The newly elected government of this rarity in South America, a constitutional state, faces documented charges that 34 university students were tortured for five days by its military last October.
Authorities seized the students as alleged subversives under a tough antiterrorism statute decreed by President Julio Cesar Turbay soon after he took office in August.
One of Turbay's campaign promises had been to established law and order in this Andean nation of 28 million that has suffered not only a recent wave of political terrorism but extensive crime associated with the $600 million drug trade.
Turbay's tactics have triggered intense debate on whether the government, looked to as the antithesis of repressive military regimes on the continent, has compromised the rights of the citizenry in its own crackdown.
Two events a week ago intensified the debate: the M19 leftist guerrilla group tunneled into an army arsenal and stole 4,300 weapons, and the army raided a hideout where guerrillas held the kidnaped head of the local Texaco subsidiary. His captors killed him as the troops closed in.
The debate dates to the assassination of former interior minister Rafael Pardo Buelvas at the time of Turbay's inauguration.
Allegedly murdered by a new urban terrorist group called the Workers' Defense Movement, Pardo Buelvas was interior minister during a labor strike that paralyzed the country in 1977, with violent clashes here between strikers and military.
The minister's murder capped a wave of violence including daily kidnapings, robberies and assassinations.
Tuesday's security statute, approved by the Supreme Court, with a dissenting minority, gave the armed forces wider powers to arrest and bring to trial delinquents and terrorists. It authorizes the military to assume judicial responsibilities previously exercised by the penal courts and it lengthens sentences for such crimes as kidnaping and extortion.
The decree also empowers the military to jail Colombians on vaguely described charges of "threatening public order," and it is this provision that has caused notionwide controbersy.
Supreme Court Justice Jose Maria Velasco, for one, says it could lead to "constitutional dictatorship."
The dissenting judiciary was joined by university rectors, the Roman Catholic country's bishops and the main Bogota daily E1 Espectador, after the 34 university students charged that they had been systematically tourtured at a military base north of Bogota.
The 34 were among 103 students arrested by the military under the security statute on charges of belonging to an urban guerrilla movement. The Defense Ministry produced an arsenal of arms, explosives and stolen goods which it said had been found in the students' residences. Defense Minister Luis Carlos Camacho Leyva denied that anyone had been tortured.
E1 Espectador challenged that claim by reproducing leaked copies of the students' alleged testimony of torture to experts of the Medical Institute of the Justice Ministry, encharged by Turbay with investigating the students' allegations.
Justice Minister Hugo Escobar subsequently demanded details of the political sympathies of the Medical Institute's staff after the army accused two officials of holding "extremist" views.
A committee appointed by the Colombian Congress to make its won investigation complained of lack of cooperation from the attorney general's office and the Meddical Institute -- copies of the students' testimony mysteriously disappeared.It confirmed that the prisoners "had been subjected to physical and psychological coercion contrary to Colombian law and civilized practices."
Government supporters responded by calling such critics "bleeding hearts" more concerned with legal nitpicking than the fight to "prevent the dissolution of our republican institutions," in Turbay's words.
Justice Minister Escobar even suggested that the notoriously conservative bishops "are stimulating extremist groups."
This brought down the censure of the opposition Conservative Party daily La Republica, which said that "the minister thinks he is leading a fight against a great communist rebellion when in reality this is only tilting at windmills."
Among those critics are Colombia's four labor federations, ranging from center to left, that have been put on notice that strikes and demonstrations will be dealt with harshly.
Others include the small left-wing parties, which have joined a movement called Firmes.
Meanwhile, an organization calling itself the American Anti-Communist Alliance began circulating a monthly bulletin containing threats against members of the Supreme Court who had voted against the security statute.
On the narcotics aspect of the debate, the military recently pointed out that its efforts to stop drug running in the marijuana-growing Guajira peninsula on the Caribbean coast had come to naught because local judges invariably claimed "lack of evidence" to jail smugglers caught in the act by the military.
According to a Colombian defense lawyer involved in drug cases, payoffs to judges on the coast start at $5,000 and can go as high as $50,000.
While guerrillas pose no serious threat to the government, businessmen and politicians are pessimistic about attempts to control the drug traffic, which is now "another economy," according to Bogota's respected Foundation of Higher Education and Development.