Amicably solving disputes in a rough neighborhood

A US-backed program in Colombia is restoring faith in the legal system and serving as a model for other nations.

This is not the trial of the century. There are no lawyers and no judge, and the setting is a windowless room in the heart of the city's most notorious slum.

But plaintiff and defendant both agree that this cramped office is the best place to work out their differences.

With the help of a mediator, Eulyses, an unemployed car mechanic, and his landlady, Marilyn, are thrashing out the details of a tenancy dispute involving $76 of unpaid rent and a confiscated bicycle.

It may not sound like much, but the debt is worth more than half the minimum monthly wage, and the discussion becomes a heated argument before the two sides finally agree on a timetable for repayment.

"You've decided this together. Now it's up to you to keep your word," says mediator Aracely Olaya, as the two neighbors shake hands.

Eulyses and Marilyn are two of the latest clients of a US-backed project seeking to bring everyday justice to the people of this strife-torn South American nation. Since 1995, when the first two Justice Houses opened here and in Cali, 17 more have sprung up throughout the country, including one which was inaugurated last year by President Clinton.

Perched on a hillside in Bogotá's hardscrabble Ciudad Bolivar barrio, the "Justice House" promotes rapid and peaceful solutions for neighborhood disputes. By doing so, officials say, it's helping to restore faith in both the idea of justice and the state institutions that for many years have been absent from the lives of the country's poorest. The program has been so successful that law-enforcement officials from seven other Latin American countries are interested in launching their own versions of the program.

"If you can guarantee people's access to justice, the you can contribute to bringing peace to any society," says Claudia Perez, who runs the project at the Colombian Justice Ministry.

Gathering various social, legal, and welfare institutions under one roof, the center is a one-stop shop, where locals can find advice, support, and a space to settle their grievances.

Officials at the center say through face-to-face dialogue, thousands of people each year avoid costly and drawn-out lawsuits.

"If they can reach an agreement, we all come out winning. The complainant wins because he gets a rapid solution. The defendant wins because he avoids a lawsuit and possibly a criminal record. And the state saves time and money in the courts," says Gloria Trujillo, the center's in-house family law prosecutor.

Most cases involve tenancy problems, child support payments, domestic violence, small commercial disputes, and minor brawls. At the Ciudad Bolivar center, the largest claim last year was for $350. The smallest was $10.

"We're not talking about humongous multi-billion-dollar Microsoft cases, but the things that affect the lives of everyday citizens," says Ana Klenicki, director of USAID's Democracy and Government Program, which provides funding (up to $75,000 to set up each house) and technical support to the scheme.

According to Ms. Klenicki, the program is a way of broadening access to justice for the poor, who are wary of a legal system that they believe is stacked against them.

"Because the system is unable to respond in an efficient, timely, and fair manner, people don't go to court. Lawyers are not trusted, judges are not trusted, and the system is not trusted," says Klenicki.

And after nearly 40 years of bloody political violence, a widespread atmosphere of lawlessness means that even the smallest disputes can turn ugly: Last month, in the northern city of Barranquilla, two men died in a fight sparked by the theft of a saucepan.

"People in marginal communities were more used to taking justice into their own hands. They resolved their disagreements with the only method they had: violence," says Mrs. Perez.

Few corners of Bogotá are as marginal as Ciudad Bolivar, a sprawling mess of tin-roofed shanties and dreary apartment blocks. More than a million of the capital's poorest inhabitants live here, including many, like Eulyses (none of the center's clients gave their last names), who fled to the city to escape civil-war violence in the provinces.

"There's nothing like this out in my village," he says after the mediation session. "In the country, it's the law of the toughest. If I sue you, you just send your boys round to shut me up."

But attitudes are slowly starting to change, says Isabel Burgos, coordinator of the center's mediation team. "People are learning that they don't have to resort to violence. They see that they can resolve their problems by talking," she says.

"Their problems are listened to, and they realize that one person's word is worth as much as another's," says Consuelo Camacho, the team's psychologist.

In her office, prosecutor Trujillo is helping a divorced couple settle a dispute over maintenance payments for their 6-year-old daughter. "The important thing is to settle on something which is reasonable for both sides," she urges.

After a half-hour discussion, unemployed auto-parts dealer Javier agrees to pay $22 every month to his ex-wife, Andrea, a bingo caller. Later, Andrea admits that before coming to the Justice House, she first reported Javier to the police.

"They said 'If you want him to go to prison we can start a lawsuit' - but I didn't want that either, so I came here instead. It seems fairer to me," she says.

According to the Ministry of Justice, about 85 percent of the cases handled by the Justice Houses are resolved through mediation. So far this year, says Trujillo, who oversees at least 25 cases each morning, only three of them have gone on to the courts.

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