This article is reprinted here because it could not be found on the Associated Press archives website. I own no rights, and once it is published in the AP archives I will link to its new home from the book.
The Associated Press
July 13, 1981
Justice Is Slow In Colombia — Not Enough Judges
BYLINE: By TOM WELLS, Associated Press Writer
Colombia has about 30 million people and only 1,000 judges. Justice, therefore, is slow and it is not uncommon for people to spend years in jail just waiting for a trial.
A case was disclosed two years ago of a man who waited 10 years in jail only to be found innocent in the end.
As of last Jan. 1, about 1.8 million people were in jails waiting to be charged or waiting for trial, the assistant minister of justice, Santiago Diago, was quoted as saying in a locally published interview earlier this year.
The problem of slow justice recently came to the fore in the publication of an open letter from prisoners of a Bogota jail, saying they’d prefer the death sentence to their present condition.
The fact that the country has only 1,000 judges means that each judge has an average of 1,800 cases, making it impossible to deal out “swift and sure justice” as the constitution requires.
Like most Latin American countries, Colombia has a form of Roman law, under which a person who is arrested is presumed guilty until proven innocent — the opposite of English common law followed in the United States and other Western nations.
It is not uncommon for the driver of a car to be jailed arbitrarily if involved in a traffic accident in which someone died. It is of no concern to the police or the system of justice right away that the jailed person may have done nothing wrong.
Under Colombia’s system a judge has up to six months to decide whether someone should be charged or not. Some lawyers say privately and anonymously — they do not want to antagonize judges — that the six months rule is not adhered to.
Once a person is actually charged, he faces a long period, perhaps years, in jail waiting for a trial by a jury of three.
Presently there is no bail in Colombia. This is because judges, lawyers and even defendants understand that once let out on bail the accused would never show up for trial.
Next year, under a new criminal code, judges will be allowed to set bail. But lawyers claim privately that what bail means is that the wealthy or at least those able to afford bail will go free, and that the poor will remain in jail waiting for trials.
The open letter published by Bogota newspapers was signed by more than 100 prisoners in Bogota’s Modelo Prison who said the death sentence would be preferable to indefinite waiting for their cases to come up.
There is no death penalty in Colombia. The Modelo Prison (Spanish for Model Prison) has been described as overcrowded and filthy. Allegations of brutality have been made against some of its security personnel.
“Here in this jail there is the most horrible human degradation,” the prisoners’ letter claimed. “Ninety percent of the people jailed here have not been tried. It would be better to impose the death penalty to end the agony.”
Few Colombian lawyers want to become judges because of low pay — averaging the equivalent of about $500 a month.
So those lawyers taking judgeships are usually those with down-and-out practices, lawyers maintain. Six judges have been murdered by gangsters in the last year, apparently for leaning too hard on Colombia’s illicit sale of marijuana and cocaine to dealers from the United States.
Diago, the assistant minister of justice, was quoted as saying in the interview that there is actually an oversupply of lawyers in Colombia, but that few are to be found in provincial towns where they are badly needed.
Many lawyers hope to rise in politics, and there is not much chance of them doing that away from the big cities.