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Colombia: Bush/Pastrana Meeting
A Q&A on the Human Rights Situation in Colombia

Key Questions

Related Material

The "Sixth Division"
HRW Report, September, 2001

Beyond Negotiation: International Humanitarian Law and its Application to the Conduct of the FARC-EP
HRW Report, August, 2001

(New York, November 6, 2001) This week President Andrés Pastrana will visit the United States on a trip that includes a scheduled meeting on November 11 with President George W. Bush. His agenda will include discussions about the new war on terrorism as well as continued U.S. funding for counternarcotics efforts in Colombia.

Currently, the U.S. Congress is negotiating a proposed aid package for FY 2002. A bill passed by the House of Representatives on July 24 included approximately $510 million for Colombia, most of it security assistance for counter drug battalions and other equipment to detect and stop the shipment of cocaine and heroin. On October 24, the U.S. Senate cut the Bush Administration proposal for the Andes by $184 million, much of it from the Colombia account. The Senate also included new limits on how money could be spent, including human rights conditions that require effective measures by the Colombian government on breaking persistent links between the Colombian military and illegal paramilitary groups.

The issue of U.S. support for Colombia's military is critical. Human Rights Watch has found evidence that the U.S. violated the spirit of its own laws and in some cases downplayed or ignored evidence of ties between the Colombian armed forces and paramilitary groups in order to continue funding abusive Colombian military units. In a recent report, "The 'Sixth Division': Military-Paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia," Human Rights Watch detailed evidence of ties between paramilitaries and Colombian military units deployed in the U.S. antinarcotics campaign in southern Colombia, showing that Colombian troops vetted, funded, and trained by the U.S. were continuing to mix freely with other units that maintain close ties with paramilitaries.

This occurred in the case of the U.S.-trained First and Second Counternarcotics Battalions. On their first joint deployment in December 2000, these battalions depended heavily on the army's Twenty-Fourth Brigade for support and logistical assistance, particularly with regard to intelligence, civic-military outreach, and psychological operations. Yet there was abundant and credible evidence to show that the Twenty-Fourth Brigade regularly worked with and supported paramilitary groups in the department of Putumayo. Indeed, the Twenty-Fourth Brigade hosted counternarcotics battalion troops at its facilities in La Hormiga - a town where, according to witnesses, paramilitaries and Colombian Army troops were indistinguishable.

Human Rights Watch supports strong human rights conditions on security assistance to Colombia aimed at severing the ties between the Colombian security forces and illegal paramilitary groups. It is critical that these conditions not be subject to a waiver. Colombia's Government needs to see that the United States is serious about holding them to promises to clean up the country's dismal human rights record.

Questions and Answers on Human Rights in Colombia

What is the human rights situation in Colombia?

Political violence has worsened in Colombia, with an increasing number of victims, mostly civilians. In the first ten months of this year, the office of the Public Advocate (Defensoría del Pueblo) recorded 92 massacres, which they defined as the killing of four or more people at the same place and at the same time. Most political killings by far, over 50 percent, were the work of paramilitary groups, which continued to work with the tolerance or open support of units of the Colombian security forces. Eight percent of political killings were attributed to anti-government guerrilla groups and 10 percent to unidentified forces. Two per cent were linked directly to the security forces. The balance could not be attributed to a specific group.

Certain military units and police detachments continued to promote, work with, support, profit from, and tolerate paramilitary groups, treating them as a force allied to and compatible with their own. At their most brazen, these relationships involved active coordination during military operations between government and paramilitary units; communication via radios, cellular telephones, and beepers; the sharing of intelligence, including the names of suspected guerrilla collaborators; the sharing of fighters, including active-duty soldiers serving in paramilitary units and paramilitary commanders lodging on military bases; the sharing of vehicles, including army trucks used to transport paramilitary fighters; coordination of army roadblocks, which routinely let heavily-armed paramilitary fighters pass; and payments made from paramilitaries to military officers for their support.

What is the Pastrana Administration's record on human rights?

Overall, President Andrés Pastrana and his defense ministers have failed to take effective action to exert control over the security forces, break their persistent ties to paramilitary groups, and ensure respect for human rights. Even as President Pastrana has publicly deplored successive atrocities, high-ranking military officers have failed to take the critical steps necessary to prevent future killings by suspending security force members suspected of abuses, ensuring that their cases were handed over to civilian judicial authorities for investigation and prosecution, and pursuing and arresting paramilitaries.

The Security and National Defense Law that President Pastrana signed on August 13 threatens to further reinforce impunity for human rights abuses. The law gives the security forces judicial police powers under certain circumstances and severely restricts the ability of civilian investigators to initiate disciplinary investigations against security force personnel for human rights violations committed during operations. Also, the law limits the obligation of the armed forces to inform judicial authorities about the detention of suspects, increasing the risk of torture.

Have paramilitary groups been dismantled?

Paramilitaries allied under the umbrella United Self Defense Group of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) significantly expanded their radius of action and troop strength in 2001. Since 1996, the group has grown by over 560 percent, according to Castaño, who claims a force of over 11,000 fighters. In some situations, paramilitaries operated with as many as 800 troops at a time. Large concentrations of paramilitaries were rarely challenged by the Colombian security forces.

