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Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Colombia

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1997
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Colombia, 1 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8b138.html [accessed 11 July 2014]
Comments This report covers events of 1996
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

Turmoil continued in Colombia as President Ernesto Samper confronted mounting evidence that he approved of drug cartel donations to his presidential campaign. A vocal opposition, intense U.S. pressure to resign, and his own resolve to remain in office apparently led the president to adopt authoritarian measures and cede broad powers to the army to govern. The result was a direct assault on the 1991 Constitution and its fundamental guarantees, with nefarious implications for human rights.

President Samper's measures had little effect on political violence or human rights violations, which remained numerous. In the first six months of the year, an average of three people a day fell victim to political killings, which totaled 522. As a percentage of such cases, paramilitary violence rose in comparison to 1995.

New evidence emerged in 1996 showing that the military continued to promote paramilitaries and used them to collect intelligence and assassinate Colombians suspected of guerrilla ties. For example, in Segovia, in the department of Antioquia, a government investigation led to the arrest of a captain who eyewitnesses said escorted six paramilitaries flown in from Medellín to a military base on April 22, then killed fourteen people and injured fifteen.

For their part, guerrillas committed violations of international humanitarian law, including political killings, kidnappings, the use of landmines, and attacks on civilian targets, including public buses. In a single incident, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucio-narias de Colombia, FARC) militants were believed to have murdered eleven men on the Osaka Farm on February 14. The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) also reportedly detained and disarmed three policemen and a soldier at a roadblock in the department of Norte de Santander on January 24, then killed them, burning one of the bodies.

According to police, a majority of the kidnappings registered over the first nine months of 1996 were the work of guerrillas. Some victims had no part in the conflict but were noncombatants seized for ransom. Although the FARC leadership purported to have stopped kidnapping, the practice continued, albeit described as "a peace tax." For its part, the ELN called its kidnappings a "war tax on the wealthy."

During the first half of 1996, President Samper governed Colombia under a "state of internal commotion," invoked after the killing of Conservative leader Alvaro Gómez on November 2, 1995, and extended through August. Although the measure never produced the capture of Gómez's killers, its stated goal, it did suspend key rights, like freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. The military was also authorized to circumvent local civil authority and petition the executive directly to declare "special public order zones" where more rights were suspended, like free movement. By the end of May, over one-third of Colombia was a "special public order zone." The governor of the department of Guaviare publicly criticized the executive for failing to notify him that his state would be placed under de facto military rule. After the Constitutional Court overturned President Samper's August 1995 declaration of a state of internal commotion, its members were barraged with anonymous death threats. Subsequently, the court did not challenge the November declaration of a state of internal commotion, limiting its actions to instead striking down a few measures imposed in its wake. In what was considered a public rebuke, in July 1996 President Samper introduced to congress a constitutional reform bill that would bar the court from reviewing states of internal commotion in the future and eliminate time constraints on such declarations, making them indefinite.

President Samper's dependence on extraordinary measures demonstrated that, far from following through on his inaugural promise to defend rights, he was convinced that soldiers must be allowed to operate outside the rule of law to be effective. Another constitutional reform bill he introduced would convert emergency measures into permanent legislation, including one that would authorize the military to investigate all crimes even in non-emergency situations.

A pro-military coalition of forty senators also presented six bills seeking to reform the constitution to curtail rights, including the legalization of preventive detention without a warrant for up to seven days and a prohibition of civilian investigations of military officers implicated in crimes. It took only six months for legislators to overturn a 1995 Constitutional Court decision barring active-duty military officers from serving on military tribunals, virtually ensuring that their record of impunity would remain intact.

In a marked shift from previous years, President Samper sharply questioned the dedicated Colombians who took seriously their roles as rights monitors, including Public Ombudsman Jaime Córdoba, who declined to stand for a second term after Samper chastised him for failing to defend the president against charges of corruption. Córdoba had also opposed President Samper's promise to reintroduce the death penalty for the crime of kidnapping, which would violate Colombia's obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights, terming it "the coup de grace to his deteriorating policy of the defense of human rights."

All was not negative in 1996, however. Efforts to improve the human rights record of the National Police bore fruit. President Samper signed into law a measure obligating Colombia to honor recommendations made by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, including the payment of reparations in human rights cases. The office of the Attorney General (Fiscal de la Nación) conducted credible investigations, though they produced few tangible results. Of special interest was the work of the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit, which handled selected human rights and international humanitarian law cases. One investigation led to an arrest warrant for Gen. (Ret.) Farouk Yanine Díaz, a central figure in the army's support for and promotion of paramilitary groups in the 1980s. Eyewitnesses testified to prosecutors that as Second Division commander, General Yanine had paid paramilitaries to kill nineteen men, then supplied the gunmen with information used to locate and kill them. Yanine, who finished his career in 1992 as the second-in-command of the Colombian military, taught at the Inter-American Defense Board College, which operated under the auspices of the Organization of American States in Washington, until his return to Colombia to face charges in October.

