David Ravelo Crespo is an economist, human rights defender and founding member of the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (CREDHOS) in the oil port of Barrancabermeja. He was arrested and jailed in September 2010 for a crime that he, according to his defence lawyers and the international organisations which monitor his case, never committed. He was released on parole in 2017 pending a decision by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). While fighting for his rehabilitation, he is working to promote social and environmental causes as well as guarantees of victim’s rights in Barrancabermeja and the Magdalena Medio region.
History: survivor of political genocide
David Ravelo is an economist and a recognized human rights defender in Barrancabermeja. He was a founding member of the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (CREDHOS) in the same city. He describes himself as a political prisoner and a victim of legal setups against him.
In 2010 Ravelo was arrested, accused of being the mastermind of the murder, in 1991, of a local public official, a crime that he, according to his legal defence, never committed. In December 2012, after 26 months awaiting sentencing, he was condemned to 18 years in prison by the Specialized Criminal Court of Bucaramanga.1 In June 2017, Ravelo was released on parole, pending the decision from the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) regarding his request that his case be transferred from the ordinary justice courts to this special transitional justice tribunal.2
David Ravelo was a city councillor for the Patriotic Union (UP) in the 1990s. From this time, citizens of Barrancabermeja remember that, thanks to his public management, important improvements were made in popular neighbourhoods.3 He was the victim of a smear campaign directed at his person, which, according to the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (Cajar) that is in charge of Ravelo’s legal defence, was orchestrated by State agents and paramilitary groups.4 Despite the threats, the rights defender managed to survive what is now known as the UP’s political genocide.5 According to the National Centre of Historical Memory, 3.600 Colombians members of this left-wing movement fell victim to selective assassinations or lost their lives in massacres.6
At the time of his arrest in 2010, Ravelo was a member of the Central Committee of the Colombian Communist Party and a collaborator and columnist for the Rural Press Agency (Agencia Prensa Rural).
“I’m guilty because I denounce”
David Ravelo witnessed the massacre of May 16, 1998 in Barrancabermeja, in which the paramilitaries murdered seven civilians and disappeared twenty-five people, in an operation that was planned to expel the FARC, ELN and EPL guerrillas from the oil port. According to declarations given under oath by former paramilitaries, Public Forces, officials from the oil company Ecopetrol security office, and wealthy merchants in the region were allegedly complicit in the perpetration of the massacre.7
After the events took place, CREDHOS, which was then headed by Ravelo Crespo, began to denounce the criminal actions of paramilitary groups in Barrancabermeja. Among others, CREDHOS and Ravelo pointed to the paramilitary fighter known as “El Panadero” as co-author of the massacre, the same person who would later become Ravelo’s main accuser in the judicial process which started in 2010.8
As councillor of Barrancabermeja and director of CREDHOS, David Ravelo made countless public denouncements and acted as a legal witness in cases of human rights violations perpetrated by paramilitaries in this city. Prior to his imprisonment in 2010, the defender had been the victim of what his defence lawyers considered to be another legal setup, which occurred in 1993 when he was prosecuted and detained, and was later acquitted.9 “I’m guilty because I denounce”, Ravelo has said on several occasions. He’s convinced that with his imprisonment “they seek to silence a popular leader who has not been intimidated and could not be co-opted by the establishment.”10
Before his incarceration in 2010, David Ravelo had to endure a decade of death threats. His family has also been threatened. Before and during his father’s arrest, his son David Ravelo Gutiérrez has been harassed and persecuted, and after his father’s conditional release another incident occurred, when at the end of 2019, David jr. was detained during the National Strike protests. He was accused of being a member of the dissident FARC movement by both the Prosecutor’s Office and the Police.11
Multiple irregularities in the court case against David Ravelo
Since he was captured in 2010, Ravelo has struggled to demonstrate that his case was a process based on the false testimony of a former paramilitary, who was later prosecuted for procedural fraud. According to Alirio Uribe, a lawyer for Cajar, the organisation that has led Ravelo’s defence, the irregularities in the process have undermined the defence of his case and the legitimacy of the subsequent conviction.12