During much of 2000, the AUC paid monthly salaries to local army and police officials, set according to rank, in the department of Putumayo, where U.S.-funded and trained counternarcotics battalions were deployed. Captains received between U.S. $2,000 and $3,000; majors received as much as $5,000, and lieutenants up to $1,500. In the state of Cauca, soldiers moonlighting as paramilitaries earned up to $500 per month. These salaries far exceeded the average Colombian's monthly income.

On September 10, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that the AUC had been added to the list of terrorist organizations. Later, U.S. diplomats said that they were canceling the visas of known AUC supporters and would seek to seize any of their U.S.-based financial assets.

Are the security forces pursuing and arresting paramilitaries?

There have been some arrests, but they are primarily low-level paramilitaries, many of whom are later released.

Mayors, municipal officials, governors, human rights groups, the Public Advocate's office and even some police detachments regularly informed the responsible authorities about credible threats by paramilitaries or even massacres that were taking place. An early warning system paid for by the United States and administered by the office of the Public Advocate registered twenty separate warnings nationwide between June, when the system began to function, and September. But rarely did the government take effective action to prevent atrocities. Of the warnings that were received, eleven concerned incidents that resulted either in killings being committed or the continued, pronounced but unchallenged presence of armed groups that threatened civilians.

Do the guerrillas commit violations?

The Revolutionary Armed Forced of Colombia-People's Army (FuerzasArmadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP) continued to kill civilians throughout Colombia, with human rights groups reporting 197 such killings in the first ten months of the year. Among the victims was former culture minister Consuelo Araújo Noguera,abducted by the FARC-EP on September 24. The wife of Colombia's Internal Affairs director, Araújo Noguera, was apparently executed by guerrillas during a Colombian army rescue attempt.

Kidnaping remained a source of income and political pressure for the FARC-EP. In July, the group carried out its first mass kidnaping from an apartment building, seizing sixteen people after blowing the doors off a residence in Neiva, Huila. Among those kidnapped were children as young as five years old. Six people were later released.

Human Rights Watch reported on FARC-EP abuses in a letter to FARC-EP commander Manuel Marulanda, dated July 10, 2001.

For its part, the Camilist Union-National Liberation Army (Unión Camilista-Ejército de Liberación Nacional, UC-ELN) violated international humanitarian law by launching indiscriminate attacks and committing kidnappings. After the government suspended talks with the group on August 7, the UC-ELN set off a series of car and package bombs in the department of Antioquia, including the city of Medellín, killing passers-by and destroying electrical towers and public buses. Two weeks earlier, over fifteen UC-ELN guerrillas died when bombs they were placing along a road exploded in the truck carrying them.

What is the record of the new Attorney General?

Attorney General Luis Osorio, a long-time Pastrana supporter, set a disturbing precedent when he forced the resignation of the director of the Human Rights Unit, the former director of the Human Rights Unit, and the former head of the Technical Investigations Unit (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigaciones, CTI) during his first hours in office. This change in leadership and the message it sent threatens to reverse or hamper important investigations and led to a slow down or suspension of important cases.

Osorio objected to the unit's decision to order the July 23 arrest of Gen. (ret.) Rito Alejo del Río for his alleged support of paramilitary groups while in command of the army's Seventeenth Brigade in Carepa, Antioquia, between 1995 and 1997. Del Río was among the officers dismissed from the army by President Pastrana because of his poor human rights record. Also, the State Department canceled his visa to the United States because of his alleged involvement in acts of terrorism and drug trafficking.

Concluding her recent visit to Colombia, U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders Hana Jilani said that she had "serious doubts about the very important role that should be played by the Attorney General. It is possible that this will be diminished."

What is the situation of human rights defenders?

Colombia continued to be an extremely dangerous place for human rights defenders as well as for government investigators handling human rights and international humanitarian law investigations. In the first ten months of 2001, thirteen defenders were killed.

Among the victims was lawyer Alma Rosa Jaramillo Lafourie, who worked with the Middle Magdalena Development and Peace Program (Programa de Desarrollo y Paz del Magdalena Medio, PDPMM). Seized by presumed paramilitaries in Morales, in the department of Bolívar, on June 29, locals found her body two days later dumped in a rural area. According to associates, Jaramillo was tortured before being executed. On September 19, armed men shot and killed Roman Catholic nun and human rights defender Yolanda Cerón Delgado in front of a church in Tumaco, Nariño.

During 2001, seven government investigators were murdered by alleged paramilitary gunmen. Several key witnesses to important cases were also killed while in government custody or while in the process of supplying information to prosecutors. The office in Colombia of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights called these killings "a systematic campaign of retaliation and intimidation" by those seeking "total impunity for the most serious crimes committed in the country."

Some government offices attempted to protect threatened defenders, supplying bodyguards, bulletproof reinforcement for offices, and an emergency response network operated by handheld radios. The CNP Human Rights office and the Interior Ministry, in particular, took steps to protect defenders and to investigate specific allegations of police collaboration with paramilitary groups. The Interior Ministry provided protection or relocation assistance to 747 people between May and mid-September of 2001.

In many instances, however, government response was slow, nonexistent, or abusive. For example, the commander of the Barrancabermeja-based CNP, Col. José Miguel Villar Jiménez, attacked human rights groups by claiming that they had their "origin in [guerrillas], which attempt to throw mud on the good work that is done constantly with reports and information that also has an echo in the different international Non-Governmental Organizations."