The United States has squandered its leverage in Colombia by signing a flawed human rights certification, Human Rights Watch said today. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s decision to certify Colombia’s compliance with human rights conditions releases $34 million in aid to the Colombian Armed Forces, even though U.S. officials agree that the country’s military continues to work with illegal paramilitary groups.

“The U.S. certification suggests that the Bush administration sees the defense of human rights as a matter of paperwork, not concrete actions,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division. “It also demonstrates how readily the administration sacrifices human rights concerns to other interests.”

The January 20 certification, which was announced today, is the eighth for Colombia since the U.S. Congress first mandated human rights conditions on military aid. The statutory conditions on U.S. aid require the Colombian government to break ties between its military and illegal paramilitary groups, suspend officers implicated in abuses, actively pursue and arrest paramilitary leaders, and restore order to regions beset by guerrilla and paramilitary violence.

Human Rights Watch has compiled abundant evidence to show that Colombia has not complied with the U.S. government’s conditions.

One case involves an army officer, Colonel Víctor Matamoros, who the State Department reported had been detained for alleged paramilitary ties in 2001. Government investigators have evidence that Matamoros worked with paramilitaries, including leader Salvatore Mancuso, and helped arrange a series of massacres in and around the town of La Gabarra, Norte de Santander, in 1999. However, Matamoros was later freed after the military failed to transfer their investigation to civilian investigators by the legal deadline, thus forcing its closure for technical reasons.

“Again and again, we see that when military officers are charged with corruption or drug trafficking, or even cowardice, they are dealt with immediately,” said Vivanco. “But when officers are linked to human rights crimes, they get promotions and pay raises.”

Under U.S. law, Congress can suspend the State Department’s new power to allocate funds toward counterterrorism operations; funds were formerly restricted to anti-drug efforts only. A suspension is possible if the Secretary of State has credible evidence that the Colombian Armed Forces are not conducting vigorous operations to restore government authority and respect for human rights in areas under paramilitary or guerrilla control.

Human Rights Watch has compiled credible evidence showing that U.S.-backed operations in Colombia are not effectively reducing paramilitary control over territory. In fact, some areas formerly controlled by guerrillas have passed into the hands of paramilitaries, who act with the tacit support of local security forces.

“In effect, paramilitaries are allowed to win, so they become the de facto authorities,” Vivanco said.

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe claims that his policies have reduced certain categories of political violence, including massacres, killings, kidnappings, and attacks on towns. These decreases are genuine. Yet they are due to many factors, among them the consolidation of control by paramilitaries.

Even as the Colombian government was engaging in demobilization talks with paramilitaries in 2003, paramilitary gunmen began seizing farmland and houses at gunpoint in the Urabá region, forcing residents to sell their property at bargain prices. Along the Magdalena River, paramilitaries stop the boats that serve as public transportation, often detaining and sometimes killing passengers. In towns and villages across the country, the paramilitaries’ block captains punish children who do badly at school or use drugs, and punish adults who break curfews, steal, or commit other infractions. The punishments include tying up alleged perpetrators, beating them, shaving their eyebrows and hair, and even executing them.

These activities are not confined to rural or isolated regions, but take place even in densely populated areas where there is a pronounced police and military presence. For example, local authorities and human rights groups charge that the government has ceded de facto control of the city of Barrancabermeja to paramilitaries.

The punishment for speaking out can be extreme. For example, on October 16, human rights worker Esperanza Amaris Miranda, who had been threatened for her community work, was dragged from her home in Barrancabermeja by armed paramilitaries. Although her adult daughter tried to stop the abduction and fought with the kidnappers, they forced Miranda into a waiting taxi. Five minutes later, they shot and killed her in front of a school. Though the authorities had been informed of previous threats against her and of the paramilitary presence in the area, they failed to protect her from paramilitary attack.

U.S. aid pays for the training and supplying of the Colombian army’s aviation and helicopter units, its ground forces in Arauca, and its Counter-Drug Brigade. The aid also supports the Air Bridge Denial program, which seeks to prevent drug shipments via airplane in or out of the country.