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Human Rights Developments
Despite increased national and international attention to human rights and laws of war violations, the civilian toll in Colombia’s war remained high in 1998. Presidential elections in June prompted calls for peace, but both guerrillas and paramilitaries, the latter often working with the acquiescence or open support of the security forces, launched offensives that dimmed hopes. At this writing, a new president, his cabinet, and a new military high command had yet to make the first steps necessary to end impunity and bring human rights criminals to justice. For their part, guerrillas continued to flout the laws of war even as they criticized government forces for violations.

Although exact figures remained difficult to confirm and many cases went unreported or uninvestigated, the Data Bank run by the Center for Research and Popular Education (Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular, CINEP) and the Intercongregational Commission of Justice and Peace (Justice and Peace), human rights groups, reported that 619 people were killed for political reasons in the first six months of 1998. In cases where a perpetrator was suspected, 73 percent of these killings were attributed to paramilitaries, 17 percent were attributed to guerrillas, and 10 percent to state agents. These figures did not include combatants killed in action.

Efforts to pass crucial human rights legislation stalled in Congress, including a military penal code reform and a bill criminalizing forced disappearances. The outgoing administration of Ernesto Samper failed to promote these measures aggressively, ignoring an opportunity to achieve crucial human rights reforms. That obligation passed to the government of Andrés Pastrana, who had not, at this writing, announced a plan for addressing issues like continuing military support for paramilitary groups and impunity.

The Colombian army continued to commit serious violations with little apparent will to investigate or punish those responsible. As in the past, at the root of these abuses was the Colombian army’s consistent and pervasive failure to enforce human rights standards and distinguish civilians from combatants. In eastern Colombia, where paramilitary forces were weak, the army was directly implicated in the killing of civilians and prisoners taken hors de combat , as well as torture and death threats. In the rest of the country, where paramilitaries had developed a pronounced presence over the past decade, the army still failed to move against them and tolerated their activity, including egregious violations of international humanitarian law; provided some paramilitary groups with intelligence and logistical support to carry out operations; and actively promoted and coordinated joint maneuvers with them.

High-ranking army officers continued to claim that soldiers were directly implicated in fewer abuses than in years past even as the army’s use and tolerance of paramilitaries persisted. As the Bogotá-based office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights noted in its March 1998 report, “Witnesses frequently state that [massacres] were perpetrated by members of the armed forces passing themselves off as paramilitaries, joint actions by members of the armed forces or police and paramilitaries, or actions by paramilitaries enjoying the complicity, support or acquiescence of the regular forces.”

Throughout the year, paramilitary threats of massacres were ignored by the security forces, which took few measures to protect civilians. In the case of Puerto Alvira, Meta, local officials and the Office of the Public Advocate (Defensoría del Pueblo) warned authorities over a dozen times of an imminent attack. Nevertheless, paramilitaries seized the town unhampered on May 4 and reportedly killed at least twenty-one people, including store owners and a five-year-old child.

The Colombian army’s Twentieth Brigade, which centralized military intelligence, was among the most feared units in Colombia until it was suspended pending a reorganization on May 19, 1998, in part because of human rights violations. Government investigators linked the Twentieth Brigade to the 1995 murder of prominent leader Álvaro Gómez Hurtado, an apparent plot to provoke a military coup d’etat.

In November 1997 four Twentieth Brigade intelligence officers were passed over for promotion, effectively ending their careers, and the military retired a former brigade commander. However, we are not aware of any criminal investigations of Twentieth Brigade commanders who presided over the unit when it amassed its homicidal record.

Impunity remained the rule for officers who violated human rights. Typical is the case involving the Naval Intelligence Network No. 7, responsible for dozens of extrajudicial executions in and around the city of Barrancabermeja, Santander from 1991 through 1993. Despite overwhelming evidence showing that Lt. Col. Rodrigo Quiñones and seven other soldiers planned, ordered, and paid hit men and paramilitaries to carry out these killings, all eight were speedily acquitted by a military tribunal in 1994.

A civilian court convicted two civilian employees of Naval Intelligence Network No. 7 for murder in 1998. In his ruling, the civilian judge described himself as “perplexed” by the military acquittals of the officers involved, since he considered the evidence against the officers “irrefutable... With [this acquittal] all that [the military] does is justify crime, since the incidents and the people responsible for committing them are more than clear,” he wrote. In September, Colombia’s Internal Affairs office (Procuraduría) also concluded that naval officers had formed, promoted, led, and financed paramilitary groups in order to carry out dozens of extrajudicial executions.

