Americas Division - Human Rights Watch World Report 1999 FREE    Join the HRW Mailing List 
Attorney General Reno In Colombia, March 3-4
Human Rights Watch Backgrounder

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno's March 3 to March 4 visit comes at a moment of crisis for the rule of law and human rights in Colombia.

Related Material

Reno urged to press for judicial independence in Peru
Human Rights Watch press release, February 26, 1999

"War Without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitarian Law"
Human Rights Watch report, October, 1998

"Throughout the country, paramilitary groups murdered, tortured, and threatened civilians suspected of sympathizing with guerrillas in an orchestrated campaign to terrorize them into fleeing their homes, thereby depriving guerrillas of civilian support.... In some locations the army attacked and captured members of such groups; in others it tolerated or even collaborated with paramilitary groups."

Department of State
1999 country reports on human rights: Colombia

Human rights defenders are under intense and violent attack. The new administration of President Andrés Pastrana has done little to sever continuing ties between Colombia's military and the paramilitary groups responsible for most of the nation's egregious human rights violations, including numerous violent attacks on human rights defenders.

At the same time, U.S. lawmakers are becoming increasingly vocal in pressing for an end to paramilitary atrocities and military acquiescence. A number of prominent lawmakers have written to President Pastrana in recent weeks calling for action to dismantle paramilitary groups and end their egregious crimes against civilians.

The U.S. government is a key player in Colombia, providing some $119 million in counternarcotics aid to the security forces in fiscal 1998, a figure expected to increase significantly in 1999. Nonetheless, this partnership is increasingly questioned in Washington because of Colombia's alarming human rights situation.

In its 1999 report on human rights practices released February 26, the State Department concluded:

Throughout the country, paramilitary groups murdered, tortured, and threatened civilians suspected of sympathizing with guerrillas in an orchestrated campaign to terrorize them into fleeing their homes, thereby depriving guerrillas of civilian support.... In some locations the army attacked and captured members of such groups; in others it tolerated or even collaborated with paramilitary groups.

The State Department rated the Pastrana government's overall human rights record so far as "poor."

Pastrana's administration has postponed crucial human rights legislation in Congress, including a military penal code reform and a law criminalizing forced disappearances. By law, when members of the armed forces are accused of violations of human rights, their cases should be automatically be prosecuted in civilian courts. Nevertheless, the military continues to keep these cases in their own tribunals, where impunity is the rule. The military penal code reform the president is holding up would address this serious flaw.

After postponing debate on a bill that would make forced disappearance and other human rights violations a crime, President Pastrana vowed to personally lobby for its passage when it is reintroduced on March 15. Other presidents have made similar promises in the past, yet have not followed through. Human Rights Watch strongly urges President Pastrana to aggressively support this key piece of legislation as an administration priority.

Civilians buffeted by political violence

The numbers of civilians dying in Colombia's political violence remains shockingly high. According to Colombia's Public Advocate, at least 1,200 civilians were killed in massacres in Colombia in 1998, 16 percent higher than the previous year. Of the 145 massacres attributed to armed groups, ninety-six were carried out by paramilitaries, forty-one by guerrillas, and eight by the Colombian armed forces. Even when government authorities had advance notice of planned massacres, the Public Advocate noted, often no measures were taken to protect the lives of innocents.

Great numbers of civilians continue to be forced out of their homes by political violence and threats. According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement, a Colombian non-governmental organization, political violence displaced 308,000 people in 1998, a 20 percent increase over the previous year. In all, the organization reported, Colombia's conflict has forced about 1.5 million people from their homes since 1985.

Attacks on human rights defenders

For several years in a row, Colombia has held the sad distinction of being the hemisphere's most dangerous environment for human rights defenders. Six were murdered in 1998, among them several government human rights investigators.

On January 28, 1999, four members of the Medellín-based Popular Training Institute (Instituto Popular de Capacitación, IPC), a well-known human rights group, were kidnaped by hired gunmen acting for paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño. The victims were Jairo Bedoya, the director of the IPC; Claudia Tamayo, planning and development coordinator; Jorge Salazar, human rights investigator; and Olga Rodas, office manager.

