The Case of David Ravelo: Justice, Impunity and Peace in Colombia

This report is based on Alberto Senante’s article“Silent repression of justice in Colombia,” which discusses David Ravelo’s situation. Translated, it appears below.

FARC guerrillas and the Colombia government recently arrived at an agreement on ‘Victims,” a crucially important part of peace negotiations in Cuba that are nearly completed. That accord, however, is vague on assurances of relief for two sets of victims, political prisoners and persons targeted by paramilitaries.

David Ravelo’s eventual fate may provide a lead as to how these victims will fare. This defender of human rights and Communist Party leader resisted paramilitary attacks in Barrancabermeja, his native city. And doing so led to Ravelo becoming a political prisoner.

Journalist Horacio Duque’s recent observations provide perspective on Colombia’s paramilitary problem lacking in Albeteo Senante’s article. According to Duque, “President Juan Manuel Santos recently indicated that the December 15 justice for peace agreement with the FARC … provides criteria and principles for judgment and sanctions against persons engaged in violence against the civilian population through financial support of paramilitary groups.”

However, “It’s a matter of powerful business men, land holders, merchants, multi-nationals, bankers, politicians, governors, mayors, senators, who channel monetary amounts in the multi-millions for leveraging and financing ferocious criminal bands responsible for massacres, murders, disappearances and tortures.”

And, “Presently there are more than 13,000 investigations of such deeds in the attorney general’s office and management of them is characterized by the slowness and corruption of officials charged with the investigations.”

Duque regards the case of “the brother of [ex-president] Álvaro Uribe Vélez as “perhaps the most important.” Santiago Uribe Vélez founded and financed the paramilitary group “12 Apostles in … Antioquia Department in the years 1993 and 1994.”

Then too there is the problem of Ravelo’s 18-year prison sentence. If peace comes, will he go free? In an open letter to President Juan Manuel Santos on December 26, prisoner Tulio Murillo Ávila communicated the urgency of humanitarian relief and eventual freedom for almost 10,000 Colombian political prisoners. Continuing prisoner abuse doesn’t square with the agreement on “Victims,” he claims. This captured FARC guerrilla had highlighted overcrowding, medical neglect of prisoners, sanitation problems, and violence against prisoners in previous open letters.

“The reality,” he writes, “is frustrating; you speak of peace and yet torture, hate, and political vengeance are increasing systematically at the hands of those in the government who think they are authorized to continue acting with impunity. The agents and functionaries of INPEC (National Penitentiary and Prison Institute) have been doing so for decades…”

“Mr. President, I very much regret that our denunciations are not taken into account. [We demand] that you order the suspension of the systematic campaign against us … Despite agreements in the peace negotiations, a sector of paramilitary forces is active inside state institutions themselves, [including] INPEC.”

Murillo Ávila described for Santos an incident in which prisoners were taken out of cells, beaten with sticks, and subjected to pepper spray and electric shock. The INPEC director, General Jorge Luis Ramírez Aragón, was simultaneously delivering a Christmas message elsewhere in the prison.

Alberto Senante’s report on David Ravelo follows. The source is: W. T. Whitney Jr. translated.

Silent repression of justice in Colombia, December 25, 2015

The power of Colombia’s judiciary system is used to silence critical voices, according to denunciations from social organizations. It happens without bullets, without blood, without an army, without paramilitaries, and away from media attention and international appeals for peace. The political activist and defender of human rights David Ravelo has spent five years in prison on a murder charge.

Dozens of NGOs think his only crime was to have denounced close relations between former President Álvaro Uribe and paramilitary groups.

“They told you they wanted to kill me before July 20? Good, son, you can be sure I’ll be careful.” (David Ravelo was responding to his son who had telephoned him while he was being interviewed by Peace Brigades International. See the interview, with English subtitles, here. The dramatic video describes Ravalo’s predicament and shows him reassuring his son about the death threat.)

