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Friday, August 24, 2007

Colombian journal: Watch your step in Bogotá

While touring Colombia's lively capital city of Bogotá last week, I narrowly avoided falling through a busted sewer grate. No barricades or orange cones, nothing.

"I wonder if you can sue for that," mused my journalist traveling buddy.

Well, the short answer is yes. But resolution could take longer than Gabriel García Márquez's pension check in No One Writes to the Colonel.

The backlog in Colombia's judiciary is epic, to say nothing of its dizzying array of four separate but somewhat equal courts. As a result only the most tragic civil claims, namely those involving death, ever bother to get filed in this country of 44 million people.

That isn't to say that the judges or staff are in any way incapable. As Latin America's oldest democracy, Colombians are well-versed in law and order. But even the strongest institutions can fail when forced to compete for scarce resources amid deep-rooted corruption and serious public safety issues.

Yet there's cause for hope, a Colombian friend tells me. The country's revised 1991 constitution calls for a transition from its Napoleonic legal system to the modern adversarial approach that we all know and love. It's a tremendous overhaul that is still being ratified by the states, but once complete, many say the sistema penal acusatorio will streamline and expedite the court's work.

Plus, the new constitution created a department of tutela, or guardian, to promptly adjudicate human rights violations — an unfortunate necessity in a country burdened by drug-running guerrillas and paramilitary groups (or narcoterrorists, if you prefer Bush-speak).

So who knows? Maybe sometime soon the judiciary will become so effective and efficient that Colombian politicians, too, will find sport in bashing trial lawyers — there's no place like home.

But in the meantime, just watch your step in Bogotá. If a sewer grate doesn't get you, the taxis surely will.

The Palacio de Justicia houses Colombia's four courts — Supreme Court of Justice, Council of State, Constitutional Court and Superior Judicial Council — along the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá. (Courtesy of Bogotá Tourism)

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