“Colombia’s struggle to uphold the rule of law begins with its attorney general,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. “Colombia cannot credibly say that it is making progress on protecting human rights if the attorney general is not doing his job.”
The 14-page report “A Wrong Turn: The Record of the Colombian Attorney General’s Office,” documents how the attorney general's office has failed to make progress on critical human rights investigations. Upon taking office in July 2001, Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio made it clear that he was deeply suspicious of ongoing efforts to prosecute human rights cases, particularly those involving allegations against members of the Colombian military. Publicly, he promised to correct what he described as excessive attention to these allegations by prosecutors.
Within seventy-two hours of his arrival, Osorio had demanded the resignations of two high-ranking officials who had handled some of the institution’s most important human rights cases. A third official felt compelled to resign in response to the attorney general’s actions.
In the fifteen months that Osorio has been in office, at least nine prosecutors and investigators working on human rights cases were fired. Fifteen others were either forced to resign or felt compelled to do so under pressure. Almost all later left Colombia because of threats to their lives. In December 2001, for instance, the Attorney General fired four senior Technical Investigations Unit (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigaciones, CTI) officials shortly after they assisted in the capture of a top paramilitary assassin and relative of paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño.
“Since July 2001, five Colombian prosecutors and investigators have been killed in the line of duty,” said Vivanco. “Colombian prosecutors risk their lives to uphold the rule of law; they shouldn’t have to risk their jobs, too.”
Several prosecutors pursuing investigations against high-level military officials were removed from cases before they were able to arrest or indict suspects, jeopardizing the future of the investigations. One example is the investigation into the 2001 massacre in the village of Chengue, Sucre, a case in which Navy General Rodrigo Quiñones is implicated. After one prosecutor made substantial headway in collecting evidence for an indictment, the case was reassigned and appears to have stalled.
Progress on human rights cases is critical for determining whether Colombia is meeting the conditions that currently regulate U.S. military aid, which has amounted to over $1.3 billion in the last three years. The conditions, which are written into U.S. law, specifically require that the Colombian military cooperate with civilian justice officials prosecuting human rights cases. They also require the military to sever links with paramilitary groups, a goal most effectively served by the prosecution of military officers known to have collaborated with the paramilitaries. Colombia’s paramilitaries commit most of the country’s political killings, are deeply involved in drug trafficking, and have been designated as terrorists by the U.S. Department of State.
In recognition of the critical role played by the Attorney General’s Office, the United States has, since 2000, invested over $25 million in the office. The State Department has proposed an additional $10 million for the office’s human rights prosecutors in the FY 2003 budget, a request that is currently pending.
“Keeping these prosecutors on the job requires more than armored cars and forensic equipment.” Vivanco said. The report calls on the United States to make clear to the president of Colombia that the State Department will not be able to certify progress on human rights unless the attorney general stops obstructing human rights investigations and can demonstrate significant progress on human rights cases. “This aid was meant to strengthen human rights prosecutions. But as long as the political will to pursue these cases is absent, no amount of money, training, or equipment will improve the institution’s record.”