Although Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled in 1997 that cases involving members of the armed forces accused of violations of human rights and the laws of war should be prosecuted in civilian courts, the Superior Judicial Council, the body charged with resolving jurisdictional disputes between civilian courts and military tribunals, continued to rule frequently in favor of the military. The few cases transferred to civilian jurisdiction mainly involved police officers, not soldiers, and none ranked above the level of major.

As of this writing, the Pastrana administration had yet to announce its position on a bill, stalled in the Colombian Senate, to reform the military penal code. However, cases like the one involving Naval Intelligence Network No. 7 underscored the urgent need to pass such legislation to end the impunity so far guaranteed for officers by military tribunals.

Army officers who failed to arrest or even pursue paramilitaries continued to be shielded and even promoted. Instead of being sanctioned for allowing repeated paramilitary massacres in his jurisdiction in 1997, Seventh Brigade Commander Gen. Jaime Uscátegui was promoted to an elite unit in the department of Caquetá in 1998.

The National Police were also implicated in abuses, among them the extrajudicial executions of young men suspected of sympathizing with guerrillas. In areas where paramilitaries were present, police officers were directly implicated in joint army-paramilitary actions and sometimes organized paramilitaries and supplied information to them to assemble death lists. For instance, government investigators concluded in 1998 that police in La Ceja, Antioquia organized and deployed paramilitaries considered responsible for at least thirty killings in 1996 and 1997.

After the Catholic Church sponsored workshops on human rights in El Peñol, Antioquia in March 1998 and invited local police, organizers learned that police planned to attend only to take notes and photograph those present, suggesting an attempt to identify and later persecute human rights defenders or simply discourage residents from taking part. Subsequently, the workshop organizers began receiving telephone death threats.

After a flood of reports of abuses, including massacres, perpetrated by Special Vigilance and Private Security Services (Servicios de Vigilancia y Seguridad Privada, CONVIVIR) groups of civilians licensed by the government to provide local security, outgoing President Ernesto Samper suspended the creation of new associations. Renamed “Community Services” (Servicios Comunitarios), these associations were barred by the Constitutional Court from collecting intelligence for the security forces and receiving military-issued weapons, formerly common practices.

Meanwhile, government investigators launched investigations of army officers who set up and supported these associations without government approval. For example, the Las Colonias association in Lebrija, Santander was set up without government authorization by Gen. Fernando Millán at the Fifth Brigade base he commanded. The association regularly extorted money from residents and allegedly committed a series of killings, robberies, and death threats. Among its members before its dismantlement were several known paramilitaries from the Middle Magdalena region. The army high command prevented prosecutors from questioning Millán, then interposed a jurisdictional dispute, claiming that since Millán was on active service and carrying out his official duties, the case should be tried before a military tribunal. In October, the case, like hundreds before it, was sent to a military tribunal.

For their part, paramilitaries continued to commit massacres, murders of civilians and combatants hors de combat, torture, the mutilation of corpses, death threats, forced displacement, hostage-taking, and looting, among other violations. In the first eight months of 1998, for example, paramilitaries were linked to most of the massacres committed, meaning the killing of four or more people at the same place and at the same time. In many cases, bodies were also dismembered, decapitated, and mutilated with machetes, chain saws, and acid.

Among the most brazen massacres occurred in the city of Barrancabermeja, Santander. On May 16, 1998, the Santander and Southern Cesar Self-Defense Group killed eleven residents and arbitrarily detained at least thirty-one others. Subsequently, the group, one of seven allied under the United Self-Defense Groups (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), took responsibility for murdering most of the men they had arbitrarily detained and burning their bodies. The Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía) later linked at least one army soldier to the preparation for the paramilitary incursion.

Although the Attorney General’s Office issued a growing number of warrants for paramilitary leaders, including AUC leader Carlos Castaño, the security forces made few arrests. A notable exception was the February 25 capture of Víctor Carranza, a powerful Castaño ally. Significantly, Carranza was captured by the civilian security agency attached to the Attorney General’s Office, theTechnical Investigation Unit (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación, CTI), which did not notify security force agencies beforehand for fear they would alert Carranza.

Guerrillas also committed serious abuses in 1998. When the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) perceived a political advantage, it emphasized its respect for the laws of war. However, when no political advantage was apparent, the FARC made little if any attempt to abide by these standards. For instance, Human Rights Watch received credible and consistent information about the FARC’s use of the bodies of slain combatants as booby traps, an act of perfidy under the laws of war. After combat near Fomeque, Cundinamarca, on February 16, 1998, the army collected the bodies of three soldiers, which were flown by helicopter to Santafé de Bogotá. There, the explosives hidden in the body of Capt. Luis Hernando Camacho detonated, killing two soldiers and wounding five.

