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Colombia: The Andino Case

The End of The Defence of Human Rights

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

1 May 2020

In June 2017 a bomb exploded in the public toilets of the Andino Shopping Centre in the north of Bogotá, killing three people. The attack was shocking, it brought to mind other moments of violence against civilian buildings. The condemnation was natural and the State took advantage of the revulsion to show "quick and efficient" results. Whilst faced with the horror of the events many people and human rights organisations looked the other way. They accepted the detainees were guilty and as such decided to ignore not only the presumption of innocence but a whole series of violations of due process and threats against the lawyers that some naive types believed were in the past. The process against the accused should be of concern to us all, it contains all those elements that used to anger, worry and dismay international human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and an endless list of Colombian organisations that claim to defend political prisoners and human rights.

The then President, Juan Manuel Santos, declared, just one day after the attack, that "we will not rest till we have captured those behind it, and we will capture them and bring them to justice"(1) and it was not just the usual rhetoric following an attack. Furthermore, he ordered the shopping centre to reopen to the public, a measure that violated and altered the crime scene. They were going to capture people that would be accused of being behind it, preserving the crime scene is only of any importance if one is concerned with capturing the real culprits. This was the least of their concerns, what was important was to arrest someone and Santos offered $100 million pesos (Approximately 35,000 dollars at the time) as a reward for information on the culprits.(2) On June 24th arrests were made of the people who are now detained and included in the criminal trial.

Their arrest was announced in advance. Less than 24 hours after the attack the Colombian daily, El Tiempo, stated the following:

“The first hypothesis that government and intelligent sources are considering is that the attack could be the work of the self-proclaimed People's evolutionary Movement (MRP).

This group has been establishing its presence in Bogotá for a long while through terrorist attacks. In August last year, for example, a number of explosive devices placed in Cafesalud's installations were attributed to it.

The intelligence services are aware of some links between this group and members of the ELN and extremists that operate within public universities.”(3)
It stands out that it took the same time to identify the group behind it and the student links of the culprits, as quick as it took to identify the three dead and eight injured. In effect, all those arrested on June 24th were students of, or recently graduated from, public universities. As usually happens in Colombia, at the press conference all the norms on the presumption of innocence were broken as were those relating to the role of each functionary. At no stage do the words, we believe, we trust, we have reasons to... fall from the lips of the corrupt Chief Prosecutor Martínez, but rather "they are guilty". General Jorge Hernando Nieto from the National Police, a functionary who has no judicial role in the process, declared that "the evidence in the hands of the investigators shows that the four men and four women belong to the self styled People's Revolutionary Movement".(4) From the Mayor's Office, the Secretary for Security also said that "this operational result in a record time is a sign of the joint work of the Police, the Prosecutor's Office and the national and district governments."(5) He doesn't play any judicial role either, though it is not the first time that the Mayor's Office has made such statements on attacks. During the government of Gustavo Petro, his Secretary for Government, Gloria Flórez made similar declarations about a group of students and graduates of public universities arrested in 2015 for a series of attacks in the city of Bogotá. Flórez not only accepted that those hired by the Mayor's Office were insurgent infiltrators, but she declared with great joy that their arrest...

“... is very good news for Bogotá, that it shows the capacity and the operational results, but also the intelligence and judicial investigative work, which gives a report of peace to the city and the country in relation to the coordination between the Mayor's office and national bodies.”(6)

Not only that, but Flórez couldn't contain herself with the press and was effusive in stating that:

“Following the events of last week, we immediately held a Security Council meeting and the next day a National Security Council meeting was held where we agreed to strengthen the intelligence work, placing greater emphasis on the more probable hypotheses that the events are linked to the National Liberation Army [ELN], and precise instructions were given for immediate operations to be carried out by the Metropolitan Police and the Chief Prosecutor's Office which have led to these arrests...

