(This report covers the period January-December 1997)

Hundreds of people were killed by the security forces and paramilitary groups operating with their support or acquiescence. Many of the victims were tortured before being killed. Human rights activists were repeatedly threatened and attacked; at least 10 were killed. At least 140 people "disappeared". "Death squad"-style killings of people regarded as "disposable" continued in urban areas. Hundreds of people, including trade unionists, human rights defenders and social activists, were arrested and tried for political offences under procedures which fell short of international standards for fair trials. Armed opposition groups were responsible for numerous human rights abuses, including hundreds of deliberate and arbitrary killings and holding hundreds of hostages.

In March the UN Human Rights Committee issued a series of observations and recommendations which deplored the fact that gross and massive human rights violations continued to be committed in Colombia by members of the armed forces, the police, paramilitary and guerrilla groups. The Committee expressed deep concern about continued widespread impunity and about evidence that paramilitary groups received support from members of the military. It also considered that the legalization of armed vigilante groups known as Convivir would further aggravate the human rights situation. The Committee's recommendations included: that members of the armed forces and police accused of human rights abuses should be tried by independent civilian courts and suspended from active duties during the period of investigation; that support given by military personnel or security forces to paramilitary groups and operations should be investigated and punished; and that immediate steps should be taken to disband paramilitary groups

In November the Constitutional Court ruled that the establishment of civilian vigilante associations was constitutional. The Court, however, warned that the Convivir should not be allowed to act as "death squads" nor to violate human rights. The Court ordered the Convivir to relinquish weapons whose use was legally restricted to the military which had previously been issued to them by the government

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights established an office in Colombia in April, with a mandate to assist the Colombian authorities to develop policies and programs for the promotion and protection of human rights, to observe violations of human rights in the country and to submit analytical reports to the High Commissioner.

In August Colombia acceded to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at abolition of the death penalty.

In September the government presented to Congress a draft bill to reform the Military Penal Code. The bill introduced important modifications to the Code including the specific exclusion from the military justice system of crimes not directly related to military service, including "torture, genocide, forced disappearance and any other crime which constitutes a serious human rights violation". Congress gave the bill preliminary approval in December. In November the government presented to Congress a draft bill which would incorporate the crime of forced disappearance into the Penal Code. The bill establishes long prison sentences for the crimes of "disappearance", "genocide", physical or psychological torture and forming paramilitary organizations or "death squads"

There were renewed hopes for a peace process following the release in May of 60 soldiers captured by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (farc), Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, in an attack on a military base in Caquetá in August 1996. Ten marines captured by the farc in Chocó department in January were released at the same time. However, government proposals to reactivate negotiations were rejected by the armed opposition and the long-running armed conflict continued to spread and intensify, particularly in the months preceding municipal and regional elections in October. In April the main armed opposition groups, the farc and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (eln), National Liberation Army, announced their intention to sabotage the elections and launched a campaign of intimidation and attacks against electoral candidates designed to force their resignation. The national paramilitary organization Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (auc), United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia, threatened and killed candidates they believed to be guerrilla sympathizers. Over 40 mayoral and council candidates were killed by armed opposition and paramilitary organizations, and over 200 were kidnapped by the farc and the eln and held for days or, in some cases, weeks. Most were released unharmed but hundreds of candidates resigned. Two election monitors from the Organization of American States and a human rights official of the Antioquia regional government were among those kidnapped by the eln. They were released after 10 days

The principal victims of the spiralling conflict continued to be civilians, mostly peasant farmers living in areas whose control was disputed between the armed forces and their paramilitary allies, and armed opposition groups. The regions most affected included the departments of Antioquia, Bolivar and Cesar in the northwest, Chocó department in the west and Meta department in the east. Although the number of extrajudicial executions directly attributable to the armed forces continued to decline from previous years, there was a severe escalation in serious human rights violations carried out by paramilitary forces acting with their tacit or active support. Hundreds of civilians were extrajudicially executed and scores "disappeared" as paramilitary forces continued their campaign of territorial expansion in the northwest. Increasingly, army-backed paramilitary forces employed a "scorched earth" strategy, burning entire villages and displacing the inhabitants

