Mar 02

Apologies for the light posting this week. I’ve written two articles for two other outlets in the last two days, which has left no time for blog entries. (I’ll link to those articles when they appear.)

Instead, here is a cross-post of a Colombia-related podcast produced for the CIP-LAWG-WOLA “Just the Facts” program. It’s an interview with Roxana Altholz of the University of California at Berkeley Law School Human Rights Clinic, author of “Truth Behind Bars,” a hard-hitting report on 30 Colombian paramilitary leaders’ extradition to the United States, which has complicated efforts to win justice for their victims. (The report was summarized in a recent entry to this blog.)


Feb 17


It’s been almost two years since the Colombian government extradited most of the old AUC paramilitary leadership to the United States to face drug charges. While it is positive to see these once-powerful warlords behind bars, they are here to be tried for narcotrafficking only — not for the thousands of murders and other human rights crimes for which they are responsible.

The extraditions have brought nearly two years of additional frustration for victims trying to recover stolen property or learn what happened to their loved ones; for prosecutors trying to dismantle the paramilitaries’ criminal networks; and for investigators trying to determine who in Colombia’s politics and armed forces gave the murderous militias support, funding and arms.

The Berkeley Law School’s International Human Rights Law Clinic released a report yesterday that is by far the best source of information and analysis on what has happened since the extraditions began. “Truth behind Bars: Colombian Paramilitary Leaders in U.S. Custody” (PDF) lays out the apparently inadvertent damage that the extraditions have done to the cause of truth and justice in Colombia. It also, however, recommends workable steps that the U.S. and Colombian governments might take to set things right.

Here are just a few excerpts from the report. Download the full 4.1MB PDF file here.

Most extradited paramilitaries have dropped out of the “Justice and Peace” process, and thus do not have to speak to Colombian authorities at all.

Only five of the thirty Defendants have continued their voluntary statements at the Justice and Peace hearings from the United States. Defendant Salvatore Mancuso participated in four version libre confession sessions from the United States, more than the other extradited leaders. During these sessions, he detailed several massacres and trade unionist murders. However, on September 30, 2009, Mancuso announced his decision to withdraw from the process. His announcement came three days after fellow extradited AUC leader Diego Murillo Bejarano made a similar announcement. In letters to Colombian authorities, both Defendants cited unexplained delays, the inability to confer with subordinates, and threats to family members in Colombia as the reasons for their decisions. Colombian authorities have confirmed the difficulties in securing the Defendants’ continued participation. Of thirty-nine hearing requests made by Colombian authorities during a five- month period, only ten were satisfied.

Victims are cut out almost completely. U.S. prosecutors have chosen not to apply the Crime Victims Rights Act (CVRA).

To preserve victim involvement in the Justice and Peace process, Colombian and U.S. authorities initially planned for Defendants to testify via video conference for viewing by accredited victims in Colombia. In practice, however, Colombian authorities have cancelled several transmissions because of lack of funds. Similarly, U.S. custody of Defendants has frustrated victims’ ability to question perpetrators directly, as stipulated by the Justice and Peace Law. …

Colombian victims have been unable to pursue economic redress against Defendants through the U.S. criminal proceedings. In theory, victims are eligible to collect compensation from Defendants and to inform the terms of a plea bargain and eventual sentence under the U.S. Crime Victims Rights Act (CVRA). However, U.S. prosecutors have opposed the efforts of Colombian victims to intervene and have refused to acknowledge them as victims under the statute. This approach prevents victims from even learning of the status of the prosecutions of Defendants.

The extraditions have effectively blocked other judicial investigations aiming to dismantle paramilitarism and punish collaborators, including the “para-politics” investigations. U.S. officials aren’t even responding to information requests coming from Colombian prosecutors and even Supreme Court justices. Those who helped the paramilitaries now have little reason to fear that the extradited leaders might reveal their identities.

