Human Rights Developments

Armed conflict intensified in Colombia as negotiations between the government and guerrillas stalled. The administration of Andrés Pastrana was slow to develop a plan to improve human rights protections even as guerrillas used territory ceded to them not to talk peace, but to further war. Paramilitary groups working in some areas with the tolerance and open support of the armed forces continued to massacre civilians, commit selective killings, and spread terror. Guerrillas also flouted international humanitarian law, executing and kidnapping civilians and carrying out indiscriminate attacks. Throughout the country, Colombians fled political violence, with waning chances of finding refuge, food, and medical care. Repeatedly, the conflict crossed borders into Panama, Brazil, and Venezuela, heightening regional tensions and prompting talk of a future multilateral intervention.

The departments of Antioquia, Meta, Santander, and Bolivar remained among the most dangerous. Victims ran the gamut of Colombian society. In 1999, paramilitaries were considered responsible for 78 percent of the total number of human rights and international humanitarian law violations, according to the Colombian Commission of Jurists (Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, CCJ), a human rights group. For their part, guerrillas were credited with 20 percent. State forces were linked to 2 percent.

Some government officials claimed that the military's ties to paramilitary groups were severed and cited the low percentage of violations credited to state forces acting alone. However, the percentage does not reflect state forces that routinely assisted paramilitary atrocities. Indeed, cooperation between army units and paramilitaries remained commonplace. For instance, government investigators detailed direct collaboration between the Medellín-based Fourth Brigade and paramilitaries commanded by Carlos Castaño. Repeatedly, paramilitaries killed those suspected of supporting guerrillas, then delivered the corpses to the army. In a process known as "legalization," the army then claimed the dead as guerrillas killed in combat while paramilitaries received their pay in army weapons.

The Bogotá office of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights reported in 1999 that despite many similar credible reports, the government failed to act consistently to break ties and pursue paramilitaries. "Signs of the lack of willingness to combat the paramilitary groups effectively include the fact that the location of many of their assembly and training sites is public knowledge on the part of the population and the authorities," its report noted.

The debate over percentages also leaves unaddressed continuing criminal activity by military intelligence, which government investigators linked to a string of high-profile killings and death threats, including the August murder of humorist Jaime Garzón. Although the brigade that centralized military intelligence was reportedly dismantled in 1998 because of human rights crimes, government investigators believe intelligence agents continued to threaten, kidnap, and kill. In one of at least eight cases, for example, investigators linked the 1998 kidnapping and later murder of an Israeli businessman to Thirteenth Brigade intelligence officers.

Increasingly, armed clashes were mixed and prolonged, as groups attacked, counterattacked, and allied on battlefields that included farms, villages, and towns. For instance, fighting over several weeks in June between paramilitaries belonging to the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba and Urabá, ACCU) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) caused dozens of civilian casualties near Juan José, Córdoba. Fighting finally ended with the army called in to repel guerrillas, while ignoring the paramilitaries whose headquarters was nearby. As soldiers exited a transport helicopter on June 22, they were ambushed by guerrillas, who killed thirty-five, some apparently executed after surrendering.

The security forces failed to halt both paramilitary and guerrilla incursions into towns where civilians were frequently killed. However, soldiers pursued guerrillas once an attack was reported. In contrast, although paramilitaries often announced plans to attack publicly and well in advance, authorities not only failed to act to stop killings, but rarely pursued paramilitary units even when they remained in the region after massacring noncombatants.

This pattern was clear on Colombia's border with Venezuela. Despite repeated attacks by the ACCU beginning in May 1999, authorities failed to take effective measures against them. To the contrary, there were credible reports of collusion between the security forces and the ACCU, which traveled freely, passing army bases, police barracks, and army check points.

Thousands of civilians fled to Venezuela, where Colombian authorities promised to take action against paramilitaries. Yet even as families prepared to return, ACCU leader Castaño repeated his threats to "clean" the region of guerrillas. By August, a dozen massacres and dozens more targeted killings raised the civilian death toll to over 150 people.

On September 1, the Colombian government cashiered Gen. Alberto Bravo, head of the Fifth Brigade and responsible for the region, along with the departmental police chief and the head of the regional Administrative Security Department (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS), the security force run by Colombia's executive branch.

