrested less than 100 people. Presently,
there are over a million criminal cases bakdogged in the judicial
system. "So much abuse and so very little punishment," says Dr.
Suarez, "results in a feeling of powerlessness and resignation."
"Out there," she continues, motioning to the stteets below her
office, "there's a murder every couple of hours. No one 'sees' or
'hears' anything and the killer is not apprehended. What's worse,
there's simply no deterrent for him not to kill again." In spite of
'the fact that drug related violence has never been responsible for
more than 2% of the country's overall violence, recent attempts to
reform the Judicial system have focussed almost exclusively on
high-profile drug and terrorist crimes, leaving the average
Colombian as vulnerable as ever in the face of violent street crime.
Street crime, muggings, robberies and the like account for over
80% of the country's murders each year. Five years ago, the
Colombian govemment responded to attacks and violence against
lawyers and judges involved in drug cases by setting up a parallel
justice system. In practice, @is "facelessN justice system as it is
known here has been used much more to- crack down on the
country's legal politicsl opposition than to combat the @ug-
traffickers and terrorists it was originally designed for. That fact,
combined with several of the system's most infamous
charactedstics - judges' identities are kept secret, witnesses and
evidence against the accused are reserved and testimony from paid
informants is legally admissible has prompted national and
international legal experts and human rights groups to call for its

So what is being-done and what can be done to curb
the violence? Nationally, the govemment has instituted a program
of paying for T.V. commercials showing photos of "criminalsn and
offering rewards for information leading to their capture. But the
money for information campaign is not without its critics. One of
the most eloquent of them is Jesuit Father Javier Giraldo who
heads the Catholic Church's Justice and Peace human rights
commission. "By replacing ethical motives with economic and
monetary ones, the government has tumed justice
into a commodity which is being bought and sold to the highest
bidder throughout the COUntly@

Qver time, says Father
Giraldo,the system "will have devastating consequences on society's moral
conscience." In Bogota, Mayor Antanas Mockus has prohibited
the sale of alcohol after 1 am. and promoted dozens of battio
security associations. City police have installed a battery of closed
circuit cameras in strategic points throughout the city and
decentralised its 14,000 man police force, dividing it into three
urban "commandos," each responsible for a third of the city. Since
September, the 1,000 strong Bloque de Busqueda, the elite
police unit which- successfully hunted down some of the Cali
cartel kingpins last summer, has, been operating in the city's
southem slums. @

Results, however, have been slow in coming
and so far, as Dr. Suarez is first to admit, authorities have been
more success@ul in analyzing the violence tkan in controlling
it. In Bogota, for example, they know what days of the week time
of day and parts of the city murders are most likely to occur, that
men between 18 and 34 are ten times more likely to be murdered
than anyone else, and that 9 of 10 killers get away. That is
something Dr. Suarez, a doctor who sees more death in one day
than most people see in a lifetime, wants desperately to change.