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Human Rights Watch World Report 1990 - Colombia

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1991
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1990 - Colombia, 1 January 1991, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca301b.html [accessed 21 December 2014]
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.

Events of 1990

Human Rights Developments

The human rights situation in Colombia took a turn for the worse in late 1989 and the first half of 1990. Contributing to the deterioration were the "war on drug trafficking" launched by President Virgilio Barco in September 1989 with enthusiastic support from the Bush administration, and the political passions aroused by the elections held in March and May 1990.

The specialized police units that conduct operations against the Medillín drug cartel engaged in serious human rights violations. In poor neighborhoods surrounding Medellín, they attacked the civilian population indiscriminately and kidnapped and murdered young people on mere suspicion of involvement in the drug trade. Suspects apprehended on drug trafficking charges or for extradition to the United States were frequently tortured and at times, according to credible allegations, disappearanced.

The operations against the drug cartel were met with a systematic campaign of terror launched against uniformed policemen, the press and certain high-ranking government officials. The drug traffickers were also responsible for indiscriminate terrorist attacks against airplanes and public places and they stepped up their attacks on judges and public prosecutors.

The campaign against drug trafficking overshadowed other forms of political violence that continued to plague Colombia. To a large degree, this other violence was neglected because the Barco government deliberately presented the problems of violence in Colombia as the sole responsibility of the Medellín cartel. Although the cartel played a substantial role in this violence, the government's exclusive focus on it ignored the significant role played by agents of the state in political violence.

The Colombian army stepped up counterinsurgency operations in many rural areas. In the conduct of aerial and ground sweeps, the military frequently fired indiscriminately against civilians and attacked suspected guerrilla positions in complete disregard for the attacker's obligation to minimize collateral harm to civilians. The armed forces also occupied areas and forced the displacement of peasant families without meeting their obligation to receive the war displaced in good care; displacement caused by war has become an increasingly volatile social problem in many areas of Colombia.

Violence by so-called paramilitary groups continued to be the country's most serious human rights problem. These gangs of armed civilians recruited by powerful economic interests were responsible for the largest number of both targeted and multiple killings. Some of the paramilitary squads evolved from "civil defense patrols" organized by the army since 1968. Although President Barco finally outlawed civil defense patrols in 1989, the army continued to organize them in war-stricken areas of the countryside, and force civilians to join them under penalty of being considered "subversive." Whether or not they call themselves "civil self-defense organizations," paramilitary groups are in effect the tool of landowners and other powerful interests in each region. In recent years, prominent members of the Medellín cartel have become the main financial supporters of some of the most active paramilitary gangs. Drug traffickers provided money, recruits, weapons and farms for use as training camps.

The crimes of paramilitary groups could not be committed without the support of well placed members of the Colombian army in the regions where they operate. High-ranking officers provided intelligence for the selection of targets, as well as protection from investigations and prosecution. Those officers often allowed the killers safe passage through heavily militarized areas and provided credentials and weapons permits to some of their members.

As political violence continued to mount, some segments in the Colombian government, including the three most recent Presidents, tried to put a stop to it. But efforts to investigate paramilitary crimes have been successful in only a handful of cases, and then only inisofar as those brought to justice were civilians and not members of the military. When inquiries into violent crimes led to evidence of complicity by army officers, the wheels of justice stopped under pressures from the army high command. While the Barco government's outlawing of self-defense association was an attempt to break this link between the army and paramilitary violence, the government preferred to ignore the vital aid provided directly to paramilitary groups by well placed army officers.

By insisting on blaming the Medellín cartel for all of the country's evils, the government also hurt its own campaign against political violence. Although the government had some temporary success in keeping the cartel leaders on the run, paramilitary violence – increasingly controlled and directed by powerful interests with attenuated links to drug trafficking – resumed.

Several guerrilla groups have committed systematic violations of the laws of war. Typical violations included the taking of hostages, generally to collect "war taxes" through their ransom, and the murder of civilians suspected of spying or membership in paramilitary groups. In 1990, the government succeeded in reaching a comprehensive peace agreement with the Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19) in which this former guerrilla group abandoned armed struggle and joined the political process as a new party. The initial success of the M-19 in 1990, beginning with a respectable placement in the congressional and mayoral elections in March and ending with a strong showing in the elections for an assembly to draft a new Constitution in December, has opened new opportunites for the government to negotiate peace agreements with the three larger guerrilla organizations.

There is also considerable support in Colombia for the proposition that, while fighting goes on, all sides must make strong commitments to respect fundamental rules of international humanitarian law. An important first step in this direction would be to expand the small role allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In particular, the government should give the ICRC access to all places of detention, including police precincts and military installations, as well as daily lists of those apprehended on security-related grounds. It should also allow the ICRC to develop a large relief program in war-torn areas of the countryside.

After the inauguration of César Gaviria as President in August, the level of violence seemed to decrease. Around that time, the drug kingpins, using their collective name "The Extraditables," offered a unilateral truce in their campaign of terror. In exchange, they requested an amnesty and assurances against extradition. The Gaviria administration vowed not to negotiate with the cartels, but it temporarily suspended extraditions and enacted a decree that grants reduced sentences and immunity from extradition to those who surrender voluntarily and provide evidence against their colleagues. In November, the Extraditables admitted holding several prominent journalists abducted in August and September, and offered to release them in exchange for further assurances for those kingpins who surrendered.

