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Human Rights Watch World Report 1994 - Colombia

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1994
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1994 - Colombia, 1 January 1994, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca7e5.html [accessed 2 September 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 1993

Human Rights Developments

A "macabre democratization" of violence is how Colombia's presidential human rights counselor Carlos Vicente de Roux described the predominant trend of 1993, referring to the appalling contempt for human life demonstrated by state forces, guerrilla groups, and drug mafias. In the first six months of 1993, an average of eleven people a day were killed or disappeared for political reasons: three in armed conflict, six in acts of outright repression, and one in "social cleansing." An average of one disappearance occurred every day, putting Colombia third in the world for disappearances.

Victims were a cross-section of Colombian society: peasants living in combat zones, leftists, trade unionists, human rights activists, ex-guerrillas who had laid down their weapons, prostitutes and other "social undesirables," soldiers, police, and combatants themselves. Human rights groups estimated that since the mid-1980s at least 300,000 Colombians had become internal refugees, forced to flee because of political violence. The refusal of both sides to respect the neutrality of the civilian population exacerbated suffering.

Yet the role of state agents and the paramilitary groups allied with them stood out. According to the Andean Commission of Jurists-Colombian Section (CAJ-SC), of the political murders in which a perpetrator could be identified in 1993, approximately 56 percent were committed by state agents, 12 percent by paramilitary groups allied with them, 25 percent by guerrillas, and 7 percent by private individuals and groups linked to drug-trafficking. Monitors noted an upswing in "social cleansing killings," particularly threats against street children. For instance, between May and September, twelve youths participating in a gang rehabilitation project sponsored by the Cali mayor's office were killed in circumstances that suggested the participation of the police.

This grim picture was challenged by a report issued in June by the Procuraduría, the oversight branch of government, which minimized abuses committed by the state in 1992. Although containingimportant information and a critical analysis of violations and impunity, the report tended to absolve the military high command, arguing that abuses were committed by middle-level officers acting independently. This claim was difficult to defend given the military's structure and mode of operation. Fifty-eight percent of the approximately 2,600 complaints involved the police. Of those, 60 percent resulted in punitive action. Of the 191 cases involving members of the military, however, only twenty-four resulted in disciplinary action. The Procuraduría attributed this to the "deep-rooted sense of [protecting] the institution... which results in a notable lack of solidarity with the investigator, unable to gather information quickly and in confidence because of cover-ups, complicity, or simply the silence of fellow officers."

Specialized army counterinsurgency units continued to commit massive human rights violations, including indiscriminate attacks, bombings, murder, torture, the destruction of property, and arbitrary detention and incarceration. For example, soldiers from Mobile Brigade II detained peasants Armando Pérez Arévalo and José Rodrigo Caro in Los Canelos, Bolívar, on July 2, accusing them of buying supplies for guerrillas. The next day, townspeople saw the pair in military custody, hooded, and dressed in fatigues. Two days later, a military helicopter brought their bodies to a nearby base; the military claimed they were "guerrillas killed in action."

Mobile brigades were also deployed against civilians engaged in peaceful protest. On September 14, Mobile Brigade II detained approximately 240 Segovia, Antioquia, residents participating in a civic strike, ostensibly to "prevent a disturbance." Held overnight with no shelter from rain, 238 were later released. Community leaders Héctor Múnera López and Joaquín Guillermo Vidales remained in incommunicado detention for several days.

Ties between the army and paramilitary groups remained strong. In November 1992, the Procuraduría issued formal charges against seven senior military officers for their illicit involvement with paramilitary groups in the Santander department. The highest-ranking officer indicted was Brig. Gen. Carlos Gil Colorado, former head of the Fifth Brigade and currently head of intelligence for the army general command.

Public complaints about police abuses reached a peak after a nine-year-old girl was raped and killed inside a Bogotá police station in February. (She was visiting her father, himself a police agent.) That month, the Procuraduría issued indictments against 150 members of the elite Anti-Kidnapping and Extortion Unit (UNASE), including eight police and four army officers, for kidnapping, torture, and disappearance. The Colombian press reported that kidnappers apprehended by UNASE were tortured to reveal the whereabouts of their victims. The kidnappers were then "disappeared" while the UNASE unit collected the ransom. In 1993 a governmental commission was formed to look into charges that members of UNASE, investigating the kidnapping of journalist Jaime Ardila, released in May, were involved with the army in the murder of Gregorio Nieves, an Arsario Indian, and the disappearance of eight others in April.

Three groups that looked into police abuses concluded that major reform was necessary. Perhaps most critical was the reportsubmitted jointly by the Attorney General, Human Rights Ombudsman, Procuraduría and General Comptroller's office (Controlaría General), which called for "demilitarization," an end to the concept of "due obedience" which allows subordinates to claim innocence on the grounds that they were acting on superior orders, and a review of the constitutional provision that police be judged by military courts. Although the police were reorganized in 1993, change fell far short of the kind that would stem the worst abuses.

For their part, guerrillas continued to commit egregious violations of the laws of war, including murder, kidnapping, and attacks on civilian targets like media outlets and public transportation. In July a dissident faction of the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) murdered seventy-year-old priest Javier Cirujano ostensibly in retribution for his role in negotiating an EPL demobilization in 1991. The dissident faction of the EPL continued to target former associates who accepted a government amnesty, particularly in the banana-growing region of Urabá. Guerrillas also killed police captives after disarming and torturing them, as in the case of five Department of Administrative Security officers captured near Tuluá, Cauca, in April. Among the most prominent victims of the guerrilla offensive known as "Black September" was former Conservative senator Faisal Mustafá, shot by the National Liberation Army (ELN) at a political rally in Sucre, Santander, on September 12. Through imprisoned spokesman Francisco Galán, held in a Bogotá jail, the ELN vowed to continue threatening and attacking politicians opposed to renewed peace talks.

Although guerrilla bombings of oil pipelines reportedly dropped significantly compared to 1992 – from twenty-four in the first six months of that year to three in the same period in 1993 – ecological damage was severe in areas where crude oil spilled into wetlands and rivers.

Impunity remained the principal obstacle to long-term improvement in human rights protection. Despite sometimes vigorous investigative and disciplinary activity by governmental authorities, those who committed abuses were rarely apprehended and punished. Americas Watch knew of few cases in which military courts had sentenced officers or soldiers for human rights abuses, and even fewer for which the punishment was commensurate with the crime. To the contrary, 1993 saw several setbacks for accountability. In April, three Procuraduría delegates, reviewing a case connecting three members of the Army's 10th Airborne Brigade to the 1988 massacre of twenty banana workers on the Honduras and La Negra plantations in Antioquia department, ordered a new inquiry, claiming that the initial investigation – which had resulted in dismissal orders – was poorly conducted and lacked rigorous evidence. Later, the Procuraduría declared the case closed on statute of limitations grounds. One of the officers, Lt. Col. Luis Felipe Becerra Bóhorquez, was implicated during 1993 in the October massacre of thirteen people in Riofrío, Valle, by soldiers under his command. According to an eyewitness, hooded soldiers burst into the Ladino family home, beat family members, raped young women, and then executed them.

In the Urabá case, as in others, Americas Watch noted many instances where the "lack of evidence" rationale was used by the military to clear its members. "Lack of evidence" was also cited in the 1993 acquittal of police and army officers implicated in the disappearance, torture, and murder of twenty-six people from the town of Trujillo, Valle, during 1990, in circumstances that suggested cooperation with local landowners and paramilitaries.

Although the Procuraduría issued charges against two police officers for the 1991 massacre of twenty Páez Indians at El Nilo, Cauca, in July 1993 the two policemen were acquitted, prompting a protest from Colombia's human rights ombudsman. Meanwhile, a parallel investigation by civilian authorities was marred by delays and laxity, including the release of a principal civilian suspect and allegations by court officials that denunciations of the massacre were a guerrilla "show" to defame police.

The record of the Procuraduría's Delegate office for the armed forces was particularly poor in 1993. Repeatedly, cases were shelved or resulted in the acquittal of the soldiers involved. Often decisions were based on cursory investigations, which failed to take into account the testimony of victims or eyewitnesses. When such testimony was included, it was frequently disregarded. Procuraduría delegate César Uribe Botero defended military court jurisdiction to European Community representatives by claiming that without it, "the decisions of ordinary judges could become a tool that destroys the bulwark of democracy, which is the military forces...The enemies of the Colombian democratic system will say that there have to be daily dismissals, in order to weaken the army and our pluralistic democracy."

Meanwhile, thousands of other Colombians were charged with terrorism and drug trafficking and brought before "public order" courts in circumstances that violated basic due process rights. These courts, created to protect members of the judiciary from murderous attacks by drug traffickers and insurgents, involved "faceless" judges whose identities had been concealed, as well as secret witnesses and evidence. There was mounting evidence, however, that the public order jurisdiction was being used to suppress nonviolent social protest and to imprison peasants living in areas where the guerrillas were active. Among the most serious misapplications of the public order jurisdiction in 1993 involved thirteen members of the state telecommunications union (Telecom), imprisoned for participating in a 1992 strike. Although the workers were originally charged with sabotage amounting to "terrorism," the case was transferred to the ordinary justice system later in the year and the workers provisionally released in early November. The Telecom case had been the subject of broad national and international protest.

A study by the CAJ-SC found that many other cases referred to the public order courts were based on unsubstantiated and unsigned "intelligence reports" provided by the security forces, or evidence that had been falsified; because evidence was kept secret, the defense could not object to its use in court. Often the very poor were being tried without legal representation. Americas Watch received numerous reports indicating that defendants often underwent brutal treatment at the hands of their captors, including prolonged incommunicado detention, torture, and death threats.Despite obvious injustices, the Constitutional Court upheld the public order jurisdiction in March.

In a ruling criticized by the Gaviria administration, the Constitutional Court declared on August 3 that detainees held for "public order" crimes could not be deprived of conditional liberty for more than six months. Rather than permit a release of the 1,600 to 2,000 prisoners affected, however, President César Gaviria issued an emergency decree giving judges an additional period of time to rule on the charges. A law subsequently passed by Congress limited the period of investigation to six months.

The "state of internal commotion" invoked by President Gaviria in November 1992, ostensibly to combat Colombia's approximately 7,000 guerrillas, was renewed three times at ninety-day intervals during 1993 and remained in effect through November. While a number of the approximately forty emergency measures imposed by the executive were overturned by the Constitutional Court, others, including the executive's power to suspend local officials who hold unauthorized talks with the guerrillas and a prohibition on live broadcasts of guerrilla actions or interviews with the insurgents, were upheld.

In 1993, the Gaviria government re-submitted to the Congress a bill to regulate states of exception, criticized strongly by human rights groups and the human rights ombudsman, who termed it a "veiled prolongation of the situation of juridical abnormality." Although the congress removed some objectionable provisions, others were allowed, among them the security forces' right to carry out searches, detentions, and interceptions of communications without judicial warrant. Limitations on individual freedom and enhanced powers to a military establishment already renowned for brutality posed dangerous threats to Colombian democracy.

In addition, Congress upheld restrictions on the media and granted the President the power to modify definitions of crimes and penalties, used in April to double the maximum sentence for terrorism from thirty to sixty years. Concentrating extraordinary powers in the executive, this provision could allow the President to redefine crimes such as "rebellion" to cover not only armed revolt but also a broad range of activities considered "subversive" by the government.

The climate of war made it difficult to renew peace negotiations with guerrillas, strongly opposed by leading military commanders. Tirso Vélez, a poet and mayor of Tibú, Norte de Santander, was investigated for possible ties with guerrillas at the behest of the army after publishing a poem calling for peace and understanding between insurgents and soldiers. A fitful dialogue between the government and the Socialist Renovation Current (CRS), a dissident faction of the ELN, was abruptly suspended in late September following the murder of two CRS spokespersons in circumstances that suggested official complicity.

Drug kingpin Pablo Escobar remained a fugitive despite repeated claims by the government that his capture was imminent. In an effort to intimidate his pursuers, Escobar apparently ordered the killings of scores of policemen and random bombings in urban areas, one of which took fifteen lives in Bogotá in April. In response, a group known as "People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar" (Pepes) claimed credit for the murder of several Escobar henchmen and five formerEscobar lawyers. Police in Medellín were also accused of carrying out random vengeance killings of young men in the city's poor slums, where the drug mafias recruited their irregular troops.

The Right to Monitor

Verbal and physical attacks on human rights monitors continued in 1993, born of the military's conviction that human rights advocacy equals subversion and the complete impunity for previous attacks on human rights activists. This attitude was encapsulated by a statement by Gen. Ramón Emilio Gil Bermúdez, Commander of the Military Forces, who described the activities of one Colombian human rights monitor in exile as part of an international campaign waged by guerrillas. General Harold Bedoya, commander of the army's Second Division, brought a charge of slander against the Permanent Committee for Human Rights and fifty other prominent human rights figures after the publication of an August communiqué calling for the release of trade unionists.

Four days before an April peace seminar he helped organize was scheduled to begin in Villavicencio, Meta, Delio Vargas, a human rights activist and coordinator of an association of internal refugees, was disappeared in circumstances that suggested the involvement of the security forces. The Regional Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (Credhos) in Barrancabermeja, Santander, continued to be the object of threats and harassment by the army's Nueva Granada Battalion.

Lawyers who prosecuted high-profile human rights cases or represented clients before the public order courts were also threatened. Rafael Barrios Mendivil, president of the "José Alvear Restrepo" Lawyers' Collective, was harassed and followed by members of the police, army, and state security agents and received numerous telephone death threats; he was counsel in the 1991 Los Uvos case involving the massacre of seventeen civilians, and in the El Nilo case involving the murder of twenty Páez Indians in December 1991. Dr. Eduardo Umaña Mendoza also received numerous telephone death threats after assuming the defense of the thirteen Telecom workers.

Guerrillas staged several attacks against journalists in 1993 for articles critical of guerrilla actions. In March, the ELN took responsibility for the murder of journalist and newspaper editor Eustorgio Colmenares, who had written about the guerrillas in the Cúcuta-based La Opinión newspaper. According to the newsweekly Semana, Colmenares was the hundredth journalist killed in four years of political violence and the first murdered by guerrillas. Journalist Jaime Ardila of El Espacio was kidnapped by guerrillas in April and remained in captivity for over a month.

U.S. Policy

Apart from the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, no public statements were made during 1993 by U.S. Embassy officials concerning human rights. Although the Colombia chapter of the Country Reports issued in January did affirm that the security forces were responsible, in 1992, "for significant numbers of abuses," the main culprits were said to be guerrillas and drug traffickers. In addition, the Colombia chapterclaimed that drug traffickers disseminated "false information about official human rights abuses," a claim that, while possibly true, did nothing to acknowledge or explain the high number of abuses by official forces documented by respected human rights groups.

The drug war continued to be the prime focus of U.S. policy, although the Clinton administration's strategy for narcotics control remained murky throughout the year. In what may mark a significant shift, the Defense Department's Congressional Presentation for Security Assistance Programs for fiscal year 1994 listed support for "counter-insurgency/counter-narcotics efforts" as the principal U.S. military assistance objective. Previously, the U.S. government had redirected resources away from the Colombian army to the police because the army was seen as uninterested in narcotics control efforts. Pentagon officials explained to Americas Watch that U.S. assistance programs were still dedicated to counter-narcotics purposes and not counterinsurgency. But the distinction may not be relevant given the Pentagon's assessment that Colombia's two largest guerrilla groups have "evolved into criminal organizations, heavily involved in narcotics trafficking."

Although it represented a decrease compared to 1992, Colombia received an estimated $28.2 million in grants and loans under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Education and Training (Imet) programs in fiscal year 1993, more than any other Latin American country. Colombia also continued to head the list of numbers of students trained under Imet, a distinction it had held since fiscal year 1984. In fiscal year 1994, Colombia was again slated to receive more military aid than any other Latin nation, $32 million in FMF and Imet, or about half of proposed U.S. military aid to all of Latin America. An additional $25 million was requested for narcotics control programs run by the State Department. According to the department, approximately three-fourths of the fiscal year 1993 and 1994 aid was destined for the police.

Human rights controls over the disbursement of aid continued to be lax or nonexistent. According to a U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) report in August, U.S. officials had not developed procedures to determine whether U.S. aid went to Colombian units involved in human rights abuses, and end-use monitoring of equipment was inadequate. Moreover, GAO investigators found two instances in which Colombian security force officers who had allegedly committed human rights abuses came from units that received U.S. aid.

The Agency for International Development, funding a six-year, $36-million program for judicial reform, pointed repeatedly to the high conviction rate of the public order courts as a sign of improvement in civilian control of drug trafficking and terrorism, downplaying or ignoring the serious violations of due process inherent in their operation as well as the misuse of the public order jurisdiction. In interviews with Americas Watch early in the year, U.S. Embassy officials insisted that public order courts were better on due process issues than ordinary courts, and defended the extension of their jurisdiction to cases such as that of the Telecom workers.

Out of growing concern for the human rights situation in Colombia, the U.S. Congress for the first time placed Colombia on the list of countries subject to special conditions for the disbursement of aid. Upon adopting conditionality, the Senate referred to a record "tarnished by continuing human rights abuses on a large scale" and expressed concern for the lack of access of the International Committee of the Red Cross to military and police detention facilities.

The Work of Americas Watch

Americas Watch expanded its focus on violations of the laws of war in Colombia, in view of the breakdown of the peace talks between the government and the insurgents and the sharp escalation of the war effort. A report on human rights violations committed by the Mobile Brigades, specialized counterinsurgency units, was due to be published in December, focusing on abuses by both the army and guerrillas. Research for this report led to a discovery of new cases of abuse in Colombia's public order court jurisdiction, which continued to be a central focus of investigation and advocacy. A Spanish translation of our 1992 report was released in March 1993, and rose to a place on Colombia's best-seller list.

Americas Watch registered frequent protests with Colombian government officials about the flood of human rights violations throughout the year. Together with the CAJ-SC and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), Americas Watch continued to represent past victims of abuses by pressing cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. One such case, the 1989 disappearance of rural teacher Isidro Caballero, came before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights during 1993, the first adversarial case against Colombia to be heard by that Court. Americas Watch representatives made two visits to Colombia during the year, meeting with Colombian and U.S. officials, human rights groups, and political and community leaders. In Washington, Americas Watch representatives focused on bringing Colombia's serious human rights situation to the attention of the U.S. Congress and pressed for human rights conditionally on U.S. aid. Americas Watch also participated in an ongoing dialogue with the Clinton administration and other human rights groups about U.S. funding for the public order courts.

Americas Watch invited Sister Nohemy Palencia, of the Civic Committee for Human Rights, in Meta, to be honored by Human Rights Watch at its observance of Human Rights Day, December 10.

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