A Most Unlikely Place | Translation

A Most Unlikely Place | Translation


► Click here to return to the episode official page, or here to see all the episodes.

► Join Deambulantes. Our membership program help us continue covering Latin America.

►Do you listen Radio Ambulante to improve your Spanish? We have something extra for you: try our app, designed for Spanish learners who want to study with our episodes.

Translated by MC Editorial

[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

On Colombia’s Caribbean coast, there are several towns with rather unique names: Planeta Rica, Repelón, Distracción, Ovejas, María La Baja. Others have names of saints that only a few have probably heard of: San Onofre, San Martín de Loba, San Andrés de Sotavento.

This story began in one of them: San Estanislao de Kostka. A town so difficult to pronounce that some call it Kotstka, Koska or Koka. To get there from Bogotá, the capital, you must first get to Cartagena and from there, travel in the only possible way: by bus, for almost two hours on a worn and narrow road where buses must be very careful to avoid crossing over the center and hitting an oncoming vehicle.

This is where Carlos Eduardo García Granados was working as a judge in 2013. From his precarious courthouse, he set out to do something so extraordinary that it would motivate more than 60 people to travel from Bogotá, Barranquilla and even Australia to get to where he was.

The thing is that, at that time, Carlos was one of the very few who risked guaranteeing a fundamental right, even if there were some willing to get him in trouble for it.

Colombian journalist Laura Robles Muñoz went to San Estanislao de Kostka to visit that courthouse. She’ll bring us the story after the break.

[Daniel]: We’re back. Laura Robles Muñoz brings us the story.

[Laura Robles]: The bus that took me to San Estanislao de Kostka from Cartagena took almost two hours and was full of people. Inside, it was red and had two music speakers playing at full volume: one song for the driver and another for the passengers.

The hallway was narrow and blocked by chickens, boxes, and bags. The temperature was close to 33 °C, and the only ventilation was the little breeze that came in through some small windows.

I was sitting next to the protagonist of this story, Judge Carlos García:

[Carlos García]: Entering San Estanislao. Entering the municipal seat.

[Laura]: It had been almost seven years since Carlos had visited the town, and he was eager to see how it looked.

[Carlos]: Well, here is where we get off. Yes, here.

[Laura]: As soon as we got off the bus, we got a blast of hot steam on our faces. We started walking towards the main park, and I saw that Carlos couldn’t stop being surprised by how the town looked.

 [Carlos]: It is a little deteriorated—I would say quite a lot.

[Laura]: The facades of the houses looked faded, as if the colors had been washed away by rain. There was almost no one on the street, even though it was midday. They were probably protecting themselves from the Caribbean sun, but it still gave the impression that it was a desolate place, where not much happens.

Carlos, who had been there before and knew the dynamics of the town, got the same impression.

[Carlos]: The town looks a bit dull to me, too. You see, a large part of the people have either moved away or died. So now, I don’t recognize almost anyone anymore.

[Laura]: We walked around a bit and he gave me a little tour.

[Carlos]: That building that’s terracotta and a very strange shade of pink is the mayor’s office.

And, well, here we have the Parque de la Pola.

[Laura]: The main park of the town, which was more like a half-finished slab of cement with a few benches of the same material. It was all gray. We crossed it and passed by the church in the middle of mass.

And at that moment…

[Carlos]: Oh! How sad.

[Laura]: That “Oh!” from Carlos was because we came across an abandoned house. What used to be the courthouse, the reason we went there.

[Carlos]: It makes me sad to see how the building is. It’s horrible. It is shocking to see how they have allowed this house to deteriorate so much. It looks a little sad, dismal, because the truth is, what is left of the courthouse is terrible, ominous.

[Laura]: It was the first time he had seen the courthouse empty, but not the first time he had seen it run down.

It was precisely on his first day of work in this place and on his first day as a judge: December 16, 2011. After completing college, Carlos had been interested in three different courts and, in the end, decided to apply for the one at San Estanislao de Kostka. It was the one that suited him best. He had found no options in Cartagena, the city where he grew up, but this was the closest and he wanted to continue living there, even if he had to travel back and forth to San Estanislao every day. That Friday, when he arrived to take up his post as a judge, he found the courthouse half submerged and the town flooded by the excess rain that had overflowed the river.

The secretary and the clerk who were waiting to welcome him that day couldn’t even introduce themselves properly. They had to act quickly. Since the air conditioning was at floor height, they had to find the switches.

[Carlos]: And that we should have the goodness to kindly cooperate by pulling down the lever, or else, our electrocution would be like for 1000 Ways to Die.

[Laura]: Once they had cut off the electricity, the two women told him to roll up his pants so they could get everything out. They quickly began to put all the documents in boxes. First, the record files; then, copies of lawsuits, marriage applications; then, correspondence of all kinds and whatever they found in the drawers.

