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HRW Disputes State Department Certification
(Washington, May 16, 2002) On May 1, the Department of State certified to the U.S. Congress that Colombia had met the three human rights conditions contained in the Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs Act, 2002 (P.L. 107-115). By law, the State Department must certify before releasing the first tranche of military aid for FY 2002, an estimated $104 million dollars.

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Human Rights Watch, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and Amnesty International strongly objected to the decision. The groups recognized that U.S. officials took the certification process seriously. However, the Colombian government largely rebuffed their efforts, and failed to make progress toward suspending high-ranking military officers implicated in serious abuses and arresting known human rights violators.

The human rights situation in Colombia continues to deteriorate, as all illegal armed groups continue to target primarily civilians. In the first four months of 2002, two human rights defenders have been killed. Others who face extreme danger include journalists, community leaders and political candidates. Already in 2002, fifty-two trade unionists have been murdered. Last year, 160 trade unionists were killed and seventy-nine remain "disappeared."

1. SEC. 567. (a) (1) (A) the Commander General of the Colombian Armed Forces is suspending from the Armed Forces those members, of whatever rank, who have been credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights, including extra-judicial killings, or to have aided or abetted paramilitary groups.

The Colombian Armed Forces have refused to act on notorious officers, among them General Rodrigo Quiñones. This is despite a pending judicial decision by the Procuraduría concluding that there is abundant and credible evidence that General Quiñones planned and ordered the murders of at least fifty-seven trade unionists, human rights workers, and community leaders in 1991 and 1992.

There is also credible evidence against General Quiñones for failing to act to prevent a 2001 massacre in Chengue, Sucre, described below. The case against him is now in Colombia's Supreme Court.

Particularly disturbing was the State Department's decision to review the Quiñones case under condition 3 and not condition 1, in an effort to present it as an example of progress. State Department officials argue that Quiñones was transferred to a diplomatic post in Israel prior to the certification and that this means that his career is over. However, Israel is a major weapons supplier to Colombia. The military attaché retains an influential position within Colombia's military. Quiñones's permanence within the Armed Forces is a sign of Colombia's failure to take effective measures, not progress.

Another officer who remains on active duty is General Gabriel Díaz, commander of the Second Brigade. At his previous command at the Twenty-Fourth Brigade, Díaz's troops regularly worked with and supported paramilitary groups in the department of Putumayo.

Human Rights Watch obtained extensive, detailed, and consistent evidence showing that the Twenty-Fourth Brigade maintained a close alliance with the paramilitaries, resulting in extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, and death threats. At their base, paramilitaries held a training camp that drew dozens of novice fighters from across Colombia. Human Rights Watch also collected testimony showing that paramilitaries regularly paid military officers for their cooperation.

The State Department certification lists nineteen soldiers suspended and detained in 2001. In at least eight of those cases, the actual status of the investigations is far from promising:

3) Army Second Sergeant Humberto Blandón Vargas and 6) Army Major Álvaro Cortés Murillo: Implicated in criminal acts while assigned to the Fourth Brigade in Medellín, these officers were only the lowest ranking among the many officers who contributed to that unit's long record of abuses while it was under the command of General Carlos Ospina Ovalle. Despite widespread and credible reports of massacres, executions, and torture by troops under his command, General Ospina was never suspended. Currently, he is the Army's chief of operations.

4) Army Major César Alonso Maldonado Vidales and 12) Army Captain (ret.) Jorge Ernesto Rojas Galindo: These individuals were detained in relation to the December 2000 attack on trade unionist Wilson Borja. Cell phone records linked Major Maldonado, assigned to army intelligence at Bogotá's Thirteenth Brigade, to one of the assassins. A witness and former soldier also linked him to the attack and named high-ranking officers who he claims approved it, among them General Jorge Enrique Mora, at the time (and currently) commander of the Colombian Army, and Reinaldo Castellanos Trujillo, at the time the commander of the Thirteenth Brigade.

On April 23, Colombia's Attorney General, Luis Osorio, abruptly fired the human rights prosecutor handling the case. The prosecutor named as a replacement ordered Major Maldonado freed. Captain Rojas is currently charged with conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder, but the fate of the entire investigation is now in doubt.

5) Navy Sergeant Rúben Dario Rojas Bolívar and 7) Navy Sergeant Euclides Bosa Mendoza: Both are charged in relation to the 2001 Chengue massacre. During the investigation, one of the prosecutors and three judicial investigators were murdered. The lead human rights also received threats and recently fled Colombia, putting in serious doubt the outcome of the case. Meanwhile the highest-ranking officer implicated - General Rodrigo Quiñones, mentioned above - remains on active duty.

10) Army Captain Juan Carlos Fernández López and 11) Colonel Víctor Matamoros: These officers were indicted for collaboration with and the formation of illegal paramilitary groups between 1997 and 1999 in connection with a series of paramilitary massacres in and around La Gabarra, Norte de Santander, between May and September, 1999. Paramilitaries killed more than 145 people. Despite the gravity of this case, the officer in charge at the time, Brigadier General Alberto Bravo Silva, was never charged. In May 2002, the Human Rights Unit prosecutor in charge of the case was fired, leaving the fate of the case in question.

