Colombian political prisoner David Ravelo, jailed since September 14, 2010, learned late in November 2012 that he had been convicted and sentenced to 18 years in jail. His case, based on spurious evidence, reflects epic military, police, and judicial repression carried out under a regime of big landowners and the urban elite. After 50 years they are still intent upon military victory over insurgents defending agrarian rights. Ravelo’s case deserves attention: Colombia’s prison population has increased 30 percent during the tenure of President Juan Manuel Santos, Colombian jails now house 10,000 political prisoners, Ravelo’s human rights record is exemplary, and his case has taken on every sign of a judicial frame-up.
A delegation of mostly North American activists traveled to Bogota and Barrancabermeja, Ravelo’s home city, in late November. They were offering international solidarity with Ravelo and hoping to add to a worldwide campaign leading to his liberation. Conscious of U.S. support for Colombian militarization and police excesses, their bias was toward peace in Colombia achieved through negotiated settlement of those issues fueling internal war, social justice, and land reform. That such a process was already underway in Cuba, they saw as a somehow meaningful coincidence.
Lawyer Diego Martinez of the Permanent Committee for Human Rights that hosted the delegation accompanied two of its members to Bogota’s La Picota prison for a meeting on November 29 with David Ravelo. They soon were on the receiving end of a comprehensive case review.
According to the prisoner, two jailed paramilitaries testified that he helped murder Barrancabermeja mayoral candidate David Nuñez Cala in 1991. For that favor they gained reduced sentences as per Colombia’s 2005 Law of Justice and Peace. One of their sentences dropped from 40 to eight years. Ravelo told how, in judicial proceedings ending in May 2012, his judge refused to hear the testimony of 30 defense witnesses. She lacks tenure, he said, and is thinking of ways to facilitate her contract being renewed.
David Ravelo takes new hope from information surfacing the week before. In 1991 prosecutor William Pacheco Granados arranged for the forced disappearance of a youth named Guillermo Hurtado Parra. As a result, Pacheco lost his police lieutenant’s post in Armenia, Quindío. This history of an offense disqualifying him under the law from serving as prosecutor will surely enter into Ravelo’s upcoming judicial appeal.
Ravelo talked about a previous frame-up in 1993 that led to two years in jail. Persecution unfolded then just as murderous repression of the leftist Patriotic Union (UP) electoral coalition was going on. Ravelo served in governmental positions under UP auspices. He went free after authorities were forced to acknowledge that evidence they used, a FARC group photo showing Ravelo together with the guerillas, was a fake.
Barrancabermeja’s Catholic Diocese in 2008 honored David Ravelo for his fight over many years on behalf of human rights. Beginning as a student and labor union activist, Ravelo became a library aide at the local “Cooperative University” and, later on, an economics professor there. As a journalist, Ravelo fought privatization of a state-owned distillery and fertilizer company. He was filling a municipal government post when he was arrested in 2010.
Over two decades Ravelo was a leader in organizations like the Municipal Peace Council of Barrancabermeja, the CREDHOES human rights organization, the Social Forum of Barrancabermeja, the Workers’ Space for Human Rights, and the regional section of MOVICE, the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes. Ravelo attracted high-level animosity in 2007 when he disseminated a video showing ex-President Uribe socializing with Barrancabermeja paramilitaries.
For 38 years, 56-year old Ravelo has also been a member of the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) and since 1991, a member of its Central Committee.
In Barrancabermeja, Ravelo’s wife Francia Elena Durán Ortega told delegation members: “He was dedicated to life, was there for everybody.” In tears, daughter Leydi Tatiana Rabelo Gutíerrez described him as “a model father . . . loyal and dedicated to the struggle for human rights. I have never seen him sad.” David Ravelo Gutiérrez, who accompanied the delegation, described his father as “a political leader who defended poor people. . . In 1998-1999 paramilitaries wanted to take over the place. Everyone else was afraid [to show the video] but his father showed it.”
David Ravelo struggled for the right of his people to be free of criminal violence, and to survive. He took on the paramilitaries, also army and police forces backing them. He began in the era of UP atrocities and continued during the late 1990s when, by many reports, paramilitaries had free rein in Barrancabermeja and the surrounding countryside. Now, the state frame-up of David Ravelo plays out amidst violent repression and arbitrary detentions of activists associated with the new Patriotic March resistance movement, a coalition of 2,000 political and social groups launched in April 2012 with PCC help.
Ravelo is optimistic. Speaking to Bucaramanga’s Liberal Vanguard newspaper soon after learning of his conviction, he pointed out that “[T]here are costs a defender of human rights must pay. I’m not going to be discouraged now. . . I am going to summon up energy to demonstrate my innocence and show this is all a montage.”
Juan Camilo Acevedo of the PCC National Commission on Political Prisoners, speaking to the delegation, underscored the role of prisons as tools for criminalizing peaceful protest. They are centers of torture, he stated, and are overcrowded and filthy. Drinkable water and live-saving medical care are often lacking. Many prisons are U.S.-funded and -designed.
And U.S. taxpayers’ money channeled to the Colombian army and police through U.S. Plan Colombia ends up, some of it, in the hands of paramilitaries, Ravelo’s nemesis. The effect, as explained by MOVICE lawyer Franklin Castañeda, was that Plan Colombia “changed the logic of the situation,” making it “more barbaric.”
David Ravelo’s fight for justice, therefore, extends far beyond local confines. Communist Party Secretary General Jaime Caycedo Turriago implied that, because the US Southern Command directs the war on the insurgency and Colombia’s upper classes are allied to the United States, Ravelo’s main adversaries sit in offices in the two national capitals. Beyond that, said Caycedo, “We recognize deepening social clashes everywhere. . . [T]he world capitalist crisis has bred widespread discontent and will be worsening. Democratic forces must stand up against interventionists.”
To join the campaign to free David Ravelo, contact organizers of the delegation at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.justiceforcolombia.org. For more information about Ravelo’s case, go to www.pacocol.org and/or www.davidravelolibre.org. For information on Colombian political prisoners, see www.afgj.org, www.traspasolosmuro.net, and/or www.inspp.org.
W. T. Whitney Jr., a retired pediatrician, is a Cuba solidarity activist and member of Veterans for Peace. He writes on Latin American issues.