As best they could, they filled nearly twenty boxes and loaded them onto the secretary’s husband’s truck. They had to take everything as soon as possible to a warehouse in the upper part of town, above the floodwater level. Once they finished loading the documents into the truck, they began removing everything else.

[Carlos]: Tables, desks, chairs—well, everything. Fortunately, the computers were on tall desks, so they didn’t get wet, but everything else did. The new furniture was so damaged that the wood bubbled up and we had to throw them away.

[Laura]: When they were able to return and rearrange what they had managed to save, Carlos realized how damaged the old yellow house was.

[Carlos]: It was Batman’s cave. There were bats. The roof was all ruined.

[Laura]: Soon after, the mango tree in the yard fell on that worn roof. And since it was also full of termites, a tiny insect that eats wood, part of it was destroyed. Another thing that fell during those days was a propeller fan that hung in the office. It fell on the secretary, making a cut on her forehead that needed four stitches.

[Laura]: And what did you think?

[Carlos]: “Wow! What did I get myself into?”

[Laura]: But even with all that precariousness, in that faded, destroyed and flooded courthouse, Judge Carlos García began to do his job. He dressed in a toga, and in the sweltering heat that bathed him in sweat, he carried out procedures such as small debt claims, alimony lawsuits, and, from time to time, civil marriages.

[Laura]: Carlos was born in Santa Marta, another city in the Colombian Caribbean, in 1981. But when he was a child, he and his family moved to Cartagena. There he went through high school and then studied law at a public university.

He began in 1999 and gradually specialized in criminal, civil, and family law. He liked the field, but he could not help feeling that, in his classes and textbooks, there was something that did not fit with the concept of family.

[Carlos]: When you study the institution of marriage as it comes from Roman law, it has certain conditions. That mother-father-children structure is out of fashion now, or it is perhaps a minority compared to single-parent families, recomposed families, homo-parent families, diverse families.

[Laura]: His own family was not traditional. It consisted of his mother, grandmother and aunts. But according to the law of that time, it did not fit within the concept of family. Furthermore, Carlos was gay, and of course, it seemed unfair to him that, having the same duties as all citizens, LGBTIQ+ people did not have access to the same rights.

[Carlos]: Yes, the right to equality before the law is very nice. But why can’t same-sex couples marry? What is the difference? And you could suddenly ask yourself, ”Hey, couldn’t we think about some reforms in the future?” I always felt that something had to be done. Something that would get us over the existing state of things.

[Laura]: Although at college Carlos didn’t know any classmates or professors who were asking themselves the same questions he was, he did hear that he was not the only one.

[Carlos]: I was beginning to hear some noise here, but it was very complicated, and it seemed like a utopia, like something very far away that could be seen coming.

[Laura]: During those years, in the late 90s and early 2000s, different groups and politicians in Colombia had begun to demand equal rights for LGBTIQ+ people. In 2001, for example, Congress discussed the possibility of homosexual couples who were living together having the rights of a domestic partnership, like heterosexual couples. With that, they would be able to inherit property or share the same health insurance, among other things. But then Congress shelved that bill.

And they shelved two more in the following years. But an organization called Colombia Diversa, which fights for the well-being of LGBTIQ+ people, put together another strategy—collecting specific cases of couples who demonstrated the problems they faced due to not being legally recognized. This is Marcela Sánchez, the director of the organization:

[Marcela Sánchez]: The cases that caught our attention or that came to us regarding couples were: “I lived with my partner for 25 years, and then they came and changed the locks on the house. The family came and took all my partner’s things. They tell me that I was the domestic servant.” The cases where they left people homeless—we took those cases to court.

[Laura]: To the Constitutional Court. Colombia Diversa thought it was best to go to this institution because one of its functions is to protect fundamental rights, such as equality, freedom and dignity. The Constitutional Court does not legislate or create new regulations, but it reminds other branches of the State what must be done to protect fundamental rights of all citizens. In many cases, it has been the institution that has done the most to advance inclusion issues in Colombia.

So, in 2006, the first right that Colombia Diversa asked the Court to guarantee was what had already been attempted in Congress without success: for same-sex couples to be recognized as couples in a domestic partnership. And the following year, the Court ruled in favor.

When the news broke, Carlos was having lunch with some coworkers. Some of them didn’t feel it was a reason to celebrate.

[Judge]: And then there was a comment about “Oh, now this is going to let them adopt, so this will go into chaos,” and so on. There were always some mossbacks working with you. I hadn’t come out of the closet officially yet, so those are things that, seeing people’s reaction, sometimes make you shy away from saying, “Hey, I don’t agree with such a thing at all.” And then you seem to gain more strength later on.

