Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page
The “Sixth Division”: Military-paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia

I. Summary and Recommendations

The "Sixth Division" is a phrase used in Colombia to refer to paramilitary groups. Colombia's Army has five divisions, but many Colombians told Human Rights Watch that paramilitaries are so fully integrated into the army's battle strategy, coordinated with its soldiers in the field, and linked to government units via intelligence, supplies, radios, weapons, cash, and common purpose that they effectively constitute a sixth division of the army.

Clearly, Colombia is more complex than this perception implies. President Andrés Pastrana, his vice president, Colombian government ministers, diplomats, and top generals alike publicly denounce paramilitary groups. Increasingly, paramilitary fighters are arrested. This is a stark contrast to years past, when military commanders denied that paramilitaries even existed and government officials were largely silent about their activities. Today, Colombian officials routinely describe paramilitaries as criminals, an advance Human Rights Watch acknowledges.

Nevertheless, the reference to the "sixth division" reflects a reality that is in plain view. Human Rights Watch has documented abundant, detailed, and compelling evidence that certain Colombian army brigades 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.

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.

In the words of one Colombian municipal official, the relationship between Colombian military units, particularly the army, and paramilitaries is a "marriage."

Based on the evidence in this report, we contend that officers at the brigade and battalion level and in some police detachments routinely flout, ignore, or circumvent orders from above to break ties to paramilitaries. In violation of the law and the directives of their superiors, these officers continue close and regular relationships with the groups responsible for most human rights violations in Colombia.

Human Rights Watch holds the Pastrana administration responsible for its dramatic and costly failure to take prompt, effective action to establish control over the security forces, break their persistent ties to paramilitary groups, and ensure respect for human rights. To date, the government's efforts have been ineffective or, in some cases detailed in this report, wholly absent. Even as President Pastrana publicly deplores successive atrocities, each seemingly more gruesome than the last, the high-ranking officers he commands fail to take the critical steps necessary to prevent future killings by suspending security force members suspected of abuses, ensuring that their cases go before civilian judicial authorities, and pursuing and arresting paramilitaries.

For many Colombians, the existence of a "sixth division" translates into a daily terror that is impossible to evoke in these pages. Heavily armed paramilitaries move virtually unimpeded, captured paramilitary leaders elude detention with ease, and government forces make no more than token efforts to pursue or capture paramilitaries even when they are in major cities, footsteps away from military or police bases, and engaged in macabre caravans of death. Soldiers even tell civilians that paramilitaries will follow in their wake, prompting panic and forced displacement. Witnesses brave enough to testify about the "sixth division" and its links to the security forces are threatened or murdered with numbing precision.

Meanwhile, paramilitaries give exclusive interviews to dozens of journalists, address presidents, international academics, and European government ministers, meet with high-level government officials, and even claim responsibility for their crimes and promise more, methodically expanding a reign of fear town after town, street after street, home after home, heart after heart.

In this report, Human Rights Watch focuses on three Colombian Army brigades. We also include information linking some police detachments with support and tolerance for paramilitary groups:

Twenty-Fourth Brigade: Human Rights Watch has collected evidence that in 1999 and 2000, the Twenty-Fourth Brigade based in Putumayo department 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 counternarcotics battalions created by U.S. security assistance and funding and trained by the U.S. military actively coordinated with the Twenty-Fourth Brigade, using its facilities, intelligence, and logistical support, during the "push into southern Colombia."

Third Brigade: Building on evidence included 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. Soldiers also regularly 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.

Some government officials - the Attorney General (Fiscal), the members of his Human Rights Unit, investigators in the Attorney General's Technical Investigation Unit (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigaciones, CTI), the Public Advocate (Defensoría), and the Colombian National Police (CNP) leadership -- have taken action against paramilitaries. They have chronicled their abuses, arrested paramilitary leaders, seized their weapons, and prevented some massacres. But their actions have been consistently and effectively undermined, canceled out, or in some cases wholly reversed by actions promoted by the military-paramilitary alliance.

Eyewitnesses, municipal officials, and even the government's own investigators routinely delivered to the security forces detailed and current information about the exact location of paramilitary bases; license plates, colors and types of paramilitary vehicles; cellular telephone and beeper numbers used by paramilitaries; and the names of paramilitaries. Yet despite dozens of "early warnings" of planned atrocities, paramilitaries advanced, killed, mutilated, burned, destroyed, stole, and threatened with virtual impunity, often under the very noses of security force officers sworn to uphold public order.

