Nelson Gomez was exonerated on Friday, October 12, 2012. He spent two years and seven months in prison for a crime he did not commit—sedition, or rebelion in Spanish. I met Nelson in the airport in Medellin and accompanied him on his way home after nearly three years of not seeing his loved ones. It was his first flight.
He is one of many campesinos in Colombia who have been wrongly incarcerated for supposed ties to the FARC. This is a hidden aspect of the war here. Very few organizations accompany and defend these cases, and those organizations suffer from false accusations and are stigmatized for doing so.
On March 29, 2010, Nelson left his home to buy a gift for his son’s eleventh birthday. He was aware that there was a warrant out for his arrest but did not believe that anything would happen because he is innocent. Nelson was stopped at a routine police checkpoint on his way home and immediately taken into custody. For the next 31 months, Nelson was given the judicial runaround and sent to three different prisons.
Many land rights leaders in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó face bogus charges of sedition. Prior to his arrest, Nelson was one of the most vocal leaders in the Humanitarian Zone of El Tesoro in Curvaradó. He believes that his arrest was directly associated with his work defending the rights of his community of campesinos that were violently displaced in 1997.
The evidence that led to Nelson’s arrest was based on the testimony of two individuals who left Nelson’s community. These individuals were offered money by the police to testify against Nelson and claim that he was a member of the 57th Front of the FARC. The evidence that they provided included many vague statements including that “he left the community a lot.” Local police have been known to take advantage of displaced people by offering them housing, goods, and money for testimony against members of the humanitarian zones and the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace (La Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz). This is a clear strategy to undermine organizational processes and stigmatize leaders. In Nelson’s case, each individual was offered a little more than $500 USD.
Nelson’s life was completely disrupted by his imprisonment. He witnessed another inmate commit suicide and was subjected to dismal conditions. His family was unable to visit because of their difficult economic situation, which was exacerbated by Nelson’s absence as he was the family’s primary source of income.
Police told Nelson that “you will get out of jail faster if you accept the charges,” but he always maintained his innocence and paid a heavy price for it. However, many innocent individuals accept the offer in exchange for a reduced sentence. This serves at least two purposes: it demonstrates the Colombian government’s “effectiveness” in arresting alleged FARC members and delegitimizes the work of communities that are defending their rights by associating them with the FARC.
Returning to the region implies serious security concerns for Nelson. As an exonerated land rights leader who stood up to injustice, he has many enemies. However, Nelson was excited to return home and see his family. He was looking forward to “some good food, the heat, and working the land” which was thankfully not usurped in his absence.