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Letter to President Álvaro Uribe

Thank you for your recent letter (which we have not yet received but have seen posted on your website) in which you express your concern over Human Rights Watch’s description of the current human rights situation in Colombia, including in the testimony we gave on April 24 before the US House of Representatives.

Thank you for your recent letter (which we have not yet received but have seen posted on your website) in which you express your concern over Human Rights Watch’s description of the current human rights situation in Colombia, including in the testimony we gave on April 24 before the US House of Representatives.

I appreciate your statements about how much you value our extensive work on abuses committed by all actors—guerrillas, paramilitaries, and public security forces—in the internal armed conflict in Colombia. We make a great effort to cover these abuses in a balanced and objective manner.

I agree with your statements about the importance of strengthening the rule of law, protecting civilians, and safeguarding human rights in Colombia. I strongly urge you to act consistently with these assertions, by taking the steps required to put these principles into practice in government policies and actions.

Nonetheless, I respectfully disagree with several of the factual claims made in your letter.

Killings of Trade Unionists

You state that only 25 trade unionists were killed in 2006, and that so far this year only one trade unionist has been killed in Colombia. However, the only way to create these artificially low numbers is by excluding unionized teachers from the category of trade unionists. In fact, according to your own government’s official numbers, if you include unionized teachers, last year 58 trade unionists were killed, a substantial increase over the 40 killed the previous year. So far this year seven trade unionists, including unionized teachers, have been killed according to official statistics.

Moreover, highly respected labor rights groups in Colombia, such as the National Labor School (Escuela Nacional Sindical) report even higher numbers: 72 trade unionists killed in 2006, an increase over the 70 reported in 2005, and nine killed so far this year—not just one, as you state.

Your government asserts that, despite last year’s increase in killings, there has been a reduction in killings since they hit a peak in 2001. But in fact, current rates of killings of trade unionists are similar to those that were common in 1998 and 1999.

It is, of course, helpful that the Ministry of Interior is offering a protection program for trade unionists. However, to effectively deal with the problem, it is crucial that your government take effective actions to dismantle paramilitary mafias, who have traditionally been the main perpetrators of these killings, with the acquiescence and even active support of state actors.

Overall Killings

You state that the overall official homicide rate in Colombia has declined substantially since you assumed office—a fact you attribute to your Democratic Security policies. We recognize that the security situation in several major cities and highways has improved, and that your government appears to have pushed the FARC guerrillas out of many regions, such as San Vicente del Caguán, where they were committing abuses.

However, the official homicide rate, which lumps together deaths from common crime as well as killings committed by all sides in the conflict, is too broad to serve as a useful indicator of human rights abuses. To focus only on this general number masks several very troubling trends.

The number of extrajudicial executions committed by the Army, for example, is skyrocketing—a fact that your own Minister of Defense admitted in meetings with me and other colleagues. The United Nations has a list of over 150 cases of extrajudicial executions of civilians committed by the Army throughout the country in the last two years. The Colombian Commission of Jurists, one of Colombia’s most respected human rights organizations, is reporting over 200 cases a year. In many of these cases the civilian has been killed, and later dressed up as a combatant, apparently to inflate the official enemy body count of the military unit in question.

The number of selective killings committed by paramilitary groups is also cause for alarm. Starting in 2000, according to official statistics, the number of massacres by paramilitary groups started to decline sharply. As described to us by paramilitary commanders themselves in Medellin, this decline reflected a shift in tactics by paramilitaries, who had already taken over control of vast regions of the country, and were starting to focus on consolidating that power. In their view, enforcement of their control no longer required large–scale massacres, but rather only selective killings of persons who they considered enemies.

Thus, the number of paramilitary massacres has dropped substantially. However, the number of selective killings attributable to paramilitaries has remained virtually unchanged for more than a decade, since 1996, despite your demobilization program. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, to this day paramilitary groups commit between 800 and 900 selective killings per year.

Paramilitary Demobilization Process

You assert that “thanks… to the Justice and Peace Law” today “31,671 Colombian members of the now-extinct paramilitary groups” have “abandoned their arms and are reintegrated into society.”

