Events of 1994

Human Rights Developments

After taking office in August, President Ernesto Samper affirmed that human rights in Colombia was "not a question of image, but reality." But while the actions of the Colombian government in 1994 bespoke an overriding concern for image, they resulted in little substantive progress in resolving chronic problems of political violence, "social cleansing," torture, and impunity. While President Samper did take some positive initial steps, like creating an office of human rights within the Defense Ministry, the record left by his predecessor, OAS General Secretary César Gaviria, was abysmal.

The clearest evidence of this was the presidential veto of the Disappearances Law, passed by Congress with the strong support of human rights groups, which reported forty-three unresolved disappearances in the first nine months of 1994.

Then-President Gaviria vetoed the bill on July 7, arguing that it was unconstitutional because it abolished military court jurisdiction over members of the security forces accused of carrying out disappearances and because it penalized not only those who participated in the violations, but also those who gave the orders. Disappearances, government officials claimed in defending the veto, were "act[s] of [military] service." Both the Procuraduría, the oversight branch of government, and the Public Ombudsman (Defensoría) strongly objected to the veto.

Attacks on leftists, peasant leaders, trade unionists, indigenous activists, and community organizers continued. The Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular (CINEP), a leading human rights group, registered 177 extrajudicial executions by state agents in the first nine months of the year. One of the most prominent was the killing on August 9 of Manuel Cepeda Vargas, the sole remaining Senate representative of the coalition between the Communist Party and the Patriotic Union (PCC-UP) political parties. Cepeda, who had months earlier informed government authorities that he believed members of the military were planning to kill him and other UP leaders, was murdered by armed men as he drove to work in Bogotá. The day of Cepeda's murder, a paramilitary group calling itself Death To Colombian Guerrillas (MACOGUE) claimed responsibility and released death threats against twenty-five others, including political and Church leaders.

The military's direct involvement in human rights violations had been underscored eight months earlier, when two Navy officers testified before the public prosecutor's office about how Navy intelligence planned, participated in, and paid for over one hundred murders in the Middle Magdalena region since 1991. According to their testimony, Navy officers and a band of hired killers under the command of Colonel Rodrigo Quiñonez Cárdenas, systematically hunted down and shot people they considered enemies, among them two members of the Barrancabermeja-based Regional Committee for Human Rights (CREDHOS).

Human rights groups remained highly concerned about the rural operations of army Mobile Brigades, elite counterinsurgency units which continued to be implicated in extrajudicial execution, torture, arbitrary detention, and threats. Children were prime targets, viewed as potential informants on their parents. In June, for example, a group attached to Mobile Brigade II was accused by peasants in Yondó, Antioquia, of torturing five children, one of whom was four years old. In addition, during the same attack, the group apparently tortured local youths, and said that they would be killed "if the guerrillas keep attacking us."

In one of the most serious incidents, a paramilitary group with alleged ties to Mobile Brigade II was implicated in the extrajudicial executions of nine men, including seventy-year-old Adriano Portillo, a resident of Norean, Cesar. On July 29, armed and hooded men in civilian clothing reportedly forced Norean villagers to assemble, then stole their watches, money, and jewelery, even though a military checkpoint and a provisional post of Mobile Brigade II were located in the village. The men shot and killed Portillo in his house, reportedly for failing to assemble quickly enough. Two other men were executed in front of the crowd, which was warned not to report the killings. Two days later, a group of similarly hooded and armed men executed six villagers in nearby Minas.

In a September article in a Colombian magazine, paramilitary leader Fidel Castaño asserted that his private army, linked to a grisly string of massacres and assassinations, was initially recruited and trained by state security forces. Even though there was an outstanding warrant for Castaño's arrest and he had admitted helping plan the 1990 murder of UP presidential candidate Bernardo Jaramillo, he was apparently free to travel between his Córdoba ranches and Paris home, underscoring the official impunity many paramilitary leaders continued to enjoy.

The Comisión Intercongregacional de Justicia y Paz reported in August that families living in Aguamieluda, Santander, were forced to attend a meeting called jointly by paramilitaries and local Army officers. There, they were told to collaborate, leave, or be killed. Several families apparently lost their farms to paramilitary agents who decided to use their property as a base.

