Still So Far to Go: Human Rights in Colombia

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To: Foreign Policy Aides
From: Lisa Haugaard

Although it was heartening to learn the news of the freeing of FARC kidnap victims in July, many other indicators of human rights in Colombia remain extremely troubling. The rate of internal displacement in Colombia accelerated in 2007 compared to the previous year, and remains at record-breaking levels in 2008, indicating that the war continues to rage in the countryside, brutally affecting the civilian population. Threats and attacks against human rights defenders continue, with assassinations of trade unionists increasing in 2008. Killings of civilians by the army escalated in 2007 and erupted into a major scandal in the last two months, forcing the government in October 2008 to announce long overdue dismissals of officers and resulting in the resignation of the head of the army. Paramilitary forces, despite the demobilization, exercise control in many parts of the country and threaten and abuse communities. Guerrillas are hard hit by army offensives but still exert control over territory, plant landmines, kidnap, and kill.

U.S. policy must take responsibility for the behavior of security forces trained with U.S. taxpayer dollars; take into account the suffering of the civilian population in the midst of an ongoing conflict; and support the rights of victims to truth, justice and reparations after a decade of atrocities. Here is information on three of these issues: extrajudicial executions, displacement and attacks and threats against defenders.

  1. Extrajudicial executions of civilians by the army are escalating, and the Colombian government must be urged to address this thoroughly and systematically.

    Colombia has been rocked by a major scandal regarding army killings of civilians. For several years Colombia’s human rights groups have been laboring at great risk to expose these abuses, but the scandal finally exploded in September-October on the front pages of Colombia’s papers. These cases, which are deliberate killings rather than a question of civilians caught in the crossfire, typically involve groups of soldiers detaining a civilian, who is seen by witnesses, and who later turns up dead, dressed in guerrilla clothing and claimed by the army as killed in combat. A coalition of Colombia’s major human rights groups (Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos) documented 433 cases of extrajudicial executions attributed to the Colombian security forces in 2007, higher than any previous year in their documentation efforts. The groups documented 102 such executions from January-June 2008. However, these 2008 figures are likely to rise, as given the danger in reporting these abuses, cases continue to be reported months after occurrence. Human rights groups estimate there is an eight-month lag time before final figures can be viewed, explaining why cases continue to mount after the close of the year.

    What finally forced the Colombian government to begin to address these abuses was a series of killings in which paramilitary or other criminal gangs rounded up young men in Soacha, on the outskirts of Bogotá, luring them with the promise of jobs and then delivering them to different parts of the country where they were found dead, dressed as guerrillas or paramilitaries and claimed by the army as killed in combat. The motive appeared to be mercenary: army officers were using these killings to pad their body counts and obtain promotions. Moreover, the organized nature of the killings and the connection to paramilitary or other criminal gangs was undeniable.

    On October 29, the Colombian government fired 27 officers, including three generals, for involvement in or failure to prevent extrajudicial executions of civilians. This followed the dismissal of three colonels shortly before as well as a number of suspensions in the previous few months. On November 4, the head of the army, Mario Montoya, resigned. Thirteen more military members were dismissed on November 17.

    While these dismissals are a positive, significant step, Congress and the administration must take firm action to ensure that these outrageous abuses come to an end. These dismissals are far from signifying that the army has been thoroughly purged. The problematic record of the new head of the army, General Oscar Peña González, is one disturbing sign. According to local nongovernmental groups, numerous extrajudicial executions occurred in Antioquia when Peña was commander of the Fourth Brigade between December 2003 and July 2005, as well as when he was commander of the Seventh Division between August 2005 and October 2006. The Colombian nongovernmental coalition, Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos, documented 183 extrajudicial executions in Antioquia province between August 2002 and June 2006, making Antioquia one of the departments with the greatest number of such abuses. One hundred and ten of these extrajudicial executions were attributed specifically to the Fourth Brigade during that time period.

    Congress’s insistence that the State Department take seriously the human rights conditions in the law by placing a hold on part of Colombia’s military aid was one factor forcing the Colombian government to take action.  This pressure needs to be maintained. The Congress should insist that:

    —the Colombian government’s measures address not only the Soacha killings, but also similar killings of civilians taking place all over the country. Colombian human rights groups have documented killings not just in Soacha, but in 27 of Colombia’s 32 departments. It is not yet evident that the dismissal of officers and other measures are aimed at all such abuses. The Colombian government should be encouraged to dismiss all implicated officers and officers promoted to take dismissed officers’ place should be evaluated carefully to ensure they are not also implicated in the abuses.

    —the dismissed officers, as well as the several hundred soldiers who have been suspending according to the State Department’s July certification report, be effectively and promptly investigated and prosecuted. Especially in a situation in which dismissed soldiers can join illegal armed groups, it is essential that those implicated in these killings be prosecuted and, where appropriate, convicted.

    —the State Department thoroughly overhaul its vetting procedures, since many of the dismissed officers and their units were vetted for U.S. training.

      —the Colombian Defense Ministry put in place civilian controls over incentive and promotion systems within the army so that the incentive system that has resulted in extrajudicial executions is effectively ended.

