Lawyers in Colombia still face danger from the army each day but ‘misinformation’ leaks out.
He is dressed like an SAS trooper: black uniform, bulletproof vest, ankle-high jump boots, and he is posted outside the restaurant in Bucaramanga, Colombia, where we plan to eat. ‘What’s happened?’ I whisper to my Colombian host, human rights lawyer Rommel Duran Castellanos. ‘Nothing,’ he replies, unconcerned. ‘He’s just the restaurant doorman.’
The incident typifies the atmosphere of muted threat that characterises my 2012 visit to Colombia. I am a member of the Colombia Caravana, an international delegation of lawyers and, that year, at least, one journalist. We are there to find out more about the persecution of lawyers in that country – the threats, murders, assaults, disappearances, trumped-up charges, phone tapping and imprisonments.
I interview – and write about – people who have lost family members. One woman I speak to has moved to Venezuela to escape the men who killed her daughter first, then her two sons and finally her husband. Others have lost their land, often to household name multinationals.
I escape the country unscathed, albeit humbled, and return to life as a Chancery Lane-based hack.
Almost 18 months later, I find myself meeting my lawyer host again. Duran is in London to deliver a speech on 24 January, the Day of the Endangered Lawyer.
He greets me with the warmth that I have come to associate with Latin Americans, which is to say a broad smile, an enthusiastic embrace and my name shouted to the rafters. He looks good for a man who is in London for ‘respite’, having survived a gun attack by paramilitaries a month ago.
Duran speaks to a packed room of 100 or more lawyers and human rights defenders in Garden Room Chambers, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He begins by telling us that a ‘concerted media campaign, orchestrated in Colombia, is giving a distorted picture of what is happening in the country’. Media reports, he says, give the impression that ‘all is OK or improving’ to the extent that some organisations are withdrawing their operations.
The truth is quite the contrary, he says, with ‘state terrorism’ continuing to sponsor the extra-judicial killing and disappearances of lawyers, trade unionists and students.
Mining, which Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos Calderon calls the ‘locomotive of growth’, is another cause of concern, says Duran. Multinational corporations are abusing people’s land rights and causing environmental damage with impunity because of the ‘sensitive interests’ of powerful individuals.
He instances an area of high tropical moorland that is the source of many of the regions rivers and upon which some five million Colombians and Venezuelans depend. ‘The rivers are being polluted by mining operations and hydro-electric schemes, with many people falling ill,’ says Duran. ‘Environmental protesters are accused of being rebel sympathisers.’
Such wholesale criminalisation has led to around 1,000 Colombians a month being imprisoned, with jails holding five times the number of convicts that they were designed to accommodate. This in turn has led to government plans to build five new ‘mega-prisons’ capable of holding 5,000 detainees each. ‘Lawyers are routinely denied access to their imprisoned clients so prisoner numbers will not decrease any time soon,’ says Duran.
He moves on to the rural community of Pitalito in the north-east Cesar region of Colombia. It was here that gunmen opened fire on Duran and his colleagues last month. The lawyers had aroused the gunmen’s enmity, he says, by representing the 24 families who had been forcibly removed from their land, by paramilitaries and the military, in 2010.
A particular individual, who boasts political and military ‘connections’, has profited hugely from the land grab and is not about to give it back.
The families, with the lawyers’ help, returned to their land on 25 May 2013, but were evicted again on 25 October. International protests and lobbying have been ineffective, with the ‘municipality hiding information and providing misinformation’, Duran says.
New laws, which the state claims will bring justice to the vulnerable, have been ‘perverted’ so that they are similarly ineffective, says Duran.
The Land Restitution Law, for example, has led to little change because ‘the army is simply not interested in restoring land to its rightful owners’. The army is the final arbiter of what land should or should not be returned and has argued that certain parcels of land are in ‘conflict zones’.
Duran repudiates this, saying: ‘The only violence we have seen is violence inflicted by the army, which now accuses the community of being guerillas. As the lawyers to the community, we are lawyers to “guerillas” and so become a legitimate target.’
Duran says: ‘All of us run the risk of 40 years in prison just for representing our clients. We need the voices of the international legal community so that we are not victims of trumped-up charges. We need you to collaborate with us so that we can do our job and protect the vulnerable.’
He concludes: ‘We talk of peace, but they shoot at us.’
Jonathan Rayner is Gazette staff writer