Colombian investigations outside the Justice and Peace process have been stymied by the extradition of Defendants. At the direction of the United States, Colombia has forwarded all requests for judicial cooperation to the justice attaché at the U.S. Embassy. However, Colombian judges
and prosecutors report that U.S. officials have not been sufficiently responsive. Transmission of information has been delayed and cancellations of exchanges are frequent. In a May 21, 2009 letter to a Colombian non-governmental organization, the Colombian Human Rights Unit identified fifty-four unanswered requests for judicial assistance. … Colombia’s Supreme Court has encountered similar difficulties. For instance, since late 2008, the Supreme Court has made multiple requests to take statements from Defendants, including AUC leaders Carlos Jiménez Naranjo, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, and Diego Murillo Bejarano. However, as of October 28, 2009, U.S. authorities had not responded.

The report has three recommendations for the U.S. government.

  • Create an effective and efficient procedure for judicial cooperation. The United States should review current policy to identify the cause of delays in responding to requests for cooperation. New procedures should ensure that U.S. authorities share information with and respond to requests by Colombian authorities in a timely manner to minimize any impact of the extraditions on open investigations in Colombia.
  • Incentivize extradited paramilitary leaders to disclose details about all their crimes and the identities of their accomplices in the military, government and national and foreign businesses. The United States should actively encourage extradited leaders to testify about their crimes and allies by conditioning sentence reductions or other benefits achieved through plea-bargaining on effective cooperation. Possible benefits of cooperation should include provision of visas to family members of Defendants under threat in Colombia. … The U.S. Department of Justice should reverse its current policy of taking “no position” on whether Defendants should cooperate with Colombian authorities.
  • Initiate investigations for torture committed by extradited paramilitary leaders. [P]ursuant to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. has ratified, the State Party in whose territory an alleged torturer is found has a duty to either extradite that individual, or to “submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution.” This duty is also supported by U.S. domestic anti-torture legislation. … The United States should hold extradited leaders accountable for all their crimes under federal law, including torture, and promote justice for Colombian victims.
Oct 26
On the road outside Puerto Asís. (I don’t have a Villa Sandra picture.)

The following two paragraphs come from a report (PDF) we published following a 2006 visit to the department of Putumayo, in southern Colombia.

A few miles north of Puerto Asís, close to the large military base in the crossroads town of Santana, sits “Villa Sandra,” a large compound with a big house, a pond and recreational facilities. Six years ago, during the paramilitaries’ bloody takeover of Putumayo’s town centers, and then during the beginning of Plan Colombia’s execution, Villa Sandra was the paramilitaries’ center of operations. Everyone in Puerto Asís – except, apparently, the military and police – knew that the paras were headquartered there, and that many who were forcibly brought there never left the premises.

During our 2001 visit to Putumayo, Villa Sandra was very much in use. When we returned in 2004, it was abandoned, and remains so now, its facilities in evident disrepair behind a high chain-link fence. Many in Putumayo believe that an inspection of the compound’s grounds would reveal much about the paramilitaries’ activities in the zone – including, in some likelihood, mass graves. That Villa Sandra remains untouched and uninvestigated is eloquent evidence of the paramilitaries’ continued influence over Putumayo, despite the recent demobilizations.

The existence of the “Villa Sandra” paramilitary base, right on the main road outside Putumayo’s largest city, was no secret in 2000-2001. At that time, the AUC paramilitaries were in the midst of a horrifying string of massacres of the civilian population in Putumayo, with no opposition from Colombia’s security forces.

Also at that time, the United States was just getting started with “Plan Colombia,” at the time a campaign of military and police assistance, purportedly for counternarcotics, whose “ground zero” in this initial phase was Putumayo.

As U.S. military money poured into Putumayo, groups like ours loudly denounced the local armed forces and police units’ quite open collaboration with the paramilitaries, even as the AUC carried out a bloodbath in the zone.

