When Luis Gabriel Caldas was 18, he went to register for Army service just like other young Colombian men. But for Mr. Caldas, the trip was a hazardous mission: He tried to register as a conscientious objector.
"They asked me what I was talking about. They had never heard of it before," Caldas says.
Here in Colombia, where society has been polarized by violence, the concept of being a conscientious objector can be difficult to grasp. Refusal of military service is often seen as direct support of the country's leftist guerrillas, especially in light of the recent escalation in the guerrilla war.
Caldas has run into so much opposition, Colombian human rights activists say, that he has become a fugitive from military court as well as from numerous death threats. He lives in hiding.
Conscientious objection, the refusal of military service based on moral or religious grounds, is guaranteed by Article 18 of Colombia's Constitution. However, the obligation to "serve the country in time of need" is stated just as explicitly. The American Convention on Human Rights, which Colombia has ratified, guarantees freedom of conscience. Men in Colombia are required to spend two years in military service or one year before attending university.
It is difficult to determine how many Colombians escape military service, or how many of them could be classified as objectors. According to the Public Defender's Office, there are three conscientious objectors in prison now. Even for those who evade service, the price is high. Military service provides an all-important military-identification card. Without the card, it is impossible to attend university or be issued a passport or driver's license.
"It is civic death to be without the ID," explains Ricardo Pinzn of the Colombian Collective for Conscientious Objection in Bogot. Those who approach his office for assistance are often opposed to violence because of religious or moral beliefs. Some are former soldiers or gang members. A large number, he says, are opposed to the human rights abuses perpetrated by Colombia's armed forces. Colombia has the highest homicide rate in the world. According to the Public Defender's Office, nearly one-half of the murders are perpetrated by the Army or public-security forces.
Following his registration, the government offered Caldas alternatives to coax him into service. He could work as a prison guard, a policeman, or in the ecological service. But none of these fit his conditions because they were run by the Army. Meanwhile, threats and harassment began toward Caldas and even his mother.
After six months, an ultimatum arrived: serve in the military or serve in prison. On June 14, 1994, never having enlisted or donned a uniform, Caldas went to a military prison for desertion.
After seven months in jail he was released to face the same choice, this time bearing a longer sentence. In light of the threats he received in and out of prison, Caldas fled into hiding, where he remains. But he says he wouldn't alter his decision.
"As young people, we live in a cross-fire. We can either join the Army or their paramilitaries, the police force or their militias, the guerrillas, the narcos [drug traffickers], or a local street gang," Caldas says. "But I insist on an alternative to violence."
Mr. Pinzn says the Caldas case has inspired a great number of Colombians to refuse to serve. And public response has worried the Army as well. In some cases young men who claim conscientious objection are told that they are not needed, sidestepping the issue. The Defense Ministry has refused to comment.
The case has gained some international attention. The Center for Justice and International Law in Washington, other nongovernmental organizations, and the National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objection have filed a case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States. The case is still pending.