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To be a poor child, 1 a runaway, a child prostitute, or a child in a war zone in Colombia is to live with the threat of murder in daily intimacy. At an average of six per day, 2,190 children were murdered in 1993 according to Colombia's national statistical bureau (DANE). 2 In some regions, the murder of children has reached epidemic proportions. In the city of Cali, for instance, the murder of children jumped over 70 percent between 1991 and 1992. 3

Per capita killings of children in Colombia exceed those in Brazil, where the killing of black street youth has captured world headlines. 4 Like most poor countries, Colombia is a nation of youth, so to speak of children is to include close to half its population of thirty-five million. 5

A significant number of murders of children are the direct responsibility of the state. This report is concerned with the human rights of children targeted by state agents for murder and torture; state-tolerated vigilante violence against children (called "social cleansing"); widespread state neglect of the rehabilitation and appropriate incarceration of abandoned and violent children, which fuels "social cleansing"; and the generalized impunity enjoyed by the killers of children, beginning with agents of the state. We also include reports on the murder by armed insurgents or their clients of children in open violation of international humanitarian law.

Clearly, adults are also the victims of violations in Colombia. The extra-judicial executions, torture, and examples of impunity in the killings of adults far outnumber those involving children. Adults are also more often the victims of common crime. With an average of seventy-seven murders for every 100,000 people, Colombia leads the world in murder. 6 Most human rights abuses and common crimes, including murder, go uninvestigated and unpunished. Violations against children could be seen as simply symptomatic of the larger problem of violence and impunity in Colombia.

In view of this collapse of law and order, it is unusual for Human Rights Watch to focus on a particular group. Yet we believe this focus is merited. Children face special risks, since they lack the knowledge or skills to defend themselves. Often, they have been abandoned by their families and the state, which does little to protect them from violence. It is ironic that children face such threats in a country that purports to honor the rights of children "over the rights of all others" according to Article 44 of the constitution. On paper, they are the country's most protected citizens, while in practice, they are more prone to murder than children in any other country in the world.

Official investigations have repeatedly uncovered the link between government forces and the murder of children. The police in particular have participated in hundreds of killings of children since 1980, including the so-called "social cleansing" murders of street children and youth militia and gang members. Community leaders frequently charge that some police agents contribute to "social cleansing" by selling weapons on the illegal market to men who then kill children with police complicity.

The torture of children detained by the police and military continues to be the norm in Colombia. We received testimony about beatings, rape, electrical shocks, near-drownings in filthy water, and near-suffocation. Far from a practice of the past, torture remains a daily, ugly reality for children in detention in Colombia.

Children are also murdered because the government forces pledged to maintaining order refuse to intervene when others break the law. Throughout Colombia, extra-legal forces - guerrillas, paramilitaries, "social cleansing" squads, militias, and gangs - have carved out territories that they rule with minimal government interference, whether because government agents fear intervening, are inefficient, or are corrupt. Within these territories, the law that reigns is la ley del sapo - literally, the law of the toad, or snitch. Those who report crimes die. Those who stay silent survive. Repeatedly, Human Rights Watch/Americas was told by witnesses to killings or by the family members of victims that it is better to suffer abuses than speak out, since the government tolerates abuses and those who stand up to violence suffer the consequences.

We believe this toleration on the government's part is a serious violation of human rights. To an alarming degree, the state has withdrawn, ignoring the threat to its citizens, including children. We consider this toleration a serious violation of the right to life, protected in numerous conventions signed and ratified by the Colombian government. 7

Impunity is ubiquitous for the murderers of children. A recent study by the Procuraduría Delegate for Minors and Families found that only twelve cases involving child murders in 1993 had resulted in a trial. 8 It must be noted that impunity is enjoyed by almost all murderers in Colombia, not just those who kill children and not just those in uniform.