The Camilist Union-National Liberation Army (Unión Camilista- Ejército de Liberación Nacional, UC-ELN) routinely executed soldiers and police officers taken hors de combat, often in front of dozens of witnesses. In the first six months of 1998 alone, the UC-ELN killed at least thirty-two civilians and combatants hors de combat according to the Data Bank.

In that same time period, the UC-ELN reportedly bombed the 770-kilometers-long pipeline linking Colombia’s eastern oil fields with the Caribbean port of Coveñas over forty times. The UC-ELN targeted the pipeline not for military reasons but to extort money and make a political point about its opposition to the way Colombia deals with the multinational corporations.

The Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL) also engaged in persistent and egregious violations of international humanitarian law, including the murders of the relatives of deserters. For instance, after EPL kidnap victims María Constanza and Juan Carlos Morales Ballesteros escaped with the help of an EPL militant, EPL guerrillas hunted down the man’s family on November 18, 1997, and killed his mother and brother and wounded another brother in reprisal.

All guerrilla groups continued to engage in hostage-taking for extortion or to press a political point. According to the País Libre Foundation, a nongovernmental group that collects information on kidnaping, guerrillas are responsible for half of the estimated 1,088 kidnapings registered in the first seven months of 1998.

All parties to the conflict continued to use land mines. For instance, the UC-ELN used land mines in populated areas of Antioquia, Arauca, and Santander, among others, endangering the civilian population and causing casualties among farmers and children. Although Colombia signed the Mine Ban Treaty in December 1997, it has yet to ratify it.

Forced displacement continued to be a serious problem. According to the Displaced Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo a Desplazados, GAD), an alliance of human rights, church, and humanitarian aid groups, over one million Colombians have been displaced by violence. Chief among the causes of forced displacement were violations of human rights and the laws of war. Displacement was also caused by powerful business interests, which joined forces with paramilitaries to force poor farmers from their land, then occupied it or bought it for paltry sums.

Several regions buffeted by massacres, fighting, targeted killings, and threats produced forced displacement in 1998: the northern departments of Antioquia, Bolívar, Cesar, and Norte de Santander; the Middle Magdalena region; and the region known as Urabá, bordering Panama and including northern Chocó department. Forced displacement also spread to new areas formerly at the margins of conflict, including the departments of Chocó and Putumayo.

Another relatively new phenomenon in 1998 was the persecution of leaders of displaced communities, accused by combatants of sympathizing with the enemy or arranging displacements as a military maneuver. On April 28, 1998, armed men claiming to belong to the ACCU seized six men from a Bello, Antioquia, settlement of forcibly displaced families, killing at least four and forcibly disappearing the rest.

Government measures to assist the displaced fell prey to lack of funding, insufficient coordination among government agencies, and poor information. Most displaced Colombians continued to live in misery and fear. Colombia’s cities absorbed displaced families into their growing slums, and the displaced often lived on the margins of these already marginal settlements. Others took shelter in temporary camps. In August, hundreds of displaced families from southern Bolívar began arriving in Barrancabermeja, Santander, and negotiated an accord with the government for their safe return. However, even as families began the trek back to their homes and farms, new concerns were raised about their safety in a region still torn by combat.

In some cases, the government compelled the displaced to return to their communities despite its inability to guarantee their security. For example, according to virtually all informed observers and the displaced themselves consulted by the U.S. Committee for Refugees, from the moment that the hundreds of Riosucio displaced arrived in Pavarandó and Turbo in late 1997, the government began pressuring them to return home. While many displaced people said that they wanted to return, they insisted that the government guarantee their security. In November 1997, the government announced that the displaced in Pavarandó had agreed to return home and would sign an agreement to that effect. But the displaced people refused to sign, because the agreement did not guarantee their security.

According to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in March 1998, return “has been promoted even though minimum conditions of security could not be guaranteed and the causes which gave rise to the displacement had not been eliminated.”

Prison conditions remained grim, especially for individuals believed to occupy middle to lower-level positions within insurgent organizations. While leaders were provided with virtual suites within maximum security facilities and access to foods and medicines of their choosing, rank-and-file prisoners lived in severely overcrowded cell blocks where acts of violence were common along with chronic shortages of food, water, and medical care. In a bloody incident that took place in April, fifteen inmates were killed in a gang clash in La Picota prison south of Bogotá.

According to the National Penitentiary and Jail Institute, which runs Colombia’s prisons, 49 percent of prisoners overall hadnot yet been convicted of any crime. Although Colombia’s prison were built to hold about 32,000 prisoners, the actual population was well over 43,000.













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