IACHR Ruling on the massacre of La Rochela, Colombia

Translated by Colectivo de Abogados "Jose Alvear Restrepo"

A Just Ruling for Justice

José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers¹ Collective
Corporación Colectivo de Abogados ³José Alvear Restrepo²
June 20, 2007
Bogotá, Colombia

On January 18, 1989, 15 judiciary officials were investigating grave human
rights violations in the department of Santander, including the forced
disappearance of 19 merchants [1]. Suddenly, they were approached by several
dozen armed men who presented themselves as members of the FARC and
proceeded to disarm and hold them for the next two and a half hours. After
their hands were tied behind their backs, they were put in two SUV¹s and
driven to a place called La Rochela. There, one after another and in a state
of utter defenselessness and vulnerability, they were executed in
cold blood.

Three of the officials from the judicial branch survived through sheer luck.
(No State authority came to their rescue.) The murderers proceeded to leave
graffiti on the vehicles to make it appear the guerrilla was responsible for
the massacre. They also plundered more than a dozen files belonging to
the judicial commission.

Later, it was discovered that the material authors of this atrocious crime
were paramilitaries belonging to the group calling itself ³Los Masetos.²
This group was created under the protection of the framework legalizing the
creation of self-defense groups [2] and was sponsored by large
landowners, politicians, and ranchers from the area (along with having the
active participation and close cooperation of the State security forces and
especially the senior military commanders in the area). The material authors
were led by ³El Negro Vladimir², who would later provide key testimony
concerning these criminal acts.

The La Rochela massacre did not happen by mere chance, rather it was
deliberately planned by drug traffickers, paramilitaries, and members of the
public force to ensure impunity for other crimes that had already been
committed in the region. In other words, the commission of this massacre
meant to paralyze the activity of the judicial branch as far as the series
of atrocious acts carried out in the region of the Magdalena Medio as well
as to intimidate judiciary officials in charge of investigating
similar such acts constituting grave violations to human rights.

More then 18 years have passed since these acts took place. Facing the
prevailing and rampant impunity existing in Colombia, the victims of this
massacre and their family members were left with the sole option of taking
the case before international bodies. Recently, on May 11, 2007, the Inter-
American Court of Human Rights issued a ruling of major historical
importance in which the Colombian State was condemned by act and omission
for this reprehensible massacre.

While this case was being processed before the Court, the Colombian State
admitted to its responsibility in the murder of the judiciary officials, yet
also requested the Inter-American Court not to make reference in its ruling
to the context in which the acts occurred. Nonetheless, the Court
correctly decided that the case could not be duly handled by ignoring the
examination of the legal and de facto framework surrounding, facilitating,
and encouraging this massacre.

For instance, the Court determined that the Colombian State pr
ovided the legal support for the creation and promotion of armed groups
through Decree 3398 of 1965, which allowed civilians ­without any State
control or supervision whatsoever- to be given restricted military weapons
in order to carry out activities as military self-defense groups. Moreover,
the Court established that army regulations and combat manuals favored the
development of these groups as well as their integration with the military
forces through such concepts as the use of ³guides² or ³informants²,
joint patrols, and the provision of restricted military weapons. When the La
Rochela massacre was carried out all of these norms were in force.

The IACHR ruling also recognizes that the massacre took place in a context
of violence against public servants belonging to the judicial branch and
were meant to obstruct their work, terrorize them, and thus maintain
impunity in cases of human rights violations, which makes this crime even
more grave, since it concerned an action carried out by the State to
eliminate its own officials from the judicial branch while they were
fulfilling their mission to administer justice.

Moreover, the ruling sustains that the Colombian system of justice was
inoperative and that the case remains ³substantially in impunity², depriving
the victims, their family members, and society from attaining the
clarification of the acts, knowledge of what truly occurred ­the right to
truth- as well as the designation of the corresponding responsibilities by
way of the persecution, arrest, investigation, trial and conviction of the
authors ­the right to justice-.

In this respect, it is revealing that judicial processes have taken more
than 17 years, during which time the generalized systematic patterns of
violence were not identified and followed as a part of an effective
investigation; logical lines of investigation were not followed to determine
the responsibility of the senior military commanders and paramilitary
chiefs; military criminal justice should not have handled the case since it
concerned a grave human rights violation; disciplinary and criminal justice
were ineffective; there was a grave omission in the protection of public
servants, witnesses and family members of the victims as well as obstruction
to justice, among other major transgressions.

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