Nevertheless, while many murders stem from common crime, a significant number were carried out by agents of the state, and were neither investigated properly nor prosecuted. Human Rights Watch/Americas found that the few investigations carried out of official involvement in the murders of children rarely resulted in more than dismissal for implicated officers. Despite numerous police purges, officers continue to be implicated in the murder of children. While we support the dismissals of officers who commit violations, we believe that they should also be prosecuted in civilian courts for these crimes. Promises to restrain the military have yet to bear tangible fruit. 9

Measuring impunity presents some difficulties, since many children refuse to testify against their attackers out of fear or a conviction that state agents will not be punished. In addition, forensic investigations into murders are often incompetent. For instance, in one city, the authorities charged with collecting evidence in a series of "social cleansing" murders did not gather forensic evidence, but instead washed, shaved, and cut the hair of the victims, making identification nearly impossible.

This report would not be complete without a recognition of the fact that children are also among Colombia's most prominent killers. Children belong to the gangs that prowl urban centers, assaulting pedestrians and hijacking cars. Recruited and trained by drug traffickers, children make excellent assassins, since they learn quickly and according to law cannot be punished as severely as adults. After the 1990 assassination of presidential candidates Bernardo Jaramillo by a fifteen-year-old and Carlos Pizarro León-Gómez by a sixteen-year-old, the Colombian press dubbed these teenage males kamikazes, since they seemed willing to sacrifice their own lives for fame and the fee paid to their families. 10 To expand their urban base, guerrillas have also turned to children to form militias. Human rights groups believe these militias have ordered children to carry out killings of other youths accused of theft or drug use in many of Colombia's tugurios, or slums, in order to impose a kind of deadly moral order in areas they seek to control.

Yet we believe the state shares some responsibility for these murders as well. To rectify an antiquated and ineffective juvenile justice system, in 1990 the state put into effect a new legal Code for Minors for child killers as well as abandoned and abused children and child vagrants, drug abusers, and prostitutes. In contrast to the old code, the new one stresses treatment over incarceration and contains many laudable provisions.

As Human Rights Watch/Americas discovered, however, the Colombian government has not fully implemented the Code for Minors, specifically failing to appoint or sufficiently empower the defensores de menores (child defenders) charged with protecting the rights of children. In addition, there are few facilities available to house criminal children, meaning that often judges are forced to release them with no penalty.

Because of this failure to act, children in need of protection from the state go unattended, the prey to vigilante squads; children continue to suffer illegal detention and torture at the hands of the police and military; and child killers go free to kill again. The failure to protect abandoned children as well as mete out justice to children who kill must be seen as a serious problem that contributes to vigilantism.

We believe there must be a meaningful penalty for both the murderers of children and murderers who are children. While we support judicial proceedings that take into account a child's age and the desirability of promoting rehabilitation in accordance with Article 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, too often children in Colombia who commit murder and are arrested are released in a matter of days because there is a shortage of facilities to keep and treat them. Without a meaningful penalty, the impunity for both sides will contribute not only to "social cleansing" murders but also other types of political violence.

At the conclusion of this report, we make recommendations to protect the rights of children to the Colombian government, armed insurgents, and the international community. We include a detailed list at the end of this report, in the chapter titled "The Necessary Reforms."

Among the most important recommendations is one urging an amendment of the constitutional provision granting military court jurisdiction in cases involving crimes by military personnel against civilians, and the extension of this exception to police. As we have maintained in previous reports, members of the security forces should be tried by civilian courts and punished according to civilian law when they violate the rights of civilians. Equally important is an end to support for the constitutional provision protecting "due obedience" to higher orders, allowing subordinates to claim innocence on the grounds that they were acting on orders of a superior officer.

In relation to private vigilante groups, we urge the Colombian government to renew its public rejection of paramilitary groups and "private justice" as a way to resolve social ills. This public rejection must be paired, however, with investigations of and sanctions against civilians and security force members who abet, deploy, or participate in paramilitary groups.