Trade unionists were hard hit by paramilitary killings. According to the Unified Central of Workers (CUT), between January and mid-October, 123 trade unionists were murdered in Colombia, most in incidents tied to paramilitary groups. In Medellín, a group calling itself COLSINGUE (Colombia Without Guerrillas) took responsibility for the murders of three trade unionists in July, including Guillermo Marín, a leader of the Antioquia Unified Federation of Workers (FUTRAN). Two months later, heavily armed men forced their way into FUTRAN offices and shot the union's complaints secretary, Hugo Zapata, who was killed, and its human rights secretary, Carlos Posada, who was seriously injured.

So-called social cleansing killings – the murder of street people, often children – continued to occur in urban areas. A report released by CINEP registered 1,926 "social cleansing" killings between 1988 and 1993, with an additional 256 for the first nine months of 1994. The security forces either participated directly or turned a blind eye when these killings occurred.

Torture remains a daily reality for detainees throughout the country. A study carried out by three human rights groups in the city of Barrancabermeja found that of the 183 individuals detained by state security forces between January 1993 and June 1994, 170 were tortured. Both physical torture – beatings, electric shocks, and near-drowning – and psychological torture – death threats, mock executions, sleep deprivation, and threats against family members – were employed. Over one-third of these incidents of torture occurred in the Nueva Granada army barracks. Despite the frequency of torture, most cases reported to the authorities went unpunished.

Impunity remained the rule for members of the security forces implicated in human rights violations. Although investigations were undertaken in some instances, leading to the identification of the guilty parties, it was truly the exceptional case in which the offenders were punished. For example, the CUT reported that 1,542 trade unionists had been killed since the union was founded in 1986, yet not one of the murders had led to a conviction.

The case of two persons arrested and brutally interrogated during a May Day march was typical. When the officer and two agents of the judicial police (SIJIN) accused of torturing the marchers were absolved by an internal police investigation, Police Commissioner Adolfo Salamanca, a civilian, called for a review. However, the commissioner had no power to punish offenders, a critical weakness that contributed to impunity. The second police investigation again found no faults, arguing that one of the detainees was probably wounded "in a fight during the march . . . or as the result of his work in construction."

Some headway was made by the Procuraduría, however. In April, it denied the appeal of an officer whose dismissal had been ordered for having directed indiscriminate shooting during the retaking of the Palace of Justice, which was violently occupied in 1985 by the M-19 guerrilla group, taking hostage the Supreme Court and many judicial employees. The Procuraduría concluded that General Jesús Arias Cabrales, who led the attack, had ordered his men to dynamite a wall and shoot indiscriminately into a room containing over sixty guerrillas and hostages. Although the decision represented an important step toward curbing impunity, it was mitigated by the fact that Arias was apparently acting on orders from superiors who were not charged. Meanwhile, a military court acquitted Arias of any wrongdoing.

In August, the Procuraduría released a report confirming that soldiers had executed two guerrillas who had been negotiating an amnesty with the government. Evelio Antonio Bolaño and Carlos Prada, leaders of the Corriente de Renovación Socialista, were ambushed by the army on September 22, 1993. The Procuraduría accused four army officers and four soldiers with abuse of authority and negligence, among other charges. However, by mid-November there was no indication that they were punished.

Colombia's justice system remained seriously deficient. Delays caused by inefficiency and corruption prompted President Gaviria to resort to emergency legislation to keep detainees in jail past the six-month limit for specifying charges. Meanwhile, "faceless" courts – which employed judges and witnesses whose identities were concealed, withheld evidence from the defense, relied on evidence gathered by the military, and used prolonged pre-trial detention – continued to violate the right to a fair trial. Although these courts were defended as necessary for prosecuting drug traffickers and insurgents, they were often deployed against other targets, such as peasants and nonviolent protesters.

Measures that further restricted justice were enacted in June under the State of Exception Law, which created broad powers typically used to give the security forces greater latitude in investigating, making arrests, and prohibiting nonviolent protest. The Constitutional Court did, however, strike down some of the law's more egregious provisions. In July, the court disallowed the use of states of exception to keep uncharged detainees in jail, holding that the measure violated due process. Three months later, the court also struck down the ban on the media dissemination of interviews and press releases from armed insurgents.

In an effort to salvage the country's human rights record, the government proposed adopting Protocol II Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Nevertheless, the Gaviria administration added three reservations to the protocol, including one allowing the government to determine what constitutes a legitimate military target, robbing the document of much of its value. President Gaviria also inaugurated a cabinet-level committee in June to consider reforms to the military court system, which included creating a separate Attorney General's Office within the military to investigate reports of abuse and transferring jurisdiction over the military courts from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Defense Ministry, currently run by a civilian. Like the government's other efforts to address human rights violations, however, this one failed to compensate for the military courts' inherent lack of impartiality.

