EL COLOMBIANO, February 12, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The Attorney General of Colombia disagrees with treating criminal gangs as if their actions were political. Furthermore, he attacks the bilateral ceasefire head-on because it delays justice and could lead the authorities to committing malfeasance in office.
Attorney General Francisco Barbosa visited Medellín this week and landed hard. He closed the branch office in Tarazá after some men from the Clan del Golfo temporarily kidnapped three of his prosecutors almost right under the noses of the Colombian Army. It looked to him as though the soldiers were carrying out the order not to pursue the gangsters. The event was more scandalous because alias Gonzalito, one of the Clan’s capos was one of them. A month ago, the administration had asked that the warrant for his arrest for extradition be suspended.
Barbosa, who has turned into a kind of counterweight to President Gustavo Petro, calls for respect for the Constitution and Laws every time the administration comes out with a brash proposal. He spoke with EL COLOMBIANO about “total peace”, the bill to amend the Criminal Code, and his meetings with Petro.
Are you definitely closing the branch office in Tarazá?
“It’s closed. The prosecutors aren’t going back there because they are now people that have been identified by that gangster, Gonzalito. They took photos of them, they took photos of their ID’s, they wrote down their names, they profiled them. Because of that, what we’re going to do is transfer the Tarazá work to Medellín. There is already a space ready for them, and they have also received 20 days of disability leave, because of psychological issues.”
How did alias Gonzalito carry out the kidnapping?
“The prosecutors had gone out of Tarazá headed for Medellín and a group of people on motorcycles made them stop, they intimidated them with firearms, they accused them of being extortionists. They informed the gangsters that they were officials, showed them their Attorney General’s Office ID’s, but they made them go back to a rural area near the municipality. They kept them there for a while and then their boss showed up, that Mr. Gonzalito, who was one of the ones whose arrest warrants I refused to suspend.”
Oh, so they saw Gonzalito . . .
“Sure, they recognized him. They had gone before a judge to request the warrant for arrest of this gentleman for aggravated kidnapping.”
And why didn’t they arrest him right then?
“But how were they supposed to arrest somebody that was surrounded by men? Basically, they are the authorities. What would you do? Cry.”
How many were there?
Fifteen men, more or less. First there were eight and then eight more came along with Gonzalito.
Will there be more impunity in Tarazá with the closing of the branch office?
“The government is more than the Attorney General’s Office. If the prosecutors don’t have the cooperation of the Police and the Army . . . The officials in Tarazá said that when they were going back they found some Army check points on the highway and they did nothing whatsoever about what was happening. That means it’s a kind of connivance between those gangsters and the people that were watching the highway, or they were there to keep watch, which for us is very serious, because what we can’t have coming back now is a kind of paramilitary phenomenon in Antioquia. That seems to me to be very serious and taking us back to the worst scenarios of 20 years ago.”
Does that have to do with the sudden decision or with the order that the Director of the National Police gave, interpreting what at the same time President Gustavo Petro had told them, not to stop any criminal from these gangs that are in the “total peace”?
“I think it does. I think the existence of the decree generates ambiguity in the judicial and police functioning in this country, and I’m speaking directly because those decrees have a substantive problem. They don’t have a geographic limit. So, what’s so serious about this issue? There’s a problem with the judicial functioning in the countryside or in those areas, that ends up affecting the country’s prosecution function. For example, we have more than 2,260 arrest warrants for homicides in this country that have not been executed. We have 349 arrest warrants for the murder of social leaders, and nobody is carrying them out.”
But you’re saying that all kinds of criminals are now walking around like they own the place? Nobody arrests them?
“What I’m going to do is go and close branches every month, showing the country how this is working with the arrest warrants and the drug seizures. This week President Gustavo Petro told the Attorney General’s Office that it’s OK with him if we tally the drug seizures, because it’s the authorities that should be doing that, but he says there is some confusion.”
But with what you’re telling us, it’s as if Colombia has turned into a great big Caguán . . .