  • Human Rights Watch published an extensive investigation into paramilitary ties to Putumayo’s security forces, which mentioned Villa Sandra, the paramilitary base, by name.
  • We denounced the presence of Villa Sandra in two reports and in all interactions with U.S. government officials.
  • The BBC reported on how one could easily arrive at the base just by hailing a taxi in Puerto Asís.
  • Amnesty International mentioned Villa Sandra in testimony before a U.S. congressional committee.
  • On the floor of the Senate in October 2001, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota) demanded, “Close Hacienda Villa Sandra, a base about one mile north of Puerto Asís, the largest town in Putumayo. Is this too much to ask?”

None of these efforts made a difference. U.S. military and police funding continued to pour into Putumayo, supporting a Joint Task Force headed by the highly questioned Gen. Mario Montoya in what the Clinton administration’s drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, called “The Push Into Southern Colombia.” The paramilitary campaign of terror proceeded apace, killing thousands, displacing tens of thousands, and – if the strength of FARC fronts operating in Putumayo today is any indication – doing little to weaken the guerrillas. And Villa Sandra remained open for business.

Last Wednesday, the “Verdad Abierta” website, a collaboration between Semana magazine and several think-tanks and international donor agencies, posted an article about Villa Sandra. Citing testimony from a demobilized paramilitary member, it confirms the worst about how the base was used, the number of bodies that are probably buried there, and the level of collaboration the paramilitaries received from the local military and police.

As you read these translated excerpts below, keep in mind that all of this was happening while a specially vetted Colombian Army Counter-Narcotics Battalion, set up in 1999-2000 entirely with U.S. funds, was operating at a base perhaps half a mile away.

Villa Sandra offers eloquent testimony to why assurances from the U.S. and Colombian governments that human rights protections are in place, and that the situation is improving, simply can’t be taken at face value. Such official claims must always be carefully and independently verified. Villa Sandra also reminds us that the victims of what happened during Plan Colombia’s first phase in Putumayo need far more truth, justice, reparations and protection than they are currently getting.

Investigation of possible mass grave with 800 cadavers in Puerto Asís

Verdad Abierta, October 21, 2009

On a farm in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, the paramilitaries apparently buried more than 800 people who were killed by the Southern Front of Putumayo.

The victims’ remains may be found at a farm called Villa Sandra, where the paramilitaries installed one of their bases of operations during their consolidation process in southern Colombia in January 1998.

This is according to testimony given to prosecutors of the Justice and Peace Unit [of the Prosecutor-General's Office] in Medellín by John Jairo Rentería Zúñiga, alias “Betún,” who was part of the Southern Front of Putumayo created in 1998 with members of the Bananero Bloc of the Campesino Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) at the orders of paramilitary chief Carlos Castaño, and commanded by alias “Rafa Putumayo.”

“At that farm we had a permanent group, and that is where those from town brought the people they were going to kill, they handed them over, they executed them and they buried them over there. There are a lot of people in graves, I believe some 800 people,” said alias “Betún”…

According to the ex-paramilitary, this land was donated to the ACCU by its owner, so that they could install their base of operations there. Asked why they chose to bury their victims there, “Betún” explained that it owed to a suggestion from the Puerto Asís police: “They asked us the favor of not killing any more people in town, because it created problems for them, so they gave the order that anyone they wanted to kill should be brought to the farm and buried there.”

Dozens of victims who were killed at the paramilitaries’ hands were accused of being presumed FARC militia members or informants by the business owners of Puerto Asís: “They knew where we lived and they had our telephone numbers. They called us every so often to inform us that there were militias in town, so we captured them and brought them to Villa Sandra. The majority of the people who died in Puerto Asís were because of the local businesspeople.”