[Laura]: Later, little by little, with the victories that homosexual couples were winning before the Constitutional Court—first the right to inherit property, then to receive the pension of a deceased partner, then be under the same health insurance—they also got immigration rights, right to protection against domestic violence, etc., etc. And so, by 2009, in practice, a couple in a homosexual domestic partnership came to have the same rights as a couple in a heterosexual domestic partnership.

[Carlos]: I felt that there was support that we might not find in the Legislature, that things were going to change somehow.

[Laura]: But a domestic partnership and a marriage are not the same thing. And while there are some legal differences, the most important one for gay couples is that a marriage, marrying someone, has a unique history and symbolic meaning.

So the following year, several organizations, including Colombia Diversa and LGBTIQ+ activists, joined together to demand their right to marry.

[Marcela]: We filed the lawsuit and that’s when the Court says… issues a ruling in 2011 saying that same-sex couples are family. For the first time the Court says that we are family.

[Laura]: But the problem was that the Court still did not mention marriage explicitly. So everything was left in a legal limbo and open to interpretation:

[Marcela]: The ruling is like a hieroglyph—each person interprets whatever they want. But what is very clear is that it says same-sex couples form a family according to the Constitution of Colombia. But it was like “It walks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, it looks like a duck. Is it a duck or not?” That was more or less the ruling.

[Laura]: Could they marry or not? The Court preferred to pass on the responsibility of defining whether or not it was marriage, by the people who had repeatedly refused to do it. This is Carlos again:

[Carlos]: It said that Congress had two years to enact a regulation that would allow same-sex couples to formalize their union, and all that.

[Laura]: Of course, the fight that began then would not be easy, nor would it be facing small enemies. The marriage equality bills were opposed by several churches, conservative political sectors, and citizen groups. Both outside Congress, and in this demonstration in April 2013, where, among other opponents, Bogotá councilor Clara Sandoval was present.

[Clara Sandoval]: What we are defending is to keep marriage from being redefined, because changing the concept of marriage changes the concept of society itself.

[Laura]: And also inside Congress, with very aggressive arguments from opposition congressmen. There was one in particular, from conservative senator Roberto Gerlein, that was very controversial:

[Archive soundbite]

[Roberto Gerlein]: It’s horrible—a bed shared by two men. That is dirty, disgusting sex, sex that deserves repudiation, excremental sex.

[Laura]: Debates in Congress continued to be fruitless, and the bill was shelved in mid-2013. But it was not necessarily the end of the fight for marriage equality, because in the 2011 ruling, the Court had also given Congress a clear deadline: if it did not make a decision in those two years, same-sex couples could go to notaries and courts to solemnize their unions. And that’s exactly what they did. But whether solemnizing was understood as a marriage depended on the eye of the beholder.

[Marcela]: Then some judges said, “I think it’s a duck.” And others said: “No, it doesn’t seem like a duck to me.”

[Laura]: Many judges refused, but the first one who thought that solemnizing a union meant marrying a couple performed the first homosexual marriage in September of that year in Bogotá. Carlos knew him.

[Carlos]: And I said, “Wow, for a heterosexual man to marry a same-sex couple. I take my hat off. My respects.”

[Laura]: Of course, when some couples began to marry, opposition intensified. And perhaps one of the most visible leaders of that opposition was the Attorney General, Alejandro Ordóñez, a lawyer faithful to a more traditional order of Catholicism and a very conservative activist who publicly opposed abortion, euthanasia, the personal dose of marijuana and marriage equality. This is Ordóñez in 2013, giving a speech during a debate on that topic in Congress:

[Archive soundbite] 

[Alejandro Ordóñez]: Marriage, across all cultures, all times and all religions, has been a heterosexual institution.

[Laura]: Ordóñez held a very powerful position. One of his functions was to investigate and punish disciplinary offenses by public servants, so all the notaries in the country were under his supervision. If a notary performed one of these marriages, Attorney General Ordóñez could initiate proceedings against them, suspend them from office, and even disqualify them. But he could not do the same with the judges, who belong to another branch of the government and are supervised by the Superior Judiciary Council.

For this reason, Colombia Diversa chose to take the couples it represented to courts instead of notaries. They prepared legal tools and materials. And each application was accompanied by a package to help judges interpret the puzzle that the Constitutional Court had posed.

But it was not a perfect solution. There were still two problems. The first: since Bogotá is so big and has several courts, it was not possible to choose which judge the application would go to. They were received and assigned by an office. It could go to a judge who believed in the theory of marriage and who accepted the application, or to one who did not interpret what the Court said in that way and rejected it. It was a lottery.