For their part, guerrillas continued to violate international humanitarian law by engaging in murder, indiscriminate attacks, kidnapping, and the mining of civilian areas. The most egregious incident occurred in January, when hooded guerrillas apparently under the command of the Fifth Front of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) attacked a local fundraising party in the La Chinita neighborhood of Apartadó, Antioquia, killing thirty-five. The FARC was also blamed for the July murder of Manuel Humberto Cárdenas Vélez, the mayor of Fusagasugá, Cundinamarca.

In May, militants of the Ejército Nacional de Liberación (ELN) detained a group of forty municipal officials near Aguachica, Cesar. The body of municipal council president Oswaldo Pájaro was found abandoned on a soccer field two days later. A second man, also a community activist, remains missing. The others were released. Four months later, ELN guerrillas claimed responsibility for assassinating Chamber of Representatives member Arlen Uribe Márquez and his driver, who were shot in the parking lot of the University of Medellín, where Uribe taught law.

Among the 221 individuals kidnapped by guerrillas in the first nine months of 1994 were members of Congress, municipal and government authorities, and seven foreigners. As of October 1994, five American missionaries and a scientist remained missing. Besides targeting missionaries, ELN guerrillas also bombed Mormon and Protestant churches, seen as tied to the U.S.

Although the government claimed to have made significant progress against guerrillas and drug traffickers, especially with the killing of Pablo Escobar in December 1993, private violence nonetheless increased. According to the Defense Ministry, 30,050 people were murdered in the year prior to July 20, 1994, a marked increased over the previous year. A National Planning investigation found that only 3 percent of the crimes committed in Colombia ever reached a judicial verdict, an astonishing two verdicts per month for the entire country.

The Right To Monitor

Groups and individuals who spoke up about Colombia's human rights problems continued to be targets of persecution, with activists in rural areas being particularly at risk. For example, Jairo Barahona, a human rights activist in Pailitas, Cesar, was disappeared in September by men who identified themselves as members of the Anti-Extortion and Kidnapping Unit (UNASE) of the National Police. For several years prior to his disappearance, Barahona had been the target of harassment and intimidation by security forces.

During the congressional debate over the Disappearances Law, Yanette Bautista and Gloria Herney Galíndez, leaders of the Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos-Desaparecidos, reported being followed by unidentified men and receiving telephone death threats. Hernando Valencia Villa, the deputy procurador for human rights and one of the key individuals responsible for investigating and sanctioning official abuses, was accused by one senator of being a guerrilla supporter, which jeopardized Valencia's safety. The basis for the accusation was Valencia's public criticism of the reservations attached to Protocol II by the government, as well as his strong defense of the Disappearances Law.

Government ministers and some pro-government media outlets also accused leading members of the Catholic church who support respect for human rights, of having guerrilla sympathies. In March, Attorney General Gustavo de Grieff publicly accused four bishops, including Bishop Dario Castrillón of Bucaramanga, of collaborating with the guerrillas. Castrillón, who has said that he believes that the military executes some of its detainees, was also sued for "slander and harm" by the armed forces.

Lawyers, too, were threatened due to their advocacy on behalf of victims of abuses. Carlos Alberto Ruíz, who has represented internally displaced people seeking reparations from the state, was one of the lawyers mentioned during the interrogations by the SIJIN of the May Day marchers. Later, Ruíz began receiving telephone death threats from callers who said he would have to "account for his work."

U.S. Policy

A series of controversies led one Clinton administration official to describe relations between the U.S. and Colombia as "strained." After initial, shared euphoria over the death of Pablo Escobar, problems arose regarding the U.S. perception that top Colombian officials were not doing enough to convict surviving drug kingpins. A highly publicized dispute over the sharing of intelligence between the two countries, allegations about newly-elected President Samper's connections to the Cali cartel, and the characterization of Colombia as a "narco-democracy" by the outgoing head of the Drug Enforcement Administration all contributed to increased tensions.

Human rights remained a secondary issue, overshadowed by the drug war and trade negotiations. Even as serious abuses by the Colombian armed forces continued, the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá maintained a virtual silence on human rights. In a positive move, incoming Ambassador Myles Frechette broke this silence once, in a July speech to military officers completing a U.S.-sponsored course on military justice in support of human rights.

