The José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective
With over forty years of experience, the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (Cajar) is one of the most respected human rights organisations in Colombia. It has legally accompanied thousands of social, union and student leaders, as well as peasant communities and ethnic peoples throughout the country. In its fight against impunity and in favour of peace with social and environmental justice, CAJAR represents numerous cases before national and international courts, as well as in the transitional justice system created after the peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas.
“International accompaniment, especially the accompaniment of Peace Brigades International, has been decisive in enabling us to continue our work as human rights defenders and lawyers, accompanying processes and victims who have suffered severe human rights violations. Without it we could not have continued, because of the serious attacks, the persecution and the great powers which have been levelled against our very existence as an organisation.”
CAJAR lawyer Dora Lucy Arias Giraldo
Forty years defending victim’s rights
Cajar was founded in 1979 by legal professionals who assisted popular sectors in cases of political persecution and human rights violations, defending victims of arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, massacres, and torture.1 On the occasion of the Collective’s 40th anniversary, Luis Ignacio Sandovál, a trade unionist at the time, recalls: “Cajar was part of a series of initiatives for resistance and promotion democratic emancipation (then a novelty), that emerged from civil society.” At the time, ultra-conservative and militaristic government policies dominated the scene.2
The Collective is named after José Alvear Restrepo from Medellín, considered a brilliant lawyer, who in Cajar’s words, stood out for being an assiduous defender of human rights with a strong commitment to popular causes and democracy in the country.3
In its more than forty years of experience, the organisation has been carrying out tireless efforts to represent individuals and communities whose rights have been violated before national and international courts. It has also helped to strengthen their organisational processes and advocates for peace with social and environmental justice. CAJAR’s lawyers have continued doing their work despite huge personal sacrifices, becoming targets of threats, aggressions and political persecution, which at times have put even the lives of their families at risk.
Their perseverance in achieving justice for victims and ending impunity has gained CAJAR broad national and international recognition, with the UN and other multilateral bodies and respected organisations of legal professionals such as the American Bar Association among others.
Contributions to the historical clarification of socio-political violence
CAJAR’s litigation and casework on behalf of victims and victim’s organisations has led to national and international legal precedents and emblematic court decisions, which have brought to light evidence of the State’s responsibility for numerous appalling crimes in Colombia’s fifty years long armed conflict.
Some of the sentences that stand out are those enacted in legal cases such as that of the people who disappeared during the siege of the Palace of Justice4, as well as the Trujillo massacre5 and the acts of public forgiveness that followed, in which the State publicly acknowledged its responsibility.
These and other cases represented by CAJAR have left their mark on the Colombian justice system and have contributed to the historical clarification of socio-political violence and to truth-finding and are therefore highly relevant to Colombian society.
Priority strategy areas
The legal representation of cases of socio-political violence and state crimes is part of the Collective’s strategy area of Overcoming impunity. Currently, CAJAR works on about six-hundred such cases.6 Additionally, the Collective and its allies have submitted around ten reports to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), documenting of cases of serious human rights violations committed during the armed conflict.
Another of CAJAR’s strategic priorities is peace-building and conflict resolution, through activities such as the promotion of the right to political participation. Among others, the Lawyers’ Collective participates in the National Roundtable of Guarantees, the multi-stakeholder body of government entities and civil society representatives centred on improving guarantees for the human rights defence work in the country. CAJAR also takes on cases of women and men who have been murdered for promoting human rights.7
CAJAR’s Territory Defence area promotes environmental justice and legally represents vulnerable populations, such as indigenous communities, in cases related to adverse environmental and human rights impacts generated by extractive industries operating in their territories. In recent years, CAJAR has been enhancing its actions in defence of territorial rights that are affected by the impacts of climate change.8 Based in Bogota, CAJAR’s work extends to over fifteen departments in Colombia.
Alliances with national and international organisations
CAJAR has an extensive network of partner organizations. Among others, the Collective is affiliated to the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), the Coalition for the International Criminal Court and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). In October 2019, Reinaldo Villalba Vargas, CAJAR’s treasurer and executive director, was appointed Vice President of the FIDH.9
A few months earlier, in June 2019, the organisation obtained the consultative status at the UN Economic and Social Council, which represents “the UN’s highest recognition for non-governmental organizations, allowing them to participate in the work of the organization”.10
In Colombia, the Collective is a member of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (Movice), participates in the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination (Cceeu) and is part of the Colombian Platform for Human Rights, Democracy and Development.
For peace with truth and justice
Under the motto “The road to peace passes through justice”, CAJAR has been advocating for the establishment of the transitional justice system since the time of the peace negotiations between the Colombian Government and the FARC guerrilla, which resulted in the signing of the Final Agreement in 2016.
After the different bodies of the Integral System for Justice, Truth, Reparation and Non-Repetition were installed, CAJAR has been insisting on its proper functioning. Among its main achievements, it is worth highlighting that the Collective and its allies managed to enable victims to participate in hearings in the transitional justice court where members of the Public Force tell their version of what happened, something that initially was not foreseen. The Lawyers’ Collective accompanies the victims during the proceedings before Special Jurisdiction for Peace tribunal in cases that were already being investigated in the ordinary justice system.
In alliance with ten other organizations that have historically represented victims of State crimes before ordinary justice courts, Cajar participates in the #CampañaPorLaVerdad (“#CampaignForTruth”). This initiative follows up on the appearance of military officials before the JEP11.
