“You have to re-learn how to be free”, David Ravelo

The day that David Ravelo recovered his freedom, his family, the people from his home town, Barrancabermeja and the press greeted him with outpourings of affection and solidarity.  It was very emotional for David.  Since then a month has gone by, a month in which he has been free to walk around the streets of Barrancabermeja and get lost in them, because in the seven years he was away the city has grown. David has discovered WhatsApp and is amazed every time a new photograph is sent to his smartphone.  For the first time he is spending time with his four year old daughter who was born while he was in prison.  He recognises that it hasn’t been easy because “you have to re-learn how to be free again”.

It has also been a month of restlessness and fear, remembering the time before he was sent to prison, when the days were interrupted by threatening phone calls, shadowy people lurking outside his house watching who was coming and going, men following him down the street who would disappear like ghosts when he looked back over his shoulder…. Phone calls to his son, telling him that the plan was to kill his father or that he had just been killed.  David’s enemies used psychological terror to reach his softest spot and keep everyone in a state of constant uncertainty.

David Ravelo

Before he was send to prison he needed to travel in a bullet-proof car and have three armed bodyguards with him 24 hours a day, because the Government recognised the high risk that David faced because of his unrelenting struggle to defend civic freedoms in Barrancabermeja. “The harassment I suffered was enormous”, he remembered in recent days.

Because David was an emblematic figure, one of the few people to speak out publicly against the paramilitaries since the day they killed seven civilians and disappeared 25 others in 1998, before taking control of the ‘Puerto Petrolero’ (Barrancabermeja earned this nickname for being on the banks of the River Magdalena and home to the largest refinery in Colombia).  He endlessly and tirelessly reported forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and murders in Magdalena Medio, which made him a thorn in the side of the enemies of peace.

And David continues to be a public figure; which is why he is risking his life to remain in Barrancabermeja. “I am in fear for my life”, he acknowledges and tells us that at the house where he lives with his “wife and small children, the paramilitaries have been lurking near the house, known paramilitaries from Barrancabermeja”.[1]

In this first month since his release, David was without bodyguards whilst the National Protection Unit analysed whether he still faced a risk.  They finally decided that he did and from today he has been assigned a new security detail that means he feels safer.  Many have told him that he should leave and go somewhere else because he could be killed, but David is stubborn and committed to the noble cause of human rights and insists, just as he did in the past, on staying in Barrancabermeja.

“I have put my life in the hands of the Colombian State, in the hands of the Protection Unit”, and wants to make it clear that “if anything happens to me it is the responsibility of the Colombian State and the National Protection Unit”.

He has already started to get involved in the social struggle again, getting up to date on political and social events.  He is clear that he will support the implementation of the Peace Agreements and uncover what happened in the past because “in war, the only victim is the truth, and the truth must be rescued; we need the truth to come out like it says in the Agreements, to know which sectors were responsible for taking part in the war”, says David with all the charisma of an experienced leader.

During the last month he has realised that left-wing social and political organisations are much more fragmented now, which is another reason for David to become an “instrument of peace and unity to strengthen the social movement and this country’s transformative options”.

He was released conditionally, and is still waiting to be found innocent of the charge of aggravated homicide.  His case is currently being examined by the Inter-American Comission on Human Rights, the Supreme Court of Justice and the Special Peace Jurisdiction.  He is convinced that his case will soon be found in his favour because at the beginning of the year the Public Prosecutor’s Office charged the only witnesses against David, the former paramilitaries Mario Jaimes Mejia, alias ‘ El Panadero’ and Fremio Sanchez, with procedural fraud and perjury. He repeats what he said in court, what he shared with the Members of Congress who visited him in prison and with anyone else who would listen: “you know that the only “proof”, in inverted commas, that there was, were the declarations of two false witnesses, the two paramilitaries who tried to murder me physically and then tried to murder me through the courts with false accusations”.  I ask him if he feels resentment because he spent seven years in prison as an innocent man.  Anyone else would feel resentment, but not David.

These nearly seven years have not be able to erase his wide smile, his dignity, his contagious positive energy borne of his conviction in his own innocence, and his will to fight for a better world.  For David anything can be fixed in this life, because “if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love”, he proudly quotes from his idol Nelson Mandela.

Not even in prison did he give up the struggle for human rights, there he brought together resistance and art which he calls “resistenceart”. In prison he became a poet and published the book “Accuse me, stories and dreams of freedom” because “it is during the hard times that the light of humanity comes out, when creativity emerges, and I was able to use that creativity to make the difficult things easier”, he concludes, happy.

Bianca Bauer


[1] Interview with David Ravelo, 19 July 2017

Leave a Reply