Justice... Colombian style

Justice...Colombian style.

It was an overcast Sunday, cool, and perfect for a long stroll. I suggested to my girlfriend that we walk over to the Yacht Club in Manga, a well-to-do suburb of Cartagena, to inspect the boats, talk to the sailors, and have a drink at the bar, as we had on many a previous Sunday. We struck out from the clock-tower, past the Convention Centre, and along Calle Arsenal. We walked up over the Puente Roman bridge, and just as we came to the junction of the far side of the bridge and the road, we saw an elderly man, dressed in rags and carrying two bags, running very quickly. He dropped one bag which made a loud shattering noise, crossed the road without looking and was nearly hit by a passing car. Right behind him was a group of fit-looking younger men, who were yelling "Cojelo! Cojelo!"...which means "Catch him!"

He was caught just beside the service station., and thrown to the ground. An angry mob of young men soon surrounded him. He was kicked in the head several times, as one of the men snatched the bag from the thief. The men were wearing sporting attire, and appeared to be a football team. We saw them force the man to retrace his steps, back around the corner. This was the direction we were heading, so we followed at a discreet distance, and saw the man take several more hard punches to the head, delivered by different men. The bag he had dropped contained, of all things, a porcelain hand-basin. My girlfriend said that he had probably stolen it to sell at a compra venta, the 24 hour pawn shops that do business in second hand - and often stolen - goods.

The men passed the entrance to Manga's Cancha de Futbol, a half-size football stadium enclosed by a concrete wall, and shoved the now sobbing and shaking man inside. Whether the thief had stolen the basin from in there or had made the mistake of running past it when a game was in progress, he soon fell victim to the community justice swiftly metted out in Cartagena. A simple shout of "Ladron!" (thief)soon has everyone looking around, and a chase soon initiated. A woman who tended the shop next to the entrance cried out: "Somebody call the police... there is going to be a fight with broken bottles." The metal door to the stadium was shut just as we walked by, and I saw the man kneeling, shoulders hunched and head bowed. A man with a metal bar was walking towards him.

As we continued on down the street, we heard a bottle being broken, and someone screaming "No! No! Por favor, no!"

Colombia has a high crime rate, and its own form of rough and ready justice. Street children are regularly hunted and herded like animals into police vans where they are bussed off to places outside the city limits. Eventually, they drift back. Arrested criminals are photographed and their photos and alleged criminal acts published in the newspaper under the headline succesos "succeses" - long before any trial has taken place. Sometimes they are publicly exhibited in the town square, handcuffed, with the public allowed to harangue and accuse them, the modern equivalent of being put in stocks.

There is an organization known as the mano negra, or '`black hand', which is a kind of community vigilante force. The mere mention of the mano negra strikes fear into the hearts of petty thieves, the homeless and others unpopular with the local populace. In certain locales, posters are put up around town, listing the names of people suspected of being thieves, perpetrators of domestic violence, prostitutes, beggars, gays, HIV-AIDS carriers, drug dealers or drug users. The posters list the names of the unwanted residents, along with their alleged crimes, and give them 48 hours to leave the suburb, or face the consequences. The consequences are frightening. Sometimes the bodies of the unfortunate people who are the target of these allegations are found mutilated and tortured. Masked men will break into a house in the middle of the night and take the accused away in a cars with the license plates removed. Or they wil simply fire guns into the house or toss a fire bomb. Sometimes the accused simply disappear. Whether they were killed or merely fled in fear of their lives, the families left behind will say that they have no idea where they are. This perpetuates the fear that they were killed, true or not. The mano negra sprang up decades ago in Barranquilla, and the authorities turned a blind eye to the use of off-duty policemen to bend the rules a little to control delinquency. The organization grew out of hand and has resisted all efforts to disband, and is now an illegal entity that re-appears from time to time. Other groups in other parts of Colombia go by names such as "Death to Street Children", "Death to Gays", "Death Squad", "Green Commandos" "The Cobras" or "Scorpio". Then there is the 'autodefensas' and right wing paramilitaries, who are responsible for kidnapping and killing anyone deemed as being a guerrilla or left-leaning. Late last year a leading Cartagena union leader and his bodyguard were abducted and executed by unknown assailants. There was a general strike at the oil refinery where he worked and a massive street protest, but few Colombians believe there will be any change in the near future. And the statistics are too depressing to give much hope.

The 'paras' justify their actions by claiming that the people they deem as leftists - which can include union leaders, clergymen, and government officials as well as the guerrilla - are the ones guilty of kidnapping, extorsion,and terrorist acts like blowing up powerlines, and oil pipelines. The autodefensas have been deemed as a terrorist group along with the FARC and the other two smaller guerrilla groups, by the US State Department. The kidnapping is sometimes done by common criminals, who then "sell" the hostages to the guerrillas. It is said that you can get someone assassinated for as little as $50.

The sad truth is that violence breeds violence, and it will be a long time before people bury the hatchet and break the cycle.

. Posted by Glen David Short 23 Feb 2002

To read more about his book "An Odd Odyssey, California to Colombia by bus and boat" click here.

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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short