Colombian Judges Gripped by Fear With PM-Colombia
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ When drug traffickers are going to kill a Colombian judge, they send the target a copy of his own obituary, a funeral wreath or a copy of what is known as ″the book of the dead.″
The book, with a prayer inside, is sold in gift shops to relatives who have recently lost a loved one.
When a judge receives it, or a wreath or an obituary, it is considered a kiss of death, two Colombia jurists recently told The Associated Press.
″This year, we have been burying one judge every 15 days,″ judge Antonio Suarez said. He said 220 judges and court employes have been killed since 1980.
Despite the threats, Suarez and judge Helmut Romero say they are going to stick with their jobs because they are proud of their professions.
″We judges are fundamental pillars for constitutional law,″ Suarez said.
An estimated 1,600 of Colombia’s 4,600 judges have received threats, mostly from drug traffickers who have powerful influence in this country, which supplies the United States with most of its cocaine.
″We are frightened. Nobody can deny it. But we have learned to live with it,″ Romero said.
Like judges in other underdeveloped nations, Colombian jurists receive low pay and work in poor conditions. The average salary is $350 a month, and many store court records in bathrooms and kitchens because there is not enough space elsewhere.
In August, the nation’s judges went on strike, but they were not seeking better pay or working conditions. They wanted better protection.
The judges ended the strike when war broke out between government security forces and drug traffickers following the Aug. 18 assassination of Sen. Luis Carlos Galan, a leading presidential candidate.
President Virgilio Barco’s government said it would resume extraditing Colombians to the United States. The traffickers threatened to kill 10 judges for each Colombian extradited.
The extraditions have not begun. The Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on whether to allow them.
More than 500 estates and hundreds of cars, planes and 33 yachts believed to belong to drug traffickers have been confiscated in the past two weeks.
Suarez and Romero believe the crackdown has created more dangers for judges, since the judges must decide if properties remain confiscated and rule on the legality of the government measures.
The latest judge to fall victim to drug traffickers was Carlos Ernesto Valencia. He was investigating the slaying in 1987 of Jaime Pardo Leal, a member of a federal appeals court in Bogota, a former president of the Colombian Justice Officials Association and former presidential candidate for the leftist Patriotic Union party.
Pardo Leal apparently was murdered by a drug traffickers’ death squad.
Because Valencia was handling the case, he was threatened frequently. He moved often to elude his persecutors.
He was assassinated Aug. 17, at the onset of the bloody weekend that led to the current war with drug traffickers.
Looking for help from the United States to protect Colombian judges, Justice Minister Monica de Greiff rushed to Washington in late August. Her $19 million request would cover bulletproof vests, guards and pistol training for the judges.
According to press reports, her trip to Washington was actually prompted by an anonymous phone caller who told her: ″You will be next.″
Judges Suarez and Romero don’t believe personal protection alone will solve the problem.
They said real solutions should come from radical changes in Colombian society.
For judges, they say, living under threats means a disruption of family life.
Judges are known to change their routine, switching routes to the office, shopping in different supermarkets and not leaving home or returning at the same time.
Changing routes to the office isn’t easy because most judges go to work on buses. A salary of $350 a month is not enough to afford a car.