And the second problem continued to be Ordóñez. Although, according to the Constitution, he could not discipline anyone in the judicial branch, his power was such that he could get judges into trouble through supervisors who held the same conservative ideas.

[Carlos]: There is a spy network in all judicial offices. All judicial offices are like the “Ecomoda” offices. They are a hotbed of gossip. So, before that file reaches the hands of the judge, the grapevine will make the Attorney General’s Office aware of everything. And obviously, the closer it is to the main headquarters of the Attorney General’s Office, as was the case in Bogotá, the worse.

[Laura]: In addition, the Attorney General’s Office sent a document to the regional attorneys general, with clear instructions:

[Marcela]: To show up at all the marriage hearings that were held in any court in Colombia. “If you find out that there is a marriage, you must show up and oppose it,” because they act on behalf of the citizens, of the rights… of society.

[Laura]: And so prevent them from getting married. In addition to the Attorney General’s opposition, there was the opposition of a foundation called ‘Marido y Mujer’ [‘Husband and Wife’].

[Marcela]: We do not know where they got their resources, but it was a foundation that was created for the sole purpose of opposing marriage equality for same-sex couples in Colombia.

[Laura]: The atmosphere was tense and confused. For the couples, for the organization, even for the judges. So, once again, Colombia Diversa had to find another way to overcome these new obstacles. They began to send applications to courts outside of Bogotá, in nearby towns, such as Gachetá, a municipality a couple of hours from the capital where there was a judge who did agree to marry same-sex couples. But shortly after the marriage was performed, what they feared happened: he was sued.

And just when it seemed like they were running out of options, Colombia Diversa received a tweet that could be the lifeline they needed at that moment. It was from Carlos, and said:

[Carlos]: “In my court I am going to allow marriages directly, because that is what they are. No to discrimination, no to the legal ghetto.”

[Laura]: So Colombia Diversa contacted him.

[Marcela]: We said, “Yes, where are you?” And he said “Well, I am an appointed presiding judge and I am in a town on the coast called San Estanislao de Kostka.” And I said, “What? Where is that?”

[Laura]: Carlos had been a judge for about two years by then, in the same court we visited together at the beginning of this story.

[Carlos]: And I said, “Well, it’s kind of complicated for a couple in a town in the middle of nowhere to want to get married.” But legally it was possible.

[Laura]: This is how he interpreted the Court’s ruling. To solemnize meant to marry, and although his court was indeed very isolated, it was the best option they had at Colombia Diversa. Most likely, none of the powerful people had San Estanislao on their radar.

[Marcela]: Because Colombia is like that, because Colombia is a country that has forgotten its territories, there are sectors of Colombia where no one goes, that are not reached by the State, that are not reached by public policies, where resources never go. And, sadly, that served us well—the fact that the State would never get there with its power to oppose. Colombia’s forgetfulness about its outlying regions, paradoxically, ended up being a good option.

[Laura]: So, without thinking about it twice, they set up what they unofficially called Operation Macondo.

Marcela assigned two young interns to manage these marriages. It was the first place where couples went when they wanted to get married. The interns looked for all possible options, but if they couldn’t find someone to marry them in Bogotá, they knew that Carlos would do it.

It depended on those two young people to keep this operation completely secret. one of them was Juan Felipe Rivera.

[Juan Felipe Rivera]: Yes, it was a secret thing, of course. And we also had to do counterintelligence work, because we said, “This bastard of an  Attorney General is such a wretch that he can send us undercover people, they get information from us, and we are screwed.” Of course we were suspicious of some couples. It could be paranoia, it could be nonsense, it could be prejudice. But we were suspicious.

[Laura]: They analyzed the applicants, asked exhaustive questions, discussed it among themselves, and, if they saw genuine interest, they brought out their secret weapon: the court of San Estanislao de Kostka.

[Juan Felipe]: And then what I had to do was, first, talk to the couples and tell them, “Listen, it is very difficult in Bogotá. We have this court.” And people were like, “But why are you going to send me to another department to get married? This is kind of weird.” Then I had to explain to the couples: “No, it’s not that it’s weird; it’s just that—look, this is the debate…”

[Laura]: They would tell them about the ambiguity in the court ruling and explained that, although it did not explicitly say the word marriage, there was a possibility that it could be interpreted as such. If the couples agreed to go, Juan Felipe and his coworker would explain how to get there. They even drew them a map to get to the court. They also talked with Carlos so that he would be on the lookout for the arrival of each couple.

Juan Felipe’s biggest fear was the powerful Attorney General, Alejandro Ordóñez, and the impact it could have on his own career.

[Juan Felipe]: Of course I was afraid of him. Of course I was afraid. Because I also said, “What are these s.o.b.’s going to say? This can lead to a lot of things that can harm us as citizens, as lawyers, and even on a personal level.”

