Negotiations between the government and leftist guerrillas reached an impasse in 2001 as both sides traded accusations of bad faith and broken promises. Political violence increased for the second consecutive year and became increasingly urban, with clashes and selective killings occurring in cities. Colombians continued to flee their homes and even their country in record numbers, facing hunger, the elements, and disease in desperate efforts to save themselves and their families.
In the first ten months of the year, the office of the Public Advocate (Defensoría del Pueblo) recorded ninety-two massacres, which they defined as the killing of three or more people at the same place and at the same time. Most were linked to paramilitary groups, followed by guerrillas. Both paramilitaries and guerrillas reportedly moved with ease throughout the country, including via helicopter.
One of the year's worst massacres occurred on January 17, in Chengue, Sucre. Witnesses told government investigators that several Colombian navy units looked the other way as heavily armed paramilitaries traveled past them to the village. Paramilitaries assembled villagers in two groups, the Washington Post later reported. "Then, one by one, they killed the men by crushing their heads with heavy stones and a sledgehammer. When it was over, twenty-four men lay dead in pools of blood. Two more were found later in shallow graves. As the troops left, they set fire to the village."
The authorities subsequently arrested Navy Sergeant Rubén Darío Rojas and charged him with supplying weapons to paramilitaries and helping coordinate the attack. Colombia's Internal Affairs agency (Procuraduría) filed disciplinary charges against Navy Brig. Gen. Rodrigo Quiñones and five other security force officers for allegedly ignoring detailed information received in advance about paramilitary movements near Chengue. At the time, Quiñones was the commander of the first Naval Brigade. Despite the charges, he was later promoted to the post of navy chief of staff.
As the Chengue case showed, certain military units and police detachments continued to promote, work with, support, profit from, and tolerate paramilitary groups, treating them as a force allied to and compatible with their own. At their most brazen, these relationships involved 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; coordination of army roadblocks, which routinely let heavily-armed paramilitary fighters pass; and payments made from paramilitaries to military officers for their support.
Overall, President Andrés Pastrana and his defense ministers failed to take effective action to establish control over the security forces and break their persistent ties to paramilitary groups. Even as President Pastrana publicly deplored atrocities, the high-ranking officers he commanded failed to take steps necessary to prevent killings by suspending security force members suspected of abuses, ensuring that their cases were handed over to civilian judicial authorities for investigation and prosecution, and pursuing and arresting paramilitary leaders.
Paramilitaries allied under the umbrella United Self Defense Group of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) expanded their radius of action and troop strength in 2001. In June, AUC commander Carlos Castaño announced that he had relinquished military leadership and dedicated himself to organizing its political wing. Since 1996, the group had grown by over 560 percent, according to Castaño, who claimed a force of over 11,000 fighters. In some situations, as with the temporary seizure of a community of displaced people in Esperanza en Dios and Nueva Vida, Chocó, paramilitaries reportedly operated with as many as eight hundred troops at a time. Large concentrations of paramilitaries were rarely challenged by the Colombian security forces.
Over a period of a week in early July, in the town of Peque, Antioquia, over five hundred armed and uniformed paramilitaries blockaded roads, occupied municipal buildings, looted, cut all outside communication, and prevented food and medicines from being shipped in, according to the Public Advocate's office. Over 5,000 Colombians were forced to flee. When the paramilitaries left, church workers counted at least nine dead and another ten people "disappeared," several of them children. As a local official said: "The state abandoned us. This was a massacre foretold. We alerted the regional government the paramilitaries were coming and they didn't send help."
During much of 2000, the AUC paid monthly salaries to local army and police officials based on rank in the department of Putumayo, where U.S.-funded and trained counternarcotics battalions were deployed. In the state of Cauca, soldiers moonlighting as paramilitaries earned up to $500 per month. These salaries far exceeded the average Colombian's monthly income.
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, when the system began to function, and September. 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.
Paramilitaries were linked to the murders of Colombians working to foster peace, among them three congressmen. On June 2, armed men believed to be paramilitaries seized Kimy Pernia Domicó, a leader of the Emberá-Katío community in the department of Córdoba, who remained "disappeared" at this writing. Three weeks after he was abducted, another Emberá-Katío leader who had been active in calls for Domicó's release was abducted by presumed paramilitaries and later killed. As these killings showed, certain groups faced special risks, among them indigenous groups, trade unionists, journalists, human rights defenders, and peace advocates.
The security forces were also directly implicated in abuses. In May, it was revealed that a combined police-army unit had illegally tapped over 2,000 telephone lines in the city of Medellín, many belonging to nongovernmental and human rights groups. The police officer who apparently helped place the taps was killed in April in circumstances that remained unclear.
