“Start preparing for your father’s funeral, son, because we’re going to kill him.”
Last July, PBI Colombia’s Communications Coordinator travelled to Barrancabermeja to interview David Ravelo, secretary general of the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights in the Magdalena Medio (CREDHOS) and a key leader of the social justice movement in that city. A few months earlier, David’s son had begun to receive phone calls from people who threatened to kill his father, or in some cases, claimed they had just finished the job.
Near the end of the interview David’s telephone began to ring incessantly, and when he finally answered it was his son was on the line, terrified by yet another call from men threatening to kill his father before the week was out. “Don’t worry son, I’m fine, I’ll take care of myself,” David calms his son down, ends the call, and continues the interview. “We’ve been speaking out against ‘false positives’…as well as murders, forced disappearances, and especially the issue of forced displacement in Barrancabermeja and the region. We’ve become a thorn in their side since we’re always speaking out against these issues, and that’s quite inconvenient for them.” For David, it is crystal clear—the source of all these threats and intimidation is without a doubt, his work in defence of human rights.
Given that David had received death threats and been arbitrarily detained under false charges in the past, we knew that his situation was serious and that we needed to activate PBI’s international support network. We did so with the hope that it would help bring about an investigation into the numerous threats he was receiving at the time, in addition to helping to secure his physical safety. What we did not anticipate, however, was that an investigation was being carried out all along, not against the men who were calling and harassing his family, but against David himself. Three months later, David was in jail facing charges of conspiracy to commit a crime and aggravated homicide, charges that are based entirely on the testimony of demobilized paramilitaries—the very people against whom David had been speaking out for so many years.
A history of repression and violence
For decades, David Ravelo has been a key figure in the social justice movement in Barrancabermeja, a particularly impressive feat given the history of violence and political repression in that city. An economically important city in Colombia (Ecopetrol, Colombia’s state-run oil company, has their largest refinery there), Barrancabermeja has historically been dominated by one illegal armed group after another—from the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the 80s and 90s to the paramilitary Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), following their bloody takeover of the city between 1998 and 2001. In Barrancabermeja, human rights groups, community organisations and trade unionists, as well as the civilian population in general, have repeatedly been targeted with violence, social cleansing and control, forced disappearances, and innumerable threats aimed at achieving total political, social, and psychological control of the city and its inhabitants. Now the same people responsible for these horrific acts—the very same people who ordered David’s assassination in the past—are providing the testimony that has put David behind bars.
In the ten years since the AUC violently took over Barrancabermeja, a number of demobilized paramilitaries have confessed to their past crimes as a part of an amnesty deal struck with the Colombian government under Law 975, also known as the Peace and Justice Law. One paramilitary leader in particular, Mario Jaimes Mejía (alias “El Panadero”) accused David of having ties to guerrilla groups and of having planned the killing of political leader David Nuñez Cala, assassinated in 1991. As a result of these accusations, David presented himself voluntarily to the Public Prosecutor in Barrancabermeja in order to contend his innocence with his own testimony. This would come to no avail as the 22nd Anti-Terrorism Unit in the Public Prosecutor’s office in Bogotá would arrest David in September 2010 on charges of rebellion, conspiracy to commit a crime, and aggravated homicide.
“Cooking up a trial”
Sadly, this is not the first time David has been arrested, jailed, and tried on unsubstantiated and questionable charges. In 1993, David was detained and imprisoned on similar charges, when he was targeted because of his role with Colombia’s Communist Party. He was acquitted in 1995 and later won a civil suit against the Public Prosecutor’s Office for wrongful imprisonment in this case. David’s lawyer back then, Alirio Uribe (Executive Director of CCAJAR and also accompanied by PBI), is serving once again as his attorney. Alirio recorded an excellent and informative interview with PBI last month regarding updates in the case, David’s safety in jail, and his analysis regarding the reason for why charges have been brought against David now, nearly 20 years after the fact.
“Without a doubt, this investigation has to do with the work David Ravelo has carried out throughout his life in the [Magdalena Medio] region,” says Alirio. “When Mr. Ravelo was a council member he also spoke out against the paramilitary take-over of the city government and council. He spoke out against certain council members and politicians with ties to paramilitary groups in Barranca. As such, these imprisoned politicians and paramilitaries…are now providing testimony to the Prosecutor’s Terrorism Unit…And now, pardon the expression, they are cooking up a trial against a human rights defender.”
Alirio also attributes the charges to David’s political activism, in addition to his work as a human rights defender. “Accordingly, he now has to pay for it all—for his political activity, for his political leadership, for his time as a council member, for his role as a community leader, and for what he has been doing as a human rights defender. He has to pay for the social, political and human rights work he carried out in the Magdalena Medio over the last twenty-five years.”