Guerrilla operations were also less numerous beginning in August, following gestures made by the various guerrilla organizations in support of peace negotiations with the new government. The expectations raised by the prospect of the Constituent Assembly that was elected on December 9 to draft a new Constitution also contributed to an atmosphere of reduced violence. For these reasons, the second half of 1990 through the December elections was marked by an important reduction in the number of serious incidents, at least in the major cities. In some rural areas, however, serious human rights violations against peasant communities continued to take place.

This lull in the fighting was broken with a major government offensive beginning at the time of the December 9 elections against the headquartes of the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The army offensive orverran the FARC jungle headquarters in Casa Verde, but the guerrillas retreated with their command structure intact. In response, FARC staged a series of bomb and gunfire attacks on police and army targets in several Colombian cities.

At the end of the year, a government spokesman once again declared that the door was open for FARC and another major guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), to join the peace process.

US Policy

The United States has not contributed to solving the human rights problems in Colombia. In fact, its public support for a "war" on the drug trade, as opposed to approaching it as a law enforcement problem, objectively contributed to the deterioration of the human rights situation. Drug-interdiction operations and arrests for extradition are perceived in Colombia as spurred by a keen US interest in curbing the flow of drugs. This fact, when coupled with the Bush administration's unwillingness to speak out against human rights violations by government forces in Colombia, means that the US government must share in the responsibility for the escalation of abuses that has taken place in the context of drug interdiction.

The "Andean Initiative" announced by President Bush on September 5, 1989 was the dominant feature of US policy toward Colombia in 1990. Although one of the three stated goals of the initiative was the promotion of human rights in the Andean region, the focus of the initiative in 1990 was entirely on military solutions to the "drug war."

A survey of military assistance to Colombia in 1989 and 1990 reveals the extraordinary military commitment that the United States made to that country. In 1989, Colombia received $7.1 million in military assistance and $65 million in military equipment drawn from US Defense Department stocks. In 1990, Colombia received $71.2 million in military assistance (including $500,000 in military training) and an additional $15 million in military equipment from Defense Department stocks.

For future years, the Andean Initiative proposes large amounts in economic and development aid, but through the end of 1990 the emphasis was exclusively on military solutions. Indeed, Bush administration officials let it be known that economic aid to the Andean countries will be conditioned on "achieving results" in the interdiction program; it is clear, therefore, that Colombia, Peru and Bolivia can aspire to economic aid only if they follow the military prescription preferred by the US government.

The administration reluctantly accepted conditions set by Congress on the military and police aid flowing to Colombia as part of the International Narcotics Control Act (INCA) of 1989. Those conditions simply referred to the long-standing requirements of Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which prohibit military aid to be given to countries which engage in a gross and consistent pattern of human rights violations. However, the 1990 INCA contained stronger and more specific human rights language, including a call for significant progress in protecting internationally recognized human rights, particularly in:

ensuring that torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, incommunicado detention or detention without charges and trial, disappearances, and other flagrant denials of the right to life, liberty, or security of the person, are not practiced; permitting an unimpeded investigation of alleged violations of internationally recognized human rights, including providing access to places of detention, by appropriate international organizations (including nongovernmental organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross) or groups acting under the authority of the United Nations or the Organization of American States....

The President must also make a written determination that "the government of that country has effective control over police and military operations related to counternarcotics and counterinsurgency activities." While the human rights conditions are not as strong as originally proposed by Rep. Ted Weiss, they will help human rights monitors and interested Members of Congress pursue these human rights concerns.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has taken the position that the government of Colombia is not responsible for violations, and thus that it is eligible for this aid. US officials have been quick to repeat the Colombian government's line that blames all political violence on the Medellín cartel or the guerrillas.

As noted, however, the Colombian armed forces are engaged in a consistent pattern of abuse, through the complicity of many high-ranking officers in paramilitary crimes, through the direct commission of numerous acts of abuse against civilians in the course of counterinsurgency operations, and through the involvement of some uniformed agents in arbitrary arrest, torture, disappearances and murder of suspects. The army high command has done nothing to investigate and punish these deeds, and has obstructed the work of those who try to do so. The civilian authorities may be innocent of such crimes, but they have failed to break the circle of impunity erected by army generals. For that reason, Colombian armed and police forces should be ineligible for US military aid.

The argument is sometimes made that, to make those forces more responsible, the US needs to be actively engaged in their operations, that they need the incentive of US military training, weapons and assistance to respect human rights. In the view of Americas Watch, this argument misreads the clear letter and intent of the human rights legislation. As a condition of providing this aid, the administration must first show that Colombian security forces are not violating human rights, a standard that would be impossible to meet under current conditions. In addition, if the Bush administration has been using the massive influx of aid to do anything to nudge the Colombian military toward greater respect for human rights, no results were visible through the end of 1990. The result was not surprising since, whatever efforts at "quiet diplomacy" were being undertaken were being undercut by the administration's public stance of ignoring army abuses and blaming human rights violations on everyone else.

The administration has a duty to implement the clear human rights conditions set forth in the International Narcotics Control Acts of 1989 and 1990. Since it apparently intends to ignore those conditions, the appropriate committees of Congress should exercise oversight and demand information from the administration on how Colombia is meeting the minimal human rights standards set forth in US law. At the very least, Congress should require the administratipon to certify in detail how the Colombian government is working to end the human rights abuses by its forces. In addition, certain specific steps should be required, such as effective prosecutions of military personnel involved in paramilitary violence, access by the ICRC to timely information about arrests with immediate opportunities to conduct condifential interviews with those detained, and a full accounting on the fate and whereabouts of all disappeared persons.

The Bush administration has publicly pressed for military solutions to the drug trafficking problem even though the Colombian military made clear that it intended to use US aid for their preferred objective of combatting guerrillas. The administration was so interested in bringing the army into the fight that it was willing to overlook this misuse of funds. The result was that US funds were being used to wage a counterinsurgency war which for decades has been fought as a "dirty war."

A report by the House Government Operations Committee harshly criticized the US Drug Enforcement Administration for its failure to reduce coca cultivation and processing in Peru and Bolivia. The report praised Colombia as the only country in which some encouraging results had been obtained from interdiction, and pointed out that the success had been despite the absence of "Operation Snowcap"5 DEA agents in Colombia. The report also noted that the Colombia National Police were responsible for 90 percent of all drug seizures in Colombia, although it received only 16 percent of the initial $65 million in US military and police aid dispatched in September 1989.6 While Americas Watch has long objected to US funding of police forces with their own entrenched history of abuse, the House Committee report shows the futility of pumping million of dollars of aid to an army that is more intent on pursuing its abusive counterinsurgency efforts than in curbing drug trafficking.

The Colombian government has publicly urged the Bush administration to do its part in the war against drug trafficking, beyond pushing for military solutions on foreign soil. For example, Colombian authorities are interested in closer controls of banks that launder drug profits, controls on the export of chemicals used in the production of cocaine, and a ban on the export of automatic and assault weapons from the United States, which the drug cartels buy to arm their hit squads and paramilitary groups. President Bush gave some assurances along these lines at the "drug summit" held in Cartagena in December 1989, but no such steps had been taken by the end of 1990. Americas Watch supports the need for export controls on automatic and semi-automatic weapons, because the unhindered flow of arms from the US market to the drug cartels is having a devastating effect on the human rights situation in Colombia.

The Work of Americas Watch

In 1990, Americas Watch conducted two investigative missions to Colombia, one in May and one in October. In the course of the second visit, Americas Watch released its report, The "Drug War" in Colombia: The Neglected Tragedy of Political Violence. The report received considerable coverage in the Colombian press, including a lively debate about its findings and recommendations. During the May visit, an Americas Watch researcher traveled to the Magdalena Medio region, which is the site of intense counterinsurgency and paramilitary activity. In the city of Barrancabermeja, in Magdalena Medio, Americas Watch received direct testimony from witnesses and victims of violations by the army and paramilitary groups. Americas Watch also visited those who had been displaced from neighboring rural areas because of the conflict.

During the year, Americas Watch sought to inject its findings on Colombian human rights conditions into the debates in the US Congress on military and police aid to Colombia. In April, Americas Watch initiated a Congressional cable protesting the murder of Presidential candidate Bernardo Jaramillo, as well as the alarming increase in the number of attacks against members of his party, the Patriotic Union.

During the Congressional debate about drug policy, Americas Watch also pressed for the need to respect legislative conditions on the delivery of military and police aid. Americas Watch outlined specific steps that the Andean countries should take to show that they were in compliance with human rights conditions in US law and thus eligable to receive aid under INCA. Some of those steps were included as explicit conditions in the 1990 INCA, signed into law by President Bush on November 21.

On June 1, Americas Watch filed a formal complaint about persecution of labor unionists in Colombia with US Trade Representative (USTR) Carla Hills, urging her to investigate labor rights in Colombia to determine whether it remained eligible for trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). After a cursory examination, the USTR decided not to take up the petition for review.

Americas Watch also maintained close contact with Colombian authorities charged with carrying out human rights policy for Presidents Barco and Gaviria, in addition to engaging them in open debate in the Colombian press. As in other countries, Americas Watch made a special point of defending the right of Colombian human rights monitors to conduct their work free of harassment and persecution. On July 4, Alirio Pedraza, a lawyer with the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners, was abducted from the streets of Bogotá in front of many witnesses. Uniformed policemen who tried at first to intervene stopped after his captors showed them some official credentials. Pedraza has not been seen since, and Colombian authorities have denied holding him. Americas Watch is cooperating with the Andean Commission of Jurists-Colombian Section in pursuing this and several other cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States.


5 "Operation Snowcap" is a program to eradicate coca crops and cocaine-processing facilities in Peru and Bolivia.

6 Stopping the Flood of Cocaine with Operation Snowcap: Is it Working?, Thirteenth Report by the House Committee on Government Operations (together with Additional Views), Washington, D.C., August 1990.

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