The Only Interpreter | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
[Jhon Gutiérrez]: My name is Jhon Gutiérrez Vásquez. I am 50 years old.
[Daniel]: Jhon is Colombian and lives in Medellín. 28 years ago, he learned a particular language, which he describes as follows:
[Jhon Gutiérrez]: It is a three-dimensional, visual-gestural language; that is, you use not just your hands, but you also use your body, your face and all the space around you.
[Daniel]: For Jhon, this language became almost an obsession, one that has marked a large part of his life.
[Jhon]: If you don’t feel it in your gut, in your viscera, in your whole body, brother . . . if it doesn’t really move you, doesn’t excite you, then you will never learn sign language.
[Daniel]: Sign language, the language used by deaf people to communicate. But he is not hearing impaired. He learned it out of sheer curiosity. It all began one day in 1994, when he was 23 years old. At the time, Jhon lived in Bogotá and worked as a security officer for the Prosecutor’s Office. One Friday afternoon he saw a group of people walking by in front of the building where he worked. He had seen them several times before, every Friday at the same time, and he had noticed that they spoke using signs.
[Jhon]: Where are these people going? It caught my attention; I followed them and saw them enter a place called the Bogotá Society of the Deaf.
[Daniel]: Standing in front of that building, the first thing that came to mind was the translators who sometimes appeared on television. It wasn’t that frequent to see them; they were only on some newscasts and on state programs, but it was the only reference Jhon had about sign language. Then he thought of the place where he worked: the Prosecutor’s Office, which investigates possible crimes and charges those responsible. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t think of any officials who knew sign language.
And something a little crazy occurred to him: What if he were that official? He didn’t know it at the time, but he would end up becoming, even to this day, the only sign-language interpreter in the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office.
After the break, Colombian journalist Leonardo Botero will tell us more. We’ll be back.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante.
Leonardo continues the story . . .
[Leonardo Botero]: Let’s go back to the moment when Jhon stood in front of the building of the Bogotá Society of the Deaf. A lot of questions came to his mind. If a deaf person was detained, how would they understand him? And if he wanted to file a complaint, how could he communicate? What would happen at a hearing where one of the parties was deaf and the other did not know sign language? In other words, how could a deaf person function within a legal process?
[Jhon]: I thought: The deaf exist, and like any human being, they have rights. It was then that I began, in a very individual, very personal way, to think that they should be guaranteed their linguistic rights in the criminal process.
[Leonardo]: Although Jhon was a security officer and obviously did not have access to criminal proceedings, he was becoming aware of a problem that, apparently, the Prosecutor’s Office had not detected.
But to propose his idea of being an interpreter for the institution, first things first—he had to learn the language. So he returned to the Bogotá Society of the Deaf, knocked on the door, and was greeted by José Leal, a man who was very good at lip-reading because he had learned to speak before becoming deaf.
[Jhon]: And I told him, I want to learn to sign.
[Leonardo]: But at that time, they didn’t just teach anyone who wanted to learn. José found Jhon’s interest strange, especially since he was not a psychologist or a doctor, nor did he work with deaf people.
José explained something to him. He needed to be really interested in order to learn. In addition, very specific skills were required: a good visual memory to remember signs, and body language control.
So it would not be an easy process. It was not simply about learning vocabulary and repeating it. You had to practice—a lot. But that didn’t change Jhon’s mind. He insisted and told José about his idea of offering his services as an interpreter in the Prosecutor’s Office.
[Jhon]: I managed to persuade him, and it was there, in Bogotá, where I started my first lessons in sign language: A, B, C, father, mother, good morning.
[Leonardo]: At the end of each week, Jhon arrived punctually at the same building to take those first lessons. He paid about 27 dollars at the time. The teachers were Silvia and Sofía, two deaf women who communicated only with signs and gestures. The first thing the teachers told him was that he needed to “sew up his mouth.” It wasn’t literal, of course, but what they wanted to make clear was that he had to get used to communicating his ideas without saying them out loud. That alone was a huge challenge.
One of the first exercises they gave him was to practice signs in front of the mirror, observing his gestures, the movements of his hands—everything that would help him communicate. And that’s how he began to understand visual memory.
[Jhon]: If you wanted to see a sign, you had to see it in a book, and it is very difficult in a book because it is just an image.
[Leonardo]: And of course, sign language is made up of gestures, movements which do not appear in still images. But not everyone manages to make that connection between pictures and movements, and constant practice is tiresome. Jhon remembers that 14 other people started with him, all women. But that quickly changed.