Over 200,000 people were displaced, principally from rural areas affected by the armed conflict. Most abandoned their homes after paramilitary attacks against their communities; others fled aerial bombardments by the armed forces or threats from armed opposition groups. Early in the year, the town of Ríosucio and surrounding villages in the north of Chocó department, near the Panamanian border, saw a massive displacement of civilians following sustained attacks by the paramilitary organization Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá (accu), Self-defence groups of Córdoba and Urabá, aerial bombardments by the army and reprisal killings by farc guerrillas. Several hundred refugees from Chocó department crossed the border into Panama, but were forcibly returned by the Panamanian Government, in collusion with the Colombian authorities, in breach of their international obligations. At least one returned refugee was later killed by paramilitaries

In an attempt to escape the conflict, some communities in the northwest declared themselves "peace communities" and declared their neutrality in the conflict. However, killings of members of "peace communities" by paramilitaries and the farc was reported throughout the year.

Scores of people were killed in July when the accu launched an offensive in farc-controlled southeastern Colombia. Up to 30 civilians were tortured and killed during a five-day paramilitary incursion in the village of Mapiripán on the borders of Meta and Guaviare departments. In October the Procurator General opened disciplinary investigations against four military officers, including the commander of the army's 7th Brigade, for "negligence". Evidence had emerged that the paramilitary forces had passed freely through a military controlled airstrip, and that the army had failed to respond to repeated calls for help from authorities in the village during the attack. accu leader Carlos Castaño Gil announced in September that his forces would commit "many more Mapiripanes". In October another auc paramilitary front, the self-styled Contraguerrilla Llanera, attacked and killed 11 members of a judicial commission and its security force escort in San Carlos de Guaroa, Meta department. Several others were seriously injured in the attack. In November accu forces launched attacks on farc strongholds throughout the country, in which civilians were targeted and killed. In response to the massacres, in which at least 60 civilians died, the government announced the creation of a "special search unit" to combat the paramilitary organizations. However, by the end of the year little progress had been made in capturing and bringing to justice those responsible for the massacres. In December the Attorney General announced that there were 180 outstanding arrest warrants against paramilitary leaders

Human rights defenders continued to face harassment, intimidation and violent assaults. At least 10 were killed. In May human rights and environmental activists Elsa Alvarado and Carlos Mario Calderón were shot dead by gunmen who broke into their home in the capital, Bogotá. Elsa Alvarado's father, Carlos Alvarado, was also killed and her mother seriously injured. Mario Calderón and Elsa Alvarado, both university professors, worked for the Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular (cinep), Centre for Research and Popular Education. In October, four people were charged in connection with the killings

Several members of cinep and other independent human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, received repeated death threats. In July President Samper issued a directive recognizing the legitimacy of the work of human rights organizations and ordering national and regional authorities and the armed forces to cooperate with human rights defenders and to refrain from making statements of a threatening nature. Attacks against human rights defenders, however, continued throughout the year and little progress was made in most cases in identifying those responsible.

The killing of so-called "disposables" by police-backed "death squads" and urban militias linked to armed opposition groups continued in many cities and towns. Victims included vagrants, drug dealers and suspected delinquents. In May, three detainees – Juan Carlos Herrera, Fabián Gómez and Andrés Escobar – were abducted from the Valle de Lili juvenile detention centre in Cali, Valle del Cauca department, by heavily armed and hooded men. The three youths were forced into a car which was later found abandoned. Their whereabouts remained unknown. In May 1995, three detainees abducted from the Valle de Lili Centre in similar circumstances were later found shot dead. Two former police officers and two former Valle de Lili Centre employees were under investigation for the 1995 killings (see Amnesty International Report 1996).

