The Colombian army is forcibly recruiting young men during raids in Medellin, ignoring the country’s Constitutional Court which has deemed the controversial practice illegal.
The forced drafting of Colombians who are unable to show a paper that exempts them from military service was deemed unconstitutional in 2011, but according to Medellin’s ombudsman, locals, Colombia Reports’ own observations, court rulings and the responsible army commander himself, the 4th Recruitment Zone is openly ignoring this ruling and continues to carry out the forbidden raids.
The raids are carried out in crowded public spaces like metro exits where the chances of detaining a person who has failed to comply with his military duty or has failed to obtain an exemption paper are highest.
According to the Medellin Ombudsman’s Office, the Army’s 4th Recruitment Zone has “systematically” ignored the law by conducting these raids in public places.
The raids, informally called “batidas,” were “declared illegal and recognized as acts of arbitrary detention by the Constitutional Court in several judgments, the latest being the C-879 ruling in 2011,” the city ombudsman stated in its report on human rights in Medellin in 2012.
Nevertheless, the army’s Fourth Recruitment Zone has ignored the high court, “frequenting crowded public places like the city center and metro stations, and even in extremely violent areas like the Comuna 13.”
“Despite various calls, and verification and response visits of the Permanent Unit for Human Rights of the Ombudsman’s Office, and the rulings in favor of people who have had the right to due process violated in the process of joining the armed forces, this illegal practice continues to be carried out,” the Ombudsman’s Office said.
According to local newspaper El Colombiano, it has received numerous complaints over recent weeks of raids carried out by recruitment personnel, particularly at the exits of metro stations.
On top of that, Colombia Reports was able to look into three rulings ordering the release of illegally recruited men, after their families filed “tutelas,” or lawsuits against the state, for their loved ones’ illegal detention — one of which occurred during such a raid.
In all cases, the judge ruled the army had acted unlawfully by detaining the recruits. According to Medellin’s Defensoria del Pueblo, a second state institution in charge of monitoring human rights, some 180 tutelas were successfully filed against the state in Medellin last year for the army’s illegal detention of civilians.
According to Colombia’s Constitutional Court, the raids as carried out in Medellin violate the constitutional right to freedom and movement, breach due process of recruitment, and constitute arbitrary detention. According to the court, the army is not allowed to hold raids aimed at identifying or detaining people only on grounds that they are due to serve conscription.
Colombia has compulsory military service for men over 18. Refusing or failing to carry out this duty is a punishable offense unless a person is exempted from service because he is physically or mentally unfit, an only child, the sole provider of a family or still in school.
The problem for many poor Colombians is that they are not able to pay the fee for the exemption paper in a timely manner, despite qualifying for exemption. Legally, those failing to obtain the so-called “libreta militar” are also not complying with the law. According to the court, those failing to obtain the “libreta militar” document are liable to be fined, but may not be detained.
The ombudsman’s offices in the capital Bogota and Colombia’s third-largest city Cali told Colombia Reports they have not received complaints about illegal and forcible recruiting by the army, but in Medellin the local recruitment chief interprets the law differently and raids are carried out publicly. All this in spite of the court ruling, successfully filed legal claims by civilians, media reports and objections from both governmental and non-governmental organizations.
Lieutenant-Colonel Darling Zambrano, commander of the Fourth Zone of Recruitment and responsible for the illegal raids, admitted in a written response that his men are “carrying out the assemblage of citizens who have not complied with the requirements of the recruiting authorities.”
According to Zambrano, the “assemblages” are authorized by Law 48, a recruitment law from 1993 that states in article 14 that “when [a Colombian man] becomes an adult without having fulfilled this obligation [of serving in the military], the authority can compel him to subject to the application of sanctions that are established in this law.”
However, it is exactly this article which was deemed unconstitutional by the high court, which in the same ruling explicitly prohibited the army from carrying out “indiscriminate raids with the aim of identifying reluctant [recruits] and then take them to gathering places.”
Curiously, in its ruling deeming the practice illegal, the Constitutional Court refers to the non-existent article 41 of Law 48, while ruling over article 14. While this apparent clerical error has not been tested by the Constitutional Court, it could provide the army with the legal loophole necessary to defend the highly unpopular practice.
In spite of the tutelas being directed to his office, the related rulings being public and Zambrano admitting to having discussed the raids with Ombudsman personnel earlier this month, the lieutenant-colonel claimed that “up to this date, the Fourth Zone of Recruitment does not know [of] any rulings on tutelas in which the release of a citizen is ordered due to the wrongful proceeding related to the incorporation process.”
According to ombudsman personnel, the lawsuits seen by Colombia Reports are only the tip of the iceberg and the army lost dozens more lawsuits of civilians who were detained and send to army barracks illegally.
- 2012 Report on Human Rights in Medellin (Medellin Ombudsman’s Office)
- Off-the-record conversation with Lieutenant-Colonel Darling Zambrano of the Fourth Recruitment Zone
- Off-the-record converstaion with the 7th Division’s attorney
- Letter from Lieutenant-Colonel Darling Zambrano of the Fourth Recruitment Zone
- Interviews with the Ombudsman’s Offices in Bogota, Medellin and Cali
- Multiple rulings of the Superior Tribunal of Medellin (not published to protect the anonymity of the victims)
- Multiple witness reports (whose names are not published to protect the anonymity of the sources)
- Las batidas del Ejército continúan a pesar del debate sobre su legalidad (El Colombiano)
- Continúan procedimientos irregulares de reclutamiento del Ejercito Nacional (Colombia Informa)
- Siguen las batidas ilegales en Medellín (Grupo Antimilitarista Tortuga)
- Ruling C-879 (Constitutional Court, 2011)
- Law 48 (Colombian Congress, 1993)