[Jhon]: When I finished the first level and went on to the second level, the 15 of us who started did not continue to the second level. Only 6 of us did. People end up leaving.
[Leonardo]: But in addition to the signs, Jhon was learning other things in the process. He knew from the start that the expression “deaf and dumb” is incorrect . . .
[Jhon]: Because they are not mute. They have a phonation system, phonatory, phono-articular . . .
[Leonardo]: They produce sounds, and with professional help, they can even modulate some words.
Jhon also learned that each country has been adapting its own sign language, which includes dialects and idioms from each region. Jhon concentrated on learning the Colombian version, although at that time, 1994, the language was not yet officially recognized.
Two or three levels later, Jhon asked for a job transfer at the Prosecutor’s Office. He had been in Bogotá for some time but away from his family, who lived in another city. It turned out there was a vacancy for a security officer in Medellin. They didn’t live there, but at least he was closer than in Bogotá, so he accepted it.
He moved in 1995, a time that coincided with an important event. That year, Congress approved the first law in the entire history of the country that focused on the deaf population. Colombian sign language was officially recognized, for one thing. But in addition, other guarantees were given, such as the dissemination of that language and the presence of interpreters in schools, universities, hospitals and different public agencies. The State also offered technical and pedagogical support allowing access to education under equal conditions; and it subsidized equipment to facilitate communication.
But back to Jhon. When he arrived in Medellin, one of the first things he did was seek out the deaf community that lived there, in order to perfect his bilingualism. He did some research, found the Antioquia Association of the Deaf, ASANSO, and was able to continue studying there.
Jhon had a suspicion coming from Bogotá, and in Medellín he was able to confirm it.
[Jhon]: Usually, when we interpreters start signing, we practice in some specific field, right? We belong to some field.
[Leonardo]: This means, for example, that if the person wants to preach a religion to deaf people, they will focus on learning the words, expressions and jargon that will work for them.
[Jhon]: That person who is in the religious field will first learn how to say God bless you, God, Jesus, Holy Spirit and so on. And the same happens with psychology, or the interpreter who works in a school has to learn the signs for all the symbols of the periodic table.
[Leonardo]: And when Jhon began his learning process, that also applied to him. He was immersed in the legal field and had clear intentions.
[Jhon]: So I think, “How would you say arrest, how would you say investigation, heinous, futile, in dubio pro reo, non bis in idem, habeas corpus, habeas data, intent, guilt, involuntary manslaughter, failure to appear?”
[Leonardo]: Maybe only people trained in law will understand what Jhon is talking about. These legal terms are not very frequent, even in everyday Spanish, and there are no standardized signs. So Jhon had to find a way to communicate those concepts.
[Jhon]: You begin to study each one of those words and ask deaf people, because it is really them, it is that community, that creates its own signs—but you as a listener can help them.
[Leonardo]: For example, the concept of habeas data . . .
[Jhon]: You explain it in sign language . . . or rather, through facial and body expressions to the deaf person so that they understand. Then the deaf person will say: “Oh, right to information.”
[Leonardo]: Jhon ended up being an interpreter for the Prosecutor’s Office by chance. He was training to become one, of course, but he didn’t have a clear idea of the bureaucratic process to get there. There wasn’t even an official position.
His colleagues from the Prosecutor’s Office in Medellín became aware that he was learning sign language, and one day in 1996, while he was still a security officer, they called him to solve a problem they were in: they needed to process the detention of a deaf person, and to do that, they had to communicate with him. It was then that Jhon provided interpreter services for the first time, although informally.
He doesn’t remember many details of that first case, because there have been so many others after that. To this day, on paper, he remains a security officer because he was never officially appointed as a sign language interpreter. But the Prosecutor’s Office realized his usefulness and kept calling him to help out in other similar situations. It was clear to him from the beginning that his job was not going to be that simple. The ideal and almost perfect scenario would be to stand in a courtroom, listen to what the judge, the prosecutor or the lawyers say, translate it into sign language for the deaf person, and vice versa.
But it is not so easy. Not all deaf people are at the same level of sign language . . .
[Jhon]: There are bilingual deaf people, that is, they use both sign language and Spanish.
[Leonardo]: Those people most likely lost their hearing after learning to talk, so they can read, write, and can tell what another person is saying just by looking at their lips.
But there are also people who were born deaf and were never able to learn Spanish, so they only understand sign language. Some have a large vocabulary and get by very well. These are known as monolingual. Now, the ones who have a basic vocabulary and cannot hold a long conversation are known as semi-lingual.
And then there are the functionally illiterate . . .