Ravelo couldn’t tell his son about everything he was exposed to while maintaining his political commitment in the Barrancabermeja area, an oil- producing region in Colombia’s interior. His son’s call, received in June 2010, crowned a decade of death threats. Some were credible. Indeed, other “inconvenient” figures had been murdered or “disappeared” during that time.

In 2007, David Ravelo denounced to the media a meeting between then President Uribe and several paramilitary heads. From then on, pressures mounted with increasing intensity. Beginning in 2000, paramilitary forces had taken up positions in the region. Assassinations, disappearances, and threats against political, labor union, and social leaders began.

Ravelo was one of them. At the time he served as secretary general of the CREDHOS human rights organization and was an outstanding member of the “National Movement for Victims of State Crimes” (MOVICE). Family members had to leave, but he chose to stay in the city. After 30 years of working with social organizations and parties of the left, Ravelo knew exactly what to expect.

“A pebble in the shoe of the powerful”

In the video produced by Peace Brigades International, he explained that through his denunciations he had become a “pebble in the shoe of the powerful.” Threatened murder never materialized, but three months later, in September, 2010, Ravelo was arrested.

They accused him of assassinating government official David Núñez in 1991. On the basis of “corrupted evidence,” his defense labeled the process as “judicial fakery.” After spending two years in prison under preventative detention, Ravelo was sentenced to 18 years and three months.

In a joint statement, a dozen international human rights organizations denounced numerous irregularities in the process. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the [judicial] process had to do with the prosecutor of the anti-terrorism unit who accused him. William Pacheco had been fired because he was responsible for the [forced] disappearance of a young man. According to Colombian Law, the incident disqualified him from occupying his position in the Attorney General’s office.

Furthermore, the main witnesses in the case were two demobilized paramilitaries already sentenced who had their sentences reduced in exchange for testimony. One of them, Jaime Melia, would serve eight years instead of 40 years. Since 2010 Ravelo has remained in the La Picota Prison [in Bogota]. His lawyers say the prison experience has been “enriching” for him. Through a popular vote, prisoners have twice chosen Ravelo as their representative on the prison’s Human Rights Committee.

Colombian justice has rejected all possible remedies, leaving Ravelo to serve his 18 year sentence. Attempts to gain familiarity with the Colombian government’s version of this case have been unsuccessful.

One case among thousands of political prisoners

The government systematically rejects the idea that justice in the country has been politicized. Nevertheless, the Solidarity with Colombia Platform [in Spain] cites more than 9,500 political prisoners, of which 98 percent are people associated with labor organizations, human rights groups, small – farmer communities, and student and teacher movements etc.

“They’ve been imprisoned for the crime of rebellion, for ideological reasons,” Leyla Ordóñez, a member of that group, points out. Through criminalization of social protest they’ve incarcerated not only members of the left-leaning political opposition, but they’ve also declared them to be military objectives,” Ordóñez claimed.

Neither the Santos government nor the previous Uribe government has acknowledged that political prisoners exist. Apart from the emblematic case of David Ravelo, the Solidarity Platform identifies other “cases of judicial fakery” like those of labor union leader Huber Ballesteros and university professor Francisco Toloza. The former was arrested during the last national agrarian strike in 2013 and since then has been confined in the national La Picota prison in Bogotá. The latter, a member of the Patriotic March political and social movement, is now free, although his judicial proceedings remain open.

Beyond punishing and silencing prisoners, the government strategy seeks to discredit their demands and organizations they belong to. For the politically more popular figures, threats and killings have given way to arbitrary denunciations. For MOVICE members in Madrid, these developments stem from a “combination of repressive forces.” According to this organization, extra- judicial executions, assassinations, arbitrary arrests, and torture are continuing along with the judicial repression. Lack of international pressure allows them to continue.

“Historically the justice apparatus has been configured as an instrument utilized by the executive power for the sake of guaranteeing that it remain in power,” MOVICE emphasizes. Its members point to other cases of “political persecution in the judicial setting.” One is ex-senator Piedad Cordoba. [Inspector General] Alejandro Ordoñez investigated her [alleged] collaboration with the FARC when she was involved in the liberation of [FARC] hostages. Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro was likewise investigated after dismantling a system of faked contracts for collecting trash.

