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Human Rights Watch World Report 2002 - Colombia

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 17 January 2002
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 2002 - Colombia , 17 January 2002, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3c46e92a1a.html [accessed 19 September 2014]
Comments This report is Human Rights Watch's twelfth annual review of human rights practices around the globe. It addresses developments in sixty-six countries, covering the period from November 2000 through November 2001. Most chapters examine significant human rights developments in a particular country; the response of global actors, such as the European Union, Japan, the United States, the United Nations, and various regional organizations; and the freedom of local human rights defenders to conduct their work. Other chapters address important thematic concerns.
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

Negotiations between the government and leftist guerrillas reached an impasse in 2001 as both sides traded accusations of bad faith and broken promises. Political violence increased for the second consecutive year and became increasingly urban, with clashes and selective killings occurring in cities. Colombians continued to flee their homes and even their country in record numbers, facing hunger, the elements, and disease in desperate efforts to save themselves and their families.

In the first ten months of the year, the office of the Public Advocate (Defensoría del Pueblo) recorded ninety-two massacres, which they defined as the killing of three or more people at the same place and at the same time. Most were linked to paramilitary groups, followed by guerrillas. Both paramilitaries and guerrillas reportedly moved with ease throughout the country, including via helicopter.

One of the year's worst massacres occurred on January 17, in Chengue, Sucre. Witnesses told government investigators that several Colombian navy units looked the other way as heavily armed paramilitaries traveled past them to the village. Paramilitaries assembled villagers in two groups, the Washington Post later reported. "Then, one by one, they killed the men by crushing their heads with heavy stones and a sledgehammer. When it was over, twenty-four men lay dead in pools of blood. Two more were found later in shallow graves. As the troops left, they set fire to the village."

The authorities subsequently arrested Navy Sergeant Rubén Darío Rojas and charged him with supplying weapons to paramilitaries and helping coordinate the attack. Colombia's Internal Affairs agency (Procuraduría) filed disciplinary charges against Navy Brig. Gen. Rodrigo Quiñones and five other security force officers for allegedly ignoring detailed information received in advance about paramilitary movements near Chengue. At the time, Quiñones was the commander of the first Naval Brigade. Despite the charges, he was later promoted to the post of navy chief of staff.

As the Chengue case showed, certain military units and police detachments continued to promote, work with, support, profit from, and tolerate paramilitary groups, treating them as a force allied to and compatible with their own. At their most brazen, these relationships involved active coordination during military operations between government and paramilitary units; communication via radios, cellular telephones, and beepers; the sharing of intelligence, including the names of suspected guerrilla collaborators; the sharing of fighters, including active-duty soldiers serving in paramilitary units and paramilitary commanders lodging on military bases; the sharing of vehicles, including army trucks used to transport paramilitary fighters; coordination of army roadblocks, which routinely let heavily-armed paramilitary fighters pass; and payments made from paramilitaries to military officers for their support.

Overall, President Andrés Pastrana and his defense ministers failed to take effective action to establish control over the security forces and break their persistent ties to paramilitary groups. Even as President Pastrana publicly deplored atrocities, the high-ranking officers he commanded failed to take steps necessary to prevent killings by suspending security force members suspected of abuses, ensuring that their cases were handed over to civilian judicial authorities for investigation and prosecution, and pursuing and arresting paramilitary leaders.

Paramilitaries allied under the umbrella United Self Defense Group of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) expanded their radius of action and troop strength in 2001. In June, AUC commander Carlos Castaño announced that he had relinquished military leadership and dedicated himself to organizing its political wing. Since 1996, the group had grown by over 560 percent, according to Castaño, who claimed a force of over 11,000 fighters. In some situations, as with the temporary seizure of a community of displaced people in Esperanza en Dios and Nueva Vida, Chocó, paramilitaries reportedly operated with as many as eight hundred troops at a time. Large concentrations of paramilitaries were rarely challenged by the Colombian security forces.

Over a period of a week in early July, in the town of Peque, Antioquia, over five hundred armed and uniformed paramilitaries blockaded roads, occupied municipal buildings, looted, cut all outside communication, and prevented food and medicines from being shipped in, according to the Public Advocate's office. Over 5,000 Colombians were forced to flee. When the paramilitaries left, church workers counted at least nine dead and another ten people "disappeared," several of them children. As a local official said: "The state abandoned us. This was a massacre foretold. We alerted the regional government the paramilitaries were coming and they didn't send help."

During much of 2000, the AUC paid monthly salaries to local army and police officials based on rank in the department of Putumayo, where U.S.-funded and trained counternarcotics battalions were deployed. In the state of Cauca, soldiers moonlighting as paramilitaries earned up to $500 per month. These salaries far exceeded the average Colombian's monthly income.

