Amidst civil war and humanitarian disaster - 400,000 Colombians murdered or "disappeared," poverty exceeding 60 percent, and five million people displaced - prisons in Colombia are tools of war. A delegation of U.S., Canadian, and German activists was in Colombia recently in solidarity with political prisoner David Ravelo.
Ravelo, a well-known human rights activist, is the victim of flawed judicial processes. Delegation members seek to publicize Ravelo's case and thereby contribute to an international campaign on his behalf aimed at liberation.
Ravelo was arrested on September 14, 2010 in oil-producing Barrancabermeja, where he heads the CREDHOES human rights organization and the regional section of the MOVICE advocacy group for victims of state crime. The Catholic Diocese there honored him in 2008 for 35 years of human rights work. Ravelo serves on the Colombian Communist Party's Central Committee. Trial proceedings in his case ended in May 2012.
Prison authorities allowed two delegation members to visit Ravelo in Bogota's La Picota prison. Over three hours on November 29, he outlined the government's vendetta against him beginning in the late 1980's when the newly formed Patriotic Union (UP) was winning elections and its candidates and office-holders were being killed. UP member Ravelo served in local governments then.
He recalled a 1993 frame-up putting him in prison for two years. In the late 1990's violent paramilitaries took over in Barrancabermeja and surrounding areas. Murders and disappearances mounted. From then on, Ravelo and family members began facing death threats. He provoked high-level animosity in 2007 by disseminating a video showing ex - President Uribe socializing with Barrancabermeja paramilitaries.
Ravelo indicated two jailed paramilitaries had accused him of helping murder Barrancabermeja mayoral candidate David Nuñez Cala in 1991. One is seeking government favor so as to have his 40-year sentence reduced to eight years under Colombia's Law of Justice and Peace. Ravelo said his judge prevented the testimony of 30 defense witnesses. Her concern, he says, is job security: lacking tenure, she wants her contract renewed.
Lawyer Diego Martinez representing the Permanent Committee on Human Right, the delegation host, attended the prison visit. He broke into Ravelo's narrative to inform him about news just received: he was convicted and likely would receive an 18 year sentence. The prisoner showed no reaction.
Instead he focused on new information. His adversary, prosecutor William Pacheco Granados, turns out to have been removed in 1992 from his post as police lieutenant in Armenia, Quindío. A year earlier he apparently helped engineer the forced disappearance of Guillermo Hurtado Parra. Under Colombian law he is thus disqualified from serving as prosecutor.
Billboards demanding Ravelo's liberation appear at both ends of a Barrancabermeja street. His wife Francia Elena Durán Ortega told the delegation, "He was dedicated to life, was there for everybody." In tears, daughter Leydi Tatiana Rabelo Gutíerrez described him as "a model father... loyal and dedicated to the struggle for human rights. I have never seen him sad."
Son David Ravelo Gutiérrez accompanied the delegation. His father is "a political leader who defended poor people... In 1998-1999 paramilitaries wanted to take over the place. Everyone else was afraid [to show the video] but his father showed it."
David Ravelo's fight for human rights, his taking on paramilitaries, and now his imprisonment play out within a larger context. Struggle against military violence, for example, puts him on the side of agrarian reform, the first agenda item in negotiations in Havana between the government and FARC insurgents.
The delegation's overnight trip by pick-up truck and motorized canoe to the remote Puerto Matilde settlement afforded a look at a cooperative, autonomous, and sustainable farming project aimed at strengthening displaced small farmers' hand against further paramilitary ravages. The Association of Campesinos of the Valley of Rio Cimitarra (ACVC), based in Barrancabermeja, supports them and 35,000 other small farmers. ACVC president Miguel Cifuentes, survivor of assassination attempts, earlier had condemned mining, oil - extraction, and agri-business corporations' attempts to take over their land.
Persecution of activists like David Ravelo coincides with sharpening struggle. Marcha Patriotica is a new resistance movement comprising almost 2000 social and political organizations. Many of its leaders, some of whom gained experience with ACVC, now face violent attacks and judicial frame-ups. Miguel Gonzalez, head of the Colombia Association of Democratic Lawyers, reported to the delegation on the arrests November 21 of eight leftist activists, several associated with Marcha Patriotica. Arraigned November 22 in Manizales, Caldas, they are teachers, social workers, and physicians.
David Ravelo's case epitomizes regime use of prisons as tools for criminalizing peaceful protest. According to Juan Camilo Acevedo of the Communist Party's National Commission on Political Prisoners, not only are they centers of torture, but are also overcrowded, filthy, and often without drinkable water and live-saving medical care. Colombia's prison population has risen 30 percent during President Juan Manuel Santos' tenure. The U.S. government funded and designed many Colombian prisons. There are 10,000 political prisoners.
Ravelo's fight plays out on a world stage. "We recognize deepening social clashes everywhere... [T]he world capitalist crisis has bred widespread discontent and will be worsening. Democratic forces must stand up against interventionists." Communist Party Secretary General Jaime Caycedo Turriago explained also that government insecurity is driving its extreme measures. It must cope with gross inequalities in Colombia while democracy spreads in Latin America. In Havana it must end war but also look like it's advancing democracy and agrarian reform.
Caycedo's message to Ravelo's U.S. supporters was that the US Southern Command directs war on the insurgency and that Colombia's upper classes are allied to the United States. Indeed, U. S. Plan Colombia "changed the logic of the situation," making it "more barbaric," explained lawyer Franklin Castañeda of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE). U.S. largesse extends to both paramilitaries and the Colombian Army, he said.
David Ravelo is optimistic. Speaking to Bucaramanga's Liberal Vanguard newspaper soon after learning about his sentence, Raveleo declared, "I believe there are costs a defender of human rights must pay. I'm not going to be discouraged now...I am going to summon up energy to demonstrate my innocence and show this is all a montage."
To join the campaign to free David Ravelo contact organizers of the delegation at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.justiceforcolombia.org. For more information about Ravelo's case, go to www.pacocol.org and/or www.davidravelolibre.org. For information on Colombian political prisoners, see www.afgj.org, www.traspasolosmuro.net, and/or www.inspp.org.