Prosecutors implicated a former Colombian army major and an active duty police captain along with Carlos Castaño in the December 21, 2000, attack on trade union leader Wilson Borja, who was seriously wounded. In the first ten months of 2001, 125 trade unionists were murdered according to the Central Workers Union (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, CUT), which represents most Colombian unions.
With the stated goal of furthering peace talks, the government continued to allow the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP) to maintain control over a Switzerland-sized area in southern Colombia. During the year, the two sides agreed on a prisoner exchange that led to the release of 364 captured members of the police and military forces, and fourteen imprisoned FARC-EP members. Several freed officers reported that FARC-EP guerrillas abused them during captivity. Colombian National Police (CNP) Col. Álvaro León Acosta, captured on April 5, 2000, suffered from serious ailments and excruciating pain stemming from an untreated back injury. Other captives reported jungle diseases, including malaria, fungi, constant diarrhea because of contaminated water, and leishmaniasis, which can be fatal if untreated. Guerrillas never allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or other independent groups to visit captured combatants, dozens of whom remained in the group's custody.
Criticism of the FARC-EP intensified as evidence mounted that the group used its area of control not only to warehouse prisoners and kidnaped civilians, but also to plan and mount attacks, including assaults that caused civilian casualties. The FARC-EP frequently used indiscriminate weapons, specifically gas cylinder bombs.
The FARC-EP continued to kill civilians throughout Colombia, with human rights groups reporting 197 such killings in the first ten months of the year. Among the victims was former culture minister Consuelo Araújo Noguera, abducted by the FARC-EP on September 24. The wife of Colombia's Internal Affairs director, Araújo Noguera was apparently executed by guerrillas during a Colombian army rescue attempt. Other victims included Paez leader Cristóbal Secué Escué, a former president of the Cauca Indigenous Regional Council (Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca, CRIC), who was shot on June 25 near his home in Corinto, Cauca. The FARC-EP accused Paez communities of forming "civic guards" that were like paramilitary groups, a charge indigenous leaders denied. Secué was, at the time of the killing, serving as a judge investigating several alleged murders by FARC-EP guerrillas.
Kidnaping remained a source of income and political pressure for the FARC-EP. In July, the group carried out its first mass kidnaping from an apartment building, seizing sixteen people after blowing the doors off a residence in Neiva, Huila. Among those kidnaped were children as young as five years old. Six people were later released.
After Human Rights Watch wrote to FARC-EP leader Manuel Marulanda to protest these violations, he dismissed the letter as "Yankee interventionism, disguised as a humanitarian action."
For its part, the Camilist Union-National Liberation Army (Unión Camilista-Ejército de Liberación Nacional, UC-ELN) violated international humanitarian law by launching indiscriminate attacks and committing kidnapings. After the government suspended talks with the group on August 7, the UC-ELN set off a series of car and package bombs in the department of Antioquia, including the city of Medellín, killing passers-by and destroying electrical towers and public buses. Two weeks earlier, over fifteen UC-ELN guerrillas died when bombs they were placing along a road exploded in the truck carrying them.
There were some advances on accountability, principally by the office of the attorney general under the direction of Alfonso Gómez Méndez, who completed his four-year term in July. On May 25, prosecutors seized valuable information related to paramilitary financing networks and communications in the city of Montería, Córdoba, long considered an AUC stronghold. During the raid, prosecutors searched the home of Salvatore Mancuso, a Montería native who was said to be the AUC's military commander. In part, the investigation focused on how landowners and business people in the region donated heavily to the AUC.
The attorney general's office also pursued important cases involving laws of war violations, among them the murder in December 29, 2000, of Congressman Diego Turbay and six others outside Florencia, Caquetá. The massacre took place as Turbay, chair of the Peace Commission in Colombia's House of Representatives, and his companions were headed toward a meeting with guerrilla leaders in Los Pozos. The FARC-EP denied committing this massacre, but the attorney general opened a formal investigation of alleged guerrillas based on testimonies of captured gunmen and other evidence.
New Attorney General Luis Osorio set a disturbing precedent when he forced the resignation of the director of the Human Rights Unit, the former director of the Human Rights Unit, and the former head of the Technical Investigations Unit (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigaciones, CTI) during his first hours in office. This change in leadership and the message it sent threatened to reverse or hamper important investigations and led to a slowdown or suspension of important cases, including the Chengue massacre.
Osorio objected to the unit's decision to order the July 23 arrest of Gen. (ret.) Rito Alejo del Río for his alleged support of paramilitary groups while in command of the army's Seventeenth Brigade in Carepa, Antioquia, between 1995 and 1997. Del Río was among the officers dismissed from the army by President Pastrana because of his poor human rights record. Also, the United States canceled his visa to the United States because of his alleged involvement in acts of terrorism and drug trafficking.