Mayors, municipal officials, governors, human rights groups, the Public Advocate's office and even some police detachments regularly informed the appropriate authorities about credible threats by paramilitaries or even massacres that were taking place. An early warning system paid for by the United States and administered by the office of the Public Advocate registered twenty separate warnings nationwide between June, when the system began to function, and September. But rarely did the government take effective action to prevent atrocities. Of the warnings that were received, eleven incidents resulted either in killings being committed or the continued, pronounced presence of armed groups that threatened civilians.

Paramilitaries were linked to the murders of Colombians working to foster peace, among them three congressmen. On June 2, armed men believed to be paramilitaries seized Kimy Pernia Domicó, a leader of the Emberá-Katío community in the department of Córdoba, who remained "disappeared" at this writing. Three weeks after he was abducted, another Emberá-Katío leader who had been active in calls for Domicó's release was abducted by presumed paramilitaries and later killed. As these killings showed, certain groups faced special risks, among them indigenous groups, trade unionists, journalists, human rights defenders, and peace advocates.

The security forces were also directly implicated in abuses. In May, it was revealed that a combined police-army unit had illegally tapped over 2,000 telephone lines in the city of Medellín, many belonging to nongovernmental and human rights groups. The police officer who apparently helped place the taps was killed in April in circumstances that remained unclear.

Prosecutors implicated a former Colombian army major and an active duty police captain along with Carlos Castaño in the December 21, 2000, attack on trade union leader Wilson Borja, who was seriously wounded. In the first ten months of 2001, 125 trade unionists were murdered according to the Central Workers Union (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, CUT), which represents most Colombian unions.

With the stated goal of furthering peace talks, the government continued to allow the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP) to maintain control over a Switzerland-sized area in southern Colombia. During the year, the two sides agreed on a prisoner exchange that led to the release of 364 captured members of the police and military forces, and fourteen imprisoned FARC-EP members. Several freed officers reported that FARC-EP guerrillas abused them during captivity. Colombian National Police (CNP) Col. Álvaro León Acosta, captured on April 5, 2000, suffered from serious ailments and excruciating pain stemming from an untreated back injury. Other captives reported jungle diseases, including malaria, fungi, constant diarrhea because of contaminated water, and leishmaniasis, which can be fatal if untreated. Guerrillas never allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or other independent groups to visit captured combatants, dozens of whom remained in the group's custody.

Criticism of the FARC-EP intensified as evidence mounted that the group used its area of control not only to warehouse prisoners and kidnaped civilians, but also to plan and mount attacks, including assaults that caused civilian casualties. The FARC-EP frequently used indiscriminate weapons, specifically gas cylinder bombs.

The FARC-EP continued to kill civilians throughout Colombia, with human rights groups reporting 197 such killings in the first ten months of the year. Among the victims was former culture minister Consuelo Araújo Noguera, abducted by the FARC-EP on September 24. The wife of Colombia's Internal Affairs director, Araújo Noguera was apparently executed by guerrillas during a Colombian army rescue attempt. Other victims included Paez leader Cristóbal Secué Escué, a former president of the Cauca Indigenous Regional Council (Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca, CRIC), who was shot on June 25 near his home in Corinto, Cauca. The FARC-EP accused Paez communities of forming "civic guards" that were like paramilitary groups, a charge indigenous leaders denied. Secué was, at the time of the killing, serving as a judge investigating several alleged murders by FARC-EP guerrillas.

Kidnaping remained a source of income and political pressure for the FARC-EP. In July, the group carried out its first mass kidnaping from an apartment building, seizing sixteen people after blowing the doors off a residence in Neiva, Huila. Among those kidnaped were children as young as five years old. Six people were later released.

After Human Rights Watch wrote to FARC-EP leader Manuel Marulanda to protest these violations, he dismissed the letter as "Yankee interventionism, disguised as a humanitarian action."

For its part, the Camilist Union-National Liberation Army (Unión Camilista-Ejército de Liberación Nacional, UC-ELN) violated international humanitarian law by launching indiscriminate attacks and committing kidnapings. After the government suspended talks with the group on August 7, the UC-ELN set off a series of car and package bombs in the department of Antioquia, including the city of Medellín, killing passers-by and destroying electrical towers and public buses. Two weeks earlier, over fifteen UC-ELN guerrillas died when bombs they were placing along a road exploded in the truck carrying them.

