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Colombia's Military Linked to Paramilitary Atrocities

Albright urged to toughen human rights conditions

In a new reportThe Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links, Human Rights Watch accused specific brigades and commanding officers in the Colombian military of collaborating with paramilitaries who are committing atrocities against civilians.

The Human Rights Watch report links three prominent Army brigades based in Colombia's largest cities to paramilitary activity and attacks on civilians. Together with previous reports, Human Rights Watch has so far documented ties between half of Colombia's eighteen Army brigades and paramilitaries.

In a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Human Rights Watch urged the U.S. government to strengthen human rights conditions on any security assistance to Colombia's military. The letter expressed grave concern that a $1.3 billion aid package proposed by the Clinton administration does not require clear, measurable steps to break links between the military and paramilitary groups.

"When an aid package of this size is debated in Washington, it's crucial that the facts be clear," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division. "And the facts we've established about links between the Colombian military and paramilitaries are truly alarming."

Human Rights Watch is an international monitoring organization based in New York. Its 1998 report, "War Without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitarian Law," described in depth the murders, "disappearances," and other abuses being committed by the Colombian security forces, paramilitaries, and guerrillas in the country's 50-year-old war. More than 1.5 million civilians have been displaced by the fighting since 1985.

The report released today, entitled "The Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links," shows that military support for paramilitary activity remains national in scope, and includes areas where units receiving or scheduled to receive U.S. military aid operate.

The report relies on Colombian government documents and extensive interviews with government investigators, refugees, and victims of political violence. Several prominent investigators interviewed by Human Rights Watch were forced to flee the country because of their work collecting evidence on military-paramilitary collaboration.

Among the report's conclusions:

  • As recently as 1999, Colombian government investigators gathered compelling evidence that army officers set up a "paramilitary" group using active-duty, retired, and reserve-duty military officers along with hired paramilitaries who effectively operated alongside army soldiers and in collaboration with them;
  • In 1997, 1998, and 1999, a thorough Colombian government investigation collected compelling evidence that Army officers worked intimately with paramilitaries under the command of paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño. They shared intelligence, planned and carried out joint operations, provided weapons and munitions, supported with helicopters and medical aid, and coordinated on a day-to-day basis. Some of the officers involved remain on active duty and in command of troops;
  • There is credible evidence, obtained through Colombian government investigations and Human Rights Watch interviews, that in 1998 and 1999, army intelligence agents gathered information on Colombians associated with human rights protection, government investigative agencies, and peace talks, who were then subjected to threats, harassment, and attacks by the army, at times with the assistance of paramilitary groups and hired killers;
  • There is credible evidence that this alliance between military intelligence, paramilitary groups, and hired killers is national in scope and is able to threaten key investigators in the Attorney General's office and the Procuraduría;
  • The brigades discussed -- the Third, Fourth, and Thirteenth -- operate in Colombia's largest cities, including the capital. Their commanders are considered among the most capable and intelligent, and are leading candidates for promotion to positions of overall command of divisions, the army, and Colombia's joint forces;
  • Colombia's civilian investigative agencies, in particular the Attorney General's office, are capable of sophisticated and hard-hitting investigations. However, many investigators assigned to cases that implicate the army and paramilitaries have been forced to resign or to flee Colombia;
  • At least seven officers mentioned in the report are graduates of the School of the Americas, a Georgia-based military training institute financed by the U.S. government.
  • "Training alone, even when it includes human rights instruction, does not prevent human rights abuses," said Vivanco. "You also need determined action on the part of the Colombian government to bring offenders to justice."

A 1997 decision by Colombia's Constitutional Court requires that security force personnel accused of committing crimes against humanity be tried in civilian courts. Yet Colombia's military continues to win jurisdiction over high-ranking officers implicated in abuses, and its tribunals reliably acquit or simply fail to prosecute them.

Vivanco noted that the Leahy Amendment, which became U.S. law in 1997, established a vital precedent for requiring adherence to human rights standards. However, Human Rights Watch believes that additional benchmarks are necessary to ensure that the Colombian government follow through on promises to address atrocities.

Vivanco also noted that abuses directly attributed to members of the Colombian military have decreased in recent years, but over the same period, the number and scale of abuses attributed to paramilitary groups have skyrocketed.

"The Colombian military should not get a clean bill of health until it severs its ties to paramilitaries," said Vivanco. "U.S. assistance should not be provided either to those who directly commit human rights abuses or to those who effectively contract others to carry out abuses on their behalf and with their assistance."

For Further Information, Contact:
José Miguel Vivanco, 202-612-4335
Minky Worden, 212-216-1250

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