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The “Sixth Division”: Military-paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia

II. The "Sixth Division": A Pattern of Support

The State does not exist as such. The only thing that is reality is the attack. You don't know if they are paramilitaries, the Army, the Navy, or the guerrillas. All of them are fearsome and arbitrary.

- "Mirta," a black activist from the Pacific coast

On January 17, 2001, an estimated fifty paramilitaries pulled dozens of residents from their homes in the village of Chengue, Sucre.

"They assembled them into two groups above the main square and across from the rudimentary health center," the Washington Post later reported. "Then, one by one, they killed the men by crushing their heads with heavy stones and a sledgehammer. When it was over, twenty-four men lay dead in pools of blood. Two more were found later in shallow graves. As the troops left, they set fire to the village."1

Among the reported dead was a sixteen-year-old boy, whose head was severed from his body.2

The Washington Post reporter interviewed more than two dozen residents who said that the Colombian military helped coordinate the massacre by providing safe passage to fighters who identified themselves as paramilitaries. They said that the military sealed off the area by conducting a mock daylong battle, allowing the paramilitaries to search out and kill the Colombians they had targeted for death.3

Months earlier, local authorities warned military, police, and government officials that paramilitaries planned to carry out a massacre. Yet their pleas for protection proved futile.4 Even as paramilitaries moved toward Chengue to commit

the massacre, timely information from local police on their vehicles, whereabouts, and direction was ignored by military commanders responsible for the area.5

Months later, Navy soldier Rubén Darío Rojas was arrested and charged with supplying weapons to paramilitaries and helping coordinate the attack. In addition, Colombia's Internal Affairs agency filed disciplinary charges against Brig. Gen. Rodrigo Quiñones and five other security force officers for allegedly ignoring detailed information about paramilitary movements in the area and taking no measures to prevent paramilitaries from committing the massacre. At the time, Quiñones was the commander of the first Naval Brigade, responsible for the Chengue region.6

The Chengue case is far from unusual. Human Rights Watch received similar accounts of abuses from dozens of eyewitnesses, government investigators, human rights defenders, and journalists in 2000 and during a mission to Colombia in January 2001, when the Chengue massacre took place. Consistently, the accounts described Colombia's security forces, in particular the Colombian Army, as tolerating, supporting, and in some regions actively coordinating with paramilitaries. Even as Colombia's elected authorities and military high command claimed to promote human rights, Human Rights Watch found abundant, credible evidence of continued collaboration with and support for the paramilitary groups responsible for most human rights violations in Colombia.

"A relationship continues to exist between some parts of the armed forces and paramilitaries," a high level government investigator, who spoke frankly only under conditions of anonymity, told Human Rights Watch. "To the present day, the government still lacks a clear policy for how to combat them."7

This relationship is also reflected in increased complaints by citizens of direct government support for paramilitary groups. A recent report by the government's Internal Affairs agency, responsible for investigating and sanctioning administrative infractions by government officials, found that these complaints have risen over the past several years, led by 149 complaints against the Colombian Army.8

In addition, Human Rights Watch continued to register broad tolerance in the military for paramilitary atrocities. Again and again, civilian authorities advised military commanders well in advance of paramilitary massacres, or alerted them even as those massacres were unfolding. Just as reliably, the military failed to act effectively to prevent killings, protect civilians, or pursue perpetrators once massacres began. Instead they pled any number of excuses - weather, distance, danger, overwork, jurisdiction - for inaction. The result, however, was reliably macabre, as civilians found themselves at the mercy of killers who counted on this tolerance to execute, burn, and terrorize.

For civilian authorities struggling to prompt action from the military, the frustration was profound. The following story of a massacre in Llorente, Nariño, was told to Human Rights Watch by a Colombian government official who requested anonymity. According to an eyewitness who this official interviewed, approximately 200 paramilitaries entered Llorente and forced its residents to gather in the central park around one a.m. on March 24, 2001. With them was an indigenous man who appeared badly beaten. This informant began to point at people whom he accused of assisting guerrillas. After about forty people were separated from the crowd of 6,000, the witness said, the paramilitaries forced all forty onto a public bus that they had seized. The paramilitaries then stole several chainsaws from locals.9

