Miguel Samper Strouss, the vice-minister of criminal policy and restorative justice in the Colombian Ministry
of Justice and Law, discusses the challenge of returning law and order–and trust in justice and government–to the
rural regions of his country that have been devastated by 50 years of guerrilla fighting. (June
MIGUEL SAMPER STROUSS: The only law enforcement
agency that they know is the FARC, the guerilla groups or the former paramilitary groups, so right now what we have
to do is show them that the government exists, that the government has a human shape, and that the services provided
by the state are trustworthy.
ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi, I’m Rob Wolf, director of communication
at the Center for Court Innovation with a special guest, Miguel Samper Strouss, the Vice Minister of Criminal Policy
and Restorative Justice at the Ministry of Justice and Law in Columbia, who spent the week in the United States meeting
with justice officials including Attorney General Eric Holder, and talking with experts and visiting programs here
at the Center for Court Innovation’s Midtown Community Court. So I want to welcome you to New Thinking, our
podcast series, where we speak to justice innovators around the U.S. and around the world.
Well thank you very much for having us here. It has been a very, very interesting and insightful visit.
WOLF: Why don’t I start out by asking you a little bit about some of the challenges that you’re
facing in Columbia regarding the justice system.
STROUSS: Well right now is a very, very curious
moment to ask that because we’re facing the possibility of reaching a peace agreement right now in Columbia,
after 50 years or more of conflict, of armed conflict. We now are facing the greatest opportunity to reach a peace
agreement with the guerilla groups, with the FARC movement. And, well, if we want this peace to be an endurable peace
and a sustainable peace in the future, then we have to build this peace process on three pillars: truth—seeking truth,
finding reparation for victims, and of course the most important one, justice. Justice can ensure that in the future
the conflict will not re-emerge, and the country will see an exit outside of this conflict. So what we now face,
in justice terms, is a big challenge of how to get justice to the regions outside the main cities, the far-reaching
regions of the country, how to get security there through the justice system, and how the state or the government
will regain legitimacy by building trust in the communities through the justice system. It is very important to have
justice present in every single region of the country if you want the state or the government to gain legitimacy
from the citizens. And the armed conflict, what has cost, in many regions in our country, people don’t trust
the government, don’t trust the state. They don’t know the state. The only law enforcement agency that
they know is the FARC, the guerilla groups or the former paramilitary groups, so now what we have to do is show them
that the government exists, that the government has a human shape, and that the services provided by the state are
trustworthy. So we have to get justice to every corner of our country, and to provide good services, reliable services.
WOLF: Well it sounds like a tall order. You’ve got a lot to do, but also an exciting time and a real
opportunity to make long-standing and important changes. Tell me, what have you seen on your visit here that you
think might help you achieve some of the goals you just described?
STROUSS: Well most people know
Columbia, unfortunately, because of the drug production problem. So within having interviews and knowing all the
models, like the drug courts, for example, we visit the drug courts back in Washington, here in New York, the community
court, Columbia is becoming more and more a consumption—a drug consuming country, rather than a drug production country.
So we’re facing there, a huge obstacle for peace if our youth and the new generations are starting to consume
and abuse illegal substances. And we’re trying to evaluate all the models we can find, and the mechanisms, to
treat—not only our peasants because jail is not the answer for them—but also the consumers that are growing in numbers
again, in our country. So right now we are evaluating models in which we, by giving them positive incentives, that
they won’t be in prison, how to handle crimes related to drug abuse. And with that we can improve the security
in the communities, in the cities, but also we can reduce abusing of these illegal substances.
Have you implemented anything like a drug court yet or were you here to see what it’s like when you have a court
that is linking offenders to drug treatment under judicial supervision?
STROUSS: Right. We don’t
have that model in Columbia. We don’t have the mechanisms. I think that our first thoughts when we encounter
this mechanism is that we’re going to need a legal reform because right now those low impact crimes related
to drug abuse, those criminals have to be in prison. So right now we’re running a diagnosis on which model we
should implement in Columbia to tackle the problems I just mentioned.
WOLF: Part of your mission
here is to gather as many options as you can and start thinking through what might work best in your situation.
