SEMANA/Controversy | 2/13/2009 12:00:00 AM
Doctors working for FARC: Medical mix-up?
Doctors say that the detention of Luis Alfredo Moreno is an affront to their profession while justice officials say that the well-known Colombian sports medicine specialist is guilty of rebellion. The controversy surrounding his medical services to the FARC continues.
Moreno, 48, grew up in a family of doctors in Bogotá. He is father of two teenagers and one small child. Among his peers he is recognized as being one of the best in his field, and before being sent to prison, he didn’t know of anything other than medicine, his family and his favorite soccer team, Santa Fe.
Today, as he marks one year in prison, he reflects about why he is there.
In November 2003, a friend, Moreno Alejandro Rico, an anesthesiologist, invited him to participate in a medical mission in the department of Meta. They paid him two and a half million pesos($2,000 USD) to go one weekend to a site in the department to treat the sick.
He traveled to Villavicencio, then to La Macarena where a woman led him and his friend to a remote hamlet where there was a FARC camp. “What is this?” he asked Rico.
Dozens of wounded young men in camouflage or in sweatshirts with FARC armbands and with guns on their shoulders were seen by both doctors. “I did several procedures on people who had already been operated on. For example, there was one who they had done a type of surgery on, but the wound became infected, so I took out the dead tissue that was there,” Moreno remembers while he takes in some sun in one of the prison corridors.
That is how his ordeal began. Moreno says that when he returned to Bogotá, he decided he wanted to distance himself from the episode. He didn’t tell his family, or the authorities, or any of his friends. He felt like he had been tricked and preferred to forget what had happened. He says that he was afraid, that he lacked the courage to report what had happened and he feared for the security of him and his family.
But three weeks later a second invitation arrived. The same anesthesiologist told Moreno that they had to return to Meta, because the FARC once again required their services. This time, he says, it was the threat that forced him to go. He says that he can’t confirm that it was exactly the same location where he had been the first time, but that the procedure was the same. During one weekend, he recommended medicine, attended to the wounded, made some small surgeries and immobilized patients.
Back in Bogotá, Moreno was a bundle of nerves. “Many times I was tempted to tell my case to the Police. In fact, once I started the car and I went directly to the DAS, a national security agency, but just before I arrived I turned around. I wasn’t capable to talk. I didn’t have the courage to tell my story,” he says.
2004 was uneventful. But at the end of the next year, the U.S. State Department punished him for his actions in Meta. In a letter they announced the cancellation of his visa for being a terrorist. After that they took away the visa from one of his children.
This obligated him to tell his whole family and a friend. Immediately he started to find out if the Fiscalía, the prosecutor general’s office, and the DAS were investigating him. But they told him that there wasn’t anything. Time passed and amidst his worries and fear, February 8, 2008 arrived when authorities ransacked his home looking for traces of the FARC. They also arrested Rico.
Moreno then found out that Matilde Jaramillo García, alias “Marta,” former head of logistics for the First Front of the FARC for five years, had informed on him. She turned over a photo in which the orthopedist appeared in the airport together with a guerrilla and stated that both doctors had freely gone to heal her fellow guerrillas. Although for both trips Moreno says he did not receive more than five million pesos (about $2,000 USD), “Marta” said that they each received 20 million ($8,400 USD) and that in addition they met “Mono Jojoy,” one of the FARC leaders.
In the corridors of the Clínica Reina Sofía hospital in the north of Bogotá where Moreno worked, in Facebook and in meetings of colleagues, this story has been a hot topic of conversation. The majority of the doctors support Moreno. They say that he is a man of integrity, honest, dedicated to his work, who sinned out of naiveté, for having a weak will and that maybe he committed an error by not reporting his case to the authorities.
But justice authorities tell another story. “There was fraud (bad intentions) and awareness of the crime, because he put his knowledge to the service of a subversive group. They knew why they were going, where they were going, with whom they were going, in which area they were entering,” reads the investigation on the two doctors.
Even if Moreno can count on the solidarity of his colleagues, who argue that, above all, the mission of a doctor is to save lives as they repeat in the Hippocratic Oath that all doctors make upon finishing their studies, in the circumstances surrounding the consultations that Moreno made for the FARC, there are several aspects that make analysis of the situation more delicate.
For one thing, Moreno ignored his citizen responsibility to report what had happened to authorities. It is not even clear that he reported what had happened even after the U.S. authorities took away his visa, when he realized that something was amiss. He also received money from the guerrillas. Without objecting to the illicit origin of that money, he deposited it and accepted it as just pay for his work. In addition to this, he repeated that whole adventure yet one more time.
Nevertheless, each one is owner of his own fear and there is no doubt that any report he made would have caused persecution by the guerrillas. That would have been a latent risk on him and on his family, without being sure of the capacity by the state to protect them. “Payment does not delegitimize the humanitarian character of medical activities. If the patient who the doctor attends to is a criminal, let the Police or the Army capture them. That is their job,” says Jorge Merchán Price, a surgeon and director of the movement Medicos Azules, an organization that advocates for the protection of life under any circumstance.
Although according to national norms and international treaties, medical practitioners are protected by doctor’s confidence, there are rules that they cannot violate. For example, when a doctor transforms the features of a person, or changes the fingerprints of someone in order to infringe the law, that doctor is an accomplice of the crime.
On the other hand, a nurse or a surgeon who attends to a person who has been wounded by weapons, who has been a victim of an explosive device or has been attacked with a knife should report the case to authorities, something which is known as “giving criminal notice” so that the case will be investigated. If they receive money from drug trafficking or from an illegal organization in return for medical services, this can also have criminal consequences.
Today Moreno is waiting for the Colombian Supreme Court of Justice to resolve a suit that he filed in December asking for home detention. That had been denied by an investigator who said that the doctor was a risk to society.