“I will go as far as to say that there is a situation, people don’t understand the orders that are leading to the reduction of police and prosecution functioning in this country, and that’s why we’re seeing cases like the one in Tarazá.”
The government, the Director of Police, indicated that because of the President’s instruction they wouldn’t be pursuing members of the criminal gangs, that they were would be staying at their checkpoint if . . .
“If that happens, it’s malfeasance. What they have to do here is make arrests and carry out orders. It’s a constitutional and legal obligation. That’s why I said that these decrees generate a situation of uncertainty from the point of view of judicial and police functioning. How did that come to pass? Because this happened just now in Tarazá, where we had to take out a branch of Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office, because there are no guarantees of security in that area, and there are no guarantees because we have a group of military that, according to what they told our prosecutors, they were almost passive in their treatment of a kidnapping by an organization that controls the area, the Clan del Golfo. And there’s an investigation now.”
And if the Army doesn’t arrest them because they’re following instructions from the Defense Minister or the Commander of the Police, could there also be a consequence for those government officials?
“Everything has legal consequences, everything could have a criminal consequence. We are investigating, we will arrive at the ultimate consequences. This is intolerable for the country. A country can’t tolerate that the Attorney General’s Office has to leave a municipality because there are no guarantees of safety for the officials who carry out the administration of justice.”
Getting back to alias Gonzalito, is this part of what you meant when you were in the United States and compared this with Pablo Escobar, criticizing the negotiations by the administration?
“Absolutely. Or this is part of an argument that we are having in the Attorney General’s Office now, but I also said this to the President, and the President told me very directly, ‘Look, we aren’t going to ask for suspension of arrest warrants for the extradition of people in those cases, because that’s not the administration’s objective.’ There was a misunderstanding or a mistake. I think that could be overcome by the President also, and I found a willingness in him to listen. And in that sense, I am not going to get into that matter any deeper, because neither is it an objective to keep on arguing about things where we now have an understanding. I explained to the President that there are also judges responsible for doing that, and he effectively told me that I was completely right about that and that he would put forth a strategy with the law regarding submission to the legal system.”
But it looks as if there are two stories: one from President Gustavo Petro and the other from the High Commissioner . . .
“Yes, but the letters with the names and the decrees came signed by the President.”
It makes me think that you and the President are trying to make peace so as not to disrupt the government any further, but in reality, there are two very different positions . . .
“Yes, but the President, let’s say, I’m not going to talk in terms of giving in or not giving in. The President understood. He understood that we aren’t going to suspend any arrest warrants for persons that are wanted for extradition. And that is a matter that has to be resolved with a statute providing for submission. The next debate in Colombia will be the statute providing for submission.”
President Petro at other times has looked very critically at extradition. Will he really be respectful or fearful of the United States?
“I can’t answer that question, because I don’t know. I can’t interpret your question to the President. What I can say is the President told me, and I believe what he said is very important, that he has no interest, and his administration has no interest, in making political agreements with the narcos in this country. There will certainly be agreements for submission that will have to go to the Congress.
And what is the position of the Attorney General’s Office on the need for a Statute calling for submission?
“I think it would be very good to have the drug traffickers in this country submit to the legal system, if those submissions are based on retributive justice, that means, prison, guarantees of no repetition, the whole truth, and no eligibility for political participation, no guarantees against extradition, and that these individuals have to surrender to the legal system and use their possessions to repay the victims.”
But the possibility of acceptance has already been mentioned. What’s your opinion of that?
“No, I’m not interested in theories of acceptance, absorption, or superacceptance. The only thing I’m interested in is that they submit to the legal system and that’s the position of the Attorney General’s Office. If there is a position different from effective imprisonment, I will oppose it.”
That means more prison than the paramilitaries received under the Peace and Justice law, and the no prison at all that was furnished to the FARC under the Peace Agreement?