[Jhon]: They know a few signs, they know how to say “mother,” “there,” “the house.” But you ask them for their home address and that’s the end of it.
[Leonardo]: And finally, there are people who are completely illiterate. . .
[Jhon]: They can’t speak, they can’t hear, they don’t know how to read, they don’t know how to write, and they don’t know sign language. Their only expressions are gestures, and this only because they come naturally to them as human beings who need to communicate with others. But there is nothing you can interpret in those cases.
[Leonardo]: This last group of illiterate people are the most vulnerable and they usually have no access to anything—not to education, or health, or work, or the legal system. When Jhon began to meet people with these characteristics in his job, he couldn’t help recalling a case he had seen up close. Although he realizes that this was not what motivated him to learn sign language, as an interpreter it has come to his mind on many occasions.
[Jhon]: I do remember that there was a deaf person in my family and his name was Orlando.
[Leonardo]: Orlando was his cousin. Jhon doesn’t remember very well, but he says that he was 15 or 20 years older than him. At that time, the 1970s, there were no institutions to learn sign language where they lived, and the family had no money to send him to another city.
Since he could not speak, Orlando was not even identified as deaf, but was referred to as “the mute” of the family, the one who was hard to understand.
[Jhon]: Orlando communicated through non-verbal language, gestures, and unintelligible guttural sounds.
[Leonardo]: Orlando never went to school and never had a job. He was completely dependent on his family. He died when Jhon was very young, with no possibility of ever attaining his fundamental rights.
He’s not the only person who has experienced something like this, even though for years there have been various regulations in the world to guarantee full rights to the deaf. We know that in the case of Colombia, the law focused on that group was created in 1996. But in addition, the country has joined different international agreements to eliminate discrimination against people with any type of disability.
All this has helped Jhon do his job better. Based on those rules, when he is called, the first thing he does is find out in detail what the deaf person’s situation is. Not only whether they are a victim, a defendant, a witness, etc., but he also determines their level of communication. Jhon can’t simply start talking to them in sign language about the legal process they are going to face.
[Jhon]: Because I would be violating their linguistic rights, since I don’t know if they were born deaf or became deaf, or if they use hearing aids, or an implant, or if they can speak, or if they like to read lips, or if they know sign language.
[Leonardo]: And if they know sign language, Jhon has to clarify the idioms they use depending on what region they come from. For example, there are three different signs for the letter S. There are two for mother and father. And, although it seems strange, there may be two words in Spanish that have nothing to do with each other, such as “cousin” and “green,” but that can be signed the same way in some regions of the country. So, before anything else . . .
[Jhon]: I do an exercise called an evaluation of communication competence.
[Leonardo]: This evaluation, as Jhon calls it, begins with long meetings with the deaf person and, if possible, with their relatives, so he can get a better understanding of their situation and create a profile.
Then he does an oral evaluation, then a written one, and finally one for sign language. With that, Jhon writes a report in which he makes it clear whether the deaf person understands the proceeding he or she will experience.
If they are bilingual, he can take the next step and begin interpreting the proceeding. The same goes for a monolingual person. If it is a semi-lingual person who, remember, has a basic and limited vocabulary, Jhon can adjust the interpretation if that person uses lip reading or written Spanish.
[Jhon]: But if I find a semi-lingual person, where no matter how much legal and linguistic support they are given, they are not able to understand or make themselves understood, then I write in my report that it is not possible to interpret.
[Leonardo]: The same thing happens if the person is functionally or totally illiterate. In that case, Jhon writes in the report . . .
[Jhon]: That the person lacks linguistic capacity—I am not talking about neurological, psychological, psychiatric or medical conditions, no.
[Leonardo]: No. It means that they lack the linguistic capacity to express their will, as required by law. This type of case is not exceptional, and Jhon tells a story that helps us better understand how the State has tried to handle it. He does not remember the exact date, but over a decade ago the Prosecutor’s Office called him to serve as an interpreter in Amagá, more than an hour away from Medellín. He had to try to communicate with a 19-year-old deaf man who had been detained for attacking another person with a knife.
[Jhon]: We were all expectant in that room. So, what happened? In he comes and he tells us, “Sit down, sit down, I’m going to explain.”
[Leonardo]: All this using intuitive signs, nothing very structured. And what Jhon was able to understand, very subjectively, from that non-verbal language was that the man had been keeping an eye on motorcycles on the street for three years. It was an informal job, and he earned some money. That day a man had arrived in a car and parked in that area.
At that moment, another man approached to charge the owner of the car . . .
