Sunday, June 4, 2023

Colombia Faces Its Demons: Justice for the Escobar Era

By Robert Valencia

In late May, Colombian TV channel Caracol premiered “Escobar: The Boss of Evil,” a supposedly non-fiction story about drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and his reign of terror in the 1980s and early 90s.

One of the most sensationalist scenes is the gory depiction of the Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla’s assassination in 1984. Despite being one of the most controversial productions to date, more than 62 percent of the national audience saw what the show producers—who happen to be distant relatives of Escobar victims–say is a journalistic rundown of historical events.

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Clearly, the violence of the cartels in the 1970s and 80s still strikes a nerve in Colombia, and as Colombians are reminded of the killings and car bombings ordered by Escobar, the judicial system is taking a crucial look at unresolved crimes committed by the cartels and, allegedly, even by the state itself.

Prosecuting former and present suspects of drug-related crimes is paramount to remind the population and other governmental bodies that Colombia’s judicial system prevails and remains strong, particularly in light of a controversial judicial reform sponsored by several congressmen that threatens to halt more than 1,500 prosecutions and other investigations.

On July 11, 2012, the national general attorney’s office called Miguel Maza Marquez, a retired general and director of the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), to testify in light of the death of Luis Carlos Galán, the then-front runner of the 1990 presidential elections in Colombia. Many analysts believe both the Medellín Cartel and state forces were responsible for Galan’s assassination in Soacha, a town south of Bogotá, in August 1989. Twenty-three years later, the attorney general’s office declared it a crime against humanity, and a judicial process that started in January 2011 against Maza Marquez—who had been charged with protecting Galán—was revived. By prosecuting Maza Marquez, the Colombian judicial system would have a better understanding of the alleged influence of drug cartels into governmental institutions and their implication in crimes against humanity.

The judicial process related to crimes against high-profile politicians and journalists during the Escobar-era has been a letdown. In 2009, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled that Galan’s death was not considered a crime against humanity, thus Maza Marquez received an exemption from prosecution. However, the attorney general’s office assured last month that this is an incorrect interpretation of the law, and it now requires that the retired general be part of the criminal investigation.

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Maza Marquez may be held accountable for the sudden change of Galan’s security chief for Jacobo Torregroza, a former police agent with a long record of dubious conduct. Additionally, on the night of Galan’s death, there were supposedly hitmen within the crowd. Escobar had even managed to infiltrate some onto Galan’s security personnel, according to declarations by Escobar’s imprisoned subordinates who have been cooperating with the Colombian government. Months after the death of Galán, Maza Marquez almost fell victim of Escobar’s wrath when a massive car bomb blew up in front of the DAS building in late 1989, and Torregroza mysteriously disappeared in 1990.

Maza Marquez is just another piece of a puzzle that has yet to be solved. Alberto Santofimio Botero, one of Colombia’s most charismatic politicians in the 1980s, turned himself in to local authorities in 2011 once the Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant against him for his participation in Galan’s assassination. Santofimio was condemned to 24 years in prison after declarations of Escobar’s lead hitman John Jairo Velásquez, who is imprisoned in a maximum security prison, and Escobar’s former mistress Virginia Vallejo, whose testimonies accused Santofimio of persuading Escobar to assasinate Galán.

The Galan case is not the only one that the Colombian judicial system is reexamining. Seven years ago, the same attorney general’s office reopened the case of persons who disappeared during the Justice Palace siege in November 1985 by the guerrilla group M-19. Alfonso Plazas Vega, Colombian armed forces’ retired colonel who was in charge of regaining control over the Palace, was sentenced to 30 years in prison on January 30, 2012, after the Supreme Court of Bogotá found him guilty of the disappearance of “Franco,” a M-19 guerilla member , and a Palace employee. Plazas Vega pleaded innocent and called the decision a bluff because the tribunal is composed of judges who belong to the Polo Democrático, the main opposition party of which a substantial number of its members were once M-19 guerrilleros. It is also believed that Escobar provided guns and $2 million to M-19 in order to take on the palace while burning extradition documents that could be used against drug kingpins incarcerated in U.S. prisons.

This is the first time in Colombian history that public servants and other high-profile figures have been called to account for past crimes, transitioning from a period of amnesty and exemption in which many guerrilla leaders and other criminals were pardoned for their crimes in exchange for cooperation to go after other suspects. As the TV show about Pablo Escobar reminds the Colombian population that a country with a weak judicial system fuels social unrest like in the 1980s, the government should also look into its past in order to strengthen its rule of law above any suspicious interests, while ensuring that unresolved crimes against humanity—both present and past–shall not go unpunished.

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