[Laura]: The Attorney General’s Office could make a scandal and accuse them of doing something illegal, something corrupt, and even damage their professional careers.

But fear or no fear, on October 28, 2013, Colombia Diversa sent its first two couples to San Estanislao so that the judge could marry them. They were two couples of women, all friends. They went to the town by road in one of their cars. This is Prince Torres, one of the brides:

[Prince Torres]: I remember clearly there was so much suspicion and fear, as if we were really doing something wrong. We didn’t even leave dressed up or anything. I mean, we set out to go as if we were heading for the beach.

Despite the paranoia, Prince couldn’t be happier to be marrying Karla, whom she had been dating for six years.

[Prince]: It was her first relationship where her mother knew who I was, where my family knew who she was, the person I had lived with for the first time, with whom we began to have projects together, with whom we began to talk about the possibility of children, marriage, everything. That is, what I experienced with Karla was everything that is involved in having a serious relationship.

[Laura]: When they arrived at the San Estanislao court, Carlos welcomed them with open arms.

[Prince]: I think the happiest of all was the judge. He was very happy to be able to make history in this country, and that we trusted him that it was going to be possible. His smile made me happy. I mean, he was ecstatic. I mean, his face was like, “Wow, we’re doing it!”

[Laura]: The women relaxed from the heat for a few minutes, and in a small room at the courthouse, they changed from their beach clothes to more formal ones that they had carried in the trunk of the car.

[Prince]: It wasn’t the dress, but it was like… I wore white pants and a white jacket. I mean, I think I was all in white.

[Laura]: Prince saw the evident effort that the judge, the secretary and the clerk had made to keep that place standing.

[Prince]: The infrastructure was obviously precarious. I mean, tough, very tough. It was a place that was holding together by a thread.

[Laura]: Despite the precariousness, the judge did everything possible so that their weddings, the first of this kind he had ever performed, were not just a simple legal procedure. He prepared some words for them:

[Carlos]: The poetic side of it is to tell them how beautiful this is, that I hope this commitment lasts for a long time, that it serves as an example for society.

[Prince]: We had silver rings because of course there was no money to buy gold rings, and we were happy and scared at the same time—what if somebody came in, what if something happened.

[Laura]: He had each couple act as witness for the other, he had them sign the certificate, exchange rings, and at the end he said the long-awaited words:

[Carlos]: So I pronounce you wife and wife.

[Laura]: And, at the end of the ceremony, the judge asked for the cake to be brought out. The day before had been his birthday, and his mother had baked a red velvet cake for him, so he decided to bring some of it to celebrate the unions of the four women. Prince couldn’t stop thinking about what this celebration meant beyond personal joy and the importance of the judge’s decision to marry them.

[Prince]: To me, the judge is a superhero. He was missing only his cape, because his chest was there.

[Laura]: While they were celebrating and eating, it occurred to the judge that the red velvet cake would be part of the ritual of these marriages from that moment on.

[Carlos]: And I realized it was beautiful. And I said, “Hey, let’s institutionalize it. Next marriage, let’s bring in a cake, too.” But my mother was not always there to bake it because sometimes, for example, my mother was away on a trip. So, no problem. I knew how to do it. Flour, eggs, milk, sugar, all of that. Sugar, flowers and a lot of colors, like the Powerpuff Girls.

[Laura]: Over time, he added other rituals. He decided to always meet the couples at the Cartagena bus terminal and accompany them from there—just as he did with me. To be easily recognized, he always wore a green cap that said Peru, and he also met them very early. That way, with some luck, they could get a seat on one of the newer buses. Well, not new, but buses where at least the seats wouldn’t rattle so much and they wouldn’t have to travel with the chickens and the harvest. Maybe the couples didn’t see that courthouse as the dream location for their wedding, but at least it was better than continuing to dream.

The rumor of what Colombia Diversa was doing with the judge began to be shared discreetly, and couples from all over—from Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla, Bogotá and even Australia—came to San Estanislao de Kostka looking for one of the few judges in the entire country willing to marry them.

Carlos did not hide what he did, and the people in town knew the reason why there were more and more visitors. On one occasion, he was confronted by the priest.

[Carlos]: And he gave me a scolding, asking me why was I doing that, that I had to understand the customs of the town, and so on, that it is a Catholic town.

[Laura]: Carlos told him:

[Carlos]: “Brother, you stay there and I stay here. In the spiritual realm, perfect, you are boss there. I am boss in my legal field. Leave me here with my criterion.”

[Laura]: And from that moment on, the priest never said anything to him again. In fact, no one from San Estanislao did.

[Carlos]: The people already knew. The people were always respectful. There is no problem on that account.