[Jhon]: This person explained, in his non-verbal language, that he was not going to let someone take his space, where he charged for the care of the motorcycles. He took a knife, no bigger than my index finger, and the other guy was so unlucky that he almost got himself killed, brother.
[Leonardo]: He almost got himself killed, but they managed to get him to a hospital quickly and saved him. So the Prosecutor planned to charge this deaf man with the crime of personal injury and even attempted homicide.
[Jhon]: But a professional who was there says—he asks, “Has he been declared mentally unfit?”
[Leonardo]: Unfit. That is, if because of his condition he was unaware of what he had done. The answer was no. This man was fully aware of the damage he caused. He knew he had a knife, he knew where he had to stab, and he knew he was going to hurt the other person. There was no cognitive impairment that prevented him from understanding.
The problem was different. Jhon realized that this man was functionally illiterate, and the act of charging someone with a crime is based on communication.
[Jhon]: You are being told, “Look, you did this and that.” How do you expect me to tell him, if there is no language between him and me that allows us to have that communication?
[Leonardo]: By law, this man had to have a specific understanding of the crime he was being charged with. Then he could understand what the process would be like. Since this was impossible, the authorities tried to resolve the case by applying the concept of diminished competence to stand trial. I know, the legal terms are confusing, but basically it means that, on the one hand, they started from the fact that this person knew what he was doing and he was charged with that. And on the other hand. . .
[Jhon]: When they decide the severity of the sentence, when they say, “Now, how much do I punish him? How far do I take the punishment?” Well, they have to take into account that special condition of communicational vulnerability.
[Leonardo]: Because of that condition, they decided to sentence him to house arrest. And yes, the crime did not go unpunished, this man did not remain outside the criminal process, the rights of the victim were guaranteed . . .
[Jhon]: But I wonder about him as a citizen, as a person: He did not understand anything about the process.
[Leonardo]: Because of his deafness, he could not understand all the legal implications that the prosecutor and the judge considered. He also did not understand the rights he had as a defendant, or the arguments that could have been presented in his defense. But in addition to that, his sentence did not fulfill its function of deterrent. He might infer that, due to his condition, he can commit another crime and he will still end up in his house. And that’s what worries Jhon.
[Jhon]: So . . . What did he learn? What was the message he got from the State? When is he going to get the opportunity to learn, to be instructed so that he doesn’t go on committing other crimes later on, and what’s more, so that he can communicate and live in conditions of communicational equality? So the Colombian State is in a peculiar situation that hasn’t been resolved.
[Leonardo]: And not just specifically in legal matters. It’s something much deeper. In order to guarantee equality, all people must be able to understand what is happening around them and express themselves based on that, regardless of whether they speak Spanish or are deaf. The problem is that, although that is quite explicit in the law, in practice it is not fully enforced.
As proof, let’s just remember this: Jhon is still the only sign-language interpreter in the Prosecutor’s Office. And he is not even hired as an interpreter, but as a security officer.
Jhon has worked in many cases for almost three decades in most departments of Colombia. And that has been his concern everywhere: for the persons involved, whether victims or defendants, to be guaranteed their rights. And some cases have been more difficult than others. Like one in particular that he still hasn’t forgotten after more than 16 years.
[Jhon]: I have had to do some very sad translations, very painful. One of the largest, the longest, and the most complex was a crime where many deaf people were involved.
[Leonardo]: They were more than 20. That story began in 2005, when Jhon received a somewhat confusing call from a very distressed woman asking for help.
[Jhon]: “Jhon, Jhon, my mother needs you urgently,” and this and that. And I said, “What’s the matter, what happened?” “No, Jhon, a deaf man who came to our house begging, and he has a piece of paper like this and like that.”
[Daniel]: What that piece of paper hid was an entire criminal network that would start to be uncovered from that moment.
We’ll be back after a pause.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Before the break, we heard how Jhon Gutiérrez learned Colombian sign language and has been the only interpreter for the Prosecutor’s Office for almost three decades. He has worked on countless cases of all kinds. But there was one in particular that marked him. It started with that call he received in 2005.
[Jhon]: I was at home when the daughter of a deaf woman called me . . .
[Daniel]: Leonardo Botero picks up the story.
[Leonardo]: The woman on the phone is Diana Restrepo. Jhon met her and her mother, Edilma Serna, at the Antioquia Association of the Deaf, ASANSO, where he studied sign language in Medellín. They weren’t in class together, because this organization not only teaches the language, but also tries to bring together the deaf population of that area for different purposes. There they found out he worked at the Prosecutor’s Office.