Paramilitary killings were stark in their savagery. In January, for example, paramilitaries reportedly dragged twenty-seven worshipers out of a church in Playón de Orozco, Magdalena, then riddled their bodies with bullets . That same week, authorities registered over one hundred killings attributed to paramilitaries, who mutilated some of their victims and dumped bodies into rivers to destroy evidence.

The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances transmitted to the Colombian government fifty new cases of "disappearances" carried out in 1998. They occurred mainly in northwest Colombia and the department of Santander. Most of the abductions and detentions leading to "disappearances" were carried out by paramilitary groups. In a few cases, the army was allegedly responsible for the detention.

The Human Rights Unit of the attorney general's office was among the most effective government institutions combating paramilitaries. In 1999, that office reported that 161 persons accused of involvement in paramilitary activities were arrested. Seventy-five members of the security forces were under arrest for alleged involvement in human rights crimes.

Success came at an increasingly high price, however. In 1998 and 1999, a dozen officials from the Technical Investigations Unit (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigaciones, CTI) of the attorney general's office were murdered or forced to resign because of threats related to their work on human rights. Prosecutors were forced to abandon their posts and seek refuge abroad because of threats, including by military officers being investigated for paramilitary ties.

In February, seven CTI agents were briefly held by the ACCU, which claimed in a statement released to the press that the agents were carrying out a strategy "imposed by the subversives and now institutionalized as part of their overall strategy to seize power." The statement went on to threaten government investigators with death.

The government took some steps toward purging the military of suspected human rights abusers. On April 9, President Pastrana cashiered Gen. Rito Alejo del Río and Gen. Fernando Millán, who were both being prosecuted for alleged support for paramilitary groups. At this writing, the Attorney General's office continued to pursue a case against Del Río for alleged support to paramilitaries who carried out dozens of massacres and selective killings in the Middle Magdalena and Urabá regions.

However, a similar case against Millán remained before a military tribunal. Given the long-standing practice of these tribunals, the case was likely to end in impunity. The attorney general's office and the Procuraduría, which investigates allegations against government employees, also found evidence implicating soldiers under Millán's direct command as well as police and DAS agents in a 1998 massacre in Barrancabermeja. The massacre had been carried out by paramilitaries who abducted and killed thirty-two people, apparently with the officers' help.

Separately, the attorney general's office suspended in May Gen. Jaime Humberto Uscátegui, commander of the Second Division, during an investigation for assisting a paramilitary massacre in the village of Onlineiripán, Meta, in 1997. This officer was also facing prosecution for the 1997 Puerto Elvira massacre and the 1998 San Carlos de Guaroa massacre. In October, General Uscátegui resigned his post. Uscátegui's arrest followed the March arrest of Lt. Col. Lino Sánchez Prado, who allegedly helped paramilitaries reach the village. At the time of the massacre, Sánchez led Mobile Brigade Two.

Other security force personnel whom government investigators have tied to serious violations remained on active duty, including two sergeants who killed Senator Manuel Cepeda in 1994. The men, who worked for military intelligence, acted on orders from Ninth Brigade Gen. Rodolfo Herrera Luna, who died of a heart attack in 1996.

A military penal code reform, long supported by national and international human rights groups as a way to address impunity, fell short of demands to strengthen accountability, failing to clarify how cases involving military officers charged with human rights violations would be prosecuted. For example, article 3 of the code named only three crimes – genocide, torture, and forced disappearance – as human rights violations that must be heard by civilian courts. Left out was the most common violation attributed to Colombia's security forces, extrajudicial execution. In the code, the cited crimes were defined according to "conventions and treaties ratified by Colombia," a further complication. While Colombia had ratified the U.N. Convention against Torture, it had not even signed the OAS convention against forced disappearances, making the use of these charges against security force officers open to legal manipulation. Although genocide was named as a crime, it has never occurred in Colombia. Another bill that would criminalize forced disappearances failed to receive adequate government support and was abandoned.

Despite the new code, already existing legislation, and court decisions mandating that human rights crimes be heard in civilian courts, the military continued to dispute and often win jurisdiction. Cases involving high-ranking officers, among them General Uscátegui, continued to be sent to military tribunals, where impunity was the likely result.

