Colombia Table of Contents
Plaza de Bolívar Bogotá prior to the 1985 destruction of the
Palace of Justice, seen here in background on right
Courtesy Embassy of Colombia, Washington
The judiciary consists of the Supreme Court, under which are the district superior, circuit, municipal, and lower courts, and the Council of State, which supervises a system of administrative courts that scrutinize acts and decrees issued by executive and decentralized agencies. The executive branch exercises some control over the judicial process through the Ministry of Justice and the Council of State. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for administering aspects of the legal and judicial system, such as the actual operation of the courts and penal system.
The Supreme Court is organized into four chambers dealing with civil, criminal, and labor appeals and with constitutional procedure. The first three chambers sit together as a Plenary Committee to resolve particularly important matters and government business. The Plenary Court's constitutional mandate grants it the authority to try high government officials for misconduct or violation of the laws, to deal with legal matters concerning foreign governments, and to address other cases assigned by law to the Supreme Court. It also rules on the constitutionality of legislation under Article 90, which permits the president to challenge the constitutionality of a law, and Article 124, whereby any citizen may claim that a conflict exists between legislation and the Constitution.
The Senate and the House of Representatives each appoints onehalf of the twenty-four-member Supreme Court from a list of nominees submitted by the president. Appointments are for life. The Supreme Court selects the members of the district superior courts, who, in turn, select magistrates for the lesser judicial positions in their districts. District magistrates serve five-year terms and may be reappointed indefinitely. Congress may remove from office a judge considered to be unfit because of conduct or age.
The Council of State has two functions. First, it acts as an advisory board to the president by drafting bills and codes concerned with administration and even by proposing legislative reforms in this area. Second, it acts as the supreme administrative tribunal, presiding over a hierarchy of courts that hears complaints against the government and public officials. With its power of judicial review over the constitutionality of administrative codes, decrees, and legislation, the Council of State is given equal rank with the Supreme Court in the judicial structure. Half of the Council of State's ten members are elected biannually for four-year terms from a list submitted to Congress by the president.
The country is divided into judicial districts, each of which has a superior court of three or more judges. District superior courts supervise the lower municipal, circuit, juvenile, and specialized courts. The lower courts are distributed on a departmental basis. At the lower levels, the court system still tended to be overburdened and slow in the late 1980s; juries were used infrequently. The Constitution also establishes one administrative court for each department to hear complaints brought by individuals against officials of the executive branch and the public service. These courts are part of an administrative hierarchy headed by the Council of State.
Public Ministry attorneys have the same rank, receive the same compensation, and must have the same qualifications as the magistrates before whom they practice. Although not formally part of the judiciary, Public Ministry officials are empowered to enforce the execution of laws, judicial decisions, and administrative orders. The attorney general selects lower court prosecuting attorneys from lists of nominees prepared by the prosecuting attorneys of the district superior courts. The president selects the latter attorneys from a list submitted by the attorney general.
By the late 1980s, a loose coalition of about twenty Medellínbased cocaine-trafficking families or syndicates, known collectively as the Medellín Cartel, had demoralized Colombia's judicial sector with narcotics-related corruption and had virtually paralyzed it with a campaign of terrorism and intimidation (see Internal Security Problems , ch. 5). Operating with considerable impunity, the Colombian drug barons arranged for the murders of more than fifty magistrates, including a dozen Supreme Court judges, between 1981 and 1988. The Extraditables (Los Extraditables), the name adopted by the cartel drug lords, also financed the assassination by hired killers (sicarios) of government judicial officials who favored compliance with the bilateral Extradition Treaty Between Colombia and the United States, signed by both countries in 1979. The drug traffickers feared extradition to the United States, where they were more likely to be convicted. Their victims included Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, assassinated on April 30, 1984; Lara Bonilla's successor as justice minister and ambassador to Hungary Enrique Parejo González, seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in Budapest in December 1986; and Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos Jiménez, assassinated in Medellín on January 25, 1988.
On December 12, 1986, the Plenary Committee of the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional Law 27 of 1980, which approved the already ratified 1979 extradition treaty between Colombia and the United States. The ruling broke with a seventy-year majority opinion that a law approving an international treaty could not be subjected to constitutional revision. Other judicial decisions favorable to the cartel--such as the release from jail in 1987 of Jorge Luis Ochoa Vásquez and Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, two leading cocaine traffickers--suggested that the drug dealers had succeeded in either bribing or intimidating many key judges, from the Supreme Court down to the local tribunals. Indeed, a document found in an army search in Medellín in January 1988 revealed that since early 1986 bribes of over US$1 million had been paid to officials of the foreign affairs and justice ministries (including judges), to the military, and to politicians to guarantee Ochoa's freedom. In a further concession to terrorism, the Supreme Court in June 1987 declared that Decree 750 of 1987 was unconstitutional. That decree had created the three-member Special Tribunal of Criminal Proceedings (Tribunal Especial de Instrucción Criminal) for the purpose of investigating politically significant assassinations causing social unrest or trauma. To fill the resulting gap, the Barco government turned to a small cadre of "specialized judges" that was established in 1984 to deal with terrorist crimes, including kidnaping, with the support of forensic experts of the Directorate of the Judicial Police and Investigation, commonly referred to as the Judicial Police (see The National Police and Law Enforcement Authorities , ch. 5).
Data as of December 1988
Colombia Table of Contents