An Interview with Astrid Liliana Sanchez Mejia
CALEB: What is your position here at the university?
Associate Professor for Legal History and Theory Department, graduated from this university (La Javeriana)
C: What fields of study do you focus on? Have you always been interested in Human Rights?
Criminal Justice and Violence against women; Yes, the first book I wrote was about criminal justice and human rights. My doctoral thesis was about abuses of people in the criminal justice system [here in Colombia].
C: What is the project we are currently working on? What is its significance to you/to human rights work?
This project is about women in prison. We’re working with a cross-committee [a group of researchers from various universities and of various backgrounds]. This research is important because the committee is using the results of this research to push changes in public policy in the criminal justice system, [particularly] for women.
C: So essentially for lobbying purposes?
Yes. The idea behind this project is that women who are in jail, [ought to be able to] ask for alternative penalties or lower sentences. Often women are incarcerated for drug-related crimes and women are at the bottom level of the [illegal drug trafficking] chain. But the sentences are the same for any level, whether [the convicted is] the drug boss or a ‘mula’ [drug “mule”].
C: Right. So a woman who carries a minimal amount of drugs can be charged with possession, distribution, and trafficking. The same as someone higher up in the process.
Exactly. [The goal is] a sense of restorative justice. For example, like community service instead of prison.
C: What do you hope this investigation will accomplish?
First, we are going to have reliable and accurate information.
Second, the information is going to be useful to change public policy.
C: How important is human rights advocacy in Colombia? In Latin America? Around the world?
For Colombia and Latin America, it is very important. Many people are working on this. Many layers have a basic knowledge of human rights because of the armed conflict, the violence, and many cases of violations of human rights. Many law schools use human rights as a foundation to learning law, which is different from the U.S.
When you go to a trial [in Colombia], you will hear human rights as sources of law. Through the creation of the Constitutional Court, what is called the Constitutional Block integrates the [Colombian] Constitution with other sources of law like human rights documents and international humanitarian law—[there is something] similar in Argentina. This is because of Latin America’s history of dictatorships. For example, the Inter-American Human Rights Court decisions can affect domestic decisions.
C: And how is the Inter-American Human Rights Court formed?
The judges are elected, or there can be Ad Hoc judges for domestic issues. We have a professor here that was an Ad Hoc judge. A critique of the Constitutional Court is that it can go too far. For instance, mandatory judgments like forced displacement. There are no such mandatory judgments in international law. Traditions lawyers worry, what if the Court is integrated by conservatives? Perhaps the Court is trying to be a positive legislator [instead of just interpreting the law, a separation of powers issue]. But the Court is progressive in trying to protect rights since the 1991 Constitution.
C: Many Americans have skewed perceptions of Colombia. How would you describe Colombia to a foreigner?
Perhaps you are familiar with the peace process with one of [the country’s] largest guerrilla groups, [FARC]. The levels of violence are decreasing, but to describe the context, an important piece is drug trafficking and drug crops increased in recent years. The government created incentives to replace illegal crops by supplying products like seeds and economic incentives. But possibly this hurts the goal because farmers who don’t grow illegal crops might think if they grow illegal crops, the government will give them the incentives.
C: I see. So the government incentives are actually incentivizing farmers to grow illegal crops so that they can receive the benefits. Completely opposite of the government’s objective. Wow.
Another problem our country is facing is inequality, in different scenarios—socioeconomic, sex, and race. There are not many African Colombian people in Bogotá. [Many who are here] are victims of forced displacement. If you ask Colombians, there is no racial problem because we are all ‘mixed race,’ but if you look at the individual, discrimination exists. The high levels of violence are a result of the inequality.
C: Believe me, I’m American. I know racism is not dead. But it seems like, at least in Bogotá, there is such a diversity and immersion of many cultures that America could learn thing or two about how to incorporate our differences and create an inclusive country. I have also noticed that many Venezuelans are here in Bogotá.
Yes, the conflict in Venezuela has gotten very bad and many immigrants from Venezuela are coming to Colombia. There are many poor people from Venezuela, but also rich people like CEOs who come here to escape the problems occurring in Venezuela.
C: I appreciate you being so open about problems in Colombia and providing context to some stereotypes about Colombia. What are some of the positives you would like to share about Colombia?
There are many touristic places in Colombia and tourism has increased in recent years, given the peace process and increased safety. [This might sound cheesy,] but the people here are nice, especially outside of the cities. And even though our legal system and state institutions are not perfect, we still have trust in these—it’s a stable system. For example, [Former President] Álvaro Uribe tried to keep power [after two terms], but the Constitutional Court stopped it. Also, there is much diversity here – natural resources, people, food and drinks, culture. There are no seasons here [except dry season and rainy season], so you can travel very close and find warm weather. And the fruits! There are so many different kinds, and they are so fresh. I couldn’t forget about those.
C: I love it. I agree completely. The diversity here—the people, the climate, the naturaleza—is amazing. I really didn’t know what to expect when I got down here, but I have really enjoyed my time, and the people have been very friendly and helpful with me. I did want to ask, because I’m curious, what did you expect when you found out that a student from Cincinnati would be your research assistant?
I came from the U.S. one year ago, so I had no worries. I am happy to have you here, it’s nice to have someone from a different background and perspective on these projects.
C: What do you hope I get out of this experience?
Cultural exchanges are really nice, really good. When I studied in the U.S., I was in New York and L.A. so I really didn’t get to learn the American values in the middle of the country. It’s good to meet someone from the middle of the U.S.
C: Yep, middle of nowhere U.S. When I tell people here that I’m from Ohio, they give me blank stares. I just tell them that it is kind of close to Chicago. That seems to click with them. [Either that or they mention Lebron James.] Sorry, continue.
I hope you understand more of the Colombian culture, so you can change the perspective of Colombia. Maybe you can go back to the U.S. and share your experience in Colombia and change the way people perceive Colombia. Hollywood tends to show Colombia as in the middle of the jungle and everyone being drug dealers. That is not true. [Colombia has much more to offer.] When you meet people from different places, and see different places, it can help with meeting diverse people in the future. It’s a good skill to [be able] interact with other people of different backgrounds.
Thank you so much, Lili! I’m so glad I was able to come down here and experience Colombia and work on such an important project with you. I know when I first starting working here, we talked about how I want to be an immigration lawyer. I just think it’s good for Americans to travel abroad in order to experience what it’s like to be a foreigner, so they can gain a perspective of how immigrants feel in the U.S. My time here will definitely help me in the future when I work with immigrants, particularly Latino immigrants. We joke in the States that anything south of the U.S. is “Mexico,” but that only waters down and simplifies a variety of rich cultures that span an entire region of Latin America. Even within Colombia, each region has its own unique characteristics and customs. I have been blessed with this opportunity to live and work in Colombia during the summer. I know when I return to Ohio, I will be a changed man with a greater appreciation for our immigrant neighbors and fond memories of my Colombian adventure.
Lili showed me a tremendous music video that shows the multiple landscapes of Colombia. And the song is pretty good too! Check it out on Youtube. (La Tierra del Olvido, 2015) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jtfXHadYIE.
Also, below are some pictures of my trip to Medellín!