Time and time again Daniel Prado’s boots sink into the sticky mud that reaches his knees as he travels the paths of Montes de Maria, until he reaches the exhumation site. Prado and his client, Carmen Zuñega, walk for five hours under a constant drizzle, through the mountainous area controlled by paramilitary groups, until they reach the place where Omar Zuñega’s tortured body rests. They understand that the trip has been in vain when they see that no one from the Prosecutor’s Office has arrived. The trip was canceled because their truck could not drive along the mud trail. But Prado doesn’t mind walking another five hours back to the nearest town, what is important for him is fulfilling his obligations as a lawyer.
For almost thirty years, he has been defending those people who cannot defend themselves, convinced that in a society that justifies attacking people, risking your life is necessary. Ever since he decided to be a defender, he has known the risks involved, even the risk of being murdered. For Prado, denouncing human rights violations and confronting the victimizers is a question of dignity, and this “leads you to put your life at risk.”1 Due to his dedication he has been attacked, threatened, and persecuted, but for Prado this is of little importance. He is content because, in most of the cases where he has represented victims, the victimizers have been convicted, despite the high-level impunity that exists in Colombia. Prado is outraged by the misery and circumstances under which people live. “It is regrettable how people who raise their voice in protest are repressed and this we must fight.”
Prado was born in 1964, the same year that two guerrilla groups –the FARC and ELN– were formed, and he grew up surrounded by news about the violence. He became a student leader, and then studied economics and law. When he graduated in 1992, he began representing families victims of enforced disappearance. He has litigated many high-profile cases, which brought him a lot of recognition but also innumerable enemies. For example, when the prestigious lawyer Eduardo Umaña Mendoza was murdered, Prado took on the Palace of Justice case, a story that could not be told, it was taboo for the country. Eventually, he was able to prove the Colombian State’s responsibility, especially that of the Army, for the Palace’s re-takeover and the murder of 98 individuals.2
Santiago Uribe Vélez’s Trial: Awaiting the final arguments
Currently, Prado is known in the press as the legal representative for the family of Camilo Barrientos, a “chiva”3 driver who was allegedly murdered by members of the “Twelve Apostles” in 1994. The defendant is none other than the brother of ex-president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Santiago, accused of creating the paramilitary group and the murder of Barrientos.4
Even though the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Nation called Santiago Uribe Vélez in for questioning in 2016, Prado’s investigative work has been on the heels of the Uribe Vélez family since 1997, when he was looking into several cases of enforced disappearance. He eventually met police officer Juan Carlos Meneses, who confessed to Prado, telling him about his participation in a wave of deaths that occurred in the mid-90s in Antioquia, in the area surrounding the Santiago Uribe Vélez ranch.5 Prado contacted Father Javier Giraldo, who communicated with the Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner, Adolph Pérez Esquivel. Together they made an international denouncement before recognized human rights defenders in Argentina. At this point, the police office told how the “Twelve Apostles” paramilitary group operated and its relationship with cattle rancher Santiago Uribe Vélez. Now, the court case is on the verge of concluding; the final arguments from Santiago Uribe Vélez’s defense lawyer are still pending.
Even though the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Nation called Santiago Uribe Vélez in for questioning in 2016, Prado’s investigative work has been on the heels of the Uribe Vélez family since 1997, when he was looking into several cases of enforced disappearance.
The “Twelve Apostles” are tied to the murder of 509 victims, emphasizes Prado. However, this case is limited to the murder of driver Barrientos and Santiago Uribe’s alleged relationship with the paramilitary group.
The case should have concluded last year, but throughout the case there have been “maneuvers from the defense to generate delays, some have worked, others haven’t,” affirms Prado. This year Covid 19 was responsible for the indefinite postponement and on 20 August, Prado requested that the court convene an online hearing, highlighting the fundamental right to a prompt and full administration of justice.
While the case continues to be postponed, all those involved in the process (lawyers, witnesses, and judges) are under a lot of pressure. Prado has received several threats; he recalls persecution while traveling by car to Bogotá, accompanied by PBI, “we were followed by a guy, a man, on a motorcycle, it was very evident what they were doing,” says Prado.6 With the aim of intimidating him, his car tires have been loosened and he has been threatened by telephone. “Really, there have been a lot, so sometimes I can’t remember them all”, he says with a stoic smile, eager to shift the focus away from himself.
Witnesses have also been persecuted. Prado affirms that there have been assassination attempts against the lives of police officer Juan Carlos Meneces and the ex-paramilitary Juan Jesús Agudelo. The peasant who worked on a farm neighboring Hacienda La Carolina had to leave the country as a protection measure.7
However, there are also beacons of hope. International lawyers have accompanied the case, something he feels is very important since, according to Prado, “justice can be manipulated, the power of those being tried in this case is undeniable.” The international accompaniment helps, so that the judges and justice operators know that they aren’t alone and so that those who are carrying out threats understand that the case is accompanied by the international community.
For Prado, the Santiago Uribe case is most significant because ex-president Álvaro Uribe Vélez is the person who has had the most political power in Colombia. And he is the first brother of an ex-president “who is going to jail.” Prado is convinced that he will get a conviction.