To better understand this case, I decided to talk to Diana and Edilma. I was invited to their home in October, 2021. Edilma welcomed me that day. She is deaf, so with some facial and hand gestures on my part, we managed to understand each other. She invited me into the living room. As I sat down, Diana came out from one of the rooms. She is not deaf, but her parents are.
[Diana Restrepo]: I learned sign language first and then Spanish. I learned to sign from a very young age, and I no longer spoke, I did not modulate.
[Leonardo]: When her mother’s family realized Diana’s linguistic impairment, they took her to live with them, and she would visit her parents on weekends. That’s how she learned Spanish, with the help of the rest of her family and in a special school for children with language impairments. She has been bilingual ever since, like Jhon, so she was the one who served as a translator throughout the conversation.
We began by understanding what happened that day in 2005, when she called Jhon in great distress to ask for help. She told me that a man knocked on the door of her house. She opened.
[Diana]: He was young. He was wearing sort of sports clothes, I think—jeans, a kind of wide shirt, tennis shoes. He looked like a needy person, not homeless, but very poor, very simple, very thin, in bad shape, and in great need.
[Leonardo]: The man handed her a piece of paper. At the top, in green capitals, was a name: FOCARI. On the left side there was a little drawing of a character—a smiling heart, with legs and hands, holding some brooms. Just below this, it said Fund for our Comprehensive Rehabilitation, and then there was this message: “We hope you have a good day. We come to your homes with the purpose of not disturbing you but asking for your collaboration for those of us who suffer from hearing disabilities. With your contribution of one thousand, two thousand pesos”—which at that time was about one dollar—“we can have a good and honest life free of vices and not be a burden to our families. Thank you very much.”
This was followed by a numbered chart divided into columns. In the first column, the person who decided to give money wrote their name and surname. Then they wrote the amount of the contribution and then the city. Diana was moved by this man, so she called her parents to see what they could do.
[Diana]: He was glad to see them, realizing they were deaf. He knew sign language and we invited him in. So he sat down and said that he was very hungry, he was starving. I think we gave him something to eat. He was very desperate and said he was suffering a lot.
[Leonardo]: His name was Julio Gonzalez. He was from Cartago, a city far from there, but he was in Medellin collecting money.
I wanted to confirm that with Julio himself, who had joined the conversation by video call when I interviewed Diana and her mother. I asked him to explain what happened that day when he went to ask them for money. This is Diana translating:
[Diana]: He said he was in a hotel . . . staying in a hotel and that there were many deaf people in the hotel. The person who sent them told all the deaf persons that in the morning . . . they each had to go out and work.
[Leonardo]: By “work” he means that he forced them to ask for money on the streets and knock on doors. He gave them the paper with the chart that we already mentioned, and they had to give him whatever they collected during the day.
[Diana]: That they were hungry, they were starving, so it made them very angry because they had nothing, no food. That each one of them had to find ways to eat.
[Leonardo]: Diana and her parents found Julio’s account very strange and troubling. They had been involved with the deaf community of the city for years and they didn’t know this organization that collected money on the street. They asked him who the owner was, who put them to work. Julio gave them a name: Ricardo Forero. That is why the foundation was called FOCARI; those are the initials of Forero Cañas Ricardo.
A known name. And a feared name.
[Diana]: Ricardo Forero was already known among the deaf. They knew that he picked up deaf persons in different municipalities, in small towns, and started to . . . they would go to different places and he exploited them, and had them turn over all that money to him.
[Leonardo]: There is much that is not known about Forero’s history, such as when and how he lost his hearing. The truth is that, in addition to knowing sign language, he could communicate in Spanish without the help of interpreters. For some time, the deaf community had been collecting testimonies of what Forero did with other deaf people—some of them illiterate—but so far, they had not stopped him.
Forero probably recruited Julio the same way he recruited all the others he brought into his network. According to Jhon, he promised them the possibility of earning money while traveling over different parts of the country. In addition, he convinced their families that he could help them financially. With such a proposal it was difficult to refuse—A deaf person has a hard time finding a job.
Jhon also says that when they started working with Forero, the first thing he did was take away their identity documents. Then they traveled without ever knowing exactly where they were going . . . Remember that many of these people were illiterate. He did not feed them; they only had what people gave them on the street. As for lodgings . . . well, he barely put them in overcrowded hotel rooms for the night.
His job was to approach people or knock on doors and show the paper, have people sign the chart, receive the money, and then give it all to Forero. Julio was at a point where he had to do anything he could to survive, so when he saw the opportunity to ask Diana and her parents for help, he did not hesitate for a second.
Diana remembers that, at that moment, her parents exploded . . .
