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EL ESPECTADOR

Why Is Colombia Cracking Down On A Chocolate Thief?

Justice is twisted in a country where a man is jailed for stealing candy from a store, while gangsters and corrupt politicians are always able to negotiate prison reductions.

With all of Colombia's problems ...
With all of Colombia's problems ...

BOGOTA — If you are in Colombia, you may have seen the name Luis Augusto Mora. Newspapers around the country have featured reports about this man, jailed for five months after stealing some chocolate candy from a store in a middle-class Bogotá district.

Mora is now serving his sentence in the capital's prison La Picota. It really makes you wonder how Colombia's judiciary system applies the country's penal code. In terms of the level of threat an offender poses, there seems to be no proportion, whatsoever, between crime and punishment.

Unlike well-known paramilitary chiefs, Mora had no accomplice to testify against to the authorities. He had no weapons to hand over or any heinous crime to confess. He had nothing to negotiate with prosecutors, no valuable information on the criminal activities of contractors working with the State, or friends among politicians versed in the art of deceit.

That means Mora couldn't seek a prosecution waiver or obtain house arrest.

As he wasn't the head of a cartel — except, perhaps, the "Death-by-Chocolate" one — Mora shared the luck of all those who, with nothing left but the integrity or irrelevance of their acts to defend them, face a judiciary system ill-equipped to treat relatively harmless people with less severity.

A system built for criminals

This case shows us one thing. In Colombia, only those whose criminal careers run on death, trickery and corruption can hope to receive a better treatment from a penal system that is designed for constant compromise.

Within the system runs the idea that negotiating with criminals can help find "the truth." Yet many cases — Bogotá"s fraudulent city contracts being among them — have shown that the truth becomes more and more elusive as the case proceeds.

If Mora survives his time in one of Colombia"s most overcrowded prisons, he will be out in December. What we'll see in our streets, then, won't be the head of a feared cartel — it will be a man whose hopes of social rehabilitation have faded. Why not, since state prosecutors aren't using chocolate addiction as a bargaining chip?

It is even more troubling to think about the thousands of Colombians who face prosecution for charges they're not guilty of. These are people who, unlike Mora, were not even caught with their hand in the cookie jar. They have nothing to confess — nor do they have any hope of a "deal" worthy of its name.

These are profound injustices, and should make us reflect on the type of penal code we really need.

Both President Juan Manuel Santos and his opponent, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, have spoken about urgent judiciary reforms during this year's presidential campaign. Yet they did so by referring to the mechanics of judges' selections, by talking about courts to prosecute the powerful or the Inspectorate's powers to penalize politicians. These are certainly important measures, but no less important than how the law affects ordinary citizens.

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