The citizens should view these as a timely and immediate response from the state bodies that are working together in a coordinated fashion to protect the security of the citizens. These 14 arrests were carried out in various boroughs of the city leading to the capture of people linked to the National University, the Pedagogical University and three linked to the Mayor's Office.”(7)

It is worth recalling that she tried to partially take back her statements a few days later and the general in charge of the operation, Guatibonza was later arrested and accused of

“... aggravated conspiracy to commit crime, illicit use of telecommunications networks, aggravated abusive access to a computer system, aggravated interception of computer data, aggravated use of malicious software and aggravated violation of personal data privacy...”(8)

Such was the class of person that Flórez worked with! That being said, the point is to show that the irregularities in the Andino case are not a problem that arises with particular functionaries, but they are structural, institutional and political. What can be seen in this case has been seen in many others. It is not new! What is new is the silence of human rights organisations and the legal left regarding the case. The Colombian Prosecutor's Office is a highly politicised institution where appearances are more important than reality, it is more important to appear efficient than to have attained real results. A recent article in El Tiempo showed that the Prosecutor's Office loses six out ten cases it goes forward with.

“... the majority of cases end up in the freezer, with 74.2% of cases being archived. Furthermore, of the 18.467 cases that reached trial, 57% resulted in an acquittal, i.e. the prosecutors lost 6 out of 10 cases (bold in original) Only in 43% of the cases was there a conviction, of which almost half (48%) were reached through plea bargaining or agreements.”(9)

It is a poor result for the Prosecutor's Office, it shows a lack of training on the part of the functionaries, they are inept and incompetent, dedicated not to finding the culprits but rather to meeting targets regardless, be they innocent or not. As the same article points out:

“Julio Sampedro, former dean of the Faculty of Legal Sciences at the Javierana University thinks these results show there is a failing in the investigation and added that in a criminal trial the Prosecutor's Office should arm itself with reasons to win the cases, if the Prosecutor's Office files charges and doesn't win, it is a failure, the Prosecutor's Office acts as a lawyer for society.”

Sampedro believes the reason behind the high number of acquittals is that the body spends its time showing results through arrests and remands before carrying out an investigation that it could win a trial with. (bold in original)

The criminal trial lawyer Camilo Burbano has a similar view, and pointed to the way in which the Prosecutor's Office evaluates its prosecutors, demanding a set number of results, 'the prosecutors are more concerned with meeting targets for charges than carrying out consistent well planned processes.'”(10)

If the Prosecutor's Office works this way when it comes to the theft of mobile phones etc., one can just imagine its lack of ability in such emotive cases as the Andino case. If they have to show results for street muggings, how much greater haste would they have in showing results in cases like this one? Anyone, with any knowledge of the Colombian judicial system and the treatment received by political prisoners will know that this is every day practice and has been so for a long time. The big difference is that we used to be able to trust that human rights organisations would be concerned about the case. But they have generally ignored it. In the context of the so called post-conflict following on from the accord signed with the FARC, these human rights groups do not want to go anyway near cases such as these, and it not because the attack is a particularly bloody one, but rather because they don't want to take on cases related to the armed conflict. The State, its institutions and functionaries know that when it comes to a judicial frame up all they have to do is splatter the accused with some blood, as they want them as dirty as possible and the human rights NGOs want their political prisoners nice and clean, not just that they don't have any blood on their hands but that the State do them the little favour of not accusing them of violent crimes. In order to silence these NGOs the State only has to accuse someone of spilling blood, regardless of how absurd it is or how little proof there is against them. It's as if they were Colombian Catholic nuns, they like the slogan that it's more important to seem to be than to be.

The MRP organisation issued a communiqué denying the accused were militants of their organisation and also denying any role in the events. It wouldn't be the first time that an organisation denied its role in vile acts, a common practice with the FARC, for example. Armed organisations also frequently accept their responsibility lamenting what happened, such as the death of civilians. Neither would it be the first time in Colombia that false flag operations were carried out. We all remember that Uribe's 2002 electoral campaign was aided through false attacks that increased the popularity of then presidential candidate. Also during his presidency Colombian soldiers carried out auto-attacks in the city of Bogotá. In one case the Prosecutor's Office filed charges against two military officers in 2006.(11) They didn't carry out one, but various attacks as Caracol Radio explained in 2008, after the two officers were dismissed from the army.