[Diana]: They were furious, they gave him quite the speech, they said the guy was a lowlife and they used cuss words.
[Leonardo]: Edilma, her mother, remembered Jhon, the man they had met at ASANSO, who worked at the Prosecutor’s Office.
[Diana]: I went right down to the store. I do remember that I called and said, “Oh, Jhon, there is a boy at our house named Julio, and it seems that Ricardo puts him to work.” “Oh, how so?”
[Leonardo]: Jhon had also been hearing rumors for some time about Ricardo Forero and what he did.
[Jhon]: And people told me, “Jhon, look, he does such and such.” “Yes, but where is he? What is he like?” Nothing concrete, nothing I could use to go to the Prosecutor’s Office and say, “This is what is happening.”
[Leonardo]: That’s why, when Diana told him about Julio, he asked her to try and get all the information he had and to ask him for the address of that hotel. That way, they could notify the authorities, who could go there and rescue the deaf people. But Julio didn’t know where he was exactly, so it occurred to them that he could ask a worker at the hotel to write it down on a piece of paper and bring it back to them.
Here Diana translates for Edilma, her mother:
[Diana]: She is telling me that when he went back to the hotel that night, he waited quietly at dawn, in the morning, for everyone to leave. He went to the administration and asked for a hotel card. When they gave it to him, he came running over to us saying he had the card.
[Leonardo]: They called John again. He suggested that they meet immediately at the ASANSO headquarters. Edilma and Julio arrived.
[Diana]: When she saw Jhon coming with the Prosecutor, my mom, all frightened, says, “Oh, what happened? What is this? What is this activity? Why so many police officers? Why so many prosecutors?”
[Leonardo]: Edilma remembers that Jhon calmed her down and they began to ask her a lot of questions. She told them what she knew up to that moment and what Julio had told them. Jhon told them to stay there while he went with the authorities to that hotel.
When they arrived at the scene, they found not only more than 20 deaf people, but also evidence that Forero was a criminal who exploited them.
[Jhon]: Citizenship cards, bank accounts, the sheets with the money they had delivered the night before. Everything, everything, enough to say, “Hey, a crime is definitely being committed here.”
[Leonardo]: At the hotel they also found Forero and his cousin, one of his accomplices. They detained them both and took them to the Prosecutor’s Office to legalize the process.
A judge processed the detention. Now the Prosecution needed to organize enough evidence to charge Forero. But for that, they also needed the testimonies of the victims they found in the hotel.
Since Forero communicated well orally and in writing, he did not need an interpreter. In the case of the victims, it was the opposite. Jhon had to evaluate each person in order to interpret their testimonies. Since there were so many, he asked other interpreters for help. One of them was Alejandra Molina.
Alejandra, unlike Jhon, has no specialization in legal interpretation, but she was working as an interpreter at a school. Jhon had known her for a while and knew perfectly well that she could help him, so he called her. She had been working with the deaf community for almost ten years; it was her calling, out of a genuine desire to serve these people. She accepted without hesitation. This is Alejandra:
[Alejandra Molina]: So that was the motivation—to help deaf people who had been victims and bring justice to them.
[Leonardo]: Jhon, Alejandra and other interpreters met with the victims at ASANSO.
[Alejandra]: There were more women and they were all of adult age, already in their twenties and thirties. I know some women had children with them.
[Leonardo]: Alejandra and the other interpreters conducted individual interviews with each of the victims. They set up a video camera to record the testimony and they began. The first thing was to evaluate the level of communication that each person had. Some had a higher level than others, but in general, they could sign, if only on a basic level. In the most difficult cases, they asked for support from other deaf people to try to make themselves understood.
[Alejandra]: Within the deaf community itself or among the deaf themselves, they have the ability to communicate with other deaf people who are not very good at signing.
[Leonardo]: They learn to use other communication codes, through miming, for example. These deaf interpreters also helped them recognize regional idioms or even very old signs that were hardly ever used anymore.
There was no time limit for each interpretation. They let the person tell everything they thought was necessary. This is how they learned more details about what Forero was doing.
[Alejandra]: What did they do with the money they collected? They said they turned it over to him, that supposedly he wrote it down as if it was savings—what they had collected during the day—and they assumed that he was saving up their money. And that’s what motivated them, without realizing that they were being scammed by this man.
[Leonardo]: As we have already said, Forero took away their identity documents and these people lost all communication with their families. In the end, they never received the money, but according to Alejandra, some of the victims, even as they were telling their stories, continued to believe that Forero was helping them.
