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Human Rights Watch World Report 1996 - Colombia

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1996
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1996 - Colombia, 1 January 1996, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8a24.html [accessed 21 December 2014]
Comments This report covers events of 1995
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Human Rights Developments

Dogged by mounting evidence linking his campaign to drug money, and spurned by some guerrillas and members of the army who opposed his peace initiative, in 1995 President Ernesto Samper implemented authoritarian measures to govern Colombia. Although the president repeatedly promised to respect human rights and significantly expanded the country's human rights bureaucracy, the contrast sharpened between the government's sophisticated rhetoric in support of human rights and its meager accomplishments. Extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, reports of torture, evidence of paramilitary groups operating with the assistance and tolerance of the security forces, and impunity for security force members implicated in human rights crimes continued. Guerrillas also shared blame for Colombia's dire record, murdering, kidnaping, and attacking civilians as a method of combat, in violation of international humanitarian law.

In August, Samper exercised his constitutional authority to declare a state of "internal commotion." Like the states of siege used to rule Colombia for most of its history in this century, the declaration gave him the power to suspend fundamental rights and created a climate of fear. Human Rights Watch/Americas was particularly troubled by the government's intention to lower the age at which children could be tried as adults from eighteen to fourteen, in violation of Colombia's obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Although the decree was struck down in October by the Constitutional Court, Samper declared a new state of internal commotion after the November 2 assassination of political leader Alvaro Gómez Hurtado. The executive also supported legislators who planned to codify into law emergency measures that would violate certain human rights, like the right to due process and freedom from unwarranted search and seizure.

According to the Andean Commission of Jurists-Colombian Section (Comisión Andina de Juristas-Seccional Colombiana, CAJ-SC), ten civilians a day fell victim to political violence. Of those killings where a perpetrator was known, 65 percent corresponded to government security forces while 35 percent corresponded to guerrillas. The Intercongregational Commission on Justice and Peace (Comisión Intercongregacional de Justicia y Paz), a human rights group, indicated that ninety-six people were forcibly "disappeared" between January and September. Another 121 fell victim to so-called "social cleansing" killings, mostly indigents, homeless persons, and street children.

A March report to Congress by the public ombudsman termed the marked rise in complaints of human rights violations to his office "chilling" and described the government's response as "apathetic." Most complaints that the ombudsman had received in 1994 involved the military, followed by police. "It is undeniable," the report noted, "that a profound impunity favors the perpetrators of these crimes through silence, indulgence, group solidarity, and cover-ups." The ombudsman said guerrillas continued to violate international humanitarian law, "completely ignoring the distinction between combatants and noncombatants."

Violence by all sides continued to spur forced displacement. A report by the Colombian Episcopal Conference published in late 1994 concluded that over 586,000 people had been forcibly displaced since 1985, 2 percent of the country's population. In 1995, forced displacement was especially acute in the city of Necoclí, in the banana-growing region known as Urabá, where local authorities registered a population increase of approximately 7,800 people between February and April, almost all rural families fleeing political violence.

Paramilitary groups expanded their area of operation in 1995, following a purported November 1994 "paramilitary summit," and appeared to be mounting a nationally coordinated offensive against Colombians deemed subversive or sympathetic to guerrillas. The paramilitary advance was particularly marked in the departments of Cesar, Norte de Santander, Bolívar, Meta, and region known as the Magdalena Medio, where they operated with the tolerance and often open support of the security forces. In the town of San Alberto, Cesar, nineteen people were killed in the month of April, most by men identifying themselves as members of Peasant Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (Autodefensas de los Campesinos de Colombia, ACC). In areas like San Vicente de Chucurí, department of Santander, paramilitaries unhindered by local police or military openly charged local merchants a war tax.

The Colombian government accepted the binding nature of Protocol II Additional to the Geneva Conventions, which means that the parties involved in an internal conflict, including the government forces, would be bound by its precepts. Nevertheless, the government continued to violate international humanitarian law. The public ombudsman's office documented one particularly flagrant incident, in which soldiers belonging to the army's Bomboná Battalion simulated a guerrilla attack in the town of Segovia, department of Antioquia, after guerrillas successfully stole a dynamite shipment on March 3. Soldiers executed a guerrilla captured hours later, killed a civilian with a grenade, wounded four children, and fired on civilian dwellings, including an elementary school, to fabricate guerrilla-army cross fire.

