The ‘black hand’ of drug smuggling, violence and political corruption has penetrated every level of Colombian society and now wields greater influence than the state itself, according to one of the country’s leading human rights lawyers.

Edwin Rubio Medina (pictured), president of the Association of Colombian Human Rights Lawyers, told the Gazette: ‘There are 1,047 districts in Colombia. Paramilitary groups in the pay of drug cartels control 300 of these and 216 are in the hands of guerrillas opposed to the government. The same anarchy persists that saw 456 human rights lawyers murdered in the last 15 years.’

He said that, despite the assurances of Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos, the country continues to suffer from the lawlessness that has led to 3,000 extra-judicial executions, and thousands of people being ‘disappeared’ in the past decade.

Rubio said president Santos acknowledges the ‘black hand’ in Colombia of drug traffickers, other criminals and ‘some elements of the political class’.

Rubio said: ‘The black hand… does the dirty work that the state cannot legally do.’ This includes tapping telephones and carrying out the ‘illegal surveillance’ of senior judges, as well as harassing lawyers.

Rubio said the support of the European legal community was ‘invaluable’ in providing protection for lawyers practising in Colombia.