General Harold Bedoya, who became commander of the joint chiefs of staff in October 1996, accused the Human Rights Unit of being "infiltrated by the guerrillas." President Samper echoed these charges, in one War College address vowing to "prevent [soldiers] from having to constantly appear before court to respond to unfounded charges...by other enemies instead of carrying out their duties for the benefit of the country."

As investigators, the Procuraduría, in charge of investigations against government officials and administrative sanctions, fared worse. Two successive heads of the Procuraduría faced criminal charges for corruption, and the offices of the delegate for human rights and special investigations were largely dismantled. Far from seeking to fortify the Procuraduría, pro-military senators proposed a constitutional reform to eliminate its jurisdiction over the military, thereby ensuring impunity.

The available evidence showed that impunity remained the norm for soldiers who committed human rights violations. Even as the military denied complicity, the institution almost always filed a colisión de competencia, a jurisdictional challenge, with Colombia's Superior Judicial Council (Consejo Superior de la Judicatura) to shift cases from civilian to military jurisdiction. There was a consensus among human rights groups in Colombia that the council unfairly favored the military in such disputes. In one 1996 case, the council ruled that military officers who provided arms and uniforms to paramilitaries who helped carry out the 1991 massacre of seventeen people near Los Uvos, in the department of Cauca, should be prosecuted by military tribunals since such equipment was provided as part of the officers' normal duty. In October, General Bedoya suggested amending the constitution to allow military trials for civilians accused of terrorism.

The military argued that its tribunals were tougher and more efficient than civilian courts, citing a high conviction rate. However, their accounting made no distinction between trials for military infractions – like insubordination – and human rights violations. According to the Procuraduría, most convictions corresponded to infractions while most acquittals corresponded to human rights violations.

In the past, President Samper had promised to reform the military justice system, and in 1995 he convoked a commission to study such changes. As of this writing, however, the commission's effort had yet to be translated into legislation. An effort to establish criminal penalties for the crime of forcible "disappearance" continued to languish.

Other government actions also contributed to disturbing attacks on rights. Despite criticism from within the judiciary, the only step taken to reform the public order courts, or "faceless" courts, created to prosecute drug traffickers and guerrillas, was to limit the use of anonymous witnesses to a case-by-case review. Using anonymous judges and with severe restrictions on the right to a defense, these courts continued to violate the right to fair trial. The Defense Ministry continued to promote so-called rural security cooperatives of wealthy ranchers and businessmen who secretly provided troops with intelligence and formed groups to defend their property despite these groups' similarity to outlawed paramilitary groups.

The government also sought to muzzle unfavorable press. After reporters filmed soldiers firing on Caquetá coca farmers during an August protest of a U.S.-backed eradication campaign, the state-run National Television Commission (Comisión Nacional de Televisión) banned televised reports based on anything but official sources. It also barred news programs from showing any images related to the protests "that reflect situations of extreme human suffering," a move widely interpreted as an attempt to stifle protest.

Over 750,000 Colombians were internally displaced because of political violence, the single largest group in Latin America. A national study in 1995 found that paramilitary violence was responsible for 32 percent of all forced flight, compared to 26 percent caused by guerrillas and 16 percent by the armed forces. The problem worsened during 1996. Although the government developed a plan to assist the displaced, as of this writing it had failed to allocate funds to it. Guerrillas routinely used forced displacement as a tool of war, demonstrating that neither side was yet willing to honor Protocol II Additional to the Geneva Conventions, ratified by the government in 1995.

The Right to Monitor

Human rights monitors continued to carry out courageous work despite attacks and threats. Among those who most forcefully spoke out was Pedro Malagón, a congressman from the department of Meta and a member of the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica, UP). On June 20, 1996, armed men shot and killed Malagón and his seventeen-year-old daughter in Villavicencio, Meta's capital. Previously, Malagón had reported that army intelligence agents had offered a bodyguard US$10,000 to facilitate his murder. Josué Giraldo, also a UP member and a founder of the Meta Civic Committee for Human Rights, was himself murdered in Villavicencio on October 13, after receiving numerous death threats. On January 11, armed men shot and killed community activist Sylvio Salazar as he left his Medellín office. Salazar had worked to stem violence between gangs, police, and guerrilla-backed militias.

Threats remained common, particularly for lawyers who defended Colombians accused of rebellion, the charge that corresponded to support for armed opposition groups. On February 28, Reynaldo Villalba Vargas, a member of the "José Alvear Restrepo" Lawyers' Collective, received a condolence card for a client, Margarita Arregoces, from a paramilitary group calling itself "Colombia Without Guerrillas" (Colombia Sin Guerrilla, COLSINGUE).