The Security and National Defense Law that President Pastrana signed on August 13 threatened to reinforce impunity for human rights abuses. The law gave the security forces judicial police powers under certain circumstances and severely restricted the ability of civilian investigators to initiate disciplinary investigations against security force personnel for human rights violations committed during operations. Also, the law limited the obligation of the armed forces to inform judicial authorities about the detention of suspects, increasing the risk of torture.
Since the president signed a new military penal code in 2000 that allowed military commanders to dismiss subordinates implicated in a wide range of crime, the Defense Ministry claimed that over five hundred people had been removed from the service. However, the government provided no information indicating the reason for the dismissals, which could range from incompetence to involvement in human rights crimes. In addition, there was no evidence that any of these individuals subsequently faced criminal investigations for human rights violations. Meanwhile, officers charged with abuses remained on active duty and in charge of groups in the field.
The Colombian government also argued that it arrested hundreds of paramilitaries and dismissed their military supporters. However, arrests were mainly of low-ranking individuals, some of whom were speedily released.
Landmines were a threat to civilians throughout Colombia. According to the Colombian army and independent landmine monitors, the total number of landmines in Colombia was estimated at 130,000. Deaths and injuries resulting from their use were up sharply. Through mid-July 2001, the Colombian Campaign Against Land Mines recorded eighty-eight people killed or maimed by landmines, mostly farmers and their children. Colombia has signed but not yet ratified the 1999 Ottawa Convention banning the use, stockpiling, and export of landmines.
Forced displacement continued to increase, with at least 300,000 Colombians reported displaced in 2001, the highest number ever in a single year. Increasingly, Colombians applied for exit visas to travel abroad and applied for political asylum in other countries.
Kofi Asomani, the United Nations special coordinator on internal displacement of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, visited Colombia in August and concluded that the conflict had "catastrophic consequences" for the civilian population. Despite government programs meant to assist the displaced, Asomani found that they continued to suffer extreme hardship, living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions with limited access to basic services.
Colombia continued to be an extremely dangerous place for human rights defenders as well as for government investigators handling human rights and international humanitarian law investigations. In the first ten months of 2001, eleven defenders were killed according to the CCJ.
Among the victims was lawyer Alma Rosa Jaramillo Lafourie, who worked with the Middle Magdalena Development and Peace Program (Programa de Desarrollo y Paz del Magdalena Medio, PDPMM). Seized by presumed paramilitaries in Morales, in the department of Bolívar, on June 29, locals found her body two days later dumped in a rural area. According to associates, Jaramillo was tortured before being executed. Another PDPMM colleague, Eduardo Estrada, was murdered in similar circumstances on July 18 in the town of San Pablo, Bolívar. Colombia's Pacific coast was also dangerous. On September 19, armed men shot and killed Roman Catholic nun and human rights defender Yolanda Cerón Delgado in front of a church in Tumaco, Nariño.
Paramilitaries intensified an announced campaign to murder prosecutors and investigators of cases that implicated paramilitary leaders. During 2001, seven government investigators were murdered by alleged paramilitary gunmen. Among them were the three investigators who worked most closely on the investigation of the Chengue massacre. Several key witnesses to important cases were also killed while in government custody or while in the process of supplying information to prosecutors. The office in Colombia of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) called these killings "a systematic campaign of retaliation and intimidation" by those seeking "total impunity for the most serious crimes committed in the country."
Human rights defenders were among the main targets of the paramilitary advance in Barrancabermeja that began in December 2000. Members of the Regional Committee for the Defense of Human Rights and the Popular Women's Organization (Organización Femenina Popular, OFP) received multiple death threats by telephone and in person, and paramilitaries destroyed a house they used to hold events. "The paramilitaries are not just killing us physically, they are also killing our ability to organize, to be community leaders," said Yolanda Becerra, OFP president. "We have been forced to shut down projects outside the city, because the paramilitaries have banned us from traveling by river."
Some government offices attempted to protect threatened defenders, supplying bodyguards, bulletproof reinforcement for offices, and an emergency response network operated by handheld radios. The CNP Human Rights office and the Interior Ministry, in particular, took steps to protect defenders and to investigate specific allegations of police collaboration with paramilitary groups. The Interior Ministry provided protection or relocation assistance to 747 people between May and mid-September of 2001.
In many instances, however, government response was slow, nonexistent, or abusive. For example, the commander of the Barrancabermeja-based CNP, Col. José Miguel Villar Jiménez, attacked human rights groups by claiming that they had their "origin in [guerrillas], which attempt to throw mud on the good work that is done constantly with reports and information that also has an echo in the different international Non-Governmental Organizations."
The international community played a prominent role in efforts to resolve Colombia's conflict. France, Switzerland, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Norway, Spain, Italy, Canada, and Sweden agreed to meet every two weeks with the FARC-EP and act as "facilitator countries" for the peace process.
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