Faceless Justice

Between 1984 and 1991, the year in which Faceless Justice was created, 32 judges and magistrates died. Photo: El Colombiano.

Faceless justice was a measure adopted by the Colombian government to protect members of the judiciary from the threats and terrorist attacks committed by drug traffickers to pressure judges to rule in their favor.

In 1990, President César Gaviria issued the Statute for the Defense of Justice. This gave rise to regional or faceless justice, which started to operate in January 1991 for the trial of crimes of drug trafficking, terrorism, kidnapping, extortion, collusion, rebellion and sedition.

Just between 1979 and 1991, 290 legal officials were killed. According to the Andean Commission of Jurists, 515 cases of violence against lawyers, judges and magistrates were reported in the same period.

This justice model was known as faceless justice, because to ensure their safety, it withheld the identity of the judges, attorneys and witnesses. To maintain their anonymity, the attorneys and judges carried out their inquiries and hearings in cabins with tinted glass, their voices were distorted and the case file did not appear with their names but with a code.

The witnesses’ names did not appear either, their testimony was endorsed by their fingerprint and their statements were not made known to the defense lawyers. One of the five regional faceless justice courts operated in Medellín, where the judiciary had been a victim of the city’s cartel.

Even This Was Not Enough

Despite these drastic measures, it soon became clear that this was not enough. The drug traffickers started to follow the armored cars the lawyers traveled in. They also offered high sums of money to obtain information about them.

An example of the limited protection they provided was the killing of the faceless judge Myriam Rocío Vélez and her three bodyguards on September 18, 1992, by hitmen in Medellín. Her murder was attributed to Pablo Escobar and would be related to her participation in the investigation into the homicide of the editor-in-chief of El Espectador newspaper, Guillermo Cano.

Additionally, the members of the judiciary constantly denounced the lack of an adequate security detail. In 1992, a survey of regional judges indicated that 89% did not have a bodyguard, 96% did not have a bullet-proof vest and 44% traveled between their home and work alone.

An Effective Mechanism?

The application of this model enabled the trial of more than 70% of the Medellín Cartel. It also played an essential role in the investigation and trial of those involved in Proceeding 8000, carried out on the funding of the Ernesto Samper’s presidential campaign by the Cali Cartel.

Despite the above, the detractors of regional justice criticized aspects such as the lack of knowledge of Martial Law and its ineffectiveness in sentencing criminals with the financial and military capacity to attack or evade justice, who were the people this special system was designed to combat. Contrary to this principle, 25% of the people put on trial were rural farmers, 9.3% were laborers, 50% barely had primary education and 80% earned less than the minimum wage.

On several occasions, the OAS and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also expressed their opposition, stating that they condemned the use of anonymous judges because it violated the principle of independence of the judiciary and restricted the defendant’s right to due process and to a fair trial.

Finally, the implementation of regional justice ended in June 1999 upon the decision of the Constitutional Court, because it established that its application violated several constitutional rights and guarantees. It was replaced by specialized justice, which eliminated the figure of faceless justice, but not the possibility of having secret attorneys or witnesses.


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