Elvira Maria Restrepo Colombian Criminal Justice in Crisis: Fear and Distrust

By Rivas, Angela | Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies, July 2005 | Go to article overview

Elvira Maria Restrepo Colombian Criminal Justice in Crisis: Fear and Distrust


Rivas, Angela, Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies


The state's failure to provide justice to its citizens and the lack of a reliable criminal jurisdiction are frequent descriptions of the exercise of justice in contemporary Colombia. Similarly, impunity and corruption have become almost mandatory concepts when assessing and examining the Colombian justice system. Without denying these statements, but going beyond them, Restrepo provides novel elements to address and assess state justice in the Colombia of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Like other Colombian scholars working on similar topics, Restrepo situates her examination of Colombian state justice within a context marked by intertwined forms of violence. However, this book adds conceptual elements to the existing literature on Colombian justice by addressing the Colombian criminal jurisdiction not only--and not mainly--as an inefficient and corrupt system but rather as a system driven by fear and distrust.

According to Restrepo, both impunity and corruption might be better understood as effects of widespread fear. It is not only that fear affects justice by preventing both victims and witnesses from making denouncements; fear also affects the performance of justice by inhibiting and discouraging judges from administering justice or by forcing them to do so in a rather partial way. Thus, "In the case of prosecution, a judge is often faced with two options: to become a villain by being an accomplice to corruption or a hero who risks sacrificing his life or tranquility in the name of justice and the common good" (p. 169). These effects of fear relate closely both to a more or less generalized distrust of the Colombia juridical system and state justice and, alternatively, to the prevalence of private justice.

To explain the historical roots of the problem and to account for its current impact on the exercise of justice, Restrepo organizes her argument around three main components. The first deals with the origins of fear and distrust in their historical, political, and legal contexts. The second discusses the current crisis of criminal justice, providing a detailed diagnosis of the Colombian system of criminal justice, as well as an illustrative account of the ways in which, in such a context, both violence and the use of private justice have as their main effect widespread fear. The third part examines the effects of fear and distrust in the criminal jurisdiction. It focuses on two salient elements: the impacts of drug trafficking, particularly the successful use of fear against judges by drug lords, and the role of justice in a country that has experienced decades of irregular war.

Restrepo presents data from a variety of sources, including both official and private surveys, legal documents, academic works, and personal interviews. …

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