Colombian Prison Releases Evangelical Seminary Student

Friday, January 28, 2005

Colombian Prison Releases Evangelical Seminary Student

Luis Vera is under house arrest, working to clear his name.

by Deann Alford

AUSTIN, Texas, January 28,2005 (Compass) -- Luis Alberto Vera was released last month from Bellavista National Jail, a maximum security prison in Medellín, Colombia, in time to spend Christmas with his young family. Vera, however, remains under house arrest at the Biblical Seminary of Medellín.

The evangelical seminary student faces a complex legal tangle to prove he is innocent of the crime for which he was falsely imprisoned. His lawyer says it could take four years to clear his name.

On November 26, Vera was buying bus tickets home to the city of Bucaramanga when Medellín police checked the number on his identification card and found a warrant for his arrest. He and three other men stood accused of mugging a man in Bucaramanga in 2002.

Vera, 24, spent two weeks in a Medellín police processing center before being transferred to Bellavista Jail. Justice officials approved his release from the overcrowded prison in late December but placed him under house arrest on the seminary campus, where he is enrolled in theological studies, until he can prove his innocence.

Sloppy police work and an overloaded justice system evidently combined to land Vera in prison. Those same deficiencies could likewise hinder his quest to clear his record.

Vera’s saga began several years ago when he was involved in a traffic mishap in Bucaramanga. Police took a photograph of him and apparently misfiled it into the station’s criminal records instead of the cabinet containing accident report files.

Police then inexplicably placed Vera’s photo in a lineup of several others from their criminal records to identify the perpetrators of the 2002 mugging. Even though Vera does not fit the mugging victim’s description of his attacker -- the suspect is reportedly dark complexioned and 10 years older than Vera -- his misplaced photo eventually led to his arrest.

Upon his arrival at Bellavista on December 9, Vera was sent to a room where the prison director, the prison psychologist and other prison staff were waiting for him.

Once there, Vera learned he had been sent to Bellavista to serve six years for rebellion.

“They said I was a guerrilla,” Vera told Compass by phone from Medellín. “The week before, they had conducted questioning in which they were accusing me of something I hadn’t done, but they weren’t accusing me of being a guerrilla.”

Vera demanded that the information be corrected and discovered that the secretary who copied his identification number had written it wrong.

“What’s happening in Bucaramanga could be the same thing,” Vera said.

Vera’s lawyer is suing Bellavista prison authorities, insisting that they send Luis to Bucaramanga immediately to confront the mugging victim face-to-face in the presence of legal authorities and clear his name. But prison officials have refused to do so because they say they have no budget for transportation.

Meanwhile, Vera’s legal bills have risen to five million pesos ($2,110). Vera does not have the money, so his family is trying to take out loans to pay it.

“I’m not sure I will be able to continue my studies,” Vera said, adding that the school term begins in two weeks.

Vera, a member of a Foursquare Gospel church in Bucaramanga, became a Christian at age 6. He left his native city last year with his wife and toddler son to begin seminary studies in Medellín.

A bright spot in Vera’s ordeal was his evangelistic ministry during the weeks of incarceration. He estimates that between 15 and 18 men accepted Christ in the police processing center after conversations with Luis about the gospel. Later inside Bellavista, he connected with many of the new converts and helped them connect with the jail’s renowned prison fellowship ministry.