One of this paramilitary front’s most macabre actions was its compliance, without discussion, of orders to cut their victims up into pieces. “We had to dismember the people. First we chopped their hands off, later their feet and finally the head. Many times this was done while people were still alive. Nobody could be buried whole,” according to the former ACCU patroller. …

According to calculations from the Prosecutor-General’s Office, it is estimated that more than 3,000 people are buried in mass graves in Putumayo. …

The expansion of the Southern Front of Putumayo, according to Rentería Zúñiga’s testimony, had the help of the security forces based in the department. According to the demobilized paramilitary member, the police, the army and the navy involved themselves for several years with the paramilitaries, with the argument that “they shared the same cause.” …

“So we decided to coordinate with them. Initially, they told us to stay on the edge of town, later they told us that we could stay in the town, and we came in uniform. Also, they came to our base and rode in our cars, and we rode in their cars too,” explained the defendant, who insisted during his testimony that he did not remember names of officers or sub-officers, or of battalions or military units.

During their operations, he said, the army’s roadblocks were raised so that they could transit with no problems, and “When we needed some support, they were there, and when they needed support they’d ask it of us. Meetings were held with their commanders and our commanders, and we had our radio frequencies coordinated.”

The demobilized paramilitary fighter spoke of two helicopters, apparently from the Army, which several times supplied them with weapons, ammunition and uniforms in exchange for cocaine.

Oct 20
Francisco Santos. (Photo source and article link)

The former paramilitary chief [Salvatore Mancuso] stated that [Vice President Francisco] Santos … also met several times with the paramilitaries’ leaders and that “I was surprised because I noticed how much he identified with the cause” and because “he told [AUC paramilitary leader Carlos] Castaño that he liked the model (of self-defense groups) in [the northern Colombian department of] Córdoba and that he would like to see it repeated in Bogotá.” In one of these meetings, Mancuso continued, “Castaño proposed to Santos that he be the commander of the Capital Bloc, but he turned him down, saying that he did not know about such things.”

That, as recounted by Colombia’s Semana magazine in 2007, was the essence of a series of exchanges between Francisco Santos, Colombia’s vice-president, and top paramilitary leaders about a decade ago. At the time, Santos was an editor at Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper and a leading anti-kidnapping activist. The allegation that Vice President Santos, who holds the Uribe administration’s human rights portfolio, urged the paramilitaries to set up a unit in Bogotá, comes from 2007 testimony to “Justice and Peace” prosecutors by Salvatore Mancuso, a paramount leader of the disbanded United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Mancuso has since been extradited to the United States, where he awaits trial in a Virginia jail cell.

Santos insists that the comment was a joke – a joke in terrible taste. There is no known evidence that Santos followed up on his suggestion. Another top paramilitary leader, Freddy Rendón (alias “El Alemán“) has testified that while he met with Santos, he did not discuss the “Capital Bloc” idea. While a “Capital Bloc” of the paramilitaries later appeared, under the command of “Centaurs Bloc” leader Miguel Arroyave, it seemed to be largely focused on illicit fundraising: extortion and drug-dealing in poor Colombian neighborhoods, and involvement in sectors like bus transportation, food distribution and black-market items like pirated DVDs.

Still, Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía), which closed an investigation of Santos in August 2008, announced yesterday that it was re-opening its probe. The decision made headlines in Colombia yesterday, drawing attention to Santos, who said he would cooperate with the prosecutors’ investigation.

It is unlikely that the investigators will find that Francisco Santos was a mastermind of paramilitary expansion. It may find, however, that the vice president’s words and attitude toward the paramilitary leadership were friendlier and more supportive than he would ever acknowledge in public.

Just as 2007 photos of herself wearing a black beret and posing with FARC negotiators were a setback for leftist Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, revelations of bonhomie and camaraderie with the mass-murdering paramilitaries could be deeply embarrassing to Francisco Santos.

Jun 02

Here are translated excerpts from an interview with extradited paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, given at the DC Jail where he is being held pending trial. The interview was the cover story in last Thursday’s edition of the Colombian newsweekly Cambio. Thanks to CIP Intern Cynthia Arévalo for the translation help.