WOLF: Maybe you could share with me, if there are any innovations or
reforms that you have started to implement, that you think might be of interest to people here in the United States
or in other countries, who might be listening to this podcast.
STROUSS: Yeah, we have a very,
very nice and beautiful program that is called Casas de Justicia, the houses of justice, in which we get the different
alternative justice mechanisms closer to people in the far reaching regions of the country—not in the cities but
in the municipalities that are far away from the cities—so we can get those justice services closer to people, and
also to take the Kafka away, this author that wrote about the judicial system—
WOLF: The surreal
system where you don’t understand what’s going on or how anything works?
and everything is dark, and you don’t understand what’s happening there, and you see the judge—well, you
don’t see the judge. It’s like an anonymous people, person around.
WOLF: Is that a result
of the fears of retribution from drug cartels? That the judges were anonymous?
STROUSS: Well we
implemented that model, but right now I think, even—not only in criminal justice but in civil justice—there’s
a commonly believed idea that justice is very far away from people. So we have to take out the Kafka from our justice.
And this program, Casas de Justicia, is trying to do so by getting alternative mechanisms, not the ordinary judge
sits in Casas de Justicia. What we sit there is referees and mediators and also we have inspectors that try to work
with the community and construct the whole concept of justice and community justice with the community. They work
together to create those bonds that would allow the state to gain legitimacy, and also to provide justice services
in all the regions. We have implemented the program in 82 municipalities right now, and we have provided justice
services for over five million cases in the past 15 or 16 years have been resolved, even better. If you provide justice
services where people haven’t had any contact with the government, then you can ensure that in those regions,
they are not going to make justice by their own hands. They are not going to apply that saying of an eye for an eye
WOLF: —a tooth for a tooth.
STROUSS: Exactly. So what we want is to reduce
and de-escalate the conflict in those regions with this Casas de Justicia.
WOLF: And prior to
the Casas de Justicia, it was kind of a vigilante justice? Or these kinds of crimes or disputes were just resolved
person to person, without any—
STROUSS: Well person to person, but this is the perfect ground
for these guerilla groups or the paramilitary to take place. If you don’t have a government, if you don’t
have a state, if you don’t have institutions or authorities, then any armed group can supply that need. And
that’s what we’re hoping to achieve with this Casas de Justicia, to create safe environments and safe communities
in which the presence of these groups is not going to be needed anymore.
WOLF: I wonder what you
saw at the Midtown Community Court today, because that shares the principle with the Casas de Justicia, of trying
to bring justice into a neighborhood. It’s very different, we’re still in an urban environment, it’s
not the countryside, but I wonder if there was something in what you observed there that you see as similar, or any
ideas that you think might be applicable?
STROUSS: Well, the very interesting part of the community
court is that first it changes the whole way that people interact with justice. because if you think about the ordinary
model in which people interact with justice it’s just through lawyers, in very complex ways, and legal procedures,
legal complications. But this is very close to people. This justice is very close to them, that the justice becomes
not a friend, but a person that is close to the community and one of them, that works with them and not against them,
to try to solve the day by day problems—problems that arise every day. So it’s very interesting to see how it
works and how it handles the drug abuse problems in the community. Because that could trigger a lot of other problems,
persecution, alcohol related crimes. We got a lot of ideas so we can start seeing the way that this will fit according
to Columbian needs.
WOLF: It sounds like you’re taking real advantage of this opportunity
to do a thoughtful job to rebuild the justice system.
STROUSS: Well that’s the idea. That’s
why I’m getting paid. So—
WOLF: Well I want to thank you very much for taking the time to
talk with me. I know you’ve had a busy week.
STROUSS: Well thank you, Rob. It’s been
a very interesting and insightful visit, and of course I enjoyed very much this talk.
been speaking with Miguel Samper Strouss, the Vice Minister of Criminal Policy and Restorative Justice in Columbia,
who’s been visiting with justice officials and observing programming in the United States. You can listen to
this and other New Thinking podcasts on our website and on iTunes. I’m Rob Wolf, thanks for listening.