[Alejandra]: Very sad because it was like hearing them express their dreams, and the possibilities—if it is sometimes difficult for people like us without disabilities to find a job, much more so for the deaf population—and knowing the only thing that man was doing was profiting from them.
[Leonardo]: And when they were told that they were being exploited and deceived . . .
[Alejandra]: They expressed impotence, or rage, or anger, or surprise when they realized everything was a lie.
[Leonardo]: Jhon also took part in those interpretations. With that information, he began to understand that Forero had everything very well organized:
[Jhon]: He brought together three groups of approximately 25, 28 and 30 people, of all ages, including minors. And he had other people working with him, people who could hear. He was the boss.
[Leonardo]: These accomplices were in charge of going first to the area where they planned to have them ask for money and find lodgings for them. Once there, they talked with the hotel managers . . .
[Jhon]: “Well, we are going to bring them here for tourism.” Or some said, “We are going to bring them to work.” “Oh, and how many are coming?” “There are about 20 to 25 of us.” “No, I don’t have that many rooms.” “Oh, no problem. We only need three, because they all cram into one or two rooms, and the boss stays in another room.”
[Leonardo]: Many accepted. And when they reached a financial agreement . . .
[Jhon]: The deaf people settled into the hotel, crammed into two rooms. They slept on the floor, on mats.
[Leonardo]: When they arrived, they were given the papers with the charts to ask for money and began to tour the area.
[Jhon]: This man sent them in pairs, and the rule was that I was watching you and you were watching me.
[Leonardo]: That way, he made sure they did not spend the money. Sometimes he even followed them and let them know he was watching, just to scare them. It was a full day. They spent all day asking for money; they had no rest. They hardly ever ate.
[Jhon]: At the end of the day, almost at night, the man would sit in his room and have everyone form line at the hotel. “Well, how much did you bring?” bam, bam, bam . . . 15 years ago, people made 30 thousand pesos a day.
[Leonardo]: They learned this from the documents they found in the hotel that included the charts with the names and the amounts of money donated by people. This clearly showed Forero’s earnings. 30 thousand pesos at the time were about 14 dollars. That was the average. Doing some quick math, if there were about 25 people asking for money, in a week they could make approximately 2,450 dollars.
If for any reason someone did not meet the daily quota, Forero stripped them naked to look for the supposed stolen money. If he couldn’t find it, he would keep some of their clothes, which were often the ones people gave to them on the street. It could be, for example, their shoes.
[Jhon]: So the guy would say, “I’m going to put a price on those shoes. I’m going to write you a receipt, and I’m going to deduct that from the money you’ve brought in. So, starting tomorrow, bring the amount on the sheet and aside from that you bring me money for the shoes.”
[Leonardo]: The person was left with a difficult debt to pay, but they had no other way to get some shoes. They had to collect that money at any cost so they wouldn’t have to walk around barefoot.
And that’s how the network operated for several years. We don’t know exactly how long, but, according to Jhon, Forero may have started between the 70s and 80s. The truth is that there were never any formal complaints.
[Jhon]: How many police officers, soldiers, public servants were approached by a deaf person asking for help and they couldn’t understand because they were not interpreters? Those were cries for help that were never heard, never heard. I knew a case of one of the members, a deaf person who—this is not a lie—who worked with him for 20 years. In other words, he left his home as a child and came back as an adult.
[Leonardo]: With each testimony, it became clearer that the crime was human trafficking.
[Jhon]: For the objective requirements of the crime of human trafficking to be met, there must be deception, displacement, and illegal profit.
[Leonardo]: All this happened in this case . . . And Colombian law is very clear: Even if there is consent from the victim for this type of exploitation, that does not remove criminal responsibility. So the Prosecution decided to charge Forero and his cousin with that crime. If found guilty, they would face between 13 and 23 years in prison.
Although it seemed that everything would be resolved soon, given the amount of evidence, the process did not turn out as Jhon and the Prosecution expected.
[Jhon]: If you have witnesses against you, and your witnesses do not make themselves understood, are there any witnesses against you? No.
[Leonardo]: Searching for deaf people who were not so fluent in sign language helped Forero build his network and protect himself in a potential legal case. And it was working for him. None of his victims denounced him formally because of the difficulty in communicating with the Prosecutor’s Office, so they had no lawyers to help them request protection of their rights and compensation for damages. Some could not even clarify their personal information: what their names were, or where they were from, or their telephone numbers, or who their relatives were. None. They were people without an identity, reported as N. N. In addition, according to Jhon, many of those who were being exploited in that network did not see Forero as a victimizer but as someone who gave them a job despite their deafness.