“Those are two different things. One thing is a Peace Agreement like the one with the FARC or the one we could have with the ELN, where there are some criteria of peace that I think the Special Jurisdiction for Peace has now made clear, and that’s transitional justice. Submission to the legal system is something else; it’s submission to the ordinary justice system and that has other criteria. The people involved in that have to serve a prison sentence. That’s the only option. Now, if they are looking, or if you are looking for some sectors to dress up as a process of submission with conditions like in the peace process with the guerrillas, I won’t accept any of those alternatives. The only alternative is that that statute for submission contain a prison component. The processes of submission have been created with some standards that have already been defined by the Constitutional Court, by the Supreme Court, in Statute 975 of 2006. I think President Petro agrees with what I am telling you; he told me so.”
Attorney General, but there’s a lot of noise around what’s happening in the prisons. Even Roy Barreras talked about 20 lawyers who are asking for money to appoint “Peace Agents”. What do you know about that? Is that being investigated? Are there complaints?
“There is an investigation that the Attorney General’s Office opened on its own motion, and Juan Fernando, President Petro’s brother, has already given a statement. Several lawyers who apparently are involved in this are going to give statements. The High Commissioner for Peace will have to go and give a statement. With the information they provide, plus what the prosecutors have collected, which is already important, we will build an investigative hypothesis to see exactly what is true and what is not. Meanwhile, the prosecutors are on top of this alleged network of lawyers or of drug traffickers who are supposedly paying for spaces as “Peace Agents” in the “Total Peace”.
Is there any proof of this?
“We are still investigating, and we can’t say if there is proof or not.
Do you think they have any relation to the changes in the Criminal Code and with the proposal for prison releases that they are supposedly promising the narcos, in the sense that they could be released from prison to carry out missions for peace?
“I have no idea. The Peace Commissioner and the President, let’s say, the President told me of his concern about this kind of information. I understand that the High Commissioner for Peace even denounced the fact that those lawyers are getting involved in this. I think the best thing that could happen to the country would be finding out what’s going on behind the scenes. But they also said that they are warning about the concern they have that there are third parties who want to generate this kind of expectation. And as I am not part of the administration, I don’t know what goes on inside the administration, I have no idea, but the only thing I know is that the best setting for the discussion of any issue is the Congress.”
You were just in the United States. Was there any concern in the North American Justice Department about the whole matter of how they are planning for the “total peace”?
“The United States is Colombia’s strategic partner in the war on drugs and in the war on criminality. The United States helped us a great deal to be able to build a justice system in Colombia with Plan Colombia and with Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office. Our prosecutors have been trained by those agencies. We have very important cooperation. Anything that happens in Colombia and that affects that legal cooperation, because I am talking in legal terms, must obviously generate concerns. The concerns started when the data on seizures began to be reduced. What we are doing is continuing to work to overcome that. The President listened to that, and I think there are intentions to deal with that. What I can say now is that the Attorney General’s Office is a voice that is listened to, and that it’s necessary to listen to “total peace”. If the Attorney General’s Office doesn’t listen to “total peace”, that peace will be only partly accomplished.
And have they invited you to these discussions of “total peace”?
“At least there is greater concern about the existence of the Attorney General’s Office. We are no longer a passive actor, because they now know that when we are a passive actor, well, obviously we have to knock the door down and go in, so that they listen to us, because they have to listen to the Attorney General’s Office. Why? Because a submission process, where will that be done? Or where would they have to submit to the legal system? The President told me that it’s the legal system that carries out the submission. Pay attention, it’s not the statute; it’s the Attorney General of Colombia. He told me, ‘You the Attorney General, you and your staff are the ones that will do that. So it’s extremely important that you and your staff are here and listening and being in the debate.’ I told him we agreed with that. I think that where he makes his points very clear is when we have to distinguish between transitional justice for “total peace” and ordinary justice for the others. I think with those two criteria we will be in line with the debate in the Congress.”
What’s the real story about the President offering you the Embassy in France?
“No, the President hasn’t offered me any Embassy, and neither would I accept it. I will stay until February 13, 2024 as the Attorney General of Colombia.”