Research reports for the Transitional Justice System
CAJAR and its allies have been actively participating in the preparation of reports for the JEP, the Truth Commission, and the Search Unit for Missing Persons, which make up the Integral System for Justice, Truth, Reparation and Non-repetition. In recent years they presented over ten reports to the transitional justice entities. Among others, they carried out an investigation with CSPP – also accompanied by PBI – about extrajudicial executions committed by members of the Artillery Battalion No. 2 “La Popa”, under the command of the then Lieutenant Colonel Adolfo León Hernández Martínez, today Brigadier General of the National Army.12 Another report documents more than 140 acts of serious human rights violations experienced by the Wiwa indigenous people in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains.
Gender violence is one of the aspects investigated for this latest report, which is the result of a collaboration between CAJAR and the Wiwa Yugumaiun Bunkuanarrua Tayrona Organisation (OWYBT). The organisations registered many cases of violence against indigenous women and girls, exerted by different armed actors, demonstrating the intensification of gender violence during Colombia’s armed conflict.13
Another report, presented in October 2019, documents crimes committed during the massacres in the city of Barrancabermeja. The document, called: “Cobwebs of impunity: voices of resilience in the face of State-paramilitary violence in Magdalena Medio (1998-2000)”, points out the role of Public Forces agents – Army, Police and the defunct intelligence service, DAS – during the expansion of paramilitarism in the Magdalena Medio region.14 Since 1998, CAJAR has been judicially representing victims of the massacres that occurred in Colombia’s oil capital.15
Uncovering illegal DAS activities
Just like many other recognised human rights organizations in the country, CAJAR and its members have been victims of illegal monitoring and persecution by the Administrative Security Department (DAS). At the same time, the Collective is the legal representative of the victims in the process against this organism. Until its dissolution under President Santos in 2011, the DAS was Colombia’s main State intelligence centre reporting directly to the Presidency of the Republic16.
Representing victims of extrajudicial executions
CAJAR legally represents approximately 130 victims of alleged extrajudicial executions for which hundreds of officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers of the Armed Forces are being investigated.
Known as the Trujillo massacre, multiple and successive human rights violations have been committed between 1988 and 1994 in the municipalities of Trujillo, Bolívar and Riofrío (Valle del Cauca region).
Schools of Memory for Non-Repetition
In 2016 CAJAR, together with MOVICE and the Permanent Committee for Human Rights Defence (CPDH), presented the pedagogical proposal “Schools of Memory for Non-Repetition”. Its aim is to contribute to the clarification of the truth, the construction of a collective story of the conflict and its causes from the victims’ perspective, and to the consolidation of peace with guarantees for non-repetition.
Threats and attacks
Over the years, CAJAR has been the victim of threats, accusations, smear campaigns, intimidation, harassment and illegal monitoring. Its members are also victims of constant attacks on social networks such as Twitter.
Former President and today Senator of the Republic Alvaro Uribe Vélez himself was behind many of these attacks.17 They led CAJAR to file a complaint against him before the Supreme Court of Justice in 2017, for calumnies and insults issued through his Twitter account between 2013 and 2015. Uribe did not appear at the conciliation hearing, and the criminal process continues.
According to the organisation’s records, since 2010 CAJAR has received around a hundred menacing leaflets. In the last semester of 2019, it registered an increasing amount of these writings, which were signed by “Las Águilas Negras” (“The Black Eagles”), considered to be successors of demobilised paramilitary groups. The Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation to identify the author of the threats, which to date has not yielded results.18
In recent years, despite the weight and recognition of the work of the Cajar, threats and the campaign of contempt have not diminished. Between 2019 and 2020, lawyer Reynaldo Villalba, as the representative of Senator Iván Cepeda in the case against former president Alvaro Uribe Velez, has received threats and harassment. For which bars and lawyers around the world have joined to support the work of this group.19
“Our Political Commitment Keeps Us Alive” –Reynaldo Villalba
“What we see is a permanent attack on the administration of justice,” Reynaldo Villalba
From 2001 CAJAR has had precautionary measures commissioned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Six of its high-profile members have physical protection measures provided by the state National Protection Unit (UNP) which consist of two individual and four collective unarmed security schemes.
Awards and recognition
CAJAR’s work to defend human rights, fight impunity and build peace has won it numerous national and international awards and honours. Below we highlight some of the most recent recognitions.
In 2012 the Collective won the National Award for the Defence of Human Rights in the “Collective Process” category, awarded by the Inter-Agency Dialogue Coordination in Colombia (DIAL). In 2015 CAJAR received the Human Rights Prize, in the International category, from the Spanish Association for Human Rights (APRODEH), and the following year the organisation was awarded the Judith Lee Stronach Prize for Human Rights from the Center for Justice and Accountability, United States.
In October 2018, the Collective received an honourable mention from the Alejandro Ángel Escobar Foundation. According to the jury, the lawyers of the Collective “carry out VERY pertinent work in the current context of the country and within a reality of sustained human rights violations in Colombia. Its orientation towards cultural, social and formative action is noteworthy, with which it has impacted more than 15 thousand people in different contexts and situations, whose rights they have defended.”20
At the individual level, throughout the history of the organization CAJAR’s lawyers have also won several awards. For example, lawyer Eduardo Carreño was a finalist for the 2016 National Human Rights Award (Colombia) in the category “Lifetime recognition”. In 2008, lawyer Yessika Hoyos received the George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award from the American trade union center AFL-CIO, and lawyer Soraya Gutiérrez received the American Bar Association International Human Rights Award, in 2006. In 2003 lawyer Alirio Uribe was awarded the Martín Ennals Prize for Human Rights Defenders in Switzerland. In 2020, Reinaldo Villalba won the Sir Brook Award for Human Rights Defenders awarded by Peace Brigades International UK, Simmons & Simmons and Alliance for Lawyers at Risk, highlighting his work and role in the judicial process representing Ivan Cepeda against former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, underlining the risk he posed to the human rights lawyer.21
We have been accompanying CAJAR since 1995.