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Colombia: Current Human Rights Conditions
Press Backgrounder for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's Visit to Colombia
(Washington, September 10, 2001) The human rights situation in Colombia has deteriorated markedly over the past year. Underlying the worsening conditions is the Colombian government's continued failure to break ties between its security forces and the country's abusive paramilitary groups. A crucial element of this failure is the continued impunity enjoyed by military officers implicated in paramilitary abuses.

In addition to military and paramilitary abuses, Colombians are also vulnerable to international humanitarian law violations committed by rebels, principally the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP).

Fleeing violence and threats of violence, an estimated 319,000 people left their homes last year, the highest number of displaced persons recorded in a single year in the last five years. Thousands of Colombians are abandoning the country, and many believe that violence will continue to worsen over the remainder of the year.

The large volume of U.S. military aid granted Colombia has raised serious questions about the role that the United States is playing in Colombia's human rights crisis.

Worsening Abuses

According to the Colombian National Police, the number of massacres recorded in 2000 increased by over 40 percent over the previous year, most the work of paramilitaries who continue to enjoy, at the very least, the tolerance of the Colombian Armed Forces. In the first six months of this year, the police reported yet another increase, from 84 massacres registered in the first six months of 2000 to 98 massacres registered in the first six months of 2001, with a total of 568 victims.

Human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists, and community leaders continue to lead the lists of people killed because of their work. On July 1, for example, authorities discovered the body of Alma Rosa Jaramillo Lafourie near the city of Barrancabermeja, Santander, long the home of a vibrant and broad-based human rights movement. Several days earlier, this human rights defender had been kidnapped by paramilitaries, who have been engaged in a deadly campaign against rights workers in the region.

Cases involving the murder of human rights defenders-among them the 1996 killing of Josué Giraldo Cardona; the 1997 killings of Mario Calderón, Elsa Alvarado, and Carlos Alvarado; the 1998 killings of Jesús Valle Jaramillo and Eduardo Umaña Mendoza; the 1999 killing of Julio González and Everardo de Jesús Puerta; the 2000 killing of Jaime Garzón and Elizabeth Cañas, just to name a few-languish. At best, the gunmen directly responsible for such killings have been arrested, but not the people who planned and paid for the killings.

Military-paramilitary ties

Human Rights Watch continues to document abundant, detailed, and compelling evidence that certain Colombian army brigades and police detachments promote, work with, support, and tolerate paramilitary groups, treating them as a force allied to and compatible with their own. At their most brazen, these relationships involve 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; and the coordination of army roadblocks, which routinely let heavily-armed paramilitary fighters pass.

In particular, officers at the brigade and battalion level and in some police detachments routinely flout, ignore, or circumvent orders from above to break ties to paramilitaries. In violation of the law and the directives of their superiors, these officers continue close and regular relationships with the groups responsible for most human rights violations in Colombia.

Eyewitnesses, municipal officials, and even the government's own investigators have routinely delivered to the security forces detailed and current information about the exact location of paramilitary bases; license plates, colors and types of paramilitary vehicles; cellular telephone and beeper numbers used by paramilitaries; and the names of paramilitaries. Yet despite dozens of "early warnings" of planned atrocities, paramilitaries advanced, killed, mutilated, burned, destroyed, stole, and threatened with virtual impunity, often under the very noses of security force officers sworn to uphold public order.

Just as routinely, the security forces, in particular the military, have not moved against paramilitaries or have engaged in actions that produced only delays and allowed paramilitaries to continue their activities with impunity. Again and again, troops arrived at the sites of serious abuses committed by paramilitaries only to count bodies, photograph damages, and make familiar excuses for their failure to protect civilians and capture the paramilitaries responsible for abuses. Meanwhile, hundreds of arrest warrants against paramilitary leaders issued by the Attorney General's office remain unenforced because the military chooses not to execute them.

According to investigators attached to the Office of the Attorney General, over 300 arrest warrants against alleged paramilitary members were pending as of January 2001. Government investigators from four separate institutions consulted by Human Rights Watch agreed that the main obstacle to arrests was the Colombian military. The military, according to these investigators, refused to send troops to make arrests or else leaks arrest plans to paramilitaries, frustrating operations.

For its part, the military claims that it has arrested paramilitaries. But civilian government investigators have insisted to Human Rights Watch that most of those counted as detained in military tallies are merely low-ranking fighters, not leaders and key organizers.