For its part, the FARC continued to flagrantly violate the laws of war. In February, FARC militants seized, then executed three Americans who had visited the U'wa indigenous group in northeastern Colombia. Apparently in order to mislead investigators, guerrillas took Terence Freitas, Ingrid Washinawatok, and Lahe'ena'e Gay into Venezuela, where they executed the three. After admitting its role, the FARC claimed that it would subject those responsible to trial, a development Human Rights Watch protested since the guerrillas could not guarantee a fair trial.

Subsequently, the FARC announced that the guerrilla who they claimed commanded the unit that carried out the executions might be punished. However, transcripts of FARC radio conversations allegedly recorded by the Colombian army and released to the press suggested that the murders had not been carried out by low-ranking guerrillas, but had been ordered by Germán Briceño Suárez, a top FARC commander who used the alias "Grannobles" and remained in his post. In September, army troops claimed to have killed in combat two of the guerrillas believed responsible for the Americans' death.

The FARC appeared disinterested in peace, and suspended talks repeatedly into the latter part of the year. Meanwhile, in the area ceded to them by the government, the FARC carried out extrajudicial executions of at least eleven civilians they suspected of various crimes. Repeatedly in 1999, the FARC used gas cylinders as bombs, weapons that were impossible to aim properly and often caused civilian casualties.

The National Liberation Army-Camilist Union (Unión Camilista-Ejército de Liberación Nacional, UC-ELN) also continued to commit serious laws of war violations. On October 18, 1998, just after midnight, militants bombed the pipeline of Oleoducto Central, S.A., near Machuca, Antioquia. According to official investigations, the resulting spilled oil and the gases took six minutes to descend a slope, cross the Pocuné River, and reach the population on the opposite bank. There, many residents depended on open flames for light and cooking,. The mixture ignited, engulfing sixty-four dwellings and the sleeping families inside them. Seventy-three people, among them thirty-six children, ultimately perished. Some of the dead could be identified only through dental records, since their bodies were completely burned. An additional sixty-four people were seriously wounded.

Weeks after the spill, the UC-ELN admitted its responsibility via a press interview with leader Nicolás Bautista, who claimed without providing evidence that the UC-ELN had investigated the case and "punished" those responsible. However, several months later, UC-ELN leader Antonio García claimed it was sufficient to simply "acknowledge" the error and insist that units be more careful.

In 1999, the group continued to bomb pipelines near civilian dwellings. In May, the attorney general's office issued an arrest warrant for UC-ELN commander Luis Guillermo Roldán Posada as the alleged leader of the unit that carried out the Machuca attack.

In failed negotiations with the government in 1998, the UC-ELN made several pronouncements on the laws of war that served mainly to underscore how little the group respected them. On the subject of hostage-taking, for instance, the UC-ELN committed itself to cease kidnapping civilians – already outlawed under any circumstances – only if its economic needs could be satisfied "by other means," and claimed that it would exempt the elderly, pregnant women, and children.

Within the year, however, the group violated even this meager pledge, sometimes in spectacular fashion. On April 12, the group abducted forty-one passengers and crew members of an Avianca airline flight, pioneering the tactic of the mass kidnapping of civilians in Colombia. A month later, the UC-ELN seized over 140 churchgoers from a Cali church. Pursued by the authorities, the UC-ELN released some eighty captives, but kept at least two children and hostages they hoped would pay high ransoms. A bodyguard of one parishioner was shot and killed when he resisted abduction.

Months later, the UC-ELN apologized not for the Cali kidnapping itself, but for failing to wait until mass was concluded to carry it out. In April, May, and June alone, police estimated that the UC-ELN increased its pace of kidnapping by 217 percent, having abducted 463 people by the end of the period.

One result of human rights and international humanitarian law violations continued to be mass displacement. According to the Displaced Person Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo a Desplazados, GAD), an alliance of human rights, religious, and aid organizations, an estimated 1.5 million Colombians had been displaced by political violence since 1985. In a 1999 report, the Consultancy for Human Rights and the Displaced (Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, CODHES), a group that studied forced displacement, found that displacement reached its highest level ever in 1998; an estimated 308,000 Colombians were forced to flee, an increase of 20 percent over the previous year. For every political killing in 1998, according to CODHES, an estimated seventy-eight people fled.

Far from improving, forced displacement intensified in some regions in 1999, making Colombia the country with the third largest internally displaced population in the world, after Sudan and Angola. While the government mobilized to help thousands of Colombians left homeless by a devastating January earthquake in Armenia, Quindío, forcibly displaced families continued to live largely in the shadows, subsisting on their own meager resources.

