Why Even Have a Colombian State?

EspañolIn the endless debate about the origin, true importance, and proper functions of the state, there is a point of general consensus: the argument that the state was created to and should serve the basic functions of security and justice. If the state fails to comply with these functions, what could be the justification for its existence?

Despite this apparent consensus, however, there are two paradoxes which concern state action and its realms of authority.

First, any state trying to comply with these two basic functions will face criticism and popular opposition. Consider that most social protests arising in recent years have asked for more spending on education, for example, rather than security issues.

Second, those who most defend the importance of the state as the chief organizer of a society tend to be those deeply embedded in and profiting from its functions — and their perverse incentives conflict with the touted outcomes. President Barack Obama of the United States, for example, has not only failed to effectively implement his statist agenda, he has also failed to carry out the security function. In the case of spying, he has damaged the US image and given real enemies more excuses to justify possible attacks.

Meanwhile, the profitability of the US state apparatus appears to know no bounds. The Washington, D.C., area boasts the wealthiest county in the nation and six of the top ten — along with an unemployment rate well below the national average.

Colombia is another paradigmatic concern. Given the current scenario the country is experiencing, let us examine its justice — which has become increasingly undermined by three factors.

First, public officials and elected representatives are constantly criticizing the justice system in the country. For this reason, almost every year we find find ourselves in a merry-go-round of new ideas to reform, improve, and solve the problem of impunity.

Despite such superficial complaints, however, justice continues to serve political convenience. It has, therefore, become an expression of the political polarization that rules Colombia. This polarization makes reform discussions more like allegations across party lines, regarding the moral integrity of their opponents, rather than ideas or proposals.

All the time, we’ll hear accusations against politicians — that they are paramilitaries, guerrillas, or drug traffickers — and, of course, the only way to reach a solution to this is through the court system. Thus, justice has become the preferred political debate mechanism, used to defeat opponents.

Second, and as if the first problem were not enough, those within the justice system sometimes decide to act against politicians who have opposed their rulings in the past. So, they too are using their positions for political gamesmanship, and in so doing, discredit themselves.

This situation has happened in several cases, but let me analyze just a few examples. Maria del Pilar Hurtado, the former chief of the secret police, and Luis Carlos Restrepo, the former peace commissioner, both decided to leave the country when the justice system began inquiries into their behavior during former president Uribe’s government. The reason was their willingness to flaunt the judicial process, and the dishonest and callous attitude of these characters received wide criticism. However, the politicians in power did not seem to care about the cases of people who they were presumably friendly with — at least not enough to stop them from remaining at large.

The other embarrassing episode comes from the mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro. He risks dismissal from his position from a disciplinary tribunal under the general attorney of the republic. Even before the final court decision, however, Petro has stated that he is being persecuted and has decided to sue the state in international organizations.

These cases, with arbitrary outcomes, involve government officers with different ideologies and different sets of enemies, although both are supporters of a strengthened state or res publica.

The third and final factor is the prevailing attitude within the court system: those involved do little to serve the citizenry. Rather, judges seem to only desire fame in the media or to act as enablers for their cronies, and there are ongoing and deep corruption scandals among judges and magistrates. Further, accountability organizations such as the procurator, the comptroller, and the attorney general are distracted with trying to extend their functions to areas which do not concern them and abusing of the use of their judiciary and punitive authorities.

As a result of the above, the Colombian justice system has far from solved its historical problems or reached a degree of modernity. These failures mean it remains illegitimate among the citizens.

If we combine this reality with the fact that the Colombian government has for decades proved itself unable to carry out the basic function of ensuring the safety of its inhabitants, what is its purpose?

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