There were some advances on accountability, principally by the office of the attorney general under the direction of Alfonso Gómez Méndez, who completed his four-year term in July. On May 25, prosecutors seized valuable information related to paramilitary financing networks and communications in the city of Montería, Córdoba, long considered an AUC stronghold. During the raid, prosecutors searched the home of Salvatore Mancuso, a Montería native who was said to be the AUC's military commander. In part, the investigation focused on how landowners and business people in the region donated heavily to the AUC.

The attorney general's office also pursued important cases involving laws of war violations, among them the murder in December 29, 2000, of Congressman Diego Turbay and six others outside Florencia, Caquetá. The massacre took place as Turbay, chair of the Peace Commission in Colombia's House of Representatives, and his companions were headed toward a meeting with guerrilla leaders in Los Pozos. The FARC-EP denied committing this massacre, but the attorney general opened a formal investigation of alleged guerrillas based on testimonies of captured gunmen and other evidence.

New Attorney General Luis Osorio set a disturbing precedent when he forced the resignation of the director of the Human Rights Unit, the former director of the Human Rights Unit, and the former head of the Technical Investigations Unit (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigaciones, CTI) during his first hours in office. This change in leadership and the message it sent threatened to reverse or hamper important investigations and led to a slowdown or suspension of important cases, including the Chengue massacre.

Osorio objected to the unit's decision to order the July 23 arrest of Gen. (ret.) Rito Alejo del Río for his alleged support of paramilitary groups while in command of the army's Seventeenth Brigade in Carepa, Antioquia, between 1995 and 1997. Del Río was among the officers dismissed from the army by President Pastrana because of his poor human rights record. Also, the United States canceled his visa to the United States because of his alleged involvement in acts of terrorism and drug trafficking.

The Security and National Defense Law that President Pastrana signed on August 13 threatened to reinforce impunity for human rights abuses. The law gave the security forces judicial police powers under certain circumstances and severely restricted the ability of civilian investigators to initiate disciplinary investigations against security force personnel for human rights violations committed during operations. Also, the law limited the obligation of the armed forces to inform judicial authorities about the detention of suspects, increasing the risk of torture.

Since the president signed a new military penal code in 2000 that allowed military commanders to dismiss subordinates implicated in a wide range of crime, the Defense Ministry claimed that over five hundred people had been removed from the service. However, the government provided no information indicating the reason for the dismissals, which could range from incompetence to involvement in human rights crimes. In addition, there was no evidence that any of these individuals subsequently faced criminal investigations for human rights violations. Meanwhile, officers charged with abuses remained on active duty and in charge of groups in the field.

The Colombian government also argued that it arrested hundreds of paramilitaries and dismissed their military supporters. However, arrests were mainly of low-ranking individuals, some of whom were speedily released.

Landmines were a threat to civilians throughout Colombia. According to the Colombian army and independent landmine monitors, the total number of landmines in Colombia was estimated at 130,000. Deaths and injuries resulting from their use were up sharply. Through mid-July 2001, the Colombian Campaign Against Land Mines recorded eighty-eight people killed or maimed by landmines, mostly farmers and their children. Colombia has signed but not yet ratified the 1999 Ottawa Convention banning the use, stockpiling, and export of landmines.

Forced displacement continued to increase, with at least 300,000 Colombians reported displaced in 2001, the highest number ever in a single year. Increasingly, Colombians applied for exit visas to travel abroad and applied for political asylum in other countries.

Kofi Asomani, the United Nations special coordinator on internal displacement of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, visited Colombia in August and concluded that the conflict had "catastrophic consequences" for the civilian population. Despite government programs meant to assist the displaced, Asomani found that they continued to suffer extreme hardship, living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions with limited access to basic services.

Defending Human Rights

Colombia continued to be an extremely dangerous place for human rights defenders as well as for government investigators handling human rights and international humanitarian law investigations. In the first ten months of 2001, eleven defenders were killed according to the CCJ.

Among the victims was lawyer Alma Rosa Jaramillo Lafourie, who worked with the Middle Magdalena Development and Peace Program (Programa de Desarrollo y Paz del Magdalena Medio, PDPMM). Seized by presumed paramilitaries in Morales, in the department of Bolívar, on June 29, locals found her body two days later dumped in a rural area. According to associates, Jaramillo was tortured before being executed. Another PDPMM colleague, Eduardo Estrada, was murdered in similar circumstances on July 18 in the town of San Pablo, Bolívar. Colombia's Pacific coast was also dangerous. On September 19, armed men shot and killed Roman Catholic nun and human rights defender Yolanda Cerón Delgado in front of a church in Tumaco, Nariño.

Paramilitaries intensified an announced campaign to murder prosecutors and investigators of cases that implicated paramilitary leaders. During 2001, seven government investigators were murdered by alleged paramilitary gunmen. Among them were the three investigators who worked most closely on the investigation of the Chengue massacre. Several key witnesses to important cases were also killed while in government custody or while in the process of supplying information to prosecutors. The office in Colombia of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) called these killings "a systematic campaign of retaliation and intimidation" by those seeking "total impunity for the most serious crimes committed in the country."

Human rights defenders were among the main targets of the paramilitary advance in Barrancabermeja that began in December 2000. Members of the Regional Committee for the Defense of Human Rights and the Popular Women's Organization (Organización Femenina Popular, OFP) received multiple death threats by telephone and in person, and paramilitaries destroyed a house they used to hold events. "The paramilitaries are not just killing us physically, they are also killing our ability to organize, to be community leaders," said Yolanda Becerra, OFP president. "We have been forced to shut down projects outside the city, because the paramilitaries have banned us from traveling by river."

Some government offices attempted to protect threatened defenders, supplying bodyguards, bulletproof reinforcement for offices, and an emergency response network operated by handheld radios. The CNP Human Rights office and the Interior Ministry, in particular, took steps to protect defenders and to investigate specific allegations of police collaboration with paramilitary groups. The Interior Ministry provided protection or relocation assistance to 747 people between May and mid-September of 2001.

In many instances, however, government response was slow, nonexistent, or abusive. For example, the commander of the Barrancabermeja-based CNP, Col. José Miguel Villar Jiménez, attacked human rights groups by claiming that they had their "origin in [guerrillas], which attempt to throw mud on the good work that is done constantly with reports and information that also has an echo in the different international Non-Governmental Organizations."

The Role of the International Community

The international community played a prominent role in efforts to resolve Colombia's conflict. France, Switzerland, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Norway, Spain, Italy, Canada, and Sweden agreed to meet every two weeks with the FARC-EP and act as "facilitator countries" for the peace process.

United Nations

The office of the UNHCHR continued to operate in Colombia, despite poor cooperation from Colombian government officials. As High Commissioner Mary Robinson noted in the office's annual report, "the overwhelming majority of Governmental responses to Office communications about specific cases and situations (such as early warnings) have been unsatisfactory, inoperative and purely bureaucratic." The end result, she emphasized, was that "the potential of the Office has been greatly underutilized by the Government."

Before announcing his departure at year's end, Jan Egeland, the special adviser on Colombia to the United Nations Secretary-General, frequently visited Colombia to assist in peace talks, but was prevented by the government from remaining in the country for more than eight days at a time.

Special representative of the secretary-general on human rights defenders, Hina Jilani, undertook a fact-finding mission to Colombia in October at the invitation of the Colombian government. It ended bitterly, after Jilani raised questions about the new Attorney General and his commitment to prosecuting cases involving high-ranking military officers.

European Union

Political relations with the European Union were strengthened in 2001. In March, E.U. Foreign Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten met with President Pastrana in Colombia. Shortly after, Patten announced a 3 million euro aid package in support of the displaced population and the launching of an Andean regional human rights program.

In July, the European Union expressed deep concern at mounting violence, in particular the holding up of a U.N. vehicle and the abduction of one it its Colombian occupants, former Meta department governor Alan Jara, as well as three German aid workers. The FARC-EP acknowledged abducting the workers in a communiqué. The incidents, the E.U. stated, "seriously jeopardize the peace process and openly flout elementary principles of international law." In October, one of the German hostages escaped and the remaining two were later released. Jara remained in FARC-EP custody as of this writing.

Spanish authorities detained Carlos Arturo Marulanda, the former Colombian ambassador to the European Union, on charges that he supported paramilitary groups that killed and threatened farmers in the department of Cesar. A Colombian judge ordered the arrest after receiving information that allegedly linked the diplomat directly to paramilitary support. Marulanda remained in Spain at this writing awaiting the outcome of extradition hearings.

United States

The United States continued to focus on the aerial eradication of drug-producing crops and was increasingly and publicly skeptical of the peace process. U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker charged in August that the FARC-EP was "misusing the demilitarized zone to abuse prisoners, engage in narcotics trafficking and, for example, reportedly receive training from the Irish Republican Army," referring to three Irish nationals charged in Colombia in August with helping train guerrillas. At the same time, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson made several important public statements in support of human rights.

Despite such concerns, the United States remained Colombia's largest foreign donor. It also increased military aid to Colombia's neighbors, in an effort to strengthen border controls against both armed groups and trafficking.