Conflict over possession of land

Various organizations denounce many of these cases as, essentially, attempts at cover-up of conflict over land. According to data from Amnesty International, six million people have been displaced by force and 20 million acres of land have been acquired illegally. In spite of approval under a Law of Restitution, only one percent of these have been returned.

Restoration of these lands is one of the key points of the evolving peace process and it continues to provoke tension between the old proprietors and the current ones. These last could well opt for justice in the form of silent repression against people making them uncomfortable. How could such a judicial process take place without an international scandal being provoked?

According to MOVICE, the Colombian government operates in a “climate of complicity” with many countries; they hope the peace process may be beneficial for business investments. “Yet they know the truth about the responsibility of the multi-nationals in the grave humanitarian emergency afflicting Colombia through political violence,” MOVICE warns.


La represión silenciosa de la justicia en Colombia

Por Alberto Senante, December 25, 2015

Sin balas. Sin sangre. Sin ejército ni paramilitares. Fuera del foco mediático y de los llamamientos internacionales para la paz. Organizaciones sociales denuncian que el sistema judicial en Colombia sirve para acallar voces críticas con el poder. El activista político y defensor de los derechos humanos, David Ravelo, lleva 5 años en la cárcel condenado por asesinato. Decenas de ONG consideran que su único delito fue denunciar los acuerdos del anterior presidente del Gobierno, Álvaro Uribe, y las fuerzas paramilitares.

“¿Te dijeron que la meta era matarme antes del 20 de julio? Bueno mi hijo, tranquilo que yo tengo cuidado”. David Ravelo no puede decir que no sabía a lo que se exponía por mantener su compromiso politico en la zona de Barrancabermeja, localidad petrolera del interior de Colombia. La llamada de su hijo, recibida en junio de 2010, coronaba una década de amenazas de muerte. Unos avisos creíbles, ya que durante ese tiempo otras figuras “incómodas” eran asesinadas o “desaparecidas”.

Desde 2007, momento en el que David Ravelo denunció en los medios una reunión entre el entonces presidente Uribe con varios mandos paramilitares, las presiones habían aumentada cada vez más su intensidad. A partir del año 2000, las fuerzas paramilitares tomaron posiciones en la región. Comenzaron los asesinatos, las desapariciones y amenazas a líderes políticos, sindicales y sociales.

Ravelo, entonces secretario general de la organización de derechos humanos (CREDHOS), y destacado miembro del Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado (MOVICE), fue uno de ellos. Su familia tuvo que desplazarse, pero él decidió quedarse en la ciudad. Tras 30 años en organizaciones sociales y partidos de izquierda, Ravelo conocía bien a lo que se exponía.

“Una piedra en el zapato del poder”

En un vídeo de Brigadas Internacional de Paz explicaba que sus denuncias le habían convertido en una “piedra en el zapato del poder”. Las amenazas de muerte no se cumplieron. Pero tras tres meses, en septiembre de 2010 Ravelo, fue detenido. Le acusaban del asesinato del funcionario David Núñez, cometido en 1991. La defensa calificó el proceso de “montaje judicial” con “pruebas viciadas”. Pero tras pasar dos años en la cárcel de forma preventiva, el activista político fue condenado a 18 años y tres meses.

Una docena organizaciones internacionales de derechos humanos denunciaron numerosas irregularidades en el proceso en un comunicado. Quizás lo más llamativo del proceso fue que el Fiscal de la Unidad Antiterrorismo que le imputó el delito, William Pacheco, había sido destituido por ser responsable de la desaparición de un joven. Una circunstancia que según la ley colombiana le impediría ocupar el cargo en la Fiscalía General.

Además, los principales testigos del caso fueron dos paramilitares desmovilizados que habían sido condenados y que recibieron una rebaja en su condena por su testimonio. Uno de ellos, Jaime Mejía, la vio reducida de 40 a 8 años. Desde 2010 Ravelo permanece en la cárcel de La Picota. Según cuentan sus abogados, la experiencia de reclusión está siendo “enriquecedora”. En dos ocasiones ha sido elegido, por voto popular entre los reclusos, representante del Comité de Derechos Humanos de la prisión.