That same night of the massacre, the governor of Nariño called the commander of the Navy in Tumaco to request his assistance in preventing the massacre. The Commander informed him that he had no knowledge of this matter and that he would investigate the next day. The governor told him that his duty was to go immediately to protect the civilian population. The commander then said that he lacked jurisdiction over the areas, and that the jurisdiction corresponded to the [Colombian Army] battalion in Ipiales [the General José María Cabal Mechanized Cavalry Battalion No. Three] (attention: this battalion is 155 miles away and the Navy base only eighteen miles away). Confronted by this situation, the governor called the Ipiales base commander and this commander told him that at that hour he could do nothing because of the danger to his troops because in this area there were a lot of guerrillas, and so he promised to do it within two days. Faced with this response, the governor called the Third Division commander in Cali, who is responsible for the department of Nariño. The governor warned this general that if there was a massacre, he would be responsible for it through failing to do his duty (omission). In the end, nothing was done. The day after the massacre, the Cali Third Division commander called the governor to tell him that the information that he had was that these were clashes between the paramilitaries and the FARC. This information was released to the press... What really happened is that there was combat [between guerrillas and paramilitaries] afterwards and on the outskirts of the town. The army press release said nothing about the forty people [who were taken away in the bus]. The governor has publicly contradicted the military's version of events. The Army battalion in Ipiales arrived only at 5 p.m. on March 30, that is, six days after the massacre. The Navy never came. For those six days, the paramilitaries remained in control of the town and did not allow anyone to come in, least of all the press. Like in other massacres, the omission or inaction of the military was clear. Also, they gave the paramilitaries plenty of time to leave.

Subsequently, Colombia's Public Advocate (Defensoría del Pueblo), a government office charged with defending the rights of citizens, formally asked the Internal Affairs agency to open a disciplinary investigation of the Third Division for failure to act, which in effect allowed the massacre to take place.10

Sources interviewed by Human Rights Watch who had recent, direct contact with the United Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) in the field described them as a well organized, armed, and equipped force - hardly one that appeared to be pursued aggressively by government forces.

The persistent ties between many units of the Colombian military and the AUC have contributed to what the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) has declared a "noticeable decline in respect for human

rights and international humanitarian law in Colombia."11 This bleak assessment is supported by the Colombian National Police (CNP) annual review for 2000. In it, the CNP concluded that the number of recorded massacres increased from 168 to 236, a rise of almost 40 percent over 1999. The total number of deaths recorded in these massacres increased even more, totaling 1,226 people, 297 more than in l999 and representing an increase of 32 percent.12

Overall, the average number of victims of political violence and deaths in combat rose in 2000 from fourteen to twenty per day according to the Colombian Commission of Jurists (Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, CCJ), a respected human rights group. Also in 2000, an estimated 319,000 people were forcibly displaced from their homes by political violence, the highest number of displaced persons recorded in a single year in the last five years.13 The CCJ termed the increase "alarming... it is a dramatic reflection of the barbarity that we are seeing every day in Colombia."14 [ see appendix 1 ]

This trend appears to be worsening in 2001, with authorities recording twenty-six massacres in only the first eighteen days of January, provoking a death toll of 170 Colombians.15 By the end of April, Colombia's social service agency announced that killings that were the result of political violence continued to run at roughly double the number registered the previous year.16

Most of the massacres were the work of paramilitary groups, whose growth has been explosive during President Pastrana's administration. The umbrella group that includes most paramilitaries is the AUC, led until June 2001 by Carlos Castaño, a former Colombian Army guide.17 Castaño built the AUC from the remnants of a

private army organized by his brother, Fidel, who terrorized the northern departments of Córdoba and Antioquia in the late 1980s.18

In 1996, Castaño told Human Rights Watch that he commanded 2,000 armed and trained fighters, an affirmation that was confirmed by Colombian government analysts.19 By 2000, he claimed 11,200 fighters, an increase of 460 percent in just four years.20 Though official estimates of the number of paramilitaries who are armed and trained are significantly lower, it is clear that the AUC has achieved an alarming degree of strength, mobility, firepower, and technological capacity.21

Throughout Colombia, forces allied under the AUC's name maintain numerous and permanent bases and roadblocks and move with apparent ease. They employ faxes, the Internet, sport utility vehicles and pick up trucks, radios, helicopters, laptops, and cellular and satellite telephones to disseminate threats, identify targets, prepare death lists, and coordinate massacres. "There has been a significant advance by paramilitaries and it is very disturbing," commented a high level government investigator consulted by Human Rights Watch.22

The increasing strength of paramilitaries is not due to military support or government inaction alone, it should be noted. As insecurity throughout Colombia advances, some Colombians have come to see paramilitaries and their methods as a lamentable, but necessary evil. One Colombian recounted to Human Rights Watch how his mother-in-law, who had recently moved to the Middle Magdalena region, was visited immediately by AUC paramilitaries, who gave her the cellular telephone number of the local AUC commander to use in case of emergency, much

like a police hot line. "They guarantee that they will react within fifteen minutes if she reports unusual activity," her son-in-law told Human Rights Watch.23

Castaño has taken advantage of this development by waging a media campaign to promote the paramilitary model as the only way to defeat guerrillas. In March 2000, Castaño gave the first of television interviews to Colombian channel Caracol. Since, interviews with him have been published by the Washington Post, Le Monde, the BBC, Time magazine, and Reuters news agency, as well as Colombia's dailies El Tiempo and El Colombiano. The AUC regularly posts these interviews - as well as its own opinion pieces on Colombian and world events - on its web site.24

