Units of the Colombian military and police continue to work with and tolerate the illegal paramilitary groups responsible for the country's most serious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch charged in a new report released today.
The report, titled The 'Sixth Division': Military-Paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia, charges that Colombian military and police detachments continue to promote, work with, support, profit from, and tolerate paramilitary groups, treating them as a force allied to and compatible with their own.
The 'Sixth Division' is a phrase Colombians use to refer to paramilitary groups, seen to act as simply another part of the Colombian military. The Colombian Army has five divisions.
At their most brazen, the relationships described in this report involve 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.
Human Rights Watch urged the Colombian government to enforce effective measures to cut these ties and punish the officers responsible, after investigations carried out by civilian courts. President Andrés Pastrana has publicly deplored paramilitary atrocities. But the armed forces have yet to take the critical steps necessary to prevent future killings by suspending high-ranking security force members suspected of supporting these abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
"President Pastrana has recognized the problem, but the military has yet to take the appropriate measures to solve it," said José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Americas Division. "This has serious implications for Colombia's international military donors, especially the United States."
Based on months of investigation, including two missions to Colombia and interviews with victims, witnesses, and investigators, the report also addresses U.S. policy toward Colombia. Human Rights Watch contends that the U.S. has violated the spirit of its own laws and in some cases downplayed or ignored evidence of continuing ties between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups. Among the recipients of U.S. aid is a unit implicated in a serious abuse.
The report also analyzes the impact of President Bill Clinton's decision, in August 2000, to waive human rights conditions attached to the Colombia aid package.
"When the United States waived the human rights conditions that applied to security assistance to Colombia, it sent a direct message to Colombia's military leaders that overshadowed any other related to human rights," Vivanco said. "Put simply, the message was that as long as the Colombian military cooperated with the U.S. anti-drug strategy, American officials would skirt their own human rights laws."
In the report, Human Rights Watch focuses on three Colombian Army brigades:
Twenty-Fourth Brigade: Human Rights Watch has collected evidence showing that in 1999 and 2000 the Twenty-Fourth Brigade, based in the state (department) of Putumayo, actively coordinated operations with paramilitaries, and some officers in charge of troops received regular payment from paramilitaries for their cooperation. This relationship persisted even as the U.S. planned and implemented its "push into southern Colombia" in the region under Twenty-Fourth Brigade control. The Colombian counter-narcotics battalions created with U.S. funds and trained by the U.S. military, actively coordinated with the Twenty-Fourth Brigade, using its facilities, intelligence, and logistical support during this effort.
Third Brigade: Building on evidence set forth in previous reports, Human Rights Watch has collected new information that the Third Brigade, based in Cali, Valle, has continued to promote, coordinate with, and assist paramilitaries in southwestern Colombia. According to testimony that Human Rights Watch collected, Third Brigade officers maintained constant communication with paramilitaries in the field using cellular phones and radios. Soldiers also reportedly "moonlighted" as paramilitaries, and paramilitaries stayed on military bases and used military transportation. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that soldiers also threatened civilians by telling them that paramilitary forces would follow Colombian Army troops and carry out atrocities in their wake.
Fifth Brigade: The area under the jurisdiction of the Fifth Brigade, based in Bucaramanga, Santander, was the scene of a recent and successful paramilitary offensive. Paramilitaries seized control of over a dozen towns along the Magdalena River, meeting virtually no resistance or even response from the Colombian security forces. Paramilitaries made their first-ever bid to conquer a major city, Barrancabermeja. Even as paramilitary fighters take over whole neighborhoods and issue threats, local military and police authorities remain largely passive, using excuses to elude responsibility for taking effective action.