Although guerrillas repeatedly called on the government to respect human rights, their own record was seriously compromised by a series of massacres and kidnapings. According to press investigations, in March, in Ituango, department of Antioquia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) killed several residents, including a four-year-old girl and three prisoners in the local jail. In September, the FARC apparently massacred twenty-six people, including two children, less than a quarter-mile from a military base in Urabá. The Camilist Union-National Liberation Army (Unión Camilista-Ejército de Liberación Nacional, UC-ELN) also carried out executions. In Saravena, department of Arauca, for example, community leaders accused the UC-ELN of killing seven girls, all minors, who had befriended local soldiers, a clear violation on the prohibition against the murder of noncombatants. The UC-ELN continued to use mines in civilian areas, although it expressed its willingness to negotiate with the government on limiting their use.

Kidnaping remained a prime source of income for guerrillas, who, according to police, captured 304 people in the first seven months of 1995, 52 percent of the total number of kidnapings reported. Victims included businesspeople, educators, government officials, journalists, landowners, a Venezuelan mayor, and five American missionaries. Two of those missionaries, Steve Welsh and Timothy Van Dyke, were kidnaped in early 1994 and apparently executed by their FARC captors near Medina, department of Cundinamarca, on June 19, 1995.

Among the areas most devastated by political violence was Urabá, on Colombia's Caribbean shore. During 1995, hundreds fell victim to political violence or fled the region out of fear for their lives, including civic leaders, trade unionists, farmers, banana workers, and indigenous leaders. Five massacres took place there in August alone, two of which local leaders blamed on paramilitaries believed to be working with the security forces, local landowners, and businesspeople. The Popular Alternative Commands (Comandos de Alternativa Popular), a self-proclaimed group of former guerrillas and others pledged to wiping out subversion, claimed responsibility for the August 12 massacre of eighteen unarmed people at the Aracatazo bar in Chigorodó.

Other massacres occurred in the context of clashes between guerrillas of the FARC, guerrillas of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL), and former guerrillas who had laid down their arms and become part of the political party Hope, Peace, and Liberty (Esperanza, Paz y Libertad). In March, the party released a report saying that 274 of its 3,000 members had been murdered since it was formed four years ago. Most were victims of EPL guerrillas who had refused the government amnesty. On August 29, guerrillas believed to belong to the FARC stopped a truck near Carepa, department of Antioquia, selected sixteen members of the party, and bound and executed them.

In this generally bleak panorama, there were some advances for human rights. On January 31, President Samper accepted a report that concluded that government forces were responsible for the killings and forced disappearance of at least thirty-four people in and around the town of Trujillo, department of Valle, in 1990. Subsequently, Fernando Bolero, then the defense minister, discharged Lt. Col. Alirio Urueña, implicated in the killings, over the unanimous objections of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A joint government-NGO commission was created to monitor the government's compliance with its promises to prosecute and punish alleged perpetrators of the Trujillo killings, continue the investigation, and negotiate compensation to surviving family members. In September, a committee composed of government and non-government representatives was set up to study three additional cases before the IACHR. In October, the government formed a special unit to advance criminal investigations of members of paramilitary groups implicated in serious human rights violations.

Nonetheless, government action to end impunity remained scarce. In a February report to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the U.N. special rapporteurs for extrajudicial executions and torture concluded that, even though Colombia's human rights situation was "alarming," the government had failed to implement most of their previous recommendations. On August 18, the U.N. Subcommission for the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities approved a declaration of concern about human rights violations in Colombia.

Colombia's civilian and military court systems contributed to the violation of human rights during 1995. The public order courts, used to prosecute individuals charged with rebellion and drug trafficking, violated the right to due process. Tried before secret judges and prosecutors, suspects were prevented from knowing the identities of the witnesses used against them and were subjected to prolonged pre-trial detention. Colombia's Congress voted to maintain the system until 1999 however.

Military tribunals continued systematically to cover up human rights crimes and absolve the military and police officers involved, using the broad categories of "acts of service" and "due obedience" to place crimes like murder, rape, and torture within their jurisdiction. In a case in which former navy intelligence officers in Barrancabermeja, department of Santander, accused Col. Rodrigo Quiñonez of ordering the murders of dozens of trade unionists, human rights activists, and local leaders, military courts absolved him of any wrongdoing, while a public order court issued warrants for the arrests of the officers who accused him.