But despite U.S. budget cuts in foreign assistance, Colombia remained a priority because of the drug war, with its police in particular receiving a relatively large amount, $18.2 million in fiscal year 1994, with a similar amount requested for fiscal year 1995. By contrast, Colombia's poor record prompted Germany, a weapons supplier, to suspend sales of guns and helicopter parts and bar certain Colombian military officers from entering the country.

Congress included some restrictions on aid to Colombia in the foreign aid appropriations bill for fiscal year 1995. The legislation required the Clinton administration to provide notification prior to disbursement of funds for Colombia and added a certification to verify that security assistance was being used "primarily" for counternarcotics, not counterinsurgency activities. These requirements stemmed from reports from human rights groups and the General Accounting Office demonstrating that the administration had failed to ensure that those involved in abuses were not receiving aid.

In August, the administration submitted a letter of notification, requesting that the fiscal year 1994 appropriation of $7.7 million in security assistance to the armed forces be released. Congress agreed to the request, most of which was slated for the Navy and Air Force for counternarcotics efforts. According to the fiscal year 1995 request for $16.5 million for the military's counternarcotics support efforts, the assistance would be used for "targeting narco-guerrilla activities, occupying seized real estate, and controlling remote areas." Due to budgetary constraints, the military was expected to receive approximately half of the amount requested for fiscal year 1995.

In addition to generous amounts of security assistance, Colombia acquired $57 million in U.S. governmental and commercial arms purchases in 1993, more than any other country in Latin America. In fiscal year 1994, sales to Colombia were expected to top $73 million. The U.S. continued to make or approve arms sales to Colombia despite human rights conditions that should have been applied.

During the year, the administration claimed to have implemented end-use monitoring, although specific details were not revealed. As State Department officials acknowledged, there were no units in the Colombian military devoted exclusively to counternarcotics activities, making definitive prohibitions on aid for other activities impossible, even with enhanced oversight. Documents obtained by Human Rights Watch through the Freedom of Information Act demonstrated that much of the equipment provided to Colombia under the guise of the "war on drugs" was designed for counterinsurgency.

In response to congressional concerns, the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá prepared a confidential document identifying recipients of U.S. assistance and describing the allegations against them. The document reportedly included information about investigations conducted by Colombian officials and measures taken against abusive members of the armed forces. Unfortunately, the administration chose to classify the document, and it remained unavailable to human rights groups.

The Agency for International Development (AID) continued its funding of a $36 million Administration of Justice program during the year. AID officials assured Human Rights Watch/Americas that U.S. assistance was no longer provided for the controversial "public order courts." In past years, Human Rights Watch/Americas had objected to U.S. support for these courts because of their inherent due process violations and the misuse of this jurisdiction to quell legal protest.

The State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993 continued to characterize violations by state security agencies and nongovernmental forces as equal, even though human rights groups agreed that abuses by the military, police, and their paramilitary clients far outnumbered violations of the laws of war by insurgents. Indeed, the report lumped together insurgents and drug traffickers, overestimating the degree to which they collaborated.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Americas

Human Rights Watch/Americas sought to bring the issue of human rights to the forefront of any discussion of Colombia.

We registered frequent protests with the Colombian government regarding human rights abuses, and urged the guerrillas to cease violating international humanitarian law. Together with the Andean Commission of Jurists-Colombian Section and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), we represented victims of abuses before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In December 1993, we issued State of War: Political Violence and Counterinsurgency in Colombia; a Spanish translation was released in 1994. Also during 1994, Human Rights Watch/Americas sent two missions to Colombia, where our representatives met with senior U.S. and Colombian government officials in Washington and Bogotá, and with the representatives of human rights groups and humanitarian organizations. Finally, in cooperation with the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project, we issued Generation Under Fire: Children and Violence in Colombia in November, a report on government responsibility for the murders of children.

In the U.S. Congress, we were at the forefront of efforts to give human rights a central role in U.S.-Colombia relations while urging greater accountability regarding the Colombian security forces' use of U.S. aid. We were especially concerned that military and police aid received by Colombia in the name of anti-narcotics operations not be used for counterinsurgency efforts or other operations in which human rights were violated. With the help of key committee members, we insisted on stricter end-use monitoring of aid, particularly lethal aid sent as part of the "drug war."

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