      —all cases of suspected homicides by Colombia’s security forces be regularly and immediately transferred to the civilian justice system. While this is established in theory, it is still not fully being carried out in practice.

      —high-level Colombian government officials cease making disparaging remarks that place at risk the safety of the human rights defenders documenting these and other abuses.

      All aid subject to the human rights conditions should be kept on hold until it is clear that new abuses are no longer taking place and that those responsible, including high-level officials, are being investigated, prosecuted, and where appropriate, convicted. The Congress should insist that the State Department at the highest levels have a crystal clear message that these killings must stop and those who carried them out or permitted them must be punished. The Congress should also ask the State Department to make visible its support for the Colombian human rights defenders documenting these cases and for the victims’ family members who have come forward.

    • More people were internally displaced by violence in 2007 than the year before, displacement is escalating in 2008, and the total number of people internally displaced in Colombia’s conflict is now 3 to 4 million.

      One of the most telling human rights indicators is the rate of internal displacement.  No one chooses to leave their home unless they judge that it is impossible to remain.  This indicator reveals that the conflict in many rural areas of the country, far from improving, is taking a turn for the worse.

      CODHES, the primary nongovernmental group tracking displacement, estimated that 305,966 people were displaced in 2007, a 38 percent increase over the 221,638 people displaced in 2006. The Colombian government’s own figures (collected by Acción Social) also show an increase from 2006 to 2007. The official government figures have a year’s lag time as they are based upon when people are registered with government agencies after displacement rather than upon reports of displacement; the official government and CODHES figures, which are based upon reports of displacement, tend to converge after a year. CODHES reports an absolutely alarming figure of 270,675 people displaced in only the first half of 2008. If final figures continue this trend, this represents an enormous jump upward in displacement.

      According to CODHES, displacement in 2007 was greatest in the areas where the army was conducting offensive operations; in the areas where there are strong disputes between the FARC and ELN guerrillas; in the departments where paramilitary presence was reconsolidating; and in the areas of extensive fumigation.  In 2008, new and regrouped paramilitary groups continue to be a major source of displacement.

    • Human rights defenders and union leaders continue to be threatened and killed and the government’s response continues to place them at risk.

      Human rights defenders, trade unionists and community leaders are receiving numerous death threats from the rearmed paramilitary groups such as the Black Eagles. In September 2008, at least three human rights defenders were assassinated: Ever Gonzáles, a human rights activist in Cauca who was investigating cases of extrajudicial executions; Olga Marina Vergara, a women’s rights defender from the Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres in Antioquia, who was slain along with her son, daughter-in-law and five-year-old grandson; and Raul Mendoza, indigenous governor of Peñón, Sotará.

      Forty-one trade unionists have been killed in Colombia this year so far, already surpassing the total number killed during 2007, despite concerted efforts to persuade the Colombian government to make progress in reducing violence. While prosecutions in these cases have increased, the rate of impunity is still estimated by the AFL-CIO at 96 percent.

      Before, during and after a countrywide rally on March 6, 2008 against paramilitary and all forms of violence, at least two march organizers were killed (union leaders Carlos Burbano and Carmen Cecilia Carvajal). Three other social leaders were killed in events that may also be associated with the march. March organizers all over the country received death threats, and one organizer’s house was attacked with gunfire. The remarks of one of President Uribe’s top advisors, José Obdulio Gaviria, suggesting that the rally was organized by the FARC, helped create the atmosphere in which these threats and violence took place. When asked on Colombian radio if he would participate in the march against paramilitary violence convoked by the victims’ movement, Gaviria said, “I, personally, will not participate, unlike what I did with full enthusiasm for the march against the FARC… It’s very hard for Colombian society to participate in that kind of event, when we just finished marching against the people who are organizing it.” (“El gobierno de Uribe rechaza una marcha contra los paramilitares,” 12 de febrero, 2008, To date, we are not aware of definitive results from government investigations into the March 6th-related assassinations and threats, despite multiple expressions of concerns by the U.S. government, Congress and UNHCHR.

      The excessive show of force by Colombian riot police to indigenous protestors in Cauca and striking sugar cane workers in Cauca and Valle de Cauca in recent weeks has resulted in dozens of protestors being injured as well as one indigenous person killed.  The Colombian government should be urged to refrain from using force and dialogue with striking workers and indigenous protestors.

      The government continues to offer its protection program for human rights defenders. However, the lack of progress in securing convictions for most threats and attacks against defenders remains an enormous obstacle.  Human rights defenders assert that successful investigations and prosecutions would be the most effective deterrent.  Moreover, comments by high-level government officials that lambast human rights defenders continue to place them at risk. Most recently, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, upon the occasion of Colombia’s human rights day (September 9th), publicly accused the coalition of Colombian human rights groups documenting extrajudicial executions as “irresponsible” and aiming to “delegitimize the armed forces.”  President Uribe on November 2nd in a public meeting before indigenous protestors labeled José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch “a defender of the FARC.” (Vanguardia Liberal, Bucaramanga, Colombia, November 3, 2008

    For more information, contact Lisa Haugaard at or (202) 546-7010.