In 2005, I visited the community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia. A group of poor farmers who had been repeatedly displaced from their homes by violence, they had decided to call themselves a “peace community” and reject violence from all sides—paramilitaries, guerrillas and the army. Yet the community was subjected to ever more harassment and violence, including by the local 17th army brigade. Some 170 members of the peace community have been assassinated since 1997. My visit came soon after seven members of the peace community, including three children, and a local farmer had been massacred and dismembered. The community members had left their army-occupied town to construct a bare-bones, dirt-floor village down the road.
In 2007, I participated in an international mission to investigate extrajudicial killings by the armed forces. We heard case after case from relatives, along with witnesses and lawyers, who said they had seen their family member being detained by groups of soldiers. Later they found their loved one’s body in an army morgue, now dressed in guerrilla clothing and claimed by the army as killed in battle.
I am thinking about the mothers, wives, children, and friends of these victims as I read, despairingly, yet another certification memo by my government, asserting despite abundant evidence to the contrary—evidence that our organizations and Colombian human rights groups have literally stacked on their desks and presented in meetings with every level of the foreign policy bureaucracy that Colombia is meeting the human rights conditions attached to military assistance.
In the past year, there’s been precious little progress on achieving justice in these cases. Recently, a Colombian judge acquitted ten soldiers in the San José de Apartadó massacre case, fewer cases are being transferred from military to civilian courts, and even the notorious Soacha case is moving slowly, in which soldiers are alleged to have collaborated with paramilitaries in killing young men for profit.
With the insistence of U.S. and Colombian human rights groups, U.S. and UN pressure has helped to reduce new killings of civilians by the Colombian armed forces in the last two years. Yet U.S. military aid strengthened and backed many of the very units and brigades that killed some 3,000 civilians—not caught accidentally in the crossfire, but deliberately killed one by one. The vast majority of these cases have not seen justice. And now, once again, the U.S. government decides to certify , prioritizing the complete delivery of its military aid package over progress on human rights.
Click here to read the statement we released today with our partners WOLA, USOC, and CIP condemning this decision.
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