Priest faces criticism for shining light on human rights abuses in Colombia

Javier Giraldo
Javier Giraldo (Juan Forero - Twp)
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By Juan Forero
Saturday, June 12, 2010

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- The ruling issued this week was one of the most severe ever handed down in Colombia against a member of the security forces: 30 years in prison for a retired army colonel found responsible for the disappearance of 11 people in 1985.

And it happened in part because of the tireless work of a mild-mannered Catholic priest, the Rev. Javier Giraldo, who sought out evidence from witnesses and made sure that the relatives of the victims were heard by prosecutors and journalists.

For 30 years, Giraldo has been investigating some of the most heinous human rights abuses committed during Colombia's shadowy war and blaming those he says are responsible -- often U.S.-backed security forces. In recent weeks, that work has garnered attention like never before, with his adversaries issuing public threats against the man they call "the Marxist priest," and even President Álvaro Uribe leveling criticism against him.

Giraldo's most recent campaign, which resulted in former police major Juan Carlos Meneses,to President Alvaro, to commit murders in a small northern town in 1994. Giraldo accompanied Meneses to Buenos Aires, where he recounted his story in a videotaped meeting with prominent Argentines.

"A person who incriminates himself is likely a person who is telling the truth," said Giraldo, 65.

Giraldo's role in the Meneses case prompted President Uribe to call him "a useful idiot" of criminal bands out to discredit the administration. A more customary accusation came from Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, a pro-government essayist who labeled Giraldo a "nefarious priest" who does the bidding of the country's largest guerrilla army.

But others see Giraldo as an almost mythical figure who tirelessly collects evidence about crimes that have gone unpunished. That means urging witnesses to come forward, even soldiers and police overcome by their conscience after participating in atrocities.

"He's incredibly important -- a moral figure who is not linked to any armed groups," said Gimena Sanchez, a Colombia specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America, a policy group. "I think he completely and utterly pushes the envelope."

Sitting in his small office, Giraldo said he expects to be attacked for his work as an investigator for the Bogota-based Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP). On the walls around his table are photographs of priests and other activists killed in Colombia.

"The establishment tries to delegitimize those who denounce and whoever helps the victims," said Giraldo, who has declined the government's offer of bodyguards. "The intent is to damage one's image, to portray me as a guerrilla supporter."

Those who know Giraldo say he is no stooge of the irregular armies battling for control of land and drugs. He does, however, turn convention on its head by reminding Colombians that their country is still a land of unspeakable crimes.

Colombians have been astonished by his revelations, many of which center on massacres committed by right-wing death squads linked to the military. For a quarter century, Giraldo also worked to shed light on the storming of the Palace of Justice in 1985, when troops wrested control from a guerrilla commando team in a firefight that left more than 100 dead, including 11 Supreme Court justices.

Years later, witnesses and videotaped evidence showed that guerrillas as well as innocent cafeteria workers were taken alive from the palace by soldiers, tortured and killed. A civilian judge found the retired colonel who led the operation, Luis Alfonso Plazas, responsible.

On Thursday, Uribe, flanked by the country's top military commanders, criticized the ruling.

For those who have worked to clarify atrocities, the sentence against Plazas vindicated work by Giraldo and other rights advocates. "He openly denounced this crime, and worked to find witness testimonies," said Jorge Molano, who has worked on the case.

The government initially denied Giraldo's accusations in the Palace of Justice and other cases. But Giraldo's supporters say his allegations, many years later, are proven to be true.

"People say he is paranoid, and then the truth comes out," said César Rodríguez, a legal scholar at University of the Andes and a member of DeJusticia, a legal policy group. "And he is vindicated."

What does concern some rights activists and constitutional experts is the priest's rejection of the justice system.

"The problem is there is hardly any justice," said Giraldo, explaining that the ring leaders of atrocities rarely end up behind bars.

But Alfonso Gómez Méndez, a former attorney general, said Giraldo's failure to support investigations weakens the very justice system that the priest accuses of not doing enough.

"This attitude does not help us to end the impunity," he said. "Justice has advanced in many areas, but the problem is not just the justice system but the attitude of the people."

When pressed, Giraldo acknowledged recent progress, including the arrests of dozens of military officers. He also said that despite his break with the justice system, his work will continue.

"I break with a justice system that is absolutely rotten," Giraldo said. "But I am not saying that I will stop denouncing crimes."

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