Colombian lawyers back in schools

Program funded by U.S. provides training on navigating a new justice system to resemble sponsor's

Fellows Spring 2005

By Fernanda Santos

June 03, 2009

BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA – The veteran prosecutor, playing the role of defense attorney, spoke haltingly, measuring each question he asked the man on the witness stand. The rules were clear: He had 15 minutes. Then Enzo Medina stalled, losing precious time as he strained to find the right way to introduce a piece of evidence.

"You have to call it Evidence No. 1 and let the prosecution look at it," Art Wyatt, an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami and legal adviser to the U.S. Justice Department in Colombia, patiently explained, allowing the mock trial to continue.

A lawyer for 15 years, Medina is back in school - along with thousands of other prosecutors, judges, investigators and public defenders - learning the ropes of Colombia's new judicial system under a U.S.-funded training program.

Oral trials used to be a rarity in Colombia, where criminal proceedings were generally handled in writing, leading to a bureaucratic nightmare and, often, corruption. So on Jan. 1, the country began to shift from its written, European-style justice system, modeled after the Napoleonic Code, to an oral and accusatory system much like the one used in U.S. courts, but without juries.

U.S. invests millions

The reform is part of Plan Colombia, the United States' five-year, $3.5-billion international drug-fighting program. An estimated 70 percent of the world's coca is grown in Colombia and most of the cocaine manufactured here is exported to the United States, the world's single largest consumer of the drug.

The United States has invested $35 million in Colombia over five years to train jurists, build courthouses and renovate courtrooms for oral trials. It is expected to spend another $17 million by December 2008, when the accusatory system will be in place throughout the country, according to the Justice Department and U.S. Agency for International Development. So far, it has been implemented in Bogota and five cities in the western part of the country. By January, it will be in effect in Medellin, Cali and seven surrounding cities.

Colombian lawyers, meanwhile, are learning how to go before a judge, present their case, prepare a witness to testify, know which evidence to emphasize and use body language to reinforce a point.

"We still have a lot to learn," Consuelo Herrera, a prosecutor who has worked for Colombia's judicial branch for 25 years, said on the last day of her two-week training program recently. "Until we're experts, though, who is going to suffer? Is society going to suffer? Is impunity going to prevail? And after all that, are people still going to believe in the judicial system?"

More efficient, transparent

Most jurists in Colombia and the United States agree, however, that because oral trials are quicker and public, they can help turn a clogged system into a more efficient, transparent and, therefore, less corruptible machine. In the first three months of this year, 1,764 felony suspects - or 67 percent of those charged - pleaded guilty, according to the Colombian attorney general's office.

A traffic case that used to drag on for three months is now solved within minutes. A murder case verdict used to come, on average, three years after an arrest; now it takes fewer than 18 months. It was not uncommon for piles of documents to be wheeled into court in shopping carts. Now, lawyers use a folder to carry the few written briefings each case requires. And, because plea bargaining did not exist before, suspects often would stay in jail until their cases were adjudicated or the charges dismissed.

"An effective criminal justice system is essential to a stable democracy [and] that alone is of significant interest to the United States," said Paul Vaky, a senior Justice Department official working in Colombia.

A lack of resources, though, and the fact that many of the accused in Colombia belong to the two-thirds of the population that is poor, have legal experts wondering if justice will come for all or only for those who can afford a good lawyer - a debate familiar to those in the U.S. court system.

Earlier this year at the newly refurbished Paloquemao Judicial Complex, public defenders Jorge Sanabria and John Pelayo chatted in the second-floor lobby where lawyers and clients confer before they go to court.

"As public defenders, we're at a disadvantage because we don't have the money to conduct our own investigations and fight the arguments made by the prosecution," said Pelayo, who has represented indigent defendants for five years. "And the people we defend, they can't help us. They're just as broke as we are."

Questions about safety

It is not until the new system moves into guerrilla strongholds in the countryside, though, that it will face its biggest test: Can it guarantee the safety of witnesses, victims, jurists and defendants once they show up in court?

Some 300 judges, investigators and prosecutors were murdered in the 1980s and early 1990s because of their participation in high-profile cases against Colombian drug lords. Many more have been threatened or kidnapped, and some live as refugees in the United States and Canada.

For five years, the U.S. Marshals Service has provided witness protection training to Colombian law-enforcement officials. The training now includes lessons in courtroom security, which Latin America analysts say is key for the new judicial system to be effective.

"You'll be trying some of the most ruthless and scariest drug criminals in the world, or you'll be trying some people who are at the top of the power structure in a very unequal country - people who have been accustomed over generations to being above the law. If you're going to do that, especially considering that most of the witnesses are powerless, middle-class people, courtrooms are going to need a lot of protection," said Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank.

"On its own, just attempting to make the judicial system more efficient and speedy is not going to bring Colombia to a tipping point," Isacson said. "It's not going to solve Colombia's problem with impunity."