They Took My Husband, They Took My Son

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The woman told me that Colombian soldiers had come and taken her husband from her house. Then they had tortured her husband all night in the field outside her house, close by. She and her children could hear the screams while the soldiers kept them barricaded inside. Finally, in the morning, it was over. The soldiers came and borrowed her broom to clean up the scene of the crime.

The young man, trembling, said the soldiers came into his house and took his father. They tied his hands and feet and sat him down in a chair. Then they killed him in front of the whole family.

The four young people, exhausted and crying, told me how their father had been taken from their home by hooded men. He was accused of being a guerrilla leader, but instead of being just detained, he was killed in captivity. The army said he was killed in combat. The young people traveled all over the province looking for him. When they finally found the cemetery where he was supposed to be buried, they had to dig him up themselves. They were scared. Now they were marked as children of a guerrilla leader in a militarized zone with no rule of law.

The woman told me her son had witnessed a soldier killing someone in their small rural community. Then her son, accompanied by her husband, went to testify about this in front of a military lawyer or judge who was located in the military base. Later, her son and husband were killed—according to the woman, again by soldiers.

These were the stories I heard, again and again, as I participated in an international observation mission on killings of civilians by the Colombian army. A coalition of Colombian human rights groups, led by Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos, arranged for us in October, in Bogotá, Antioquia and Valledupar, to hear witnesses and family members in over 130 cases of killings of civilians by the Colombian army.

Many of the cases involved people who were detained in their homes or workplaces by soldiers, often groups of soldiers. The families then went looking for them, asking at the military base. They were told, “We don’t have your family member, but here is this guerrilla killed in combat.” The body would be dressed in guerrilla clothing, often presented with a gun and transistor radio. The family members said their relative was taken away in civilian clothing.

Our observer mission found that most of these cases remain in the military justice system, where they go nowhere. By Colombian law, human rights violations, as opposed to disciplinary violations, should be investigated by civilian justice agencies and tried in civilian courts. There was some limited progress in moving these cases to the civilian system, but not much, and very few resulted in convictions. But most disturbingly, these incidents are increasing in number. See a joint memo on extrajudicial killings by LAWGEF, USOC, WOLA, CIP, and Coordinacion.

After listening to the witnesses, we met with high-level government officials from the justice system and Ministry of Defense. We then held a press conference in Bogotá for the press and diplomatic community.

The following week, working with the U.S. Office on Colombia and the Washington Office on Latin America, we brought two of the Colombian human rights lawyers who had organized the mission to talk to policymakers in Washington. We met with the State Department and key committees in Congress, as well as the press. Partly as a result of these concerns, Congress decided to continue its hold on $55 million in military aid. This is the aid from 2006 that is subject to the human rights conditions in law; the State Department has not yet certified that Colombia meets the human rights conditions for 2007. This means, as Colombian daily El Tiempo put it, that $110 million in U.S. military aid for Colombia is “in the freezer.” While it remains on hold, the State Department and Embassy are obliged to raise with the Colombian government these human rights concerns and ask them to ensure all cases go to civilian courts—and to stop these killings.