Crimebusting for Colombia

April 28, 1995

Colombia will need a collective change in values as well as its current programme of judicial reforms if its endemic violence - with a per capita murder rate almost ten times that of the United States - is to be combatted, a University of London conference was told this week.

Alvaro Tirado Mej!a, professor in the Institute of Political Studies and International Relations at the National University of Colombia and president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, was speaking at the Institute of Latin American Studies conference on The Colombian Process of Reform.

Speaking to an audience including Jose Escobar, general secretary of the National Justice and Law Department, and Belisario Betancur, president from 1982 to 1986, Professor Tirado said judicial reform was essential.

"But this cannot be carried out, even though funds are budgeted and laws are changed, if civil society does not take a decisive role and if society's values are not restructured," he said.

The Colombian state and society had retreated in the face of criminality, he added.

"A state of permissiveness towards crime has been created in the country, a sort of phantom where crime is concerned that has led the state and the civil society to bow its collective head.

"Faced with an onslaught of criminal behaviour, the state and society seem to feel obliged to surrender, to grant political amnesty, not collect taxes and duties, bend the law, accept bribing the police and academic mediocrity and arrange the laws to satisfy the people who break them," Professor Tirado said.

Drugs-related violence has been heavily publicised internationally, but Professor Tirado's paper showed that other longer-standing problems - the rural violence of the 1940s and 1950s, displacing many people to the towns, and long-running guerrilla revolts, were also significant contributors.

"It is becoming more and more difficult to separate political from common violence," he said.

A judicial system that was already slow and inefficient had come under a ferocious attack "perhaps like no other in the world", with numerous assassinations taking place.

Mr Escobar, delivering his paper on behalf of Justice Minister Nestor Martinez, who was unable to attend, told the conference of the government's system of judicial reforms, costing $459 million over the next four years He admitted a current "lack of trust in the legal institutions" and outlined a series of reforms such as a network of peace officers, conciliation and mediation schemes and a greatly extended public defender system.

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