“The events took place between July 14th and August 28th, 2006, before and after the swearing in of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, in five specific acts: The placing of a car bomb in the Gaitán neighbourhood that exploded injuring a number of soldiers and killing one civilian, placing a car bomb in the Caracas Shopping Centre, the placing of explosive material near the Artillery School located between the neighbourhoods of Danubio and La Fiscala and the attempt to place a car bomb in the Gran San Shopping Centre.”(12)

The attack on the Andino Shopping Centre has a similar ring to it. There are various elements of a false flag operation, including the swiftness with which they located and detained those supposedly behind it and the fact that the day of the attack was the final handover of arms by the FARC and the Democratic Centre (Uribistas) took advantage of the attack to state that the country had been handed over to the FARC.

From the word go, they violated due process, the law, chain of custody of alleged evidence etc. In the days following the arrests the supposed evidence against them was leaked to the press, from maps supposedly found on them or in their houses, videos, computer etc. The alleged electronic evidence against them lacks any validity not only due to how it was leaked to the press but also to how it was handled. In the case of electronic evidence, a copy of each device should be made, whether it be a memory stick, an external hard drive, video file or the computer itself. They work on the copy, not on the original device, and the copy should be an exact copy of each device, documents cannot be mixed etc., from various electronic devices in one hard drive without being able to distinguish between one and the other. This is a basic point of electronic forensics, but the incompetents at the Prosecutors Office couldn't even get that right. It is worth pointing out that faking a memory stick that implicates someone is relatively easily and does not require great skill. On the issue of electronic devices one of the detainees interviewed by Contagio Radio pointed out that:

“They didn't take any computers or memory sticks from me, I mean, nothing for electronic storage, yet the Prosecutor maintains that they took two computers and various memory sticks from me, where they came from, we don't know, because as I said, in many cases they didn't even let the people present read the records of the house search, in many cases the records were not written up in the places searched and in other cases there was no one in the houses who could verify the procedures.”(13)

In addition to the deceitful handling of the supposed evidence, the Prosecutor's Office argued for the transversal nature of the evidence, i.e. what is found in one house or on one person can be used against another, even where the evidence was initially thrown out of court. However, in this case we not only see the clumsy, unprofessional and illegal handling of the alleged evidence, we also see that the State aims to get a conviction through the intimidation of relatives and defence lawyers.

In June 2018, almost a year after the arrests, the prisoners' relatives publicly denounced the tailings and harassment they were being subjected to by State intelligence agencies. They explained in an open letter that they were left with no choice but to do so publicly as the State bodies where they should file a complaint are the same ones that are pursuing them. They are defenceless. A similar situation occurs with the defence lawyers. The lawyers have been followed, documents have been stolen from their office, and various lawyers' computers were stolen. The State aims to impede the right to a defence so that when the convictions are achieved there will be no one to publicly challenge the findings. These types of practices are not new and in the past were deserving of the solidarity of all human rights organisations. For example, in 2001, to mark the murder of the lawyer Eduardo Umaña Mendoza, Amnesty International launched an international act of solidarity in which it asked people to write to the Pastrana government in order to express their...

“...concern that many other human rights lawyers continue to be threatened and harassed and many have been forced into exile in fear of their lives because of their work... that individual protection measures such as bodyguards and bullet proof jackets are not sufficient to deter the perpetrators of human rights violations against members of human rights organizations, and stressing that genuine efforts to protect human rights defenders must prioritize investigations into killings, as well as threats and harassment, as part of a comprehensive program to prevent more attacks against them.”(14)

However, in this particular case it would seem that the protection of lawyers is not a priority for these organisations. As in years past functionaries from the Prosecutor's Office have insinuated that the defence lawyers had links to the ELN, knowing that in Colombia to be accused of having links with the guerrillas is akin to having a target on your back or in the best of cases, having charges filed by the Prosecutor's Office. None of this has been worthy of the intervention of the presumed champions of the defence of human rights.