It is true that over 30,000 individuals went through demobilization ceremonies. But of those 30,000 only a small fraction, 2,696, has reportedly applied for reduced sentences under the Justice and Peace Law. As we reported in Smoke and Mirrors nearly two years ago, the rest have been allowed to enjoy the benefits of reintegration programs, including government stipends, without being required to confess or turn over illegal assets, without being adequately interrogated, and without being effectively monitored by the authorities. Indeed, we understand that your government has lost track of several thousand of these supposedly demobilized troops, and does not currently know where they are or what they are doing.

Meanwhile, both the Organization of American States and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia have reported that mid-level paramilitary commanders continue to engage in criminal activity and recruitment of new troops. There have been numerous public reports in recent weeks about the activity of paramilitary groups in the Nariño region, and we continue to regularly receive reports about threats and killings of human rights defenders by paramilitary groups. In this context, to simply claim that paramilitary groups are “now extinct” is to ignore realities that your government should instead be confronting.

Moreover, in meetings with us the Minister of Interior has confirmed that the leaders of these groups, some of which are currently in prison awaiting reduced sentences, have unrestricted access to cell phones. As a result, paramilitary leaders presumably continue communicating with their mafias. It is extremely difficult to ensure a verifiable dismantlement of paramilitaries’ criminal structures if the leaders are allowed to continue communicating regularly with their groups.

You state that your government has supported the Attorney General’s office with resources, and that you have requested the authority from Congress to increase the personnel of that office. We urge you to do everything in your power to ensure that the Colombian Congress, where you have a majority of supporters, approves this authority. The fact that you did not assign any new prosecutors to the Attorney General’s office when you drafted the Justice and Peace Law has been a cause of great concern to us. Without a substantial increase in personnel, it will be extremely difficult to make any progress on this issue.

Paramilitary Infiltration in the Political System

You also state that “the Justice and Peace Law is allowing the links that for many years existed between members of society and the extinct self-defense forces to be known” and that “the truth is a deliberate, desired, and necessary consequence of the government’s peace process.” Certainly truth should be a consequence of the process. Unfortunately, the Justice and Peace Law that you drafted and pushed through the Colombian Congress pressed for did little to further this goal.

In fact, as you will recall, during our many discussions with you over the draft law, your government repeatedly resisted including the requirement of a full and truthful confession as a condition for reduced sentences in the Justice and Peace Law. It was only thanks to the decision of the Colombian Constitutional Court last year that this requirement was fortunately incorporated into the program.

Moreover, while a handful of paramilitaries have started the process of confessions established by the Constitutional Court, those individuals have not spoken of their links to politicians. The high-profile allegations concerning paramilitaries’ links to members of Congress and your former Intelligence Director Jorge Noguera have surfaced as a result of independent investigations by the media, the Attorney General’s office, the Supreme Court, and the Inspector General’s office. Therefore, the credit should be given where it is due: to the institutions that are conducting the investigations.

I would add that, particularly in the case of Jorge Noguera, whose US visa has been revoked due to the severity of the allegations against him, we remain concerned about your response to the case. After initially defending Mr. Noguera and accusing the media of being malicious and harming democracy, you have recently stated that you will respect the investigation into these allegations. However, we know that Mr. Noguera’s attorney has visited the Presidential Palace (the Casa de Nariño) on nine occasions in the last few months—including eight times between February and March—to discuss Noguera’s case. We also know that on at least some of those occasions, this attorney met with you personally. It is puzzling to us that this individual was apparently welcomed so frequently at the Palace and not instead referred to the institutions conducting the investigation.

I appreciate your taking the time to share your concerns with us. As you well know, Human Rights Watch has from the start of the demobilization process been making constructive and reasonable recommendations concerning ways in which the serious problems in that process can be corrected.

Once again, we want to help Colombia to confront the grave threat that paramilitary power is posing to its democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Given the high stakes involved, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to adopt the many recommendations we have made—such as blocking communications between imprisoned paramilitary leaders and their mafias and extraditing to the United States those commanders who fail to turn over assets and cease their criminal activities—to ensure the effective dismantlement of paramilitary groups.



Kenneth Roth

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