In its annual report, the Bogotá office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights lamented the firing of key prosecutors, which it said "put into question the independence and autonomy of prosecutors working on investigations related to human rights violations, particularly when paramilitary groups and state agents are implicated."

2. SEC. 567. (a) (1) (B) The Colombian Armed Forces are cooperating with civilian prosecutors and judicial authorities (including providing requested information, such as the identity of persons suspended from the Armed Forces and the nature and cause of the suspension, and access to witnesses and relevant military documents and other information), in prosecuting and punishing in civilian courts those members of the Colombian Armed Forces, of whatever rank, who have been credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights, including extra-judicial killings, or to have aided or abetted paramilitary groups.

2001 marked an unprecedented wave of attacks against government investigators working on cases involving allegations against the military for their collaboration with paramilitary groups.

As mentioned above, prosecutor Yolanda Paternina Negrete, who led the Chengue investigation, told her superiors that Navy officers failed repeatedly to provide her with the support necessary to search a ranch where witnesses claimed the paramilitaries responsible for the massacre were located.

On May 27, two investigators working on the case were detained by presumed paramilitaries and are now presumed dead. On August 29, 2001, Prosecutor Paternina was herself killed by unidentified gunmen in Sincelejo, Sucre. On February 6, 2002, another Chengue investigator, Oswaldo Enrique Borja Martínez, was murdered by unknown gunmen.

Unidentified gunmen have also murdered key witnesses to several of the cases cited by human rights groups as benchmarks, among them the Santo Domingo case, the case involving General (ret.) Rito Alejo del Río, and the case of Wilson Borja. As a result of the Del Río case, still pending, Attorney General Osorio fired the head of the Human Rights Unit and forced both the vice-Attorney General and the former head of the Human Rights Unit to resign.

Of particular concern are the actions of Attorney General Osorio, who has slowed or blocked critical investigations by firing the prosecutors who are preparing cases involving the military. In many regions, prosecutors are simply too afraid to aggressively investigate, fearing both death threats and lack of institutional support for their investigations. In 2002, six human rights prosecutors and one judicial investigator requested special protective measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Others have fled Colombia because of threats on their lives.

To our knowledge, the Colombian military has refused to transfer all cases of personnel dismissed for alleged human rights crimes to the proper judicial authorities for investigation.

3. SEC. 567. (a) (1) (C) the Colombian Armed Forces are taking effective measures to sever links (including by denying access to military intelligence, vehicles, and other equipment or supplies, and ceasing other forms of active or tacit cooperation), at the command, battalion, and brigade levels, with paramilitary groups, and to execute outstanding orders for capture for members of such groups.

The certification provides no evidence of arrests or actions against key paramilitary leaders or high-ranking members of the Armed Forces credibly alleged to have collaborated with paramilitary groups. To the contrary, there were serious setbacks, including the release late last year of the only top paramilitary leader in custody in Colombia, Víctor Carranza.

The Colombian government's progress against paramilitary groups has amounted to little more than rhetoric, unsupported by actions in the field designed either to break existing ties between the military and paramilitary groups, prosecute the officers who support these links, or pursue those groups and their leaders effectively in the field. Although the government describes these ties as the result of the acts of "individual members of the security forces," and not a matter of policy or even tolerance, it is abundantly clear that the range of acts government prosecutors and human rights investigators continue to document depend on the approval, collusion and tolerance of high-ranking officers.

The Colombian government claims major improvements in curtailing abuses by paramilitaries and arresting their members. But the facts do not bear out these assertions. Arrest statistics provided by the military are overwhelmingly skewed toward low-ranking members of paramilitary groups or individuals whose participation in these groups is alleged, not proven.

The vast majority of arrest warrants for paramilitaries issued by the Attorney General's office languish without action. Meanwhile, the AUC expanded its radius of action and troop strength dramatically in 2001. Since 1996, the number of paramilitaries has grown by over 560 percent. Carlos Castaño, their principal leader, now claims a force of over 11,000 fighters. In 2001, Castaño published a memoir in which he took responsibility for a series of killings, among them of presidential candidate Carlos Pizarro, murdered in 1990.

Mayors, municipal officials, governors, human rights groups, the Public Advocate's office and even some police detachments regularly informed the appropriate 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 2001, when the system began to function, and September 2001. But rarely did the government take effective action to prevent atrocities. Of the warnings that were received, eleven incidents resulted either in killings being committed or the continued, pronounced presence of armed groups that threatened civilians.

One tragic example is the case of Boyajá, Chocó. Despite repeated warnings from the Catholic Church and office of the Public Advocate about combat between paramilitaries and guerrillas, the government took no measures to protect the civilian population. During a reported clash between the FARC-EP and paramilitary forces on May 2, 2002, civilians sought refuge in a local church. According to credible reports received by Human Rights Watch, at least one gas cylinder bomb fired by the FARC-EP forces struck this church, killing at least 117 civilians, including at least forty-eight children, and injuring at least 114 other civilians.