Venezuela repeatedly failed to comply with its international obligations to protect refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention, calling the Colombians "displaced in transit" rather than refugees. Some refugees reported feeling intimidated into returning to Colombia despite their well-founded fears of continuing persecution from paramilitaries.

Colombian government attention to the displaced remained sporadic and paltry, and families fleeing political violence continued to face hunger, disease, and poor housing. Although the government frequently signed agreements to provide aid, promises were rarely honored. This amounted to a failure to comply with Law 387, passed in 1998 to provide aid to displaced persons.

In some cases, displaced families remained in poorly built camps for more than two years. In Quibdó, for instance, capital of the department of Chocó, displaced families lived in a misery unparalleled in Colombia, forced to use the street as their only latrine.

Colombia's so-called faceless courts were by law due to end by July 1999. During a last-minute session in the Senate, however, measures that fostered continuing violations of due process remained in legislation creating so-called specialized courts. Among them were the continuing anonymity of prosecutors and witnesses, and strict curbs on the defendant's right to argue against testimony offered by the prosecution. In 1998, disciplinary investigations by the attorney general's office showed that "faceless" court officials repeatedly "cloned" testimony, allowing a single, secret witness to appear as several people presenting corroborating evidence.

Landmines continued to be a problem in Colombia, used by both government forces and guerrillas. Most civilian casualties were farmers or cattle ranchers working in rural areas while most military casualties were the result of combat or injuries sustained while on combat patrol.

Colombia had yet to ratify the Mine Ban Treaty, although the ratification process was under way. Nevertheless, several senior Colombian military officials indicated that ratification might not be feasible until the conflict is resolved. The Ministry of Defense claimed that it had begun to change its doctrine and training manuals to take into account a landmine ban. It was also developing the country's domestic demining capacity and searching for alternative means to protect infrastructure.

The commander of the army, Gen. Fernando Tapias, committed the army to remove approximately 20,000 antipersonnel mines that the army had planted to protect the country's military and communications infrastructure. All major guerrilla groups continued to use and manufacture so-called minas quiebrapatas (foot breaker mines). Most of these mines were homemade, used cheap and easy-to-find materials, and came in various forms.

Colombia's prison population, which was the responsibility of the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario, INPEC) continued to feel the ill effects of overcrowding, since there were 40 percent more prisoners than the state's prisons could handle.

Defending Human Rights

Defending human rights remained a dangerous profession in Colombia. "There is absolutely no security to do human rights work," reported one international observer, echoing the opinions of many Colombians.

In the first nine months of 1999, two human rights defenders were killed and dozens more were threatened. Two academics who worked in favor of human rights were also murdered. On January 31, Julio González and Everardo de Jesús Puerta, who worked for the Committee of Solidarity with Political Prisoners (Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos, CSPP), were shot and killed by presumed paramilitaries after they were forced off the public bus in which they were traveling in Antioquia. Subsequent threats forced the CSPP to suspend activities for several months.

Days earlier, four employees of the Popular Training Institute (Instituto Popular de Capacitación, IPC) were kidnapped by "Las Terrazas," a Medellín-based gang of professional killers that investigators believed Castaño hired to carry out political abductions or killings. Subsequently, Castaño said he would continue to target so-called parasubversives working in human rights organizations. Although all four were later released, Castaño continued to send "Las Terrazas" killers after human rights defenders, among them Senator Piedad Córdoba, president of the Senate Human Rights Commission, kidnapped in a bid to force the government to hold formal peace talks with the group. All were released unharmed. Senator Córdoba later fled Colombia because of continuing threats on her life.

In 1999, Colombia's attorney general formally charged Castaño with ordering the 1998 murder of Jesús María Valle, president of the "Héctor Abad Gómez" Human Rights Committee in Antioquia. The murder was allegedly carried out by "Las Terrazas" killers. The office also arrested several of the assassins accused of killing human rights lawyer Eduardo Umaña in his Bogotá apartment in 1998. Nevertheless, the individuals who ordered the killing remained unidentified.