[Laura]: The problem really was that the weddings might reach the ears of people who were opposed hundreds of kilometers away, in Bogotá. So far, Operation Macondo was going perfectly, except that the secret was not going to be safe forever.

[Daniel]: We’ll be back after a break.

[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

Before the break, Judge Carlos García had decided to marry same-sex couples in San Estanislao de Kostka. Colombia Diversa called it Operation Macondo, but they had to keep it secret so that opponents of same-sex marriage would not put an end to it. And they succeeded for a while, until it hit the media.

Laura Robles continues the story.

[Laura]: Tadeo Martínez was a reporter on the Caribbean coast for Semana, one of the leading media outlets in the country. In mid-2015 he received a call from one of his editors. He had heard a rumor about what the judge of San Estanislao was doing.

[Tadeo Martínez]: Someone told me, “Tadeo, listen, we have this story. We want you to go to that town and cover it, and tell us what is happening, how this happened in a lost town on the banks of the Canal del Dique.”

[Laura]: Tadeo covered mainly issues of politics, corruption, elections, violence; and at that time, the peace agreements with the FARC were the most important item on the country’s media agenda. But he couldn’t let go of what his boss was telling him.

[Tadeo]: What is bizarre is the setting, the town. That this could not be done in Bogotá, that this could not be done in Cali, that this could not be done in Medellín, but in a town in the middle of nowhere? It’s kind of funny.

[Laura]: It was absurd that couples had to leave the political and economic hub of the country in order for their fundamental rights to be respected. The story was perfect, and media had not published it.

It also coincided with the fact that the Constitutional Court was about to hold a public hearing to discuss the issue of marriage equality again. That was July 30, 2015.

[Archive soundbite]

[Jorge Pretelt, Court member]: Welcome, everyone, to the debate. And let’s make this hearing a democratic dialogue…

[Laura]: The last ruling on the matter, in 2011, had left a lot of confusion, and it was time to clear up the doubts. Both sides were invited to debate. On one side was Marcela, from Colombia Diversa.

[Archive soundbite]

[Marcela]: We are here today, first, to defend the legality of civil marriages that have already taken place for over 40 same-sex couples in Colombia. Second, to point out that marriage is the only legal act that protects and materializes our rights to equality, freedom and dignity of our families.

[Laura]: Married couples spoke.

[Archive soundbite]

[Sandra Marcela Rojas]: We have been together for ten years, and for seven of them we have been struggling to get married. When we finally achieved it, we had to do it without the possibility of choosing the date and almost in secret.

[Laura]: Judges from countries where marriage equality had already been approved and experts from international organizations that defend human rights also participated.

On the other side, conservative politicians and a representative of the Attorney General’s Office spoke. The president of the Marido y Mujer organization was also present.

[Archive soundbite]

[Javier Suárez Pascagaza, President of the Marido y Mujer Foundation]: According to the Political Constitution, Article 42 establishes that marriage and family arise from the free consent of a man and a woman.

[Laura]: Armed with all this information, the Court was expected to issue a final ruling in a few months. It was the perfect time to tell the story of Judge Carlos García. So after that hearing, Tadeo, the Semana journalist, immediately planned his trip to San Estanislao. He had not spoken to the judge, but his plan was to look for him in the courthouse, interview him, and write a feature article. He also wanted to videotape parts of that interview to upload on social media. He left early that morning with his recorder and his camera.

He met the judge at the door and explained who he was and why he was there. The judge accepted the interview gladly, invited him to see the courthouse, and answered each of his questions. At the end of the day, although his story might not so high-profile, it was mentioned at the Court hearing that a judge had performed more than 20 marriages in San Estanislao. Carlos also told him that it was Colombia Diversa which put him in contact with couples, that they helped people who had really demonstrated a serious intention to get married, that he himself picked them up at the station in Cartagena, that they traveled by bus together to San Estanislao, and also that he served them red velvet cake.

After interviewing him, Tadeo wanted to tour the town.

[Tadeo]: I spent about three or four hours in the town, walking around, talking to people about the weddings that were taking place, how they saw it, how they experienced it, how they felt about it. No, it didn’t bother people. On the contrary, they enjoyed it because it was picturesque, because it was daring and it didn’t bother them.

[Laura]: Although it was unknown to most of the country, the judge did not perform weddings hidden from the townspeople. Unlike the first wedding, by that time the ceremonies were performed with several guests, elegant dresses and celebrations.

[Tadeo]: And in fact, that year I went, there had been only one marriage in the Catholic Church. There were more marriages officiated by the judge between same-sex couples than marriages between heterosexuals.

[Laura]: Tadeo returned to Barranquilla that same afternoon and sat down to write his article with all the information he had collected.

