On November 8, 1992, Colombian President César Gaviria Trujillo declared a "state of internal commotion," invoking provisions of the Colombian Constitution empowering him to adopt emergency measures in the event of "serious disruption of the public order imminently threatening institutional stability, the security of the state, or the peaceful coexistence of the citizenry." 1 A series of emergency decrees restricted civil liberties, granted additional powers to the military, and punished contact or dialogue with insurgent groups. The decrees marked a reversion to authoritarian patterns of rule supposedly left behind with the passage of the 1991 Constitution. 2
Despite the adoption of emergency measures, however, the government has failed to achieve its central goal: winning a decisive upper hand in the war against Colombia's approximately 7,000 guerrilla insurgents. Indeed, in a military build-up that began even as successful peace talks with the guerrillas were taking place, the Colombian government has devoted ever more resources to war since 1990. A centerpiece of army strategy has been the creation of three Mobile Brigades, elite units of professional soldiers that receive special training and operate in areas of greatest insurgent activity.
Although the government claims that Mobile Brigade soldiers commit fewer human rights abuses than regular troops, information gathered by Americas Watch in this report paints a strikingly different picture. The units have been implicated in a shocking number of abuses, including extra-judicial executions, "disappearances," rapes, torture, the wanton burning of houses, crops, and food, indiscriminate bombings and aerial strafing, beatings, and death threats. These newly-created units not only reinforce existing patterns of abuse -- including the continued formation and fortification of paramilitary groups -- but are pioneering a grisly new attack on Colombia's rural families, particularly those living in isolated areas and most vulnerable to injustice.
Guerrillas of the Simón Bolívar Guerrilla Coordinating Committee (CGSB) have also engaged in a disturbing pattern of violations of international humanitarian law, evidenced by the killing and torture of captured security force officers, selective assassinations of critics, attacks on civilian targets, and the destruction of the environment by repeated bombings of oil pipelines, putting the civilian population in grave danger. In September 1993, the guerrillas launched a new offensive they called "Black September," killing some thirty soldiers and police in the space of two weeks alone. 3 In opening their campaign, the guerrillas ambushed thirteen policemen and the civilian director of Bogotá's water authority near Usme, Cundinamarca. The policemen were killed after being disarmed, a grave violation of international humanitarian law. 4
The determination of the guerrillas to demonstrate their strength, together with the Colombian government's equal determination to contain and erode the insurgents' fighting capacity, will most probably only prolong the stalemate that has characterized Colombia's thirty-year guerrilla war. But the upswing in fighting, and military strategies of both sides that refuse to respect the neutrality of the civilian population, have sharpened the suffering of Colombian civilians. As one international relief worker told Americas Watch, "when there is more war, the principal victim is the civilian population. They have to collaborate with the guerrillas or with the army. They don't have a choice." 5
The guerrilla war represents only one, albeit an important, aspect of political violence in Colombia. Yet we have focused this report on the government's counterinsurgency strategy and the guerrillas' equally violative response for several reasons: 1) to highlight the human tragedy of Latin America's longest-running and yet largely forgotten war, 2) to document the growing human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law inherent in the strategies of both sides, and 3) to show how the pattern of rule by executive decree undermines human rights and thereby Colombian democracy, while doing nothing to end the armed forces' historical impunity.
The United States government has largely ignored human rights issues in Colombia, despite providing hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to the Colombian armed forces over the last four years ostensibly for use in the "waron drugs." The lack of end-use monitoring or human rights controls is scandalous given the nature of the equipment transferred, much of it designed for counterinsurgency purposes and provided to forces that have openly declared that their priority is the counterinsurgency war. We call on the United States government to take a visible role in denouncing and controlling abuses committed by U.S.-supported forces, and to withdraw U.S. support should abuses continue.
Peace may not come soon or easily to Colombia. But we agree with Colombia's human rights ombudsman, Defensor del Pueblo Jaime Córdoba Triviño, that it will be possible to achieve peace only "when human rights are not neglected, abused, or scorned." 6 A commitment by both sides in the conflict to respect human rights and international humanitarian law might enhance the prospects for peace. It would surely alleviate the suffering of countless civilian victims.
1 Article 213, Constitución Política de Colombia (Bogotá: Presidencia de la República, 1991), p. 81.
2 As described below, several of the emergency decrees were ruled unconstitutional by Colombia's Constitutional Court, which automatically reviews the legality of rulings issued during a state of exception. Others, however, have been or are in the process of being converted into permanent legislation. President Gaviria renewed the state of internal commotion twice in 1993, the legal limit established in the Constitution. The state of internal commotion expired in August 1993, although emergency decrees remained in effect through early November.
3 Mary Speck, "Colombian guerrillas resume attacks," Miami Herald, September 11, 1993.
4 Gustavo Gallón Giraldo, Letter to El Tiempo, September 16, 1993; Reuters, "Colombian Rebels Kill 13 Police in Ambush, Washington Times, August 29, 1993.
Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 prohibits the execution of combatants once they have been placed hors de combat by virtue of capture or injury.
5 Interview, Bogotá, March 2, 1993.
6 El Tiempo, "State Strengthening Respect for Human Rights," in Foreign Broadcast Information Service (hereafter cited as FBIS), September 17, 1993, p. 28.