Several human rights groups closed their doors because of threats, among them a group working with the families and survivors of the Trujillo killings of the early 1990s. The Association of Family Members of Victims of Trujillo (Asociación de Familiares de las Víctimas de Trujillo, AFAVIT) suffered repeated threats, and over fifty AFAVIT members won political asylum in Canada in 1999. At least thirty other defenders were also forced to abandon the country in 1998 and 1999.

Surveillance of some groups was open and aggressive. One group reported being filmed from the twelfth floor of a neighboring hotel, prompting them to request bulletproof glass for their twelfth-floor windows. Telephones were tapped, and callers could hear agents eating, turning newspaper pages, and listening to music. Several office managers reported having their calls blocked, cut off, or detoured to telephones in military barracks. One group discovered that a false nongovernmental organization set up by military intelligence kept surveillance over their activities, and fear was rife that the military and paramilitaries had infiltrated operatives within offices to report on the movements of key leaders.

The administration of President Pastrana allocated U.S. $4 million to protect human rights defenders in 1999, but monies were slow to materialize, short of what was promised, and often short-lived, including those allocated for much-needed measures like bulletproof glass, radios, taxis, and police protection at offices.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

The office of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights based in Bogotá continued to function, collecting information, meeting regularly with government officials, human rights groups, and victims of abuses, and lobbying for greater human rights protections. Also during the year, High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson issued two strong statements on Colombia. Other high-ranking U.N. officials also visited Colombia in 1999. Francis Deng, representative of the secretary-general on internally displaced persons, returned to Colombia in May, to follow up on a 1994 visit prompted by an increase in that phenomenon. Although Deng noted that the government had made some progress toward acknowledging the displaced population, he pointed out that forced displacement had increased dramatically, and that the government had yet to take the measures necessary to halt further displacement and attend to the needs of thousands of displaced Colombians.

Also in May, Olara A. Otunnu, special representative of the secretary-general on children and armed conflict, toured Colombia and met not only with government officials and organizations working with children, but also with the FARC. Otunnu underscored the toll taken by war on the lives of children, some of whom had been forcibly recruited into the ranks of guerrillas and paramilitaries. Although Otunnu announced after his visit that the FARC had agreed to cease recruiting children under the age of fifteen, the group quickly disputed his claim, asserting that they would continue to "accept" children who chose to join guerrilla ranks.

In April, the U.N. Human Rights Commission dedicated a day to a debate about Colombia, the second time that it had focused special attention on the country and an indication of the seriousness of the human rights problems there.

European Union

The European Union continued to promote a peaceful solution to Colombia's conflict that included respect for human rights. Repeatedly, the E.U. publicly condemned violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all sides. A March resolution by the European Parliament highlighted continuing threats against human rights defenders, and called on the Colombian authorities to protect and support them in their work.

In 1999, the commission approved funding for initiatives to promote peace communities in Colombia and help the forcibly displaced. The commission's humanitarian agency provided a 6.6 million euro (U.S. $7 million) humanitarian aid package for people internally displaced as a result of violence and earthquakes.

United States

The United States increased its attention to Colombia in 1999, in part spurred by fear that President Pastrana might be losing control. More high-level U.S. diplomats, congressional delegations, CIA officials, and military officers visited Colombia in 1999 than at any other time in recent history.

Key to the policy shift was the contention, forwarded by the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which oversaw U.S. military activities and assistance in South America, that guerrillas were "narco-traffickers" and legitimate targets of the drug war. The contention was supported by influential voices in the State Department, Congress, and the policy world. In the words of Gen. Charles Wilhelm, SOUTHCOM commander, "I think the connection between the insurgents and the narco-traffickers has been very clearly demonstrated."

Critics pointed out serious problems with the concept of "narco-guerrilla." It overemphasized their involvement in the drug trade, essentially based on taxing production in exchange for armed protection, not selling narcotics; and it erased the equally evident and occasionally more direct and intense involvement of other groups, prime among them the paramilitaries. The U.S. focus on military aid and not support for Colombia's civilian institutions threatened to turn some American officials into apologists for the army's human rights record. Although the issues of human rights and support for peace efforts remained important, they became increasingly secondary elements of U.S. policy.