In this report, Human Rights Watch describes several cases where the security forces, in particular the military, have not moved against paramilitaries or have engaged in actions that produced only delays and allowed paramilitaries to continue their activities with impunity. Troops arrived at the sites of serious abuses committed by paramilitaries only to count bodies, photograph damages, and make excuses for their failure to protect civilians and capture the paramilitaries responsible for abuses. Meanwhile, hundreds of arrest warrants against paramilitary leaders remain unenforced because the military has chosen not to execute them.

Important Colombian government offices - the Vice Presidency, the Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry, and especially the Armed Forces themselves - have failed to take the decisive action necessary to address this serious situation. Instead, they have dedicated a great deal of energy and time to a public relations effort purporting to show that the military has made progress against paramilitaries. Human Rights Watch has reviewed many of the hundreds of reports, graphs, statements, press releases, pamphlets, posters, alerts, and Colombian government statistical reviews that make up this effort. However, Human Rights Watch found that much of this information is misleading or partial and does not reflect an objective analysis or accurate reflection of what is happening on the ground. The gulf between words and effective action remains vast.

Human Rights Watch addresses part of this report to U.S. policy in Colombia. U.S. law, known as the Leahy Provision, prohibits military aid from going to security force units engaged in abusive behavior until effective steps are taken to bring perpetrators to justice. In addition, the U.S. Congress included human rights conditions specific to Colombia in an aid package that provided dramatically increased military aid to the country beginning in 2000. In repeated interviews with Human Rights Watch, U.S. officials in Colombia and Washington have shown that they are aware of the "sixth division" and its pernicious effect on human rights.

However, Human Rights Watch contends, 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 in order to fund Colombia's military and lobby for more aid, including to a unit implicated in a serious abuse. On August 22, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a waiver that lifted the human rights conditions imposed by the U.S. Congress, in essence allowing security assistance to be provided to the Colombian military even as the State Department reported that some of its units continued to be implicated in support for paramilitary groups.

With one signature, the White House sent a direct message to Colombia's military leaders that overshadowed any other related to human rights. Put simply, the message was that as long as the Colombian military cooperated with the U.S. antidrug strategy, American officials would waive human rights conditions and skirt their own human rights laws.

Judged by the Colombian military's behavior in the field - not by rhetoric or public relations pamphlets - its leaders understood this message clearly. Even as Colombia's high command has agreed to scrub some units for human rights problems, the rest of the military appears to have a virtual carte blanche for continued, active coordination with the paramilitary groups responsible for most human rights violations in Colombia.

As we document, despite credible evidence linking a Colombian Air Force unit to an attack that killed seven children and was never properly investigated or punished, the U.S. has not suspended aid to this unit, required by law. The law requiring suspension is not subject to any waiver. In addition, there is compelling evidence of ties between paramilitaries and Colombian military units deployed in an antinarcotics campaign in southern Colombia, allowing U.S.-funded and trained troops to freely mix with units that maintain close ties with paramilitaries.

The Colombian government's failure to effectively address the problem of continuing collaboration between its forces and abusive paramilitaries and military impunity has contributed to a continuing, serious deterioration in human rights guarantees. In 2000, political violence sharply increased in Colombia, the result of paramilitary attacks on civilians they claim are sympathetic to guerrillas and guerrilla attacks on civilians they claim are sympathetic to paramilitaries. According to the Colombian National Police annual review, the number of massacres they recorded in 2000 increased by 22 percent over the previous year, most the work of paramilitaries who continue to enjoy, at the very least, the tolerance of the Colombian Armed Forces. In 2000, an estimated 319,000 people were forced to flee their homes, the highest number of displaced persons recorded in the last five years. In the words of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, these increases are "a dramatic reflection of the barbarity that we are seeing every day in Colombia."


The Colombian government should:

  • effectively combat paramilitaries and permanently dismantle paramilitary organizations by capturing leaders and prosecuting and punishing those responsible for forming, organizing, leading, belonging to, assisting, and financing paramilitary groups, including the security force members who take part in this activity;
  • ensure that impunity no longer protects those responsible, by action or tolerance, for human rights and international humanitarian law violations. The Colombian government should fortify efforts to effectively combat paramilitary groups and ensure that suspects, including government members, are prosecuted in civilian courts;
  • take urgent measures to strengthen the protection of judicial officials, victims, and witnesses to cases by dedicating the necessary resources to their protection;
  • order the military to cease asserting jurisdiction over cases that involve allegations of human rights and international humanitarian law violations, both of which belong before civilian courts. In this regard, the new Military Penal Code and Civilian Penal Code should be interpreted and enforced in a way that reflects Colombia's responsibilities under the international treaties to which Colombia is a party and the rulings of Colombia's Constitutional Court;
  • fully implement existing plans and laws designed to protect and assist the forcibly displaced;
  • strengthen the Interior Ministry's program for the protection of human rights defenders and trade unionists, providing it with the resources necessary to address demand. The Colombian government should commission an external evaluation of the program to review its results and the problems it faces, and implement recommendations to improve performance;
  • adopt urgent measures necessary to effectively protect indigenous, community, and ethnic leaders who have been threatened;
  • ensure that security force members and civilians arrested in connection with allegations of human rights or international humanitarian law violations are held in secure facilities within civilian prisons, with special measures taken to prevent escapes;
  • reform the rules governing investigations and disciplinary proceedings carried out by the Procuraduría, the government's Internal Affairs agency that oversees the conduct of government employees, including members of the military and police. Currently, delays in investigation mean that many Internal Affairs investigations into serious human rights crimes must be shelved due to excessively short statutes of limitations, further limited by the passage of Security Law 81. Also, the crime of murder is not included within the code of infractions as a reason for dismissal. The Internal Affairs agency's powers of dismissal should be expanded to permit it to dismiss members of the security forces found to have committed murder. Currently, the maximum punishment allowed is a "severe reprimand," simply a letter in the individual's employment file;
  • significantly increase funding for the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit, including its witness protection program, travel, communications equipment, security, and evidence-gathering capability. The work of the Attorney General's office has contributed significantly to the protection of human rights and accountability for serious crimes, including crimes committed by Colombia's guerrillas. Yet prosecutors and investigators find their budgets cut dramatically and lack the resources to fully investigate cases assigned to them;

The United States Government Should:

  • place country-specific human rights conditions on all security assistance to Colombia that must be met before aid is released. Among other conditions, the law should require that Colombia show tangible results in breaking ties between its security forces and paramilitary groups, purging and prosecuting officers who work with paramilitaries or tolerate their activity, and ensuring that civilian courts maintain jurisdiction over human rights and international humanitarian law crimes committed by members of the security forces. This last condition reflects an August 1997 Colombian Constitutional Court ruling, which required that all cases involving crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations, including the aiding and abetting of paramilitary groups, be heard in civilian courts;
  • consistently and strictly enforce the Leahy Provision. Security force units against whom there is credible evidence of human rights violations, including the aiding and abetting of paramilitary groups, should be disqualified for receipt of U.S. security assistance or training until effective measures are taken to investigate and punish violations. Effective measures must be more than the simple transfer out of a unit of the implicated individual. To satisfy the Leahy Provision, that individual must face an investigation and possible prosecution in civilian courts;
  • apply the Leahy Provision to all intelligence-sharing to ensure that intelligence is not shared with or received from Colombian security force units that abuse human rights or passed to paramilitary groups that violate human rights;
  • require a section on the monitoring of country-specific human rights conditions and the application of the Leahy Provision in the State Department's annual report on human rights;
  • increase financial support for programs that strengthen human rights, including the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit and protection for human rights defenders. Funds should not be subject to any conditions and should be disbursed in a prompt and effective fashion even if security assistance is halted because Colombia has failed to meet human rights conditions;
  • appoint a full-time, civilian official in the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá whose duties are to oversee, administer, and ensure the prompt delivery of human rights assistance;
  • increase civilian staff and resources assigned to the U.S. Embassy and State Department to vet Colombian security force units for compliance with human rights conditions. Staff should be required to meet frequently with not only Colombian military and government sources of information, but also independent human rights groups, the church, and aid organizations. The goal must be to gather as much reliable information as possible about reported human rights violations;
  • review all visas granted to Colombian security force personnel and ensure that individuals against whom there is credible evidence of human rights abuse or support for paramilitary groups have their visas revoked or are denied visas to enter the United States;
  • include in all U.S. military advice and training detailed instruction regarding the obligation of all members of the military and security forces to uphold Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and Protocol II Additional to the Geneva Conventions, international agreements that provide rules for internal conflicts. Training should include hypothetical situations that reflect Colombian reality, including the presence of paramilitary groups. Students should be closely evaluated on their understanding and application of international humanitarian law. Specialists from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) should be invited to contribute to such training, and all existing training materials should be reviewed in coordination with ICRC representatives, the office of the Public Advocate, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Colombian Attorney General, and a representative of independent human rights groups to ensure that they reflect the highest standards of protection for human rights and international humanitarian law.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page