The documents found in the hotel, and the testimonies, were useful in understanding how Forero’s criminal network operated. But Jhon assures us that the Prosecution could not convince the judge that there was enough evidence to convict them.
[Jhon]: What cannot be proved does not exist. It is a general principle of law. In a criminal proceeding, these things are pieces of evidence that may be proven at the oral trial. But if you are unable to demonstrate at the oral trial that this evidence is proof, then you are left with the doubt.
[Leonardo]: According to Jhon, because of the way the Prosecution handled the process, the testimonies of the victims definitely did not work, and neither did the evidence they had collected at the hotel.
[Jhon]: At that time, we were simply left with nothing to support a process, and the guy literally walked away free.
[Leonardo]: Because four months after they were detained, Ricardo Forero and his cousin were declared innocent.
Jhon had never been such a direct witness to the lack of protection and the vulnerability experienced by the deaf community in Colombia.
[Jhon]: 21 years ago, the Prosecutor’s Office was not prepared for that, I mean, for a process of such magnitude. There was a . . . a total ignorance of what a legal proceeding involving a deaf person is like.
[Leonardo]: And really, this has not changed. Jhon tells us that the problem is not only in the Prosecutor’s Office, because the same situation occurs in other State agencies: the Police, the Attorney General’s Office, the Ombudsman’s Office, the human rights defenders . . . and the list goes on and on.
[Jhon]: Is a person with a disability worth less than an animal? Are they worth less than a tree, even if the tree is 500 years old? Where are the sign language interpreters? Where are those who care for people with spastic cerebral palsy? Where is the specialized care for people with autism? I do not understand why there is so much neglect in this country for people with disabilities.
[Leonardo]: After hearing this story, I wanted more details about what happened in the case of Ricardo Forero and the reasons the judge had given for setting him free. So I requested the file from the 11th Criminal Court of Medellín, but a month and five days later they simply told me that they couldn’t find the file on the sentencing. They couldn’t help me.
On the page of the Colombian Judicial Branch, however, there are several pieces of information that reveal what happened after Forero was released. On May 30, 2008, more than two years after this case, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison by a judge in the department of Bolívar, for the same crime of human trafficking. That time he did go to jail.
Forero applied for parole on three occasions, but it was denied each time. Taking into account the time of the sentence, he should have been released from prison by now. I tried to search for him but was unsuccessful. No other personal information appears in the legal documents, not even the name of his lawyer. When I asked Diana and Jhon about him, they told me they didn’t know anything. And although they cannot be sure if his criminal network was completely dismantled, it does not seem unreasonable to think that he continues to exploit deaf people.
But beyond the details of the Forero case, I had several questions for the Prosecutor’s Office: Why does Jhon have a contract as a security officer and not as an interpreter? Why haven’t they hired others? Why do deaf people continue to have the same problems of access to justice? Why has no priority been given to defending the rights of people with disabilities?
As their first response, they told me to contact Jhon. I replied that I had already spoken with him about this and I wanted an official response from the institution. They told me to send them a detailed questionnaire and I did, but they ended up forwarding it to John.
It’s frustrating for him. Although he is still employed by the Prosecutor’s Office, it is difficult for him to hide that burnout. What he has always requested for the deaf population is not impossible, not even utopian—it is basic.
[Jhon]: All I have ever asked is for the rights in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to be guaranteed. In every area: legal, occupational, academic, cultural. I haven’t thrown in the towel, but I have stopped insisting so much. Because the truth is, I got tired, man. There are times when one gets tired.
[Leonardo]: He got tired of not being taken seriously. Of feeling that they don’t seem to care. It clearly can’t be compared on the same level, but Jhon’s frustration is probably just a small portion of what the people he interprets for are feeling. And who knows how many more years will pass before Jhon stops being the only interpreter.
[Daniel]: Jhon doesn’t know when he will be done working at the Prosecutor’s Office, but when he retires, he wants to create an NGO that accompanies and helps deaf people. Right now, he is studying to get a professional degree as a sign language interpreter.
According to the World Health Organization, there are over half a million deaf people in Colombia. It’s impossible to know how many of them use Colombian sign language as their first language.
Leonardo Botero is a journalist who lives in Medellín. He co-produced this story with David Trujillo, a producer of Radio Ambulante who lives in Bogotá.
This story was edited by Camila Segura, Luis Fernando Vargas and me. Desirée Yépez did the fact-checking. Music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Nicolás Alonso, Lisette Arévalo, Aneris Casassus, Emilia Erbetta, Fernanda Guzmán, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Rémy Lozano, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, and Elsa Liliana Ulloa.
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.