La justicia colombiana ha desestimado todos los recursos posibles, por lo que podría llegar a cumplir 18 años de condena. Se ha intentado sin éxito conocer la versión del Gobierno colombiano sobre este caso.

Un caso entre miles de presos políticos

El Gobierno niega sistemáticamente la politización de la justicia en el país. Sin embargo, la Plataforma Solidaridad con Colombia cifra en más de 9.500 los presos políticos, de los cuales el 98% serían personas vinculadas a organizaciones sindicales, defensores de derechos humanos, comunidades campesinas, movimientos estudiantiles y docentes, etc.

“Han sido encarcelados bajo el delito de rebelión por causas ideológicas”, sostiene Leyla Ordóñez, integrante de esta plataforma. “A través de la criminalización de la protesta social no sólo se ha encarcelado a miembros de la oposición política de izquierda, sino que también se les ha declarado objetivo militar”, denuncia Ordóñez.

Ni el Gobierno de Santos, ni el anterior de Uribe han reconocido que pueda haber prisioneros políticos. Aparte del emblemático caso de Ravelo, desde esta plataforma señalan otros “casos de montajes judiciales” como los del dirigente sindical Huber Ballesteros, y el del profesor universitario Francisco Toloza. El primero fue detenido durante el último paro nacional agrario en 2013 y sigue desde entonces recluido en la cárcel de Barrancabermeja. El segundo, miembro del movimiento político y social Marcha Patriótica, se encuentra en libertad, continúa con un juicio abierto.

Además de para castigar y silenciar a los encarcelados, esta estrategia busca el desprestigio de las organizaciones y de las reivindicaciones de los acusados. Las amenazas y los asesinatos habrían dado paso a las denuncias arbitrarias contra las figuras políticamente incómodas de mayor popularidad. Para los miembros de MOVICE en Madrid lo que se produce hoy en día es una “conjugación de formas represivas”. Según esta organización, en paralelo a la represión vía judicial se mantienen las ejecuciones extrajudiciales, asesinatos, detenciones arbitrarias y torturas, ya que no existe una presión internacional para acabar con ellas.

“El aparato de justicia se ha configurado históricamente como un instrumento utilizado por el poder ejecutivo en aras de garantizar su permanencia en el poder”, recalcan desde MOVICE. Sus integrantes apuntan otros casos como de “persecución política en el ámbito judicial” como la exsenadora Piedad Córdoba, a quien se le abrió una investigación por colaboración con las FARC cuando se dedicaba a intermediar para la liberación de secuestrados o las acusaciones contra el entonces alcalde de Bogotá, Gustavo Petro, tras desmantelar un sistema de contrataciones amañadas de recogida de basuras.

El conflicto sobre la posesión de tierras

Distintas organizaciones denuncian que en el fondo de muchos de estos casos se esconde el conflicto sobre la posesión de las tierras. Según datos de Amnistía Internacional, seis millones de personas han sido desplazadas a la fuerza y se habrían adquirido ilegalmente 8 millones de hectáreas. Pese a la aprobación en una Ley de Restitución, sólo se habría devuelto un 1% de éstas.

La devolución de estas tierras es una de las claves del incipiente proceso de paz y sigue provocando tensiones entre los anteriores y los actuales propietarios. Así, éstos últimos podrían optar por la justicia como una forma de represión silenciosa a las figuras que puedan resultarles incómodas. ¿Cómo pueden suceder este tipo de procesos judiciales sin que se produzca un escándalo internacional?

Según MOVICE existe un “clima de complicidad” de muchos países con el gobierno colombiano a la espera de que el proceso de paz sea beneficioso para las inversiones de sus empresas. “Aún está por saberse la verdad acerca de la responsabilidad de las multinacionales en la grave emergencia humanitaria que vive Colombia a causa de la violencia política”, advierten.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.