The death threat had been sent by text to the mobile telephone of a lawyer in Colombia. Translated from the Spanish and sanitised for the firewalls, it said: ‘Hi, b*stard dogs. You have already done your bit, now it’s our turn. Get all those b*stards together for your and your buddies' funerals. But calm down - we will send you a nice bunch of flowers.’
The text, sent earlier this month by a member of paramilitary group Los Botalones, used the initials ‘HP’ to signify ‘hijo de puto’, or ‘son of a wh*re’, here translated as ‘b*stard’.
That’s remarkably coy, really, from someone who is threatening to kill you, but then the sender would have known that Colombian lawyers don’t take such threats lightly. Some 400 of them have been murdered since 1991, including five between mid-January and mid-February this year, and today lawyers continue to be threatened, wrongfully detained, assaulted and killed.
The lawyer that received this text, Abelardo Sanchez Serrano, is no stranger to violence. In January this year two men on a motorcycle intercepted him. The passenger threatened him with a pistol and, after (again) telling him he was an HP, gave him 72 hours to get out of town.
His crime? He had been about to help commemorate the notorious La Rochela massacre of January 1989, when a paramilitary group kidnapped a 15-person commission of judicial officials that was investigating atrocities committed in Colombia’s Magdalena Medio region. The paramilitaries killed 12 of the investigators and injured the remaining three.
Despite the threats, Serrano has still not got out of town. That town is Bucaramanga, in the northeast of the country towards the border with Venezuela, and it is where I will be at the end of this month as a member of the Colombia Caravana.
The Colombia Caravana Lawyers Group UK, a registered charity, is a group of international lawyers set up in 2008 to monitor human rights abuses suffered by lawyers in Colombia. This year the group will include judges and lawyers from this country, Ireland, Canada, France, Holland and perhaps elsewhere – people are still signing up. There will also, for the first time, be a journalist: that’s me.
I will be visiting prisons to speak to lawyers who have been jailed for defending their human rights activist clients and interviewing other lawyers, including judges, as well as trade unionists and journalists. I will be in Colombia for a little over a week from 25 August and plan to file news stories and blogs from there – so watch this space.
And before anyone protests that my trip is an extravagant use of the Law Society’s and profession’s money, I am funding the entire trip myself and taking annual leave for the period that I will be gone.
The Caravana visited Colombia in 2008 and 2010 at the invitation of ACADEHUM - the National Colombian Association of Human Rights Lawyers. This year’s mission is to follow up on the recommendations of the previous missions and to monitor cases and issues that were exposed during them. We will publish our findings in London in October.
Jonathan Rayner is a reporter on the Gazette
Follow Jonathan on Twitter