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How Colombia's President Santos made peace with the judiciary

Colombia's legal reforms are key for securing passage of a new US-Colombia free trade agreement. President Juan Manuel Santos is meeting today with President Obama to discuss the issue.

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Mr. Uribe felt the prosecutions were the product of political vendettas, and refused to back down. The scandal was capped by revelations that Uribe’s security services illegally wiretapped some of the justices, with Human Rights Watch accusing the president of taking “steps to undermine the investigations and discredit the Supreme Court justices.”

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Santos has quickly moved to relieve the tension and support the courts, which emerged from the Uribe era emboldened but defensive. He has addressed corruption in the lower courts, formed the judicial reform commission to pursue changes in the judicial structure, and – most critically, some say – taken steps to balance power between the executive and judicial branches and back away from criticism of high-level prosecutions.

Other moves, such as reversing an Uribe-era reform that merged the Justice Department with another ministry in an attempt to save money, have signaled a sharp break with his predecessor.

Santos also successfully filled the post of attorney general after extreme distrust between the Supreme Court and Uribe caused an unprecedented stalemate that left the powerful position vacant for well over a year. The squabble ended when Santos replaced Uribe’s candidates with respected moderates – ending worries of a power grab and allowing prosecutions to move forward again.

The Dec. 1 election of Viviane Morales as the nation’s first female attorney general “was a clear sign that relations between the government and judiciary had improved,” the British Embassy in Bogotá said in its annual report on human rights and democracy, released this week.

Corruption, impunity still rampant

“There is a desire to undertake some serious reforms,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “How long it will take to get to that point from now, that’s what the Colombians want to know.”

Much needs to be done. Impunity is a chronic problem, with 98.5 percent of all extrajudicial killings going unpunished – a situation is exacerbated by perennial cocaine-related drug violence and flare-ups of guerrilla attacks. According to the British Embassy, of more than 3,000 individuals facing charges under the 2005 Justice and Peace Law to demobilize paramilitaries, only two have been convicted.

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