On September 7,2010, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Latin America Working Group (LAWG) and the US Office on Colombia sent a letter to President Santos of Colombia expressing their concern over the dismissal of prosecutor Angela María Buitrago who had been leading an investigation on the Palace of Justice case. This raises fundamental questions regarding Colombia’s willingness to prosecute the gravest human rights violations.
Washington, D.C., September 7, 2010
Juan Manuel Santos
President of Colombia
Esteemed President Santos,
We write to express our concern regarding recent developments in the Palace of Justice case. In particular, the decision to dismiss prosecutor Angela María Buitrago, who had vigorously led the Palace of Justice investigation for the past several years, raises fundamental questions regarding Colombia’s willingness to prosecute even the gravest violations of human rights.
As you know, the Truth Commission for the Palace of Justice Events created by the Colombian Supreme Court has established that following the military’s recovery of the Palace of Justice from the M-19 guerrillas in November 1985, members of the armed forces killed and forcibly disappeared at least a dozen innocent victims. These crimes, which had gone largely unexamined for two decades, were seriously investigated for the first time beginning in 2005, when Buitrago was named as Prosecutor for the case. Despite significant obstacles, remarkable progress has been achieved. Several formal high-ranking military officers are currently under investigation or on trial, and earlier this year the first criminal conviction in the case was handed down against retired Coronel Alfonso Plazas Vega.
These promising developments are a testament to the courage and professionalism of federal prosecutor Buitrago, Judge Maria Stella Jara, and the victims’ representatives in the local criminal investigation, who have persisted with the case in the face of constant threats and intimidation. The conviction of Plazas Vega in particular was a significant milestone. Indeed, many in Colombia and the international community—including UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay—expressed hope that Colombia was finally making progress in tackling the impunity that has historically characterized human rights violations committed by the military.
Unfortunately, recent events in the Palace of Justice case lead us to fear that Colombia still lacks the political and institutional fortitude to confront criminality at the highest levels. Shortly after convicting Coronel Plazas Vega of murder, Judge Stella Jara was forced to flee Colombia for her own safety, despite the fact that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had ordered the government to protect her. And last week, acting Prosecutor General Guillermo Mendoza Diago dismissed Angela María Buitrago, just days after she ordered that three former Colombian generals be investigated in connection with the extrajudicial execution of Magistrate Carlos Horacio Urán.
Ms. Buitrago has played a fundamental role in clarifying the military’s actions following the recovery of the Palace of Justice. Magistrate Uran’s murder is a case in point. Irrefutable evidence now proves that he survived the Palace of Justice siege only to be subsequently tortured and executed by the Armed Forces, who then returned his body to the Palace of Justice and made it appear as if he had died in the crossfire between the military and the guerrillas. This particularly cynical crime remained hidden from Mr. Uran’s family and the Colombian public for over twenty years, until Ms. Buitrago’s painstaking and intrepid investigatory work unearthed the truth. Colombians will be justified in asking what other aspects of military’s actions and motives in the Palace of Justice tragedy will now go unexamined.
Accordingly, the decision to dismiss Ms. Buitrago is not only a major setback for one of Colombia’s most emblematic human rights cases, it lays bare the unfortunate reality that Colombia’s chief prosecutor appears willing to compromise high-profile investigations and dismiss his most capable personnel. Given the pattern of harassment in this and other cases, we are lead to believe that his decision was the result of outside pressure.
Mr. Mendoza Diago’s actions are more than just a blow to the Palace of Justice case. Ms. Buitrago was also the chief prosecutor on several high-profile and sensitive human rights investigations and trials. These include the trials of former presidential intelligence chief Jorge Noguera, former Medellin chief prosecutor Guillermo Valencia Cossio, and former Senator Ciro Ramírez for conspiring with paramilitary groups. These cases are in an advanced stage, and the chief prosecutor's abrupt removal is a serious setback, that will cause unnecessary delays.
With Mr. Mendoza Diago in charge, prosecutors throughout Colombia could be reluctant to proceed against the powerful and well-connected.
Mr. President, we encourage you to move quickly to replace Mr. Mendoza Diago with a permanent Prosecutor General who will act with the necessary integrity and resolve in continuing the Palace of Justice investigation, ideally by reinstating Ms. Buitrago as the lead prosecutor in this case. We further urge your government to immediately adopt all necessary measures to ensure the physical safety of Ms. Buitrago, and all judges, prosecutors, human rights attorneys and victims’ relatives involved with the case.
The Palace of Justice case has become a litmus test for Colombia’s justice system. A firm and principled response to the recent setbacks in this case will be an important early signal of your government’s commitment to ensure accountability for gross human rights violations. The organizations that we represent and the international community in general, will observe your actions with great interest.
Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)
Latin America Working Group (LAWG)
Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
U.S. Office on Colombia
Vice President of Colombia
María Angela Holguín
Foreign Minister of Colombia
Guillermo Mendoza Diago
Acting Prosecutor General of Colombia
President of the Supreme Court of Colombia
Carolina Barco Isakson
Colombian Ambassador to the United States
P. Michael McKinley
U.S. Ambassador to Colombia
Hillary Rodham Clinton
U.S. Secretary of State
U.S. Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights
Christian Salazar Volkmann
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Representative in Colombia
Gabriela Carina Knaul de Albuquerque e Silva
U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers
U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders
U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions
President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights