The hugs and words of gratitude from those who come to him with hope of justice, are what give the most significance to Reynaldo Villalba’s life. The 61-year-old lawyer has spent almost 30 year representing victims of grave human rights violations and recognized peace advocates. In these weeks, Villalba has a lot to celebrate as the Supreme Court of Justice, in an unprecedented ruling, ordered the house arrest of former President and Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez for allegedly bribing witnesses. These incidents were brought to light by Senator Iván Cepeda, whom Villalba represents before the Court.
Reynaldo was born in Pasca, a small town in Cundinamarca, perched on the slopes of the Eastern range of the Andes Mountains. His father, a self-taught dentist, passed on his knowledge of dentistry, which turned out to be useful when he later visited became a teacher in distant towns in the Sumapaz paramo (high-altitude wetlands) which were only reached by hours riding by mule or horseback. His school-boy dream was to study law at the National University of Colombia. During his first year in Bogotá, he worked as a door-to-door book salesman by day and working night shifts at a textile factory. Then, he began to work as a primary school teacher in the Sumapaz páramo where he alternated his teaching duties with his work as unofficial dentist treating the dental problems of the local population whose distance from health centers made access to care extremely difficult. Years later, he was able to study law at the National University. In the university lecture halls he realized that he would dedicate his professional life in the search for social justice, the defense and promotion of human rights; his personal experiences had marked his destiny. He graduated in 1989 and shortly after, he began to work at the prestigious José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), an organization that he had admired since his university days.
During the quarantine, PBI spoke with Reynaldo Villalba about the illegal intelligence carried out by the Army, which was revealed by Semana magazine in May of 2020. During 2019, the activities of at least 130 journalists, political opposition members, unionists, and human rights defenders, including CCAJAR members, were the target of online surveillance.1 For Villalba, “it is no surprise what ended up happening with the military intelligence.” CCAJAR has been working with victims of the armed conflict for 40 years and “they were 40 years of constant persecution.”2
Why did the Army resort to illegal intelligence? According to the lawyer, “these operations not only attempt to find out what we do, the victims we represent, the cases we work on, who we plan to bring before the justice system, and the principle incidents of impunity that we are going after, but they can also be a prelude to much more serious actions such as threats, smear campaigns, judicial setups and attempts against life.”
This persecution also affects the peace process signed between the National Government and the FARC, which gave rise to the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Non-repetition. For example, explains Villalba, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) “has experienced illegal intelligence, judicial set-ups, and smear campaigns. As have the lawyers who litigate before the JEP representing victims of serious human rights violations, especially victims of state and paramilitary crimes.” The Truth Commission has also suffered smear campaigns “to belittle its important role. Those who attack it don’t want the country to know the truth about what took place in the last 40 or 50 years of our history, they want to impose an ‘official version’ of history which covers up the truth about State crimes and their paramilitary strategy.”
“The persecution we suffered during the Álvaro Uribe Vélez government, by means of the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) –an intelligence agency that responds directly to the Office of the President– is very revealing,” Villalba said. During Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s two presidential terms (2002-2010), the DAS unleashed systematic and wide-spread persecution against opposition leaders, magistrates, journalists, or members of human rights organizations.3 Villalba remembers how the DAS had chosen the Lawyers’ Collective as target number one and persecuted the human rights defenders in all kinds of spaces and many different ways: using malicious prosecution, arbitrary detentions, smear campaigns, murders, sabotage, threats, assassination attempts and murders.
A terrible memory which repeatedly comes to the lawyer´s mind is the package sent to his colleague Soraya Gutiérrez, then president of CCAJAR, “which contained a beheaded and dismembered doll, with red nail polish all over the body, especially in the genital area as if representing rape, with the eyes burned and a hand written note that said, ´You have a very pretty family, take care of it, and don’t sacrifice it;´ a message that surely referenced her young daughter.”
Villalba also has innumerable personal stories: in 2004, the then-president Álvaro Uribe referenced Villalba in front of the European parliament in Strasbourg, lamenting the presence of “a lawyer who roams the halls of the European Parliament like a ghost, who is from the Lawyers’ Collective which defends the guerrilla,” a statement that would generate death threats up his return to Colombia.
Villalba remembers that years ago his young son had asked him, “Papa, why do they kill so many of your friends?” and he realized the effect on his child of the frequent mentions of the murders of friends of his: trade unionists, members of the UP (Unión Patriotica), activists and social leaders. He carefully responded that his friends were seeking justice and that there were people who didn´t like justice. On another occasion his son saw him putting on a bullet proof vest and asked him, “Papa, what is that?” to which he responded: “A brace for my back.” His son then asked, “Can bullets go through your brace?” Our children grow up with their parent’s constant persecution as part of their reality, concludes Villalba. “This persecution leaves a mark for life.”
Persecution of the family structure is something commonly faced by CCAJAR members. There are many incidents that reveal how the family suffers intensely from this persecution. “Our children have been photographed, filmed, and followed on their way to school.”
“There are many moments in our lives when we say to ourselves: ´They could kill me at any second´,” confesses Villalba. The situation is so grave that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (I/A Court H.R.) has decided to study the case of state persecution against CCAJAR members. Villalba hopes that “an I/A Court H.R. ruling will help CCAJAR and all human rights organizations in Latin America and around the world.”
When it was clear that CCAJAR members had once again been victims of illegal intelligence, the Collective presented itself as a victim before the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Supreme Court of Justice. Up until 21 July, the day of the interview with PBI, they have not been recognized as victims, states Villalba, and they had not been given permission to access the information on surveilled CCAJAR activities. “Obviously, our task is to pressure the Prosecutor General’s Office to fulfill its obligation to tell the country the truth about who the maximum responsible parties are, who ordered illegal intelligence actions, and who the information was for.
Regardless of the systematic persecution they have faced, “our political commitment with the Colombian society lives on, as does our commitment to truth and justice,” explains Villalba. “Working in human rights without having the victims’ faces in our mind, those who place their hope in our work, would not be possible.” “The victims provide the energy that allows us to continue our efforts to defend and promote human rights and build a country for everyone.”
2 Interview with Reynaldo Villalba, 21 July, 2020