According to the Government, you were playing around with the process…

Look, I am going to give you a “scoop.” The prosecutor-general, Mario Iguarán, and the attorney in charge of my case said in this same prison that there was no evidence that I, in particular, had committed any criminal offense when I was in the Itagüí prison [between December 2006 and his May 2008 extradition]. They said that if that evidence had in fact existed, I would have been out of “Justicia y Paz” [the Justice and Peace process], and I’m still in “Justicia y Paz.”

If, like you said, you weren’t committing any crimes, then why do you believe you were extradited?

The government got scared by what many commanders were doing and because we were reconstructing the truth. I decided to tell all of those who had worked with me to tell the truth, and in the stand I also told some of it.

I reported, to [government peace commissioner Luis Carlos] Restrepo, to the OAS and to the church, that there were 6,000 people re-armed in Córdoba and Catatumbo. But some AUC commanders said they wouldn’t talk because they had been threatened. I was left alone. That truth worried many businessmen, political leaders and others in the economic sector. There had to be some kind of pressure for the government to extradite us all. But if there were commanders who failed [to honor the Justice and Peace terms], we should say as well that the government failed because they ruined any hopes for peace in Colombia.

With you all extradited while trying to negotiate with U.S. Justice, is there any possibility of rebuilding the process and giving reparations to the victims?

My attorneys and I are determined to continue with the reconstruction of the truth as well as with reparations to the victims. However, I want to clarify that when the government extradited me, they said through the Minister of Justice that the agreements and mechanisms existed to allow the process to continue. That is a big lie and what we have done so far owes to the goodwill of the district attorneys in the United States and “Justicia y Paz” in Colombia [the Justice and Peace Unit of the prosecutor-general's office]. The government extradited us, and they will have to figure out what to do in order to avoid impunity and fulfill reparations.

Will the whole truth be known someday?

It is us, the commanders, who hold the important truth, with our extradition to the United States they extradited the truth. The law they passed sought retaliation. For example, when I said that Carlos Castaño and I met with the ex minister [of defense] Juan Manuel Santos in order to promote a coup d’etat against President Ernesto Samper, the minister of Interior said that people should not believe a criminal like Mancuso. The truth is stigmatized and generates rejection from society.

Which of the truths you revealed have not had any effect?

The coexistence of active and retired military, as well as of important political figures, who are presidential candidates today, with the AUC.

Like who?

They know.

In Colombia there is a controversy over an iPod you owned, apparently, that has dozens of recorded conversations with politicians and officials. Some of these conversations have already been revealed. What is the truth about this device?

Evidentlly it was the iPod where I stored the files of my processes in the Colombian courts and the records of the reconstruction of historical truth. I left it in my cell in Itagüí and the INPEC [Colombian government prisons institute] took it. When they returned all my belongings they did not return it, and some judicial authorities have added to the charges against me part of what was recorded there. But these could have been manipulated, added or edited, and therefore I do not acknowledge these recordings. The last I heard, this ipod was being put on sale in Colombia.

You said that the AUC had control of 30 percent of Congress. Right now, there are 68 who have been investigated, nine of whom have been convicted. Are there more?

There are many more, and some commanders have not yet completed their testimonies. And I don’t think that they will do so until they arrange their affairs with the United States. That is the problem of extradition.

What politicians are not detained for their ties to the AUC?

There were many people involved. For example, in early 2002 in a country estate in ‘Macaco’ in Piamonte, near Taraza, there was a big meeting where ‘Cuco’ Vanoy, Vicente Castano, ‘Don Berna’, ‘Macaco’, ‘Julián Bolívar’ ’Ernesto Báez’, ‘Diego Vecino’ and I attended, as well as Colonel (Ret.) Hugo Aguilar (former governor of Santander) and ‘ El Tuerto’ Gil (former Senator Luis Alberto Gil, investigated for para-politics).

What was the meeting for?

