Colombia Certification: Devil in the Details

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The State Department on September 15, 2011, certified that Colombia had met the human rights conditions attached to U.S. assistance. No surprise there—the State Department always certifies Colombia meets the conditions, no matter what is happening on the ground.  To be fair, this time, with the year-old Santos Administration, there’s somewhat more reason to certify than during countless rounds of certification during the Uribe Administration.   The certification document cites the Santos Administration’s successful passage of a victims’ reparations and land restitution bill; a “disarming of words” initiative in which it abandoned the inflammatory anti-NGO language used by Uribe and his top officials, which had endangered human rights defenders and journalists; progress on some historic human rights cases; and a variety of directives and policy initiatives, at least on paper, to support human rights and labor rights.
But the 118- page document contains a wealth of information that shows why we should still be deeply concerned.

Lack of progress in achieving justice for human rights abuse.  

  • Snail’s pace of progress on extrajudicial execution cases. These are the infamous cases of soldiers who killed civilians and then dressed them up in guerrilla uniforms and claimed them as guerrillas killed in battle.  In the Soacha cases, paramilitaries lured young men with promises of jobs, then turned them over to soldiers who killed them to up their body counts.  Of 1,572 cases involving 2,731 victims being pursued by the Attorney General’s office, only 138 convictions involving 326 defendants have been obtained so far.  The State Department summarizes, “Though progress was made in several key cases, throughout the judicial system progress remained slow in investigations and prosecutions of human rights cases and cases of links between public forces and criminal groups.”  Military defense attorney’s delaying tactics and judges not managing their cases effectively are two reasons for delays.  Human rights groups cite other reasons as well, including lack of cooperation from the military and the transition to a new accusatory justice system which limits victims’ participation in the judicial process.  The United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights Colombia office reports that in addition to the cases in the civilian system, “more than 448 active cases still remain in the military justice system,” in contradiction to the Constitutional Court ruling that gross violations of human rights must be tried in civilian courts. The UNHCHR urges that these cases be transferred immediately.
  • Even when military officers or soldiers are convicted, they often do not serve their time in regular jails.  The State Department describes Semana’s article on the Tolemaida “prison-resort” which revealed that “many of the approximately 300 military officers and enlisted men detained (most who were convicted, some for serious crimes including torture and homicide) were living in privileged conditions…  Allegations included that convicted soldiers were still receiving salaries and retirement pensions; inmates were allowed to leave the facility at will, including on vacation; some ran businesses; and some lived in private ‘cabanas’ built with donations from retired officials, equipped with internet and satellite television.” While the State Department describes how the Ministry of Defense respond to this scandal, it notes that “NGOs and the press have reported that high-level military officers continue to enjoy privileged detention conditions. For example, according to these reports, Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega, General Jesus Armando Arias Cabrales, and General Jaime Humberto Uscategui, all convicted and sentenced for serious crimes, are held at a large military base (the Escuela de Infanteiía) in Bogota, where they live in apartments, enjoy freedom of movement within the base, eat in the officers’ dining room, and interact with active duty officers…. In June, a magistrate granted Plazas Vega permission to leave the military base, with an armed escort, for eight hours to attend his son’s wedding at an upscale Bogota country club.”
  • The State Department notes the significant decline in new cases of extrajudicial executions since 2008. However, it cites the nongovernmental group CINEP’s reporting of an increase in cases from 2009 to 2010, with 12 cases involving 23 victims.
  • Backlash in reaction to advances. Convictions, including of high-level military officials, have been reached in some landmark cases in the past two years. But the backlash can be intense. For example, consider the circumstances surrounding the case of Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega, sentenced to thirty years in jail for the disappearance of 11 cafeteria workers and one guerrilla following the army takeover of the Supreme Court after guerrillas had taken the judges hostage.  Following this verdict, 25 years in the making, the judge “temporarily fled Colombia because of death threats,” and the well-regarding prosecutor was fired “under questionable circumstances.”
  • The glacial progress in achieving convictions of gross human rights violators among the more than 30,000 paramilitaries who have been demobilized.  The Justice and Peace law governing demobilization permits maximum sentences of 5 to 8 years for even those responsible for multiple massacres and assassinations.  However, even these light sentences are not generally being applied; only 4 convictions have been achieved since 2005.

Human rights defenders and communities remain in peril.   

  • The State Department cites GOC efforts to protect human rights defenders and to expand and reorganize protective services in consultation with those protected. This part of the certification memo contrasts significantly from what we are hearing from defenders on the ground. We hear that the protection services are being privatized without sufficient input from human rights defenders; that some protection has been removed for defenders, particularly in the regions; and that the GOC’s response to urgent calls for assistance have deteriorated.  Human defenders report continual threats which are rarely if ever successfully investigated and prosecuted.
  • There was a “spike in murders of IDP leaders” during the certification period.  In the first half of 2011, at least 12 leaders were murdered.   
  • Indigenous persons are at particular risk. The Colombian government reports 12 homicides of indigenous leaders and a total of 55 indigenous persons killed from August 2010-May 2011, while the ONIC indigenous federation reports 122 indigenous persons killed in 2010.
  • Although the State Department outlines Colombian government efforts aimed at paramilitary or BACRIM, it cites NGO and UN concerns regarding increasing violations by these groups. According to the UNHCHR, there was a 40 percent increase in number of massacres in 2010 (at least 179 people killed in 38 incidents in 2010).