At least 140 people "disappeared" after detention by the security forces or paramilitary groups. Trade union leader Ramón Osorio Beltrán "disappeared" in April in Medellín when he was seized, together with his young son, by heavily armed men. The boy was later released but the whereabouts of his father remained unknown. Ramón Osorio, a leader of the Agricultural Workers Trade Union and a member of the Colombian Communist Party, had been arrested in January together with four other people, and released in February because of irregularities in the arrest procedure

Hundreds of members of human rights and social organizations and trade unionists were tried by the specialist regional justice system where procedures fell short of international fair trial standards

In the vast majority of cases, those responsible for extrajudicial executions, "disappearance" and torture were not brought to justice. Military tribunals investigating abuses by army personnel persistently failed to hold those responsible accountable. In July, then army commander General Manuel Bonett Locarno acquitted retired army general Farouk Yanine Díaz on charges (originally brought by the civilian justice system) of creating paramilitary groups responsible for widespread human rights abuses. The Procurator General appealed to the Superior Military Tribunal to overturn the acquittal because the ruling had failed to take into account the evidence against Yanine Díaz. No decision had been announced by the end of the year

In a landmark ruling issued in August, the Constitutional Court defined the limitations of military jurisdiction over crimes committed by military personnel. The Court concluded that human rights violations such as "disappearance", torture, murder and rape cannot be considered "acts of service" and should, therefore, fall within the jurisdiction of the civilian justice system. Commenting on the ruling, General Bonett said that the military jurisdiction was the "lifebelt" of the military and that "if society sends us to fight it has to give us legal protection".

In June paramilitary leader Fidel Castaño Gil was convicted and sentenced, in absentia, to 30 years' imprisonment for the "disappearance" and murder of 43 men from Pueblo Bello, Urabá, in 1990 (see previous Amnesty International Reports). Eleven members of Fidel Castaño's paramilitary organization were also convicted for the massacre, but only two were in custody. Fidel Castaño remained at large

In September paramilitary chief Carlos Castaño (brother of Fidel Castaño) was charged with the murder of Senator Manuel Cepeda Vargas in 1994. Two army sergeants had been charged in 1996 in connection with the murder (see Amnesty International Reports 1995 and 1997). Carlos Castaño was not arrested and continued operating freely in heavily militarized areas of the country

Armed opposition groups were responsible for numerous violations of humanitarian law, including hundreds of deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians. In addition to politicians and electoral candidates (see above), victims included members of indigenous communities. Between July and September at least 20 members of the Koreguaje indigenous community were killed in the communities of El Cuerazo, San Luis and Aguas Negras, Caquetá department, reportedly by farc guerrillas. In October, two members of the Emberá Katio indigenous community of Aguas Claras, municipality of Mutatá in Antioquia department, were also killed by farc members. Father and son Mario and David Domicó were dragged from a meeting and shot dead. Several other members of the Emberá Katio communities were killed by the accu.

farc guerrillas were also reportedly responsible for the killing of at least three members of the "peace community" of San José de Apartadó. Luis Fernando Espinoza, Fernando Aguirre and Ramiro Correa, were killed in October by members of farc's 58 Front allegedly in reprisal for the community's refusal to sell food to the farc. Thirty other members of the community were killed by accu paramilitaries after the community declared itself a neutral "peace community" in March

In August the eln abducted and killed Liberal Party Senator Jorge Cristo Shaiun in Cúcuta, Norte de Santander department. A unit of the eln reportedly accepted responsibility for the murder and threatened to kill other political figures in North Santander. In September, five men were arrested and charged in connection with the killing of Senator Cristo

Eleven-year-old twins Santiago Andres and Mario Alejandro López were killed in June when the eln dynamited their parents' farmhouse in La Unión, Antioquia department

At least 600 people were kidnapped and held hostage, principally by the farc and the eln. In addition to politicians and international observers, victims included landowners, business people and their relatives, judicial officials and journalists. Most were released alive, in some cases after months or years in captivity. Others were killed when ransom demands were not met or during rescue attempts by the security forces.

Amnesty International raised its concerns about Colombia at the UN Commission on Human Rights. These were addressed in a statement by the Chairman of the Commission which, while welcoming the opening of an office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, expressed deep concern at the persistence of thousands of violations of the right to life

In October Amnesty International published a report, Colombia's internally displaced: Dispossessed and exiled in their own land, which documented the growing problem of civilians displaced by the armed conflict

Amnesty International repeatedly called on the authorities to take steps to end widespread human rights violations, to disband paramilitary forces, to protect human rights defenders and to bring those responsible for abuses to justice. Amnesty International condemned abuses committed by armed opposition groups and called for the release of people held hostage. The organization urged all parties to the conflict to observe basic humanitarian standards

This 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.