Human rights defender David Ravelo spent seven years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Today we look back on his case, 11 years after the declaration that led to his conviction.
It was April 17th. David Ravelo’s legal ordeal began exactly 11 years ago, when Mario Jaimes Mejía `El Panadero,’ ex-commander of the United Self-defense Forces of Santander and Cesar, in Barrancabermeja, went before the tribunal for the Justice and Peace Law. The paramilitary’s declaration incriminated David Ravelo in an alleged plot to assassinate a civil employee in 1991, and resulted in David spending over seven years in prison.
“Years before they were already trying to get rid of me.” David Ravelo – with his lean face and slight frame, sunk into a corner of the sofa at the PBI office in Barrancabermeja – was a witness of and victim to the most brutal years of war to control Colombia’s most important oil port. In 1993, he spent three years in jail under the accusation of rebellion; he was acquitted and was later indemnified for arbitrary detention. At the beginning of 2000 he received, along with the rest of the CREDHOS board, death threats from paramilitary commanders. In 2005, he was forced to flee Barrancabermeja due to continuous death threats, and in 2006 a plan was hatched to murder Ravelo. “But with all of the national and international accompaniment that I had, these guys decided against physical murder. That was when they decided to assassinate me legally.”
The declaration was made in 2008 when `El Panadero’ was serving a long prison term at the Itagüí prison for having participated, as the commander of a paramilitary group, in the murder of seven individuals and the disappearance of another 25 in the northeastern neighborhoods of Barrancabermeja. The 16 May 1998 massacre, which inaugurated the paramilitary take over of the oil city, was denounced by David Ravelo. At that time, he was the spokesperson and a visible figure at the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS).
And then, the Justice and Peace Law opened a path for `El Panadero’ to be released from prison and, at the same time, to settle the score. Law 975 of 2005 was a unique opportunity: it allowed convicted paramilitary members to participate and access reduced sentences in exchange for contributing to “the attainment of national peace,” by means of open declarations on the crimes they had committed. When he appeared before the Superior Tribunal of Justice and Peace in Medellín, instead of speaking to his crimes as a paramilitary member, `El Panadero’ accused David Ravelo of planning, together with the FARC, the 1991 murder of a government official. The accusations were scarcely substantiated. The only source that backed `El Panadero’s’ version was another paramilitary member being held at the same prison.
But then an unexpected supporter of the accusations came on the scene: Anti-terrorist prosecutor William Pacheco. As was revealed by journalist Daniel Coronell in his column “Las siete vidas del “transformer (The Seven Lives of the “Transformer”),” Pacheco had previously worked as a police officer and was involved in the detention and enforced disappearance of a young man in Armenia (Quindío). Pacheco later became an adviser to then legislator José Domingo Dávila, who is currently convicted for paramilitary ties. William Pacheco was Anti-terrorist prosecutor 22, when on 25 March 2009 he was assigned to David Ravelo’s case.
David recalls the moment when it all began. “I was at home, and the CREDHOS secretary called me: `some gentlemen from the CTI (Criminal Investigation Unit) are here waiting for you.’ It never crossed my mind that they were going to arrest me. I got there and a guy said `come with us, you have an arrest warrant.’”
Regardless of the fact that only two testimonies, full of contradictions, sustained the case, and that there were over 30 witnesses in the defendant’s favor, David Ravelo was convicted: 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
“Prison could not break me”
On 14 September 2010, David Ravelo reached what would be his home for the following five years, until he was transferred to the Barrancabermeja jail. “In the La Picota prison block for government officials, in Bogotá, he lived with councilmen, military men, police officers, and lawyers …”. In La Picota, David began to organize inmates and their families for the defense of their rights. Five times he ran in the elections to select the human rights delegate. Five times he won. “We campaigned, with posters and speeches,” he recalls. “I would go to the cells, and I told them `outside of here if I file a complaint against you, you would kill me; but here we are on the same level; we are human beings with dignity.”
“On one occasion we convened a hunger strike in all the blocks to demand respect for the inmates’ dignity during searches. They would strip us naked in the middle of the block, as cold as Bogotá is. With 200 inmates backing me I told the guard `nobody is taking off their clothes.’ It was a small battle that we won.”
Meanwhile, the legal setbacks continued. In February 2013, David Ravelo and his lawyer appealed the ruling before the Superior Court of Santander. This Court upheld the 220 month jail sentence. Given an exhaustion of all Colombian remedies his lawyers decided to bring the case before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR).
The negotiation and signing of the Peace Agreements took place while David was still behind bars. From prison they organized a committee dedicated to this issue. “It was my way to overcome the bars. I resisted through the defense of the inmates and their families’ human rights. In prison I continued the work that I was doing as defender outside. I did not feel imprisoned.”
“I am alive. And all I have left is life and I must live it to the fullest”
In 2015 Ravelo’s case was presented to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, under the Law of Amnesty and Pardon and the Special Criminal System. It was the way to access a fragile freedom. While the case is before the JEP, Ravelo is enjoying conditional freedom.
When David Ravelo was released the world had changed in his eyes. The small three year old son that he left behind upon his arrest was now an 11 year old young man, who taught him how to use WhatsApp. Barrancabermeja was a different city: there were new streets and taller buildings. Latin America’s oldest guerrilla group was now a political party.
Other things have changed. `El Panadero’ confessed to his participation in the kidnapping and rape of journalist Jineth Bedoya, and is serving a 28 year prison term. He was discharged from the Justice and Peace process and is being tried for false testimony and procedural fraud. On the other hand, the La Picota prison block for government employees has a new inhabitant: prosecutor William Pacheco, who awaits trial for the 1991 enforced disappearance of a young man.
Eleven years after this hard road began for David Ravelo, who was released in 2017, he continues to be involved in the defense of human rights. “Everything possible has already happened to me, nothing can surprise me: the persecution, threats, assassination attempts, displacement, prison,… But I am alive. And all I have left is life and I must live it to the fullest.”
 El Espectador: ‘El confuso caso de David Ravelo llega a la Justicia Especial de Paz’, 20 July 2017
 Amnesty International: Colombia: Fear and Intimidation. The dangers of human rights work, page 11, 7 September 2006
 CREDHOS: ‘Peligra la vida del defensor de derechos humanos David Ravelo Crespo’, 14 February 2008
 Verdad Abierta: Condenan a ex gobernador José Domingo Dávila por ‘parapolítica’, 23 February 2011
 Vanguardia: ‘David Ravelo fue condenado a a 18 años de prisión por crimen de Núñez Cala’, 6 December 2012
 Barrancabermeja Virtual: ‘Tribunal de Santander confirma sentencia contra David Ravelo Crespo’, 16 October 2013
 Ley 1820 of 30 December 2016. PBI Colombia: ‘Reinaldo Villalba: “El caso de David Ravelo se presenta a la JEP en calidad de inocente”’, 15 June 2017
 El Espectador: , ‘Alias ‘El Panadero’ aceptó cargos por secuestro y tortura de Jineth Bedoya’, 2 February 2016. El Espectador: ‘“El Panadero” seguirá en la cárcel’, 19 July 2017
 El Espectador: ‘Exfiscal y policía (r) William Pachecho detenido por caso de desaparición forzada’, 3 April 2019