The following Saturday, two human rights workers who boarded a Bogotá-bound bus in Medellín were hauled off during a midnight roadblock and summarily shot. Everardo De Jesús Puerta and Julio Ernesto González worked for the Committee to Support Political Prisoners (Comité de Solidaridad con Presos Políticos, CSPP) and were headed for their annual planning meeting. In 1998, their former director was among four Colombians who received the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Award in Washington, D.C.

In a letter taking responsibility for the kidnaping, Castaño termed the four IPC employees "three parasubversives and a guerrilla." Human rights groups similarly "infested," he wrote, were now targets, introducing a "lamentable, but inevitable stage in the conflict." Castaño included among these groups the Colombian Attorney General's Human Rights Unit, which has investigated many of the cases linking Castaño to massacres, selective killings, and torture.

After a storm of protest, Castaño released his victims in two stages, the last on February 18.

The kidnaping prompted several U.S. lawmakers to raise strong objections to Colombia's failure to rein in the paramilitaries. U.S. senators Patrick Leahy, Paul Wellstone, Edward Kennedy, and Christopher Dodd signed a letter to the Colombian president protesting the attacks and calling for the hostages' release along with action on the part of the government to dismantle paramilitary groups and their ties to the military.

Rep. Ben Gilman and Rep. Sam Gejdensen, chair and ranking Democratic member respectively of the House of Representatives' International Relations Committee, dispatched a similar letter, as did thirteen other legislators, including two Republicans. In a public statement, Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) declared: "The United States can no longer pretend that paramilitaries are a minor annoyance." Farr called for action to defend human rights, including breaking the ties between the military and paramilitaries.

For the first time, the Clinton Administration's ambassador to Colombia, Curtis Kamman, spoke out in public in support of human rights and his staff held a meeting with the head of the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit, which has issued at least a dozen arrest warrants for Castaño.

Human Rights Watch recommendations

Human Rights Watch has called on U.S. officials, including Attorney General Janet Reno, to adopt the following initiatives regarding U.S. relations with Colombia:

1. The United States should strongly encourage Colombia to immediately remove from its armed forces high-ranking officers with established records of working with or tolerating paramilitary groups and illegally targeting human rights groups for harassment or worse. The Colombian president has the authority to force these officers to retire. In the past, when officers have been implicated in drug trafficking or corruption, they have been removed from duty or forced to resign. The same standard should apply to officers who commit human rights violations or support or acquiesce in paramilitary activities.

2. The United States should strongly encourage the Colombian government to break the ties between the military and paramilitaries and take direct action against paramilitary groups. These measures would include:

carrying out the hundreds of arrest warrants now on file with the Attorney General's office, with an emphasis on leaders and financiers, and allocating increased funds and support for the police and Attorney General's office to carry out arrests;

aggressively supporting the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit with increased protection for prosecutors and funds for witness protection and transportation;

3. The United States should strongly encourage its representatives and the Colombian government to take immediate measures to recognize the important work of human rights defenders and protect their employees and offices. We welcome gestures like Ambassador Kamman's February 9 meeting with Colombian Vice-President Bell. We urge the United States to follow up with:

high-profile meetings between the U.S. Ambassador and representatives of human rights groups followed by visits by the U.S. Ambassador and other visiting functionaries to the offices of human rights groups in Bogotá and Medellín;

strong encouragement to the Colombian government to follow through on the installation of security measures in the offices of threatened groups, including the Colombian Commission of Jurists, MINGA, the Colectivo de Abogados "José Alvear Restrepo," the Committee of Solidarity with Political Prisoners, the Cepeda Foundation, ILSA, the Popular Training Institute (IPC), Corporación Región, and the National Trade Unionist Institute. The United States should also direct aid to human rights groups to strengthen their work.

funding through USAID for the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit, including funds for increased security for prosecutors, witness protection, and improved forensic evidence analysis.

4. The United States should strongly support a reform of the military penal code that would remove from military jurisdiction alleged crimes against humanity and human rights abuses. The United States should also strongly support the passage of a law criminalizing forced disappearances.

For More Information:
Jose Miguel Vivanco, (Washington, DC) +202-371-6599 x145