Human Rights Watch Backgrounder, October 27, 1998
October 27, 1998
The civilian toll in Colombia's decades-long war remains alarmingly high. President Pastrana, who was elected in 1998, talks about peace, but has yet to take the measures necessary to end the targeting of civilians by the military and paramilitary groups. His new military high command has done no better. For their part, guerrillas continue to flout the laws of war even as they criticize government forces for violations.

Colombian President Andrés Pastrana will be making his first state visit to Washington from October 27 to October 30, 1998.

How to make peace among the parties to Colombia's war - the guerrillas, the government, and the paramilitaries frequently allied with the army - will be an important issue for President Pastrana's talks in Washington. In meetings with President Clinton, the State Department, and Congressional leaders, he will also discuss the direction of the war on drugs. President Pastrana is scheduled to address the National Press Club on Friday, October 30.

The civilian toll in Colombia's decades-long war remains alarmingly high. President Pastrana, who was elected in 1998, talks about peace, but has yet to take the measures necessary to end the targeting of civilians by the military and paramilitary groups. His new military high command has done no better. For their part, guerrillas continue to flout the laws of war even as they criticize government forces for violations.

Crucial human rights legislation is stalled in Colombia's Congress, including a military penal code reform and a law criminalizing forced disappearances. So far, President Pastrana has failed to promote these measures, ignoring a unique opportunity to achieve crucial human rights reforms during his political "honeymoon."

The Pastrana administration has yet to announce a plan for ending impunity for human rights crimes and military support for paramilitary groups. By law, when members of the armed forces are accused of violations of human rights, their cases should automatically be prosecuted in civilian courts. Nevertheless, the military continues to keep these cases in their own tribunals, where impunity is the rule. Pastrana should order his generals to comply fully with the law and dismiss those who fail to do so.

Colombian human rights groups report that 619 people were killed for political reasons in the first six months of 1998, not counting deaths in combat. In cases where a perpetrator was suspected, 73 percent of these killings were attributed to paramilitaries, sometimes working with the support or acquiescence of the security forces; 17 percent were attributed to guerrillas; and 10 percent to state agents, in particular the Colombian army. (These figures come from the Data Bank run by the Center for Research and Popular Education and the Intercongregational Commission of Justice and Peace.)

Human Rights Watch recently met with President Pastrana in Colombia and discussed these concerns:

ARMY-PARAMILITARY TIES: Army officers who organize, tolerate, and fail to arrest or even pursue paramilitaries continue to be shielded from prosecution and even promoted. The army's attitude towards the forces responsible for the majority of atrocities against civilians is one of the principal obstacles to establishing respect for human rights in the conflict. Human Rights Watch has identified the following units with a pattern of support for paramilitaries, an estimated 75 percent of the Colombian army: the First, Second, and Fourth Divisions; the Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, Fourteenth, and Seventeenth Brigades; Mobile Brigades One and Two; and the Barbacoas, Bárbula, Batín No. 6, Bomboná, Cacique Nutibara, Caycedo de Chaparral #17, Héroes de Majagual, Joaquín París, La Popa, Los Guanes, Girardot, Palonegro #50, Rafael Reyes, Ricuarte, Rogelio Correa Campos, and Santander Battalions.

Officers implicated in human rights violations and paramilitary activity who remain on staff include (in descending order of rank):

Gen. Rafael Hernández López: Now chief of staff of the Colombian armed forces, General Hernández has been consistently implicated in support for paramilitary groups during his career. In 1993, he was commander of the Third Brigade in Cali and the immediate superior of Lt. Col. Luis Becerra Bohórquez, who allied with local paramilitaries to massacre thirteen members of the Ladino family living in Riofrío, Valle del Cauca. Since Hernández was Becerra's commanding officer, by Colombian law, he was also the first military judge to rule on the case. Hernández declared Becerra not guilty of any crime despite overwhelming evidence of his direct participation. Becerra was eventually dismissed from the army because of human rights violations.

Gen. Jorge Mora Rangel: Currently head of Colombia's Army, General Mora authorized an illegal search of the offices of Justice and Peace, a respected human rights group, based on information provided by the Twentieth Brigade, an intelligence unit implicated in dozens of targeted killings and threats against human rights defenders. On May 13, 1998, soldiers forced employees to kneel at gunpoint, in order, they claimed, to take their pictures, an act more likely intended to inspire terror and evoke a summary execution. During the search, soldiers addressed employees as "guerrillas" and filmed them and documents in the office. At one point, soldiers told the employees they wanted precise details of the office in order to later construct a scale model, apparently to plan further incursions. Soldiers also set up a camera to film human rights defenders gathered outside to show concern.