Human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations were also threatened for their work. Three groups working with families displaced by paramilitaries, including the National Association of Peasant Small-Holders/Unity and Reconstruction (Asociación Nacional de Usuarios Campesinos-Unidad y Reconstrucción, ANUC-UR), were described as "manipulated by the guerrillas" in an army report. In July, paramilitaries reportedly threatened ANUC-UR president Belén Torres.

Members of the Peace Brigades International based in Barrancabermeja also received threats from police and local paramilitaries. On June 13, a Peace Brigades member traveling by bus was apparently the target of paramilitaries who stopped public busses near Puerto Araujo. Armed men searching for "a foreigner" stopped the wrong bus, however, and the member was unhurt.

Human rights activists were often charged with slander by army officers. Although the courts rarely acted on these cases, including one filed by General Bedoya against Father Javier Giraldo, the director of the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intercongregacional de Justicia y Paz), the tactic was widely seen as an effort to silence critics.

Even international intervention – like the invocation of precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – resulted in more, not less danger for monitors. According to one respected Colombian human rights group, "Within Colombia, this procedure has resulted in more pressure and intimidation as well as the complete control of the activities [of the threatened person] through the only measures taken: the assignment of bodyguards."

The Role of the International Community

In March, at the meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Colombia successfully deflected efforts to increase international oversight of its human rights conditions through appointing a special rapporteur. However, sustained pressure by Colombian human rights groups and their international counterparts, including Human Rights Watch/Americas, obligated the government to agree to establish a permanent office in Colombia under the auspices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. As of this writing, the office had yet to begin its work; however, human rights groups were hopeful that it would serve as both a collector of information and a source of pressure on the government to honor Colombia's commitments under international agreements.

Several commissions created under the auspices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to study key cases, including the Trujillo massacre, failed to bear tangible fruit in 1996. In contrast, the Inter-American Court issued its first condemnation of Colombia ever on December 8, 1995, when it held the government responsible for the 1989 forced "disappearance" of Isidro Caballero and María del Carmen Santana. The only dissenting vote was Judge Rafael Nieto Navia, a Colombian, who argued that since the officer involved was suffering "mental difficulties" – an assertion unproved before any court – the state should be absolved of responsibility. The petitioners sought unsuccessfully to recuse Nieto from considering the case based on conflict of interest, since his son was the Colombian Defense Ministry's legal adviser for international affairs and cases like this one.

For the first time since the U.S. Congress adopted a "certification" process for countries that received anti-narcotics assistance, Colombia was "decertified" in March. In July, the Clinton administration stepped up pressure by revoking Samper's U.S. visa, and exchanges between the two countries were bitter. Nevertheless, the United States remained a key supporter of the Colombian security forces, and Colombia remained the hemisphere's top recipient of U.S. military aid, most of which went to the National Police for drug interdiction and eradication. The Pentagon estimated U.S.-Colombian arms deals at $84 million in Fiscal Year 1996 and $123 million in Fiscal Year 1997 – the highest level ever.

As U.S. campaign rhetoric turned to drugs, Congress approved the sale of lethal weaponry to Colombia's military, a troubling shift. In September hearings, Congress authorized up to twelve Black Hawk helicopters and twenty-two M-60 machine guns for shipment to the Colombian army even though, as administration officials noted, they sought no assurances that they not be used in the counterinsurgency operations where most human rights violations occurred. Indeed, the Colombian military had previously announced to the national press its intention to buy U.S. helicopters and launch a new offensive against guerrillas. Although past commercial arms deliveries amounted to less than $2 million per year, administration officials estimated that they could reach $35 million in Fiscal Year 1996 and $21 million in Fiscal Year 1997.

As of this writing, Human Rights Watch/Americas and the Human Rights Watch Arms Project were nearing completion of a report documenting the disturbing role played by the United States in Colombia's military-paramilitary partnership. Despite Colombia's disastrous human rights record, a U.S. Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) team worked closely with Colombian military officers on the 1991 intelligence reorganization, after which, in 1992 and 1993, dozens of people in and around the city of Barrancabermeja were killed because of their political activity. In addition, U.S. military authorities appeared to have turned a blind eye to abuses, even though they had acknowledged that training and weapons provided to Colombia for counter-narcotics purposes could be used in counterinsurgency operations where human rights violations might occur.

U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette offered support to the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit, a positive step. Likewise, the embassy met with international and Colombian human rights groups, an important message at a time when they faced threats and attacks. Within the embassy, a group vetted officers slated for U.S. training, disqualifying officers implicated in serious human rights abuses and thus sending an important message. The State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995 was widely considered an accurate portrayal of the situation, although Human Rights Watch/Americas criticized the report for imprecisely terming crimes committed by drug traffickers and guerrillas "human rights violations," rather than labeling them common crimes or, when appropriate, violations of the laws of war. We were aware of no public statements made by the ambassador or other U.S. embassy officials in support of human rights in Colombia in 1996.

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