In 1995, the government began to study reforms to the military justice system. One set of proposed reforms suggested major changes to protect human rights, while another set would maintain most current military court characteristics, including the power to handle cases involving extrajudicial execution, forced disappearance, and torture. Human Rights Watch/Americas was troubled by President Samper's support for the latter initiative, which continued the tradition of Colombian governments winking at impunity. As if to underscore its defiance of governmental human rights investigators, the Defense Ministry decorated Army Brig. Gen. Alvaro Hernán Velandia Hurtado, commander of the Cali-based Third Brigade, for "distinguished service," just one month after the attorney general's office ordered the officer discharged for his role in the forced disappearance of captured guerrilla Nydia Erika Bautista in 1990. After widespread protest by human rights groups, General Velandia was formally dismissed. In an October speech, Samper termed allegations that the security forces committed human rights violations as "without foundation, presented by their enemies," and vowed to defend military jurisdiction. A proposal to reform the constitution, supported by the executive and before Congress at this writing, would reassign active-duty officers to military tribunals, a practice struck down by the Constitutional Court.

The Right to Monitor

Local human rights monitors, including members of civic associations, unions, and religious groups, continued to play an important role in gathering and disseminating information on human rights and pressuring the authorities for change. As in previous years, however, this work put monitors at serious risk, especially those who lived and worked in Colombia's smaller cities and towns.

At least three human rights monitors were murdered during 1995. Ernesto Fernández Fester, a teacher, trade unionist, human rights activist, and founding member of the Pailitas Movement for Civic-Community Integration, was killed on February 20 by armed men who had been linked to several earlier killings of peasant and civic leaders around Pailitas, department of Cesar. Javier Barriga Vergel, a lawyer who defended Colombians accused of rebellion, was shot and killed in Cúcuta, department of Norte de Santander, on June 16. Barriga was a member of the Bogotá-based Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos, CSPP). Humberto Peña Taylor, a law student at Bogotá's National University who took part in a free legal clinic for poor Colombians, was hunted down and killed by two armed men who entered the university campus on June 15, apparently with the collusion of university security personnel. When fellow law student Gabriel Riaño Prieto, a member of a university human rights group, later led a campaign to press for an investigation of Peña's killing, he received telephone death threats.

Several human rights monitoring groups disbanded, or members fled, after being attacked or threatened. The Ocaña-based Human Rights Team closed its doors in early 1995, and the Civic Committee for Human Rights abandoned its offices in Villavicencio in April. Bogotá-based lawyer Luis Pérez, a member of the "José Restrepo Alvear" Collective Lawyers Association (Corporación Colectivo de Abogados "José Restrepo Alvear,") was forced to leave the country with his family after harassment and repeated threats. In May, Miguel Olaya Pabón, a member of the Pailitas Movement, was threatened by three soldiers and a civilian army informer.

The Regional Association for the Defense of Human Rights (Corporación Regional para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, CREDHOS) was the target of repeated telephone death threats and harassment by men traveling in unmarked vehicles, believed to be connected to the security forces. In April, two CREDHOS members were part of an international delegation including Human Rights Watch that was reportedly the target of a failed assassination attempt near Sabana de Torres, department of Santander.

On August 4, three members of MINGA, a Bogotá-based human rights organization, were arrested in Aguachica, department of Cesar, by members of the Anti-kidnaping and Extortion Unit (Unidad Anti-Secuestro y Extorsión, UNASE), who kept them for several hours in an effort to harass them and instill fear. Two weeks after their return to Bogotá, MINGA received a telephone death threat."

Aida Abella Esquivel, the president of the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica, UP) also reported that she was a target of harassment by unidentified men believed to work for the security forces since they operated with the unmarked cars and communications equipment used by police.

U.S. Policy

The drug war dominated relations between the U.S. and Colombia, with traded accusations and mistrust prevailing. Human rights issues received low priority in diplomatic and public exchanges between the two countries. In a brief March visit, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor John Shattuck met with government officials and human rights groups and praised Colombia for recent advances. He did not balance his statements with a more detailed review of how the government failed to address serious human rights problems.

Joined by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms Secretary of State Warren Christopher and other administration officials threatened not to certify Colombia for continued aid and loans based on what they characterized as a poor drug-fighting performance. A bitter diplomatic exchange peaked in March, when the State Department issued a "conditional" certification with a national security waiver.