Gen. Rito Alejo del Río Rojas: Director of Operations at Army headquarters in Bogotá, General del Río is under investigation by the Attorney General's Office for supporting and tolerating paramilitary activity in the Urabá region in 1996 and 1997, while he was commander of the Seventeenth Brigade. Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases involving joint army-paramilitary operations in Urabá while General del Río was in command. These reports were confirmed by a former colonel who worked under General del Río, who told authorities that General del Río maintained direct ties with paramilitaries.

Gen. Fernando Millán: While in command of the Fifth Brigade based in Bucaramanga, Santander, General Millán set up and supported the Las Colonias association in Lebrija, which regularly extorted money from residents and allegedly committed a series of killings, robberies, and death threats. Among its members, before its dismantling, were several known paramilitary members from the Middle Magdalena region. Nevertheless, the army high command, including current armed forces commander Gen. Fernando Tapias, prevented prosecutors from questioning Millán, then argued that the case involved official acts and should be tried before a military tribunal. In October, the case, like hundreds before it, was sent to a military tribunal where Millán will not likely be convicted. Fernando Millán was promoted to head the army's division level intelligence office on October 26.

Gen. Jaime Uscátegui: Instead of being sanctioned for allowing repeated paramilitary massacres in his jurisdiction in 1997, Seventh Brigade Commander Uscátegui was promoted to an elite unit in the department of Caquetá in 1998. Uscátegui was again promoted on October 26 and is currently head of Colombia's War College. Among the massacres registered under his command was the July 1997 Mapiripán, Meta, massacre, by paramilitary units. Over a five-day period, paramilitaries killed at least thirteen people and threatened others with death. An investigation by the Attorney General's Office concluded that paramilitaries had arrived in the region via chartered airplane, which landed unhampered at the heavily militarized San José del Guaviare airport. Local army and police units ignored repeated phone calls from a civilian judge in the area asking for help to stop the slayings. The first person killed, Antonio María Herrera, was hung from a hook, and paramilitaries quartered his body, throwing the pieces into the Guaviare River. At least two bodies - those of Sinaí Blanco, a boatman, and Ronald Valencia, the airstrip manager - were decapitated.

Navy Lt. Col. Rodrigo Quiñones: There is overwhelming evidence showing that Lt. Col. Rodrigo Quiñones, commander of Naval Intelligence Network No. 7, planned and ordered over fifty extrajudicial executions in and around the city of Barrancabermeja, Santander from 1991 through 1993. Yet he and seven other soldiers were speedily acquitted by a military tribunal in 1994. Four years later, a civilian court convicted two civilian employees of Naval Intelligence Network No. 7. In his ruling, the civilian judge described himself as "perplexed" by the military acquittals of the officers involved, since he considered the evidence against the officers "irrefutable... With [this acquittal] all that [the military] does is justify crime, since the incidents and the people responsible for committing them are more than clear," he wrote. In September, Colombia's Internal Affairs office (Procuraduría) also concluded that naval officers had formed, promoted, led, and financed paramilitary groups in order to carry out dozens of extrajudicial executions. However, they recommended only that a "letter of punishment" be placed in his employment file. Quiñones remains on active duty.

HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS: So far in 1998, six human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia, among them government officials charged with investigating complaints about rights abuses, as well as nongovernmental human rights defenders. Among the most dangerous departments for human rights work was Antioquia. On February 27, 1998, three assassins gunned down human rights lawyer Jesús María Valle Jaramillo, president of the "Héctor Abad Gómez" Permanent Committee for Human Rights in Antioquia, in his MedellÍn office. He was the fourth president of the committee killed since 1987. As of this writing, two men with links to paramilitaries were under arrest in connection with the murder. Less that two months after Valle's murder, three assassins killed human rights lawyer Eduardo Umaña in his Bogotá apartment. During a strike of state employees on October 19, Jaime Ortega, vice-president of one of Colombia's largest unions and a human rights defender, was killed. Ortega had been the target of repeated death threats over the years and had made many requests for government protection, including on the day before his murder. Nevertheless, the government had delayed providing him with a bodyguard, and Ortega was alone when he was shot by a gunman outside his Bogotá apartment. Over US $1 million that the government had promised in May to protect human rights defenders and their offices has yet to be spent on even the most basic measures recommended by police, including bullet-proof glass, video surveillance cameras, and reinforced doors.