The text appeared in the printed magazine in November 2015, with the title The hidden story of the judge who marries gays. It said that San Estanislao was, and I quote, “the only town in the country where same-sex couples can marry without fear of reprisal.” This is Judge Carlos again:

[Carlos]: I feel that this was like one of the last great feature pieces I have read. And that I have seen. And I feel that they did tell everything with respect. But obviously, no one prepared me for the tidal wave that came later.

[Laura]: Because his story began to be replicated in other media, such as this radio program:

[Archive soundbite]

[Vicky Dávila]: And we greet you at this time, Carlos García. Good morning, Judge.

[Carlos García]: Good morning, Vicky. Good morning to all the team at La FM and your listeners.

[Vicky]: Thanks for joining us. Listen, so what’s the process like? What is the ritual that you do?

[Carlos]: Exactly the same as if a heterosexual couple requested it. It’s basically…

[Laura]: This had left the world of activism to enter a much more public realm. Now it wasn’t just the Attorney General who was going to find out; it was any citizen who opposed the marriage of homosexual couples. Carlos knew it.

[Carlos]: They could come at any moment and ruin a ceremony; they were going to serve me at any moment with a writ of protection against me; they could ask for my suspension at any moment; and, well, I risked everything.

[Laura]: And, at the same time, when the judge began giving interviews, both he and Marcela, the director of Colombia Diversa, knew that this was the end of their partnership.

[Marcela]: We had an unspoken agreement with him, which was like, “if you say that you are performing marriages, you will ruin the whole thing.” In other words, we can no longer continue performing marriages and we made that commitment, and the moment you say something, it’s over.

[Laura]: Although they both knew that discretion was what helped them perform the weddings, they did not end up on bad terms.

Without Colombia Diversa and with a job proposal in Cartagena, Carlos performed his last homosexual marriage on December 10 of that year, 2015.

[Carlos]: It wasn’t a random date. It was an intentional date. December 10th was the anniversary of my graduation. It was the last one I performed. Wedding number 31.

[Laura]: And after marrying 31 couples, he left for his new job as a judge in Cartagena in early 2016. A few days after starting, the inevitable happened: A citizen heard the news and filed a complaint with the Superior Judiciary Council, the state agency in charge of disciplining judges.

[Carlos]: A person who I don’t think has ever visited the town. He was not part of any process; no one knew him. He just sees the article and it seems to him that there is an irregularity. Ta ta ta ta.

[Laura]: The irregularity of which he was accused was not exactly because he had performed weddings for homosexual couples, but because, according to a rule that once existed, couples could be married only by the judge from the place where the woman lived. For Carlos, everything was so absurd that he interpreted it as a homophobic plan to get him into trouble.

The Judiciary notified Carlos of the complaint and began an investigation. They asked him for documents to verify what he had done.

[Carlos]: “And send us a copy of all the weddings you have performed,” my man. That was a dossier of about 1,200 pages because they included all the copies of the applications, the records, the certificates, the DVDs, everything.

[Laura]: While Carlos was gathering all the material and preparing to appear before the Council to defend himself, the Court finally ruled on marriage equality on April 7, 2016. Juan Felipe, the Colombia Diversa intern, remembers that he was working in the office when heard the news.

[Juan Felipe]: And I remember that I sat at the desk and started crying. Then the secretary of Colombia Diversa, Adriana, came in and asked me, “Are you okay?” And I said, “No, Adri, I’m too excited.” I didn’t think I would ever see this, much less in Colombia, and it seems this struggle is finally resolved; they finally agreed with us.

[Laura]: With six votes in favor and three against, the Court had stated its approval.

[Archive soundbite]

[Demonstrators]: Yes sir. Yes, I will get married because here in Colombia the law now allows me to…

[Juan Felipe]: That day I felt that, at least as a gay man, I was no longer lagging behind, thrown behind. Now I feel a little more equal to the rest of the population.

[Marcela]: It is no longer what the notaries say, it is not what each court individually says, it is not what Colombia Diversa says, it is not what anyone says… No, that’s all over. What the Court said is that in Colombia there is civil marriage for same-sex couples. That’s the end of the discussion. Oh, no, but of course the Attorney General, because he has that power, moved for an annulment of the ruling, which the Court obviously rejected. Sir, calm down already.

[Carlos]: The Constitutional Court’s ruling was in agreement with the four judges who had performed weddings and had openly called this marriage. So I felt very proud to have been part of that select group of judges who made it happen. But on the other hand, yes, the disciplinary issue was just beginning.

[Laura]: And despite the euphoria of the moment, Carlos still had that issue to resolve.

At the end of that year, 2016, the Council summoned him to a hearing. The night before seemed very long to him.

[Carlos]: I didn’t sleep for shit. You have to remember that we are in the world of law, and in the world of law anything can be interpreted in one way or another, and the problem is when your superior has a different interpretation than yours.