Because the acceptance of "social cleansing" murders appears widespread in Colombian society, we believe it would be important for the Public Ombudsman, in cooperation with children's groups and human rights groups, to mount a national educational campaign in defense of the lives of Colombians, including children, made prey to this abuse.

As we have done in the past, we call on the armed opposition to respect international humanitarian law. Specifically, we urge that guerrillas and their associates in urban militias should expressly prohibit the killing of prisoners or noncombatants, including the so-called "popular trials" of accused criminals or drug addicts. We also call for a total ban on the use of quiebrapatas mines, which we believe are inherently indiscriminate. We also call on guerrillas to cease recruiting children both for their regular forces and for the militias that operate in close coordination with them.

Finally, to the international community, we recommend speedy action to bring this epidemic to greater attention by tasking the U.N. and the Organization of American States with investigating human rights violations against children and issuing special reports. This could be done through the office of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Summary or Arbitrary Executions and/or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

For the United States, long Colombia's most important political ally and trade partner, it is long past time to speak out strongly in support of human rights in Colombia. With the exception of a single speech delivered to military officers in July 1994, the U.S. Embassy in Colombia has made no public statement about human rights in Colombia. While the State Department's Annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices contains important information on government human rights abuses, regular statements within Colombia would underscore the U.S. commitment to seeing an improvement in human rights in Colombia for all, including children.


1 The word "child" is used in this report to mean anyone under the age of eighteen. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) defines a child as "every human being below the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier (Article 1)." The age of majority in Colombia is eighteen.

2 Colombia has a per capita murder rate for children that is eight times that of the United States. Camilo Chaparro, "Impune, maltrato a menores de edad," El Tiempo, September 6, 1994; and telephone interview, U.S. National Criminal Justice Reference Service, July 7, 1994.

3 "Cada 24 horas, un niño muere violentamente," El País (Cali), March 14, 1993.

4 For more on violence against children in Brazil, see Final Justice: Police and Death Squad Homicides of Adolescents in Brazil (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1994).

5 According to the most recent census released by DANE, 43 percent of Colombia's population is under eighteen.

6 "Colombia, entre la vida y la muerte," El Espectador, August 13, 1993; and "`La ONU debe constatar el verdadero caso de Colombia'," El Espectador, May 22, 1994.

7 State signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) are required to protect, among other things, a child's right to life (Article 6); to freedom from torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 37 (a)); to freedom from arbitrary or unlawful detention (Article 37 (b)); while in confinement, to humane treatment, separation from adults, and contact with his or her family (Article 37 (c)); and if deprived of liberty, to prompt access to legal assistance, the right to challenge the deprivation of liberty before a court, and to a prompt decision on any such action (Article 37 (d)). Article 40 of the Convention spells out in detail the due process rights to which a child is entitled. The rights are also prescribed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (1966) and the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) (1969).

Colombia has ratified the UNCRC, the ICCPR, and the ACHR.

8 The Procuraduría is the state agency charged with investigating reports of abuses by state employees, including the police and military. However, the Procuraduría can only recommend dismissal of those found guilty and cannot impose stiffer punishment. Chaparro, "Impune...", El Tiempo.

9 The annual report released by the Procuraduría in August revealed that allegations of human rights violations increased twenty percent between 1992 and 1993. Incidents involving attacks by the security forces against civilians doubled. "Attorney General's Office on Human Rights Abuses," Televisión Canal A Network, August 24, 1994, in the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (hereafter FBIS), August 30, 1994, p. 51.

10 Jaramillo's accused killer, Andrés Arturo Gutiérrez, was murdered along with his father a year later during a weekend release from the juvenile detention center where he was held. Pizarro's killer was killed in the act. Political Murder and Reform in Colombia: The Violence Continues (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1992), pp. 4-5. See also Alonso Salazar, Born to Die in Medellín (No Nacimos Pa' Semilla) (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993).

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