Colombia, one of Latin America’s oldest democracies, is an excellent example of a country reclaimed from conflict and disorder by rule of law and criminal justice system reforms. Plagued by 45 years of civil war, notoriously high crime rates, narco-terrorism, and the unraveling of democratic institutions, the Colombian people have fought back, and, through the political and personal courage of former president Alvaro Uribe, restored peace and fostered economic prosperity in the country.
As recent as the early 1990’s, Colombia was on the verge of becoming a failed state due to a weak central government, and its inability to administer security and justice in the city and countryside. Omni-present crime, the violence perpetrated by the cartels, and the human rights violations committed by the paramilitaries and renegade Colombian security forces in the 1980’s and 1990’s were consequences of the absence of the rule of law and compromised judicial institutions.
Weak rule of law and judicial institutions also impacted Colombia’s development; Domestic and foreign businesses withheld investment in the country because criminal and civil justice systems were weak and corrupt. Because it was perceived to be unsafe to do business (or even travel within the country), and there was little confidence in the legal system to restrain or investigate corruption, the legitimate investment went elsewhere.
Rule of law principles, as incorporated into most western democracies, generally dictate that all people are accountable, that government power is subjugated to laws created by the people, and that justice is applied consistently. For these principles to thrive, professional and ethical law enforcement and judicial institutions are required.
Critical to reforming rule of law in Colombia was the decision by president Andres Pastrana to enter into successive foreign aid partnerships with the United States beginning with Plan Colombia in 1998. While initially the majority of aid dollars went to the Colombian military to defeat rebel groups, subsequent aid packages were increasingly dedicated to social programs which emphasized police and justice system reforms.
Colombia’s dramatic turn in the last 15 years from a near-failed state, to a thriving, democratic leader in Latin America is currently the global template for rule of law and justice system development. Alvaro Uribe’s concept of Democratic Security, as provided by the Colombian military and the Colombian National Police, was more complex than simply massing uniformed officers in public areas of both rural and urban towns. Uribe made the police presence in the public square a priority from Amazonas to Guavira during his tenure, and his platform established the minimum degree of order required for justice system reform to take place.
A progressive, professional police and prosecutorial force has gradually evolved in Colombia.
Underlying this modern Colombian justice system are comprehensive technical improvements in police and prosecutorial function, professionalism, and training provided by the United States and funded as foreign aid programs.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has two offices devoted to overseas rule of law development: the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP) and the Office of Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training (OPDAT). These programs have their roots in post-cold war era U.S. government goals of exporting criminal justice techniques and transnational crime control strategies worldwide. The U.S. government re-doubled its global criminal justice reform efforts after global violence and civil wars flourished in the 1990’s. DOJ experts are currently working in more than 35 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The programs receive primary funding from the U.S. Department of State, with additional support from the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Department of Defense, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. ICITAP, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, provides comprehensive law enforcement development expertise in a variety of areas including: transnational crime and terrorism, forensics, Community-based Policing, marine and border security, law enforcement investigations, and corrections. OPDAT focuses on prosecutorial and judicial development.
In his May 18, 2010 statement, Drug Enforcement and the Rule of Law: Mexico and Colombia, before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights and Law, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lanny Breuer provided an overview of the ICITAP and OPDAT programs and their impact in Colombia.
Mr. Breuer reported that ICITAP and OPDAT began their partnership with the Colombian government in the mid-1990’s—— each with a sole DOJ Police Advisor and Prosecutor. Since that time, dozens of ICITAP advisors have followed, and over forty prosecutors have been deployed to Colombia as full-time or temporarily assigned Justice Sector Reform Advisors, or JSRP’s. The U.S advisors work person-to-person with their foreign counterparts, and in the process of advising and mentoring, form long-term relationships that foster cooperation in the fight against transnational crime. Breuer noted that one of the major achievements of the JSRP’s in Colombia has been their success in changing Colombia’s prosecutorial system from a time-consuming, non-transparent, inquisitorial prosecution model based heavily on written statements, to a more streamlined and open adversarial model, based on oral courtroom arguments. DOJ has also provided expertise for the Human Rights Unit of the Colombian Prosecutor General’s Office to investigate and prosecute human rights violations, and to the Prosecutor’s Justice and Peace Unit for the investigation and prosecution of paramilitary members.
The success of Colombia’s rule of law and justice system reforms can ultimately be measured by surveying the public confidence levels in police and judicial agencies, and the reduction in complaints of police abuse, corruption and human rights violations. It is important to measure, over time, the arrest, prosecution, and conviction rates (in addition to crime rates) as indicators of long-term success. Colombia’s justice reforms can also be measured in economic terms. Over the last five years, despite the global economic downturn, Colombia has experienced significant increases in foreign investment and rising levels of domestic and foreign tourism, which reflect positive perceptions of the country’s institutions.
The DOJ programs demonstrate that any attempts at restoring or establishing democracy and development in post-conflict countries must incorporate the principles of rule of law and judicial reform. Rule of law is critical to building public confidence in criminal justice systems and in fostering economic and social development.
Jeffrey Haire is a retired police officer from Torrance, Ca. with a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University.