The "narco-guerrilla" concept underpinned dramatically increased support and aid to the Colombian military. In July, White House drug adviser Gen. (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey wrote Secretary of State Madeleine Albright outlining an emergency aid program that would double aid to almost $600 million, much of it destined for the Colombian army. According to U.S. law, security assistance would continue to be administered under the human rights conditions laid out in the Leahy Amendment, part of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act. By mid-1999, the United States had reviewed the human rights records and approved aid for the Colombian navy, the air force, and five army units, along with a newly created 930-soldier counternarcotics battalion, the first of a possible three such specialized units in the military. This brigade's primary objective, according to U.S. officials, was to regain guerrilla-controlled territory.

Two army units, the Twelfth and the Twenty-fourth Brigades, were approved for U.S. aid pending the transfer out of one officer each, implicated in human rights violations while serving in other army units. While U.S. officials seemed to agree that the simple transfer out of officers who commit alleged violations within approved units would not satisfy the Leahy Amendment's requirement for "effective measures," they argued that funding would remain in place if officers charged with committing abuses while serving in other units were transferred out. Human Rights Watch protested the idea that this type of transfer satisfied U.S. law, which was meant to promote accountability. In general, the methods used by the United States to investigate Colombian security force units remained largely secret, an obstacle to evaluating the success of the law. U.S. officials told Human Rights Watch that they were unaware of any case in which the application of the Leahy amendment had led to "effective measures" being taken to investigate reports of abuses.

The United States also pointed to so-called narco-guerrillas as a threat to regional stability. At the annual meeting of the OAS in June, the United States proposed the creation of a multinational force able to intervene in the region if democracy "is in danger." Although the proposal, which many saw as directly related to U.S. fears over Colombia's stability, failed, neighboring countries sent troops to strengthen their borders with Colombia.

By the time McCaffrey traveled to Colombia in July, the U.S. had also begun formally sharing sensitive intelligence on guerrillas with the Colombian military, a further entanglement in the war. Although the intelligence-sharing was initially described as limited to information collected in "trafficking areas" since March 1999, it appeared clear that the United States provided the Colombian military with information used to repel the FARC during a July attack near the capital.

In fact, so much of Colombia could be considered a "trafficking area" that the stated limitations were largely meaningless. The July 23 crash of a U.S. Army RC-7B DeHavilland intelligence-gathering aircraft over the department of Putumayo, killing five American and two Colombian officers, underscored the rapidly escalating U.S. involvement.

State Department spokesperson James Rubin claimed that the United States had received "explicit guarantees" that this intelligence "will be used only for the purposes for which it is intended and will not be shared with any outside groups." However, the mechanism for overseeing a military whose intelligence agents were infamous for abuses and who routinely passed intelligence to paramilitaries, who then used it to carry out atrocities, went unexplained. In 1999, there were no human rights conditions on intelligence-sharing, as there were on security assistance.

Longstanding deployments of U.S. special operations forces to Colombia also increased, from twenty-four in 1998 to a scheduled thirty in 1999. U.S. Army Green Berets, soldiers from the Naval Special Warfare Unit, and other elite troops trained in areas considered war zones, including the departments of Caquetá and Vichada.

In its 1998 human rights report on Colombia, the State Department concluded that "members of the security forces collaborated with [paramilitaries]." The report went on to say that "Government forces continued to commit numerous, serious abuses, including extrajudicial killings. . .The authorities rarely brought officers of the security forces and the police charged with human rights offenses to justice."

During an April visit to Colombia, Harold Koh, assistant secretary of state for democracy, labor and human rights, made a strong speech calling on Colombia to improve its record by cutting the ties between the military and paramilitary groups and capturing paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño, not stopping until Castaño was "behind bars. We think it's time to take forceful action."

For the first time, some U.S. aid went to assist Colombians forcibly displaced by war. The U.S. also increased aid to human rights-related projects, including the Human Rights Unit of the attorney general's office for improved security and evidence-gathering capability. Aid also supported an information-gathering project by the office of the Colombian vice-president.

In a first-ever meeting, State Department representatives met with the FARC in Costa Rica in December 1998, and among other things discussed the group's practice of kidnapping civilians, among them U.S. missionaries whose fate remained unknown. Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA), a member of the House International Relations Committee, and staffers for other members of Congress also met with guerrillas during a Colombia visit in June.

Hoping to stave off crisis, in September President Pastrana presented a plan designed to save Colombia from increased strife, asking the United States and other countries for contributions to a proposed $3.5 billion plan to address drug trafficking, economic difficulties, and aid to the military.

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