Among other criticisms, his lawyers and the international organizations which have been monitoring his case, expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that the Colombian courts lent credibility to the testimonies of former paramilitaries sentenced to prison, who had incurred in constant contradictions in their different versions, trying to blame Ravelo. They also indicated that Ravelo’s conviction issued by the Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office was based on the declarations of only three prosecution witnesses, without referring to “the more than thirty testimonies of personalities from the city of Barrancabermeja who make clear that these witnesses are lying.”13 The fact that the two former jailed paramilitaries and key witnesses received a reduced sentence as a reward for their “evidence” against the human rights defender, adds another component to the list of questionable actions by the justice system.14
It also generated many doubts that the Prosecutor responsible for starting the case against David Ravelo, William Gildardo Pacheco Granados, was investigated and relieved of his duties in 1993 by the Attorney General, because of his alleged involvement in the forced disappearance of a young man before he became Prosecutor, when he was a lieutenant in the National Police . Pacheco is also suspected of bias towards confessed paramilitaries such as “Jorge 40” years later while he was a human rights prosecutor.15 Ravelo’s defence lawyers and those who criticise the errors of the administrators of justice, have also stressed that according to Colombian Law, “no one who has been removed from any public office may exercise as a Prosecutor nor hold any position in the Prosecutor’s Office”, which would automatically imply that the process should be considered null.16
Exhaustion of instances and submission to the JEP
Despite the irregularities in the judicial process against David Ravelo, the conviction against him remained in place. In August 2015, with all legal avenues in Colombia exhausted, his lawyers decided to take the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).17 The Commission reacted by requesting more information on some elements of the Ravelo case.
When the opportunity presented itself, Ravelo decided to present himself before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in 2017. For having requested the submission of his case to this special court, the human rights defender was released on parole in June 2017, after almost eight years in jail.
Ravelo and his lawyers will insist on his innocence before the JEP. They hope to demonstrate to this court of transitional justice how the process against him was the product of a legal setup by the ordinary justice system, centred around the ex-paramilitary Mario Jaimes Mejía, alias El Panadero, who today is being prosecuted as a false witness.18
Reinaldo Villalba: “David Ravelo’s case will be taken to the JEP, to plead his innocence”
Since the arrest of David Ravelo, national and international organisations have drawn attention to his case, stressing that the conviction was based on false charges and arguing that the process originated due only to his human rights work. Among others, organisations such as the World Organization against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)19 have expressed concerns in this regard, through statements to public opinion, action alerts and requests to the Colombian government.
In 2011, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of magistrates and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, sent a joint statement to the Government, in which they expressed their concern because the “criminalisation of Mr Ravelo Crespo occurred in a context of an increase in cases of baseless prosecutions of human rights defenders in Colombia.”20
Ravelo has also received support by international legal experts. In September 2014, the Human Rights Committee of the Bar of England and Wales (BHCR) filed an amicus curiae21 about the case in the Colombian Supreme Court of Justice. In it, the British organization points to a series of procedural irregularities and evidentiary issues that, in its opinion, remove the foundations of the case. The chair of the Committee, Kirsty Brimelow, noted that “ the problems found in this case do not just have an impact on Ravelo, but also on the functioning of due process in Colombia and its adhesion to international law.”22
Following his provisional release in 2017, the organization Frontline Defenders pointed out that this release took place in a context of high risk for human rights defenders such as Ravelo. It expressed concern about this situation, adding: “Although the Colombian government signed the peace deal, this has not made the country safer for human rights activists.”23
This and other national and international organisations continue to insist that the Colombian government rescind its conviction against the human rights defender.