Guerrillas opposed to the Colombian government also continue to commit serious abuses, including massacres, extrajudicial executions, hostage-taking, and the use of indiscriminate weapons such as gas cylinder bombs. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned these abuses and has called on Colombia's guerrilla leaders to issue clear and strict instructions to their forces to cease immediately all activities that violate international humanitarian law. These instructions should not be subject to any negotiation, since they are obligatory and apply to all parties to the conflict equally and independent of the compliance of other parties.25

As violence increases, the distinction between combatants frays in the minds of many Colombians. "The State does not exist as such," commented "Mirta," a black activist from Colombia's Pacific coast who asked Human Rights Watch for anonymity. "The only thing that is reality is the attack. You don't know if they are paramilitaries, the Army, the Navy, or the guerrillas. All of them are fearsome and arbitrary."26



1. Scott Wilson, "Chronicle of a Massacre Foretold," Washington Post, January 28, 2001.

2. "Masacradas 25 personas," El Tiempo, January 18, 2001.

3. A response circulated anonymously by the Colombian military accused Wilson of "dark interests plagued with bad intentions, whose objective is concentrated on manipulating the truth of events and damaging the Colombian Armed Forces and at the same time throwing mud at military officers," a fairly typical reaction to reports of military-paramilitary collaboration that did not challenge a single fact or eyewitness testimony presented in the article. Scott Wilson, "Chronicle of a Massacre Foretold," Washington Post, January 28, 2001.

4. Letter from residents of Chengue, Don Gabriel, and Salitral, Sucre, Ovejas Personería, to President Andrés Pastrana, October 6, 2000.

5. Human Rights Watch interview with government investigator, August 22, 2001.

6. The Internal Affairs investigation also opened formal disciplinary proceedings for dereliction of duty against, among others, Navy Colonel Óscar Saavedra, commander of the Fusileros N 5 Infantry Battalion; Major Víctor Salcedo, commander of the Navy's Thirty-Third Counterguerrilla Battalion; and Colonel Miguel Yunis, commander of the Navy's Fusileros No. 3 Infantry Battalion. The investigation is on-going. Human Rights Watch interview with Colombian government investigator, Washington, D.C., August 22, 2001; "Tras las rejas," Cambio, May 22, 2001; and "Caso Chengue: investigan a un general," El Espectador, July 9, 2001.

7. Human Rights Watch interview with government investigator, Bogotá, January 9, 2001.

8. "Aumentan quejas por los 'paras'," El Espectador, March 19, 2001.

9. Electronic mail communication between Human Rights Watch and Colombian government official, 2001.

10. Ibid.

11. Paragraph 16, "Report of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Colombia," E/CN.4/2001/15, February 8, 2001. This document is available at http://www.unhchr.ch/.

12. "Muertos en masacres aumentaron 32%," El Tiempo, April 28, 2001.

13. Desplazamiento y derechos humanos, Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, CODHES, 2001. In 1999, 288,000 people were displaced. Codhes Informa, Boletín de Prensa N 26, November 18, 1999, p. 3 and Boletín de Prensa N 30, August 2000, p. 1.

14. These figures include five combatants and civilians killed per day in combat situations, including by crossfire and indiscriminate attacks. "Panorama de Derechos Humanos y Derecho Humanitario," Colombian Commission of Jurists, Bogotá, February 26, 2001.

15. "Rechazan masacres," El Espectador, January 23, 2001.

16. "La cifra duplica la del año pasado," El Tiempo, April 22, 2001.

17. In June, Castaño announced his resignation as the organization's commander-in-chief and said that he would take over the AUC's political wing. The meaning of this shift remained unclear as this report went to press.

18. Germán Castro Caycedo, En Secreto (Santafé de Bogotá: Planeta, 1996), pp. 139-232.

19. Human Rights Watch interview with Carlos Castaño, July 9, 1996; and Colombian government intelligence analyst, Bogotá, December 2, 1997.

20. Carlos Castaño interview with Dario Arizmendi, "Cara a Cara," Caracol Television, March 1, 2000.

21. Human Rights Watch interview with government investigators, Bogotá, January 9, 2001; and "Mindefensa reveló composición de grupos ilegales: 21 mil guerrilleros contra 8 mil paras," El Colombiano, February 8, 2001.

22. Human Rights Watch interview with government investigator, Bogotá, January 9, 2001.

23. This person requested anonymity. Human Rights Watch interview, Bogotá, January 18, 2001.

24. An editorial announcing Castaño's resignation as commander-in-chief of the AUC is also available on the web site, which can be viewed at http://www.colombialibre.org.

25. For more on the position of Human Rights Watch on international humanitarian law violations by guerrillas, see our letter to FARC-EP commander Manuel Marulanda at: http://www.hrw.org/press/2001/07/farc-0709-ltr.htm.

26. Human Rights Watch interview with "Mirta," Washington, D.C., October 23, 2000.


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