Colombian government responsibility

Despite its statements to the contrary, the Pastrana Administration has not moved to acknowledge military-paramilitary collaboration and take effective action to ensure respect for human rights. To date, efforts to break these ties have been ineffective or, in some cases, wholly absent. Even as President Pastrana publicly deplores successive atrocities, each seemingly more gruesome than the last, high-ranking officers fail to take the obvious, critical steps necessary to prevent future killings by suspending suspect security force members suspected of abuses, delivering their cases to civilian judicial authorities for investigation, and pursuing and arresting paramilitaries.

Some government officials - the members of Attorney General's Human Rights Unit, investigators in the Attorney General's Technical Investigation Unit (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigaciones, CTI), the People's Advocate, and the Colombian National Police (CNP) leadership -- have taken meaningful action against paramilitaries. They have investigated their abuses, arrested paramilitary leaders, seized their weapons, and prevented some massacres.

It was largely due to the office of the Attorney General, for instance, that Colombian law enforcement for the first time successfully impaired the paramilitaries' financial network. In May, a combined team of Attorney General prosecutors and CTI agents carried out an operation in the city of Montería that gathered evidence to be used to arrest and prosecute the people who finance paramilitary groups. For their security, this team was protected by an elite Colombian Army unit brought from Bogotá. This is a critical and positive development that demonstrates that paramilitary groups are vulnerable and can be brought to justice.

Unfortunately, this operation remains an anomaly. To date, the good work of the Attorney General's office has been consistently and effectively undermined, canceled out, or in some cases wholly reversed by actions promoted by the military-paramilitary alliance and inaction by the Pastrana Administration. Far from strengthening key government institutions that investigate human rights cases, the Pastrana Administration has significantly weakened them by cutting their budgets, failing to adequately protect prosecutors and investigators, and failing to provide adequate funds to protect threatened witnesses.

Rebel violations

Armed guerrilla forces also commit serious abuses in Colombia. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP), the largest guerrilla force, is responsible for the killings and cruel and inhuman treatment of captured combatants, abductions of civilians, hostage-taking, the use of child soldiers, grossly unfair trials, and forced displacement of civilians. FARC-EP forces also continue to use prohibited weapons, including gas cylinder bombs that wreak indiscriminate havoc and cause appalling injuries, and to attack medical workers and facilities in blatant disregard of international law and the most basic standards of respect for human life.

In the area ceded to rebels by the Colombian government for talks, the FARC-EP has abducted civilians suspected of supporting paramilitary groups, many of whom are later killed. Unlike abductions carried out for financial reasons, these abductions are often kept hidden. The FARC-EP generally does not disclose the victims' fate or even acknowledge custody. On a mission to the area last year, Human Rights Watch directly investigated three cases of abductions followed by suspected extrajudicial executions, and received information regarding over twenty more suspected executions.

U.S. Policy

Colombia is currently the world's third largest recipient of U.S. aid, most of which goes toward the military and related programs. Human Rights Watch's primary concern is to ensure that U.S. aid is used to strengthen human rights protection in Colombia and does not fund further abusive conduct.

Under the Leahy Provision of U.S. law, named for Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), military aid cannot fund security force units engaged in abusive behavior until effective steps are taken to bring perpetrators to justice. Last year, moreover, the U.S. Congress supplemented the Leahy Provision by including human rights conditions specific to Colombia in its military assistance package (P.L. 106-246). On August 22, 2000, however, President Bill Clinton waived these conditions, allowing security assistance to be provided to the Colombian military even as the State Department reported that these forces continued to work with paramilitary groups.

With that signature, the White House sent a direct message to Colombia's military leaders that overshadowed any other related to human rights. Judged by the Colombian military's behavior in the field - not by rhetoric or public relations pamphlets - its leaders understood this message clearly. Even as Colombia's high command has agreed to scrub a few units for human rights problems, the rest of the military appears to have a virtual carte blanche for continued, active coordination with the paramilitary groups responsible for most human rights violations in Colombia.

Human Rights Watch remains convinced that the most important way that the United States can contribute to improving human rights protections in Colombia is to enforce strict and workable conditions on all military aid. These conditions should not be waivable.

Human Rights Watch's Concerns with Regard to U.S. Policy in Colombia:

The U.S. should include strong and workable human rights conditions in the Colombia aid legislation currently under consideration in the U.S. Congress. Conditions should contain an effective and measurable mechanism to promote positive change for human rights in Colombia.

Secondly, the United States should include increased funds for those Colombian institutions that have a proven record of success against human rights violators in Colombia, prime among them the office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía), the Internal Affairs agency (Procuraduría), and the Public Advocate (Defensoría).