'Faceless' Justice in Drug War Faces Scrutiny in Colombia

On Aug. 16, 1989, Superior Court Justice Carlos Valencia Garcia became a murder statistic. Moments after delivering a fiery speech implicating drug trafficker Pablo Escobar in a recent killing, Justice Valencia stepped into Bogot's streets and was gunned down by assassins. In 1989 alone, such incidents took the lives of 48 judges, prosecutors, and lawyers. As a result, Colombia's public servants were desperate for protection.

To shield the judges and attorneys fighting the drug war, the Colombian Congress created "faceless courts." This allowed judges and witnesses to remain unseen by defendants in cases of drug-trafficking, rebellion, and terrorism. While members of Colombia's overworked judiciary stand by the system, human rights groups say that it hurts far more that it helps.

"Critics say we've given the judiciary too much power. But to fight the super- criminals we have in Colombia, we need super-judges," says one such "faceless" prosecutor in Cali. Attention was recently drawn to the Colombian system when an anonymous judge in Cali sentenced the leaders of the Cali cartel, Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, to only 10 and 12 years in prison respectively.

"It wouldn't make sense anywhere else in the world," says Ernesto Carrazco, national director of Colombia's public prosecutors. "But the level of violence in Colombia justified that we make some exceptions." He admits that the system has been overused, but still sees it as necessary. "About 80 percent of the cases that are tried under the system don't merit the use of anonymous judges and witnesses," he says. "But it does at least provide a minimum guarantee of safety for the judges."

Although anonymity may not protect a judge completely, it greatly raises the cost of reaching him, Mr. Carrazco says. But human rights groups say the system denies a fair trial and is often misused.

"It's a matter of common sense. If you don't know who the judge is, how can you know he's impartial?" asks Carlos Rodriguez Mejia, a lawyer with the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a Bogot human rights group.

The law has been terribly abused, especially when the charge is terrorism, Mr. Rodriguez says, adding that many cases of peaceful protest or civil disobedience result in charges of terrorism before anonymous witnesses and judges. Rodriguez also cites international treaties on the right to due process, which he says the "faceless" system violates. Furthermore, he challenges the effectiveness of the law to complete its stated purpose.

"It's a lie. Everyone knows who the judges are," he says. The number of judges murdered peaked during Escobar's terrorist attacks in 1989 and 1990 and fell sharply after the drug lord was killed in 1993, unrelated to the advent of the faceless system, he says.

The recent example of the Cali cartel leaders raises the question of whether one-way mirrors and voice distortion are enough against criminals who have tremendous power and influence. The anonymous judge who sentenced the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers didn't even apply the maximum sentence to two of the biggest criminals in Colombian history. The light sentences have prompted wide speculation that the judge was bought or threatened by the cartel.

Robin Kirk of Washington-based Human Rights Watch/Americas recalls a more tragic failure of the protective measures. In August 1991, anonymous judge No. 103 fled into exile after attempting to investigate the massacre of farmers in the war-torn region of Uraba. But leaving wasn't enough. Her father was murdered after she left the country, as was the judge who succeeded her on the case.

Meanwhile, regular Colombians get a raw deal, Ms. Kirk says. Powerful criminals can circumvent the system, and others use political connections to avoid being judged by a faceless court. But peasants living in guerrilla war zones often find themselves in court, accused of terrorism by witnesses they never see.

The 1991 Constitution provided that faceless courts would be phased out by 1999, but the violence that inspired the system hasn't abated. "The ideal would be to abandon the system, but with the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, and such a weak state, in 1999 we may be in a worse situation," prosecutor Carrazco says.

Proponents and critics of faceless courts agree that the practice will probably be overhauled when a member of Colombia's political class - the same figures who demanded the system - is subjected to a faceless court. That time may be soon with continuing investigations into how Cali cartel money found its way into President Ernesto Samper Pizano's election campaign in 1993 and '94.

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