Jorge Molano speaks at PBI's conference on business and human rights in 2011

By Daniel Slee

Lawyer Jorge Molano has taken on high-profile cases against very powerful people in his home country of Colombia. Unfortunately, powerful Colombian criminals often resort to extreme measures to escape justice and both Jorge Molano and people close to him have received death threats due to his human rights work.

One of the cases where Jorge is seeking justice is for the massacre committed against the San José de Apartadó Peace Community in February 2005, when paramilitaries on patrol with soldiers of the 17th Brigade of the Colombian army murdered five adults and three children. The quest for justice has been particularly difficult due to the steps taken to cover up the crimes. 

Soon after the massacre was committed, demobilised soldiers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) claimed that the FARC were responsible for the massacre. The top commander of the Colombian armed forces even used a military map to show that no regular soldiers were in the region where the massacre took place. [1] It later emerged that a colonel had paid the FARC soldiers to lie [2] and that the maps shown by the commander had been altered beforehand. Six of the paramilitaries involved in the massacre have since been murdered,[3] leaving few witnesses who could tell the truth about what happened. 

Some convictions but impunity continues

In March 2010, five years after these atrocities, a retired army captain was sentenced to prison for his role in the crimes and a further 10 soldiers were later charged. Although all were acquitted in the first instance, four of them were eventually sentenced on appeal in 2012. However, despite the sentences against these soldiers, Molano says, their superiors continue to enjoy impunity: “The International Criminal Court must be asked to open Colombia’s case and investigate those generals and colonels, given the crimes against humanity committed against the San José de Apartadó Peace Community.”[4]

Molano is not the only lawyer challenging the impunity surrounding this massacre. Having studied the case, in January 2013 a group of international barristers, members of the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk network, submitted an amicus brief arguing that there was a “joint criminal enterprise and superior responsibility under international criminal law... which captures all of the defendants, rather than just four platoon commanders.” [5]

Four months after the sentencing of the first army captain for his involvement in the massacre, Jorge Molano held a meeting with the then director of the Presidential Human Rights Programme and other high government officials. They expressed concern for Molano's security because his work representing victims had become an “honour issue for the military”.[6] According to Molano, these incidents and others show that the Colombian armed forces view him as an enemy who is attacking the military with his legal work, whereas he only seeks punishment for those who have committed illegal acts. “They don’t understand that the work of lawyers is not against the security forces in general, but against people who went too far in their duties,” he says.[7]

The most recent development in the Peace Community massacre case is that the lawyers of the victims have called for the detention of two retired generals and three colonels, all from the 17th Brigade, which has jurisdiction over the region. Based on new testimony, they want to clarify the exercise of army command during the operation in which the massacre took place.[8]

Another case brings threats

The peace community massacre is one of many high-profile cases that Molano works on. In February 2008 army soldiers abducted three young men in Palmira municipality, southern Colombia and murdered two of them. The third man survived because the soldier's gun jammed so he managed to run away and tell people what had happened.[9] The Colombian army claimed that these men were members of an illegal armed group who were 'killed in combat' and they hoped to receive benefits like holidays and promotions for their success in the field. Cases of soldiers murdering civilians became known as false positives and United Nations investigations have shown that they were widespread and systematic in Colombia. [10]

Alfamir Castillo, the mother of one of the men murdered in Palmira, took on Jorge Molano as her lawyer to try and get justice. In April 2012 seven low ranking soldiers were sentenced for the murders [11] so Molano tried to bring the higher ranking officials who ordered the murders to court as well. In October the same year, days before a court hearing on the case, a man aimed a gun at Alfamir and said, “Tell the snitch of a lawyer that he will die and you too”.[12] Six months later, Alfamir received a pamphlet with the words “Death to Alfamir Castillo and her lawyers”.[13] Despite these threats and intimidations both continue to work to bring to justice those most responsible for the murders.

The issue of protection

Molano was also a victim of the illegal surveillance carried out by the former intelligence service of the Colombian government.[14] High court judges, members of the political opposition, journalists and human rights defenders were spied on through phone and email hacking, they received death threats and many were murdered by paramilitaries. The now liquidated Administrative Department of Security (DAS) was also in charge of providing protection to those who received threats. “The protection programmes in Colombia are like asking Dracula to guard a blood bank,” says Molano.[15]

Due to the risk he faces Jorge Molano has been given protective measures by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and Peace Brigades International (PBI) has provided protective accompaniment in different stages of his life as a lawyer and human rights defender. 

“The Colombian state has not provided guarantees for human rights defenders to carry out their work,” Molano says. “Frequently human rights defenders in Colombia are attacked; they are murdered, disappeared, displaced or forced into exile, and the role of PBI's accompaniment makes it possible for a lot of defenders to be able to continue in the country without having to abandon our activities.”

PBI has joined forces with ethical company Lush Cosmetics in March 2014 to campaign to protect the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Find out more.