[Laura]: And if those at the top decided that his interpretation had been incorrect, the consequences for him were clear.

[Carlos]: They can remove me from office. They can order an investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office, and I can end up in prison.

[Laura]: For prevarication—that is, making a legal decision while knowing that it violates the law.

Carlos was also stressed out thinking about where that hearing would be.

[Carlos]: If there is a building with a negative charge surrounding such a hearing, it is the Palace of the Inquisition.

[Laura]: The Palace of the Inquisition, in the historic center of Cartagena. Where, during colonial times, heretics and witches were tried.

[Carlos]: Yes, there was torture and other things. And every time I have had to go there, I feel a very negative, horrible energy.

[Laura]: Anyway, he showed up at the Palace the next day, December 13, 2016, to fulfill his duty. The hearing began in the Disciplinary Court of the Judiciary. The judges asked him very direct questions about marriages.

[Carlos]: “Why were so many scheduled?” “Why did so many people come?” “Why didn’t you consider the option of referring it to another office if the people did not live in the town?” Hearings in the Disciplinary Court are intimidating. I had never felt as cornered as I did at that hearing.

[Laura]: Despite the intimidation, he felt confident that he had complied with the law. Furthermore, he had prepared very well for that day.

[Carlos García]: So I said, “Eh, but look, the ruling says something here, it says that the interpretation was correct.” Plus, I had done a little more research. And I read the page of the book ta, ta, ta by such-and-such authors, ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta… So I thought, “I feel like I have a solid defense. The certificates are signed. Everything is recorded. The Court ruled in my favor. Are we still doing this?”

[Laura]: The questioning continued for two hours. When the hearing was over, they didn’t tell him anything else. After that, he could only wait and continue doing his job as a judge in Cartagena until the Judiciary ruled on his case.

But the wait was a long one. It wasn’t until three years later, in 2019, that the news reached him: one of the magistrates had closed the process and acquitted him.

[Carlos]: And that judge said, “Bro, the Court’s ruling is very clear. It was a correct interpretation of the Constitution. How can you argue with the Constitutional Court?”

[Laura]: Now Carlos would no longer have to worry about defending what he knew was right. It was a relief to get that weight off his shoulders.

[Carlos]: Like the breeze in La Rosa de Guadalupe. Because I said, “At least we have won this war. If we survive this, we can survive a nuclear war.”

[Laura]: But more than a war, what defenders of the rights of LGBTIQ+ people have won have been battles, large and small. Because the war is still going on. In 2020, four years after the Court made it clear that a same-sex couple can marry wherever they want, a judge in Cartagena refused to marry a couple of women.

To Carlos, this was a warning. He still couldn’t let his guard down.

[Carlos]: I felt, “Wow! There is still something here. Because if some of us judges are refusing, what was the point of all this time that I was in anguish over what was happening to me?” I wouldn’t wish that setback on anyone, on any couple. I do not wish on any couple for someone to simply come up and oppose them out of a personal conviction. They have the right to marry, period.

[Laura]: Including him.

Well, don’t you want to get married, then?

[Carlos]: I would like to. I have a ring that I bought in Istanbul. With a very beautiful stone called zultanite, which changes color. The problem is with whom.

[Laura]: But if he finds someone, what he is sure of now is that he can choose any place in Colombia to get married without problem… even, if he wants, in that small town: San Estanislao de Kostka.

It seems an unlikely place, which, although far from the large institutions in the middle of the country where the direction of the laws is usually decided, managed to be vital in the advancement of human rights in Colombia. I talked about it with Carlos on the bus on our way back from San Estanislao:

[Carlos]: Sometimes these gains are interesting to fight for, and especially to do so in the most unlikely scenario in the world, and seeing that shows me that a legal revolution is also within our reach.

[Daniel]: From Colombia Diversa, Juan Felipe Rivera and Marcela Sánchez continue working for the rights of LGBTIQ+ people in Colombia. They still receive hundreds of queries a year on the topic of marriage.

Carlos García no longer marries couples. He is now a family judge and, ironically, among other tasks, he handles divorce cases.

Laura Robles Muñoz is a journalist from the Colombian Caribbean. She co-produced this episode with our senior producer David Trujillo. They both live in Bogotá.

This story was edited by Camila Segura, Natalia Sánchez Loayza and me. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano, with original music by Rémy.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Selene Mazón, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Natalia Ramírez, Barbara Sawhill, Ana Tuirán, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas.

Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.

Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.


Laura Robles Muñoz and David Trujillo

Camila Segura, Daniel Alarcón and Natalia Sánchez Loayza

Bruno Scelza

Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano

Rémy Lozano

Gabriela Sánchez


Episode 19