In 1995, U.S. embassy personnel conducted reviews of the human rights records of Colombian security force personnel scheduled to receive U.S. training. The U.S. military held two human rights training sessions for Colombian officers and a session for field commanders. However, the United States did not screen Colombian diplomats for their human rights records. For example, only widespread protest convinced Colombia in August to withdraw retired army colonel Luis Plazas Vegas as its San Francisco consul general. Government inquiries had uncovered links between Plazas Vega and paramilitary groups in the departments of Meta and Cundinamarca. Plazas Vega was also suspected of having ordered the forcible disappearance of an M-19 guerrilla after that group's assault on the Palace of Justice in 1985.

Units within the security forces continue to receive U.S. aid, yet the officers in charge were not screened, a necessary complement to any serious end-use monitoring. In 1994, most aid went to police. However, a significant amount of aid from previous years remained in the hands of the military, including M16 rifles, M60 grenade launchers, radios, ammunition, and vehicles. Among those that received U.S. aid were army units engaged in systematic human rights violations, including the Cali-based Third Brigade and Mobile Brigade I, headquartered in La Uribe, department of Meta. In his annual report to Congress, Colombia's public ombudsman singled out Mobile Brigade I commander Brig. Gen. Néstor Ramírez Mejía as an officer who tolerated human rights violations and had refused to cooperate with official investigations of the troops under his command.

In contrast to earlier years, aid to Colombia in the proposed budget for fiscal year 1996 sought to consolidate all funding into a single counternarcotics account, with $35 million requested, continuing an upward trend. About half of those funds, $15 million, were destined for the military, while most of the balance went to police, despite what Human Rights Watch/Americas believed were serious human rights concerns that merited the suspension of aid.

The United States also continued to offer "qualified support" for Colombia's six public order courts through a $36 million, six-year program funded by the Agency for International Development. Although Human Rights Watch/Americas research shows that these courts commit systematic violations of due process, U.S. government officials have termed them "acceptable."

In an improvement over previous years' reports, the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1994 avoided characterizing violations by state security agencies and guerrillas as equal, and accurately described the human rights situation as "critical." However, the report continues to downplay violations inherent in the public order courts.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Americas

Human Rights Watch/Americas sought to focus attention on institutionalized human rights problems in Colombia, such as those created by the civilian and military justice systems, impunity, and the government's failure to protect vulnerable sectors of the population from violence by state and private actors. We worked in Colombia and international fora, like the United Nations and the Organization of American States, to press the Colombian government to live up to its international human rights obligations. At the same time, we called on guerrillas to cease violating international humanitarian law.

During the year, we sent two missions and our representatives met with senior U.S. and Colombian officials as well as human rights groups, humanitarian organizations, and victims of abuses, raising our concerns along with concrete recommendations for change, including reforms to the military justice system, public order courts, and government support for investigations into human rights crimes.

We registered frequent protests with the Colombian government regarding human rights abuses. With the CAJ-SC and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), we represented victims of abuses before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in an effort to compel the government to accept responsibility for the actions of its agents.

We also continued to press the U.S. government, including the Congress, to publicly express its concern over human rights violations in Colombia. Given the importance to Colombia of the United States as a diplomatic and trade partner, Human Rights Watch/Americas considered this a crucial step to convincing the Colombian government to address the serious situation. Working closely with the Congressional Friends of Human Rights Monitors as well as individual congressional offices, we helped generate a series of letters to Colombian officials in defense of human rights monitors and trade unionists. Another facet of our work involved continuing efforts to foster greater accountability regarding the use of U.S. aid by the Colombian security forces.

At the U.N. we highlighted our concerns about human rights in Colombia in a written statement submitted to the Commission on Human Rights. Along with Colombian groups, we urged the Commission on Human Rights to appoint a special rapporteur for Colombia. This campaign continued at this writing, such that Colombia had become a leading issue at the commission.

After the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights sent a delegation to investigate the possibility of opening a permanent human rights office in Colombia, we joined with other human rights groups in recognizing the importance of the high commissioner's initiative and urging that any office opened in Colombia work in strict coordination with other U.N. human rights initiatives and not in their stead.

In June, we filed a petition with the U.S. trade representative requesting that Colombia's status be reviewed pursuant to section 502(b)(8) of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended. Our petition argued that attacks on trade unionists and the overwhelming impunity enjoyed by perpetrators, in many cases agents of the state, merited a suspension of Colombia's trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences. A Spanish translation of the petition was also released in Colombia. At the time of this writing, the petition was still pending.

In September, Human Rights Watch/Americas released a Spanish translation of Generation Under Fire: Children and Violence in Colombia, with a foreword by noted human rights leader Gustavo Gallón. The presentation was accompanied by a detailed letter to President Samper on human rights violations against children.

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