In March, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced to the U.S. Congress that he would seek another $400 million for Colombia for fiscal year (FY) 2002, roughly equivalent to the amount Colombia received in 2000 and in 2001. At this writing, the legislation contained human rights conditions and no waiver authority, meaning that Colombia would have to show concrete progress in breaking ties between the security forces and paramilitaries in order to receive aid. A day before his planned visit to Colombia, suspended after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Secretary Powell also announced that the United States had put the AUC on the administration's list of terrorist groups, along with the FARC-EP and UC-ELN, allowing U.S. officials to suspend the U.S.-based accounts of people who contributed to the group.

Between 1998 and 2001, eleven Colombian Army units were vetted for human rights problems and approved to receive U.S. security assistance. In addition, all CNP counternarcotics units, the Colombian Air Force, the Colombian Navy, and the Colombian Marines were cleared to receive U.S. assistance.

Although human rights continued to be cited as an important policy concern, the U.S. violated the spirit of its own laws and in some cases downplayed evidence of ties between the Colombian armed forces and paramilitary groups in order to continue funding abusive units. Compelling evidence emerged, in particular, of ties between paramilitaries and Colombian military units deployed in the U.S. antinarcotics campaign in southern Colombia, showing that U.S.-vetted, -funded, and -trained troops were mixing freely with units that maintained close ties with paramilitaries.

This occurred in the case of the First and Second Counternarcotics Battalions. On their first joint deployment in December 2000, these battalions depended heavily on the army's Twenty-Fourth Brigade for support and logistical assistance, particularly with regard to intelligence, civic-military outreach, and psychological operations. Yet there was abundant and credible evidence to show that the Twenty-Fourth Brigade regularly worked with and supported paramilitary groups in the department of Putumayo. Indeed, the Twenty-Fourth Brigade hosted counternarcotics battalion troops at its facilities in La Hormiga – a town where, according to witnesses, paramilitaries and Colombian Army troops were indistinguishable.

The application of human rights conditions proved inconsistent if a unit was considered key to U.S. strategy, with embassy officials openly acknowledging that they applied conditions in a subjective manner. In certain cases, if a unit was considered important enough to drug war objectives, the U.S. circumvented its own human rights law to continue funding and training it.

One example was Combat Air Command No. 1 (Comando Aéreo de Combate No. 1), part of the Colombian Air Force. The State Department did not suspend this unit from receiving security assistance despite credible evidence that one of its helicopter crews committed a serious violation in the village of Santo Domingo, near Arauca, in 1998, by bombing a house where civilians had taken shelter. At the time of this writing, almost three years after the incident, no military personnel had been effectively investigated or disciplined for an attack that killed seven children and eleven adults. Throughout, Combat Air Command No. 1 continued to be authorized to receive U.S. security assistance and training.

A report prepared by the U.S. General Accounting Office concluded that farmers displaced by the U.S.-funded anti-drug campaign received little assistance beyond the first ninety days of their displacement. Under the U.S. aid plan, U.S. $37 million was set aside to deal with displaced persons, particularly those affected by eradication efforts in the south of Colombia.

The United States took some positive steps with regard to human rights in Colombia. The foreign aid bill approved by the U.S. Congress for FY 2002 contained strong human rights conditions on security assistance with no waiver authority, a clear improvement over previous legislation. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) made grants to seven human rights groups in Colombia totaling over $575,000. USAID also contributed assistance to 176,000 people forcibly displaced by aerial eradication and political violence and supported a $2.5 million program for ex-combatant children. However, proposed aid for the attorney general's Human Rights Unit was diverted to buy expensive equipment that only marginally benefited this office, which continued to face serious problems in getting prosecutors to the sites of crimes and providing them with even minimal protection. In 2000 and the first three months of 2001 – a fifteen-month period – the attorney general's Human Rights Unit and advisers from the Internal Affairs agency received only U.S. $65,763 from USAID. That worked out to less than the average amount of U.S. military assistance spent in Colombia in two hours of a single day.

The annual country report on human rights issued by the State Department accurately reflected the situation in Colombia, giving a detailed and grim picture of abuses. As importantly, U.S. Amb. Anne Patterson began a long-overdue policy of speaking out on the human rights situation and expressing concern over specific cases. Her timely telephone call to the army commander of a Barrancabermeja battalion in December 2000 was a critical factor in spurring the Colombian authorities to act to address the paramilitary advance. She also publicly supported the UNHCHR in Colombia, speaking out on the importance of their work at critical moments.

Relevant Human Rights Watch Reports:

The "Sixth Division": Military-Paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia, 9/01

Beyond Negotiation: International Humanitarian Law and its Application to the Conduct of the FARC-EP, 8/01

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