Last week, Moises Wasserman, headmaster of Colombia’s National University, was kept inside his car against his liberty for six hours. As he attempted to leave campus, a group of 300 students surrounded Mr. Wasserman’s vehicle, and reportedly yelled insults and threats. The crowd demanded Mr. Wasserman’s presence at an auditorium so that he could explain the state of the University’s finances to the student body.
I know no professors who would accede to give presentations through coercion, so naturally, as most rational people would have done, the headmaster decided to stay inside his car (which happens to be armor-plated) and call for help from his cell phone. Being the head of Colombia’s largest public university, Mr. Wasserman’s SOS call was promptly responded by President Alvaro Uribe himself.
What happened later has been a source of controversy and bitterness between the national government and Bogota’s mayoralty. President Uribe ordered the police to enter the campus of the National University in order to protect Mr. Wasserman. Soon after, the crowd was dispersed and the headmaster returned to his office, where he gave a press conference.
In his statement, Mr. Wasserman qualified the situation as “a kidnapping” and “an infringement of rights”. President Uribe, who later visited the University, used stronger words in reference to the incident: “There was an act of force that deprived a person of his liberty, and that is understood as a kidnapping, and there were death threats […] When faced with a kidnapping the government has the obligation to intervene…” Members of Bogota Mayor Samuel Moreno’s administration see things a little bit differently. Clara Lopez, Bogota’s government secretary, was upset by the fact that the police was allowed to enter the campus. She also complained that a number of students who were in the crowd were taken into custody.
University independence is a sensitive topic in Colombia, as in many other places. In the name of keeping students safe from state coercion, the police and the army are barred from entering university campuses. Whenever they are trying to control a riot by National University students (and trust me, there are plenty of those), the police are obligated to do it from the outside –stepping in would create a legal and political storm of considerable proportions. Even if this makes the job of the police much more difficult, this is a healthy practice to an extent: it keeps the state out of the classroom, which makes us all better off.
But all rules have exceptions, and this week’s event was one of them. The restriction on police action in university campuses cannot be valid whenever a crime is being committed inside a university. To affirm the contrary is simply preposterous. If the property, integrity, liberty, or life of someone are in danger, the police has the obligation to intervene, even if this is occurring within the territorial limits of a university. At all times, rights to life, property, etc. supersede the universities’ right to be free from police presence, so that the infringement of the first one invalidates the second. There is clear evidence that Mr. Wasserman’s liberty was being violated by the angry mob, and the threats he reportedly received would indicate that his integrity was also in danger. Therefore, the police had the duty to act in order to return Ms. Wasserman to safety and capture those involved.
The issue is so clear to me, that I find it difficult to understand why there has been so much controversy. Ms. Lopez is clearly wrong in being more upset about the police entering to control the situation than she is about Mr. Wasserman having had to spend six hours confined in his car, the doors locked, wondering whether the people outside were going to lynch him. I am certain that if a multitude of citizens were to surround Ms. Lopez’s vehicle in anger, due, say, to the inefficiency of Bogota’s mayoralty, she would want the police to act as swiftly as possible regardless of her being inside or outside a university campus. In her statements on the situation, Ms. Lopez underscored that she was worried for those taken into custody because it wasn’t clear “where they had been taken, or what [the police] will do to them”. No need to worry, Ms. Lopez: the police probably drove them to a police station, where their names and declarations were taken as part of the investigation. If there were minors detained, as it indeed occurred, it is very likely that their parents were notified very soon. As a matter of fact, all of those taken into custody have been freed by now, although the investigation continues.
Two final reflections: First, the fact that the police entered the National University will probably work as a deterrent for future actions of this kind. No longer will anyone believe that the campus is completely out of reach for the police, and those interested in creating disorder will think twice before carrying out acts of violence or coercion. I applaud the President’s swift response. Second: although I understand the rationale behind the ban on police presence in universities, it is evident that the liberty campuses enjoy has had its own bad effects. This year, there was cocaine served at a public event at the National University, and attendees were videotaped sniffing it, encouraged by the main lecturer. The guerrillas have also infiltrated Colombian universities, indoctrinating students and using them as places to hide weapons and propaganda, as it was discovered a few years ago.
Nobody wants to see the police going into public universities. It is a bad sign when guns and anti-riot tanks are used in the very place where the future leaders of Colombia are being educated. As I said, keep the cops out of the classroom. But the universities must understand that their liberties, besides serving a purpose, have clear limits. When this purpose is being bypassed, and these liberties abused, corrective actions are necessary. I hope Colombia’s universities are wise enough to understand this simple fact.
This article first appeared in Colombiareports.com