Support for environmental causes
Once released on parole, David Ravelo resumed his activities in Barrancabermeja as a social leader and human rights defender. He works independently but in close coordination with organisations and civil society groups that strive to guarantee the rights and improve the well-being of different social sectors in the city. He organises workshops, demonstrations and other joint actions with actors such as the Youth Coordination of Barrancabermeja, the Social Roundtable for Barrancabermeja, unions and environmental organisations, and women’s organisations.24
A priority issue for social movements in Barrancabermeja and the Magdalena Medio region that Ravelo supports are the cases of negative environmental and human rights impacts of local companies, such as Ecopetrol. This company is associated with the contamination of water supplies, in particular the San Silvestre swamp, which sources the local aqueduct.25 This company is also questioned for air pollution and oil spills, affecting the soils and properties of the inhabitants of the city and its surroundings. According to Ravelo, neither the company nor local authorities assume responsibility for preventing and redressing the damages.26
Similarly, an important claim in the complaints and social protests are the malpractices around solid waste landfills in the city, which seriously affect public health27, as well as the advanced plans of national and international companies to invest in the controversial oil and gas extraction technique fracking, an issue that moves not only Ravelo, but generates concern among more and more local human rights organisations.28
The fight against impunity continues
With various allies and in various ways, Ravelo carries out activities aimed at making the implementation of the Peace Agreement between the government and the FARC in 2016 a reality in the region. The human rights defender points out that the peace the country needs goes beyond the document signed by the negotiators in Havana, since achieving a stable and lasting peace actually implies that there should be “full guarantees so that people can exercise their rights.”29
Ravelo works to accompany victims of the armed conflict and of human rights violations, which continue to occur today. Achieving an end to the impunity victims face in the countless cases of human rights violations at the hands of paramilitaries and Colombian State actors in the oil port and the Magdalena Medio region, has been a recurrent theme in his career as a rights defender, councillor and social leader.
With regards to the ongoing impunity in the country, Ravelo affirms: “For us, the issue of truth is very important. We are constantly denouncing victimising crimes in local communities. Impunity is rampant in Colombia and we see that the State is not really willing to act. So this fight continues.”30
Promotion of new social protests in Barrancabermeja
David Ravel also promoted and helped in the organisation of the different social protests during 2019. The protests remind him of the days of the persecutions, murders and the massacre in 1998, which left an indelible mark on the city of Barrancabermeja and on his live and that of many others. This explains why for so many years, citizens have not dared to demonstrate. “No wonder people are afraid: we were murdered and a whole generation was lost. The vast majority of popular leaders, with years of preparation, were eliminated or left the city, fleeing the paramilitary violence,” remembers David Ravelo.31
According to the human rights defender, that´s why the current moment is so important. In the demonstrations during the National Strike beginning on November 21, 2019, where thousands of people took to the streets throughout the country and also in Barrancabermeja32, he sees the dawn of an important change. Finally, “people have been losing the fear. They’ve come out to demand the opening up of the restricted democracy in Colombia, where their rights and the rights of social leaders and the reintegrated ex FARC combatants are constantly denied.”
Ravelo highlights the role of the new generations during the social protests: “Young people are setting the example, they’ve created a great current of opinion that has influenced the movement.” According to the human rights defender, “a new generation is emerging, which represents the accumulated claims that we have been making as a social movement in our times. The struggle has not stopped and today, people’s fighting spirit is flourishing. This is a new spring for Colombia.”33
David Ravelo frequently publishes articles online about social and human rights causes in Barrancabermeja and the country, available on the Rural Press Agency’s digital platform.
David Ravelo was granted precautionary measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2010, when the Commission granted these measures to the members and directors of the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (CREDHOS), which at the time included Ravelo.
Since the time of David Ravelo’s arrest in 2010, PBI has accompanied the judicial process and has requested observation from the international community, in order to guarantee respect for due process and the legitimate right of defence. The aforementioned actions are underpinned by the fact that this judicialization affects a human rights defender who enjoys precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
1 Vanguardia Liberal: David Ravelo fue condenado a 18 años de prisión por crimen de Núñez Cala, 6 December, 2012
2 El Espectador: “Me presento a la JEP siendo inocente”: David Ravelo, June 20, 2017
3 Kaosenlared: Colombia: Detenido en Barrancabermeja David Ravelo Crespo, directivo de CREDHOS, 15 September 2014
4 Cajar: Comité Británico de Derechos Humanos interpone amicus curiae en la Corte Suprema de Justicia por el Caso David Ravelo, 1 September 2014
5 Verdad Abierta: Exterminio de la UP fue un genocidio político, 15 de septiembre de 2016
6 CNMH: Todo pasó frente a nuestros ojos. Genocidio de la Unión Patriótica 1984-2002, August 2018; The CNMH notes that in this case, “justice owes a historical debt to victims, families, survivors, and the political movement, because impunity surrounds the events of the worst political crime in the country’s recent history,” pp. 15-16.