In Colombia if a case does not progress nor finish certain stages in a set time frame, the accused have a right to be freed, what is known as the expiry of deadline. This does not mean that the accused is let off, or that they are innocent, they are simply placed at liberty as due to the delays remanding them to prison can no longer be justified. It is quite common, so much so that in 2019 5,088 people regained their liberty through this mechanism, including General Guatibonza.(15)Those arrested in the Andino case also enjoy this same right to liberty, but it wasn't granted to them. In August 2018, having exceeded the time limit, some of the detainees were briefly freed, others not even that, and then arrested again for the same events with a slight variation on the charges. It is improper procedure, as the charges are not really new ones and it reminds us of the old habits of keeping someone in jail on a charge, and then later, following years in prison to withdraw the charges in order to file charges for other crimes, or the custom of waiting till someone has almost finished their sentences and file new charges at the last moment in order to arbitrarily prolong their detention. These old practices were always denounced by human rights organisations, trade unions, international bodies, but in the Andino case, they all turned a blind eye.

In the process there are false witnesses, violation of the norms, police sketches are produced that do not match witness statements but do coincide with some of those who were eventually detained, leaks to the press and the manipulation of alleged evidence. Every legal norm is sidestepped and it is clear that as far as the Prosecutor's Office is concerned they have to be convicted as they need a guilty party other than members of the state's armed forces or Democratic Centre. So much so, that two years after the attack, El Espectador lamented the lack of convictions in the case. One of the prisoners, Boris Rojas, responded to them.

“The El Espectador editorial highlights it but at the same time seems to complain, or at least be concerned that 'the processes against those captured by the Prosecutor's Office have yet to produce their first conviction.' The question that arises is: do the timely and efficient actions of the justice system make a conviction obligatory?

It is not the case that in pursuit of swiftness and efficiency that you can trample on principles such as the presumption of innocence, due process, individual criminal guilt, the pro homine principle, the search for truth and justice that all of Colombian society deserves in this case and others.”(16)

He goes on to point out that two other people charged with acts connected to the MRP, Stiven Buitrago and Mateo Guitiérez were acquitted having spent 12 months and 21 months in jail, respectively.

Even so, this case does not warrant the attention of organisations that defend human rights. They remained silent, it is the end of the defence of human rights, of political prisoners. Petro, for example never replied to the letter addressed to him by the prisoners. Nor will he. From here on in, the accused have to be accused of a “nice” crime in order to merit the help of such organisations and personalities, all the accused must have a conciliatory discourse in relation to the State, capitalism and injustice. The rebellious types, be they armed, unarmed, in favour of violence or opposed to it, cannot apply. They only want cases from submissive types, accused of the nicest things. Unfortunately, repressive States around the world don't usually frame someone for picking flowers illegally, but rather for violent acts, as the long experience of these States is that many supposed opposition members and human rights defenders doubt their own commitment to opposition and defence when faced with an atrocious crime.


(1) El Tiempo (18/06/2017) 'Les puedo asegurar que los responsables caerán': Santos

(2) El Tiempo (18/06/2017) Ofrecen $100 millones de recompensa por información sobre atentado.

(3) El Tiempo (18/06/2017) Tres muertas y ocho heridos por atentado en le centro comercial Andino.

(4) El Tiempo ( 24/06/2017) Ocho capturados por atentado al Andino pertenecerían al Mrp.

(5) Ibíd.,

(6) El Espectador (08/06/2015) No es la primera vez que personas vinculadas a grupos ilegales se infiltran: Distrito. https://

(7) Ibíd.,

(8) El Tiempo (12/09/2018) Capturan al general Humberto Guatibonza por caso de chuzadas.

(9) El Tiempo (06/04/2020) En 2019, Fiscalía perdió casi 6 de cada 10 casos que llegaron a juicio.


(11) Semana (21/11/2006) Fiscalía: "Militares sí fabricaron falsos atentados en Bogotá"

(12) Semana (19/12/2008) Destituyen a dos militares por falsos atentados en Bogotá.

(13) Contagio Radio (02/02/2018) La versión de los jóvenes capturados por el atentado en el Centro Comercial Andino.

(12) Semana (19/12/2008) Destituyen a dos militares por falsos atentados en Bogotá.

(13) Contagio Radio (02/02/2018) La versión de los jóvenes capturados por el atentado en el Centro Comercial Andino.

(14) Amnesty International (11/04/2001) Human Rights Defenders Network Action, Colombia: Solidarity action against persecution of human rights defenders and trade unionists. AI: AMR23/038/2001/s

(15) El Tiempo (06/04/2020) Op. Cit.

(16) El Espectador (17/06/2019) Sobre el caso Andino.

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