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In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a $1.3 billion aid package for Andean countries engaged in fighting drugs. Most of it was military assistance to Colombia, the beginning of what came to be known as "Plan Colombia," a dramatic increase in U.S. military funding to that country. In the final package, the U.S. Congress included human rights conditions that require clear and convincing progress by Colombia's government in several areas: the suspension of members of the security forces credibly alleged to have committed abuses; progress in the prosecution of human rights crimes; and actions to break links between the security forces and paramilitaries and arrest and prosecute known paramilitaries and their leaders.63

Recognizing that Colombia's ability to meet these human rights conditions would largely depend on the effective functioning of the Human Rights Unit, Congress included $25 million dollars in aid to support the work of the unit and establish satellite offices throughout the country. This aid was placed under the control of the U.S. Department of Justice, which divided it into two parts: $7 million to expand the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit by creating eleven satellite offices outside of Bogotá, and training for prosecutors and investigators; and $18 million for forensics equipment meant to improve the ability of the Attorney General's Office to process fingerprint, ballistics, DNA, and digital imaging evidence. An additional $300,000 went for travel expenses for prosecutors working on human rights cases.64

In its 2002 conference report, the U.S. Congress rebuked Justice Department officials for failing to consult with them before spending aid meant to address the Human Rights Unit's emergency needs on highly sophisticated forensics equipment. This equipment was not compatible with other equipment already used by Colombian police and, as of June 2002, two years after being sent, it was still not in operation.65 While arguably useful, forensic equipment failed to "address this unit's priority needs of security, mobility and communications equipment for prosecutors, in particular for those prosecutors based in secondary cities and outlying regions," the U.S. Congress noted.66

As of June 2002, all eleven units were established and included prosecutors and investigators in Medellín, Cali, Bucaramanga, Villavicencio, Neiva, Barranquilla, and Cúcuta. The units also received computers, desks, fax machines, radios, and mobile equipment to carry out exhumations.67 This equipment has proven useful in investigating important cases, such as Bojayá massacre on May 1, 2002, in which FARC-EP guerrillas launched a gas cylinder bomb that landed on a Catholic church filled with refugees, killing 119 civilians.68

Unfortunately, the obstacles facing prosecutors in the Human Rights Unit's satellite offices remain daunting. In a visit to the new satellite office in Medellín (which covers six departments),69 prosecutors described a crushing case load, few resources, poor equipment, no travel funds, and constant stress associated with investigating some of Colombia's most dangerous criminals. Even a case as notorious as the Bojayá massacre was difficult for prosecutors to address. International media arrived within twenty-four hours of the attack. Without independent transportation and adequate security, it took prosecutors ten days. As one prosecutor, who requested anonymity noted, "I feel powerless...we have to ask the army to transport us in the helicopter, and if we travel that way, people see us land in the army base and are then afraid to talk to us. In ten days, there is plenty of time to clean up and eliminate evidence."70

U.S. Marshalls are also working with the Attorney General's Office to improve the security given to employees as well as threatened witnesses. During a June 2002 visit to Colombia, Human Rights Watch was told that Colombia was due to receive sixty armored vehicles destined for threatened prosecutors and investigators, particularly those assigned to the new satellite offices. "We are trying to keep the prosecutors on the job," said Paul Vaky, regional director for Latin America in the Justice Department's Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development Assistance and Training (OPDAT). "Otherwise, we let the bad guys win." 71

But keeping these prosecutors on the job may require more than armored cars and forensic equipment. U.S. funding was meant to strengthen human rights prosecutions, now largely blocked by the attorney general. As long as the political will to pursue these cases is absent, no amount of money, training, or equipment will improve the institution's record. Until Colombia's leaders can assure the U.S. government that Colombian prosecutors are autonomous and can pursue promising investigations without fear for their lives or careers, assistance will be largely wasted.

In addition, most of the funding for the satellite offices comes from the United States, and it is unclear whether the attorney general will keep them operating without additional U.S. help.72 The State Department has proposed an additional $10 million for the Human Rights Unit for the FY 2003 budget, pending at this writing.73

63 The press often mistakenly reports that the total package to Colombia included $1.3 billion in assistance. That was the total given to several Andean countries. Of that amount, Colombia received $860 million, of which three-quarters was spent on military and police assistance. Less than three percent went to the Human Rights Unit. See Congressional Record, June 29, 2000, pp. 5527-5530. The document is available at

64 "SUBJECT: POST COMMENTS ON Human Rights Watch SIXTH DIVISION REPORT ON MILITARY PARAMILITARY TIES," US Embassy-Bogotá, received by Human Rights Watch on June 24, 2002.

65 Human Rights Watch interview with Mary Lee Warren, Deputy Assistant Attorney General,

Criminal Division, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., May 30, 2002.

66 Conference report on H.R. 2506, the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill, 2002.

67 Human Rights Watch interview with Paul Vaky, regional director for Latin America, Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development Assistance and Training (OPDAT), U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., May 30, 2002.

68 Human Rights Watch has protested international humanitarian law violations by guerrillas, including the use of gas cylinder bombs. Human Rights Watch, "FARC Must Stop Use of Gas Cylinder Bombs," May 8, 2002. Our letter to FARC-EP commander Manuel Marulanda is available at http://www.Human Rights

69 The six departments covered by the Medellín office are Antioquia, Caldas, Chocó, Córdoba, Risaralda, and Sucre.

70 Human Rights Watch interview with prosecutor, June 26, 2002.

71 Human Rights Watch interview with Paul Vaky.

72 The Human Rights Unit also receives funding from several European countries, among them Holland and Sweden.

73 The Human Rights Unit received no additional U.S. funds in the FY 2002. International Narcotics and Law Enforcement: FY 2003 Budget Justification, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Department of State, May 2002. This document is available at

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