7 El Espectador: El doble drama de los David Ravelo, 5 February 2020 ; El Tiempo: Familias de masacre de Barrancabermeja cumplen 20 años de viacrucis, 16 May2018
8 Appeal by Alirio Uribe: “Chapter II: The request for annulment within this process for violation of due process”, January 21, 2013
9 Op.cit. Cajar, September 1, 2014
10 PBI Colombia: En libertad David Ravelo después de casi siete años en prisión, 20 June 2017
11 Op.cit. El Espectador, February 5, 2020
12 Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC): Amicus curiae: “Procedural Issues”, paragraphs 53-64; Amicus curiae: “Evidentiary Issues”, paragraphs 65-73; Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo: David Ravelo Crespo: en espera de pronta absolución, May 24, 2012
13 Frontline Defenders: Case History: David Ravelo Crespo, 2017
14 Semana: El “transformer”, June 1, 2013 ; op.cit. El Espectador: 5 February 2020
15 El Espectador: Exfiscal y policía (r) Wiliam Pacheco detenido por caso de desaparición forzada, 3 April 2019 ; Ccajar: Capturado ex fiscal William Pacheco por desaparición forzada de un joven en 1991, 3 April 2019
16 Op.cit El Espectador, 3 April 2019
17 Law 270 of 1996, Presidential Decree 261/2000 and Law 938/2004
18 El Espectador: El caso de David Ravelo, a la Cidh, 27 September 2015
19 El Espectador: El confuso caso de David Ravelo llega a la Justicia Especial de Paz, 20 June 2017 ; op.cit. El Espectador, 20 June 2017
20 OMCT: “Colombia: Organizaciones Internacionales expresan su preocupación ante el tercer aniversario de la detención de David Ravelo Crespo, prominente defensor colombiano de derechos humanos”, 14 September 2013 ; FIDH: “Colombia: Declaración conjunta: Organizaciones Internacionales solicitan atención a la continuación del proceso en contra de David Ravelo Crespo”, 10 March 2014
21 Consejo de Derechos Humanos de la Asamblea General de la ONU: “Informe de la relatora especial sobre la independencia de los magistrados y abogados, Gabriela Knaul, A/HRC/17/30/Add.1”, May 2011
22 Amicus curiae (“friends of the Court”) is a legal instrument through which arguments guided by international human rights instruments are brought before a court with the aim of guaranteeing the rule of law and due process in a specific case. Op.cit. Cajar, September 1, 2014. The previous year, on September 4, 2013, the Human Rights Committee of the Bar of England and Wales (BHRC) had already presented an Amicus Curiae in the case of David Ravelo Crespo, before the Santander High Court.
23 Organizaciones internacionales: Declaración conjunta por la libertad de David Ravelo Crespo, 16 September 2013
24 Op.cit. Frontline Defenders, 2017
25 Change.org: Ecopetrol va a envenenar la Cienega San Silvestre y el agua que consumen los Barranqueños, consulted on 11 December 2020; Vanguardia: Firman pacto en Barrancabermeja para salvar la ciénaga San Silvestre”, 18 August 2019
26 Op.cit PBI Colombia: Interview with David Ravelo, November 2019; Vanguardia: El derrame de crudo que hace vivir un ‘infierno’ a finquera, 8 May 2019
27 La Silla Vacia: El nuevo lío del relleno clausurado de Barrancabermeja, 26 February 26, 2017
28 Vanguardia: Ecopetrol se queda sin licencia ambiental para fracking, 12 July 2019 ; Peace Brigades International Canada: Calgary-based Parex Resources Inc. seeks to frack in Colombia amid human rights concerns, 15 November 2019
29 Op.cit PBI Colombia: Interview with David Ravelo, November 2019
31 Ibid.; David Ravelo Crespo: “Sobre la masacre del 16 de mayo de 1998”, Semanario Voz, May 16, 2020
32 Vanguardia: Barrancabermeja le marchó al paro, pero en completa calma, 22 November 2019.; Oriente Noticias Canal TRO: Con bloqueos de dos vías pero sin enfrentamiento avanza Paro Nacional en Barrancabermeja, 4 December 2019
33 Op.cit PBI Colombia: Interview with David Ravelo, November 2019