For electoral support that some politicians were seeking at that time from the “Bloque Central Bolivar” in six or seven departments.

Why do you recall the presence of Gil and Aguilar in particular?

Because Aguilar presented himself as the person who had killed Pablo Escobar, and I recall Gil because he was with the colonel.

Is it true that one of the largest meetings of polititians and the AUC was on an estate called “La 21?”

Yes, the estate “La 21” was owned by Carlos Castaño, located between San Pedro de Urabá and Valencia. There was a big meeting as well in “La 15” with Vicente Castaño. It was two or three days of meetings towards the end of 2001.

What happened at the meeting in “La 21?”

Carlos Castaño called all commanders to a meeting because “Ernesto Baez,” political leader of the Bloque Central Bolívar, wanted to propose the creation of a “single [candidate] list” for Congress headed by Rocío Arias and Carlos Clavijo. This initiative failed to pass because ‘Jorge 40′ and I said that the AUC acted as a federation, and that each region had its own needs.

And in the meeting at “La 15” what happened?

In the meeting at “La 15,” according to what Vicente Castaño told me, it was with farmers and businessmen from the region. Vicente asked them to support Uribe’s campaign for the presidency.

What do you remember in particular from those meetings?

I remember Juan José Chaux in particular (former governor of Cauca and former ambassador). He was the only one whom I did not know who came to give a speech. He said that his grandfather or great-grandfather had been president, that they had belonged to the legal “self-defense groups” created by Guillermo León Valencia and that they had always been against the guerrillas. At that time he was dealing with the kidnapping of a relative by the AUC. I also recall seeing Carlos Clavijo.

The speech you refer to was in favor of the AUC?

Yes, [Chaux] completely identified himself with the AUC. ‘H.H.’ (Hernando Hernandez, an AUC leader) was so proud, he presented him as the political representative of the Calima [which was based in Valle del Cauca and Cauca departments in southwestern Colombia].

Is it true that former Deputy Director of DAS [the presidential intelligence service] Miguel Narvaez, involved in scandals for the paramilitary infiltration of that office, attended meetings of the AUC?

Narváez is a very structured man who collaborated with the AUC on ideological issues. He was a professor at the “Escuela Superior de Guerra” and taught classes to officers. He was in meetings with Carlos Castano, ‘Jorge 40′, ‘El Alemán’ and me. In our training schools he spoke to the cadres about command structure. He delivered ideological indoctrination to our men in either 1996 or 1998.

How did he get involved with the AUC? Did he get any form of payment for the classes?

Through Commander Castaño, but I don’t know how they met. When he arrived in the area I would sometimes send someone to pick him up at the airport in Montería. I never knew of any payment for his work.

When Narváez came to work in the DAS, what did you think?

That the guerrillas would have a serious problem with this man because of his knowledge of the conflict.

Narváez pursued the guerrillas and he would turn a blind eye to the AUC?

He identified ideologically with the AUC, so this was likely to happen. But these are only assumptions, because can’t really know what he thought.

There are allegations that when the DAS was under the administration of Jorge Noguera, he favored the AUC and his subordinates would pass information to ‘ Jorge 40 ‘…

I am not aware of Jorge Noguera’s relations with the AUC, but with the DAS we had relationships long before, as well as with the Police and Army. To give just one example, the director of the DAS in Cúcuta, Jorge Diaz, was a self-defense group leader. We operated in his cars as did the Police and Military. These were used to transport our troops.

Diego Fernando Murillo, ‘Don Berna’, said, while he was in the United States, the AUC endorsed the nomination of today’s mayor of Medellin, Alonso Salazar, as well as that of President Uribe… What do you know about that?

Politically speaking, I was chief of negotiations for the AUC , however I was not responsible for the decisions of each bloc and therefore would not be able to say what kind of pacts or agreements were reached. But I can say that the vast majority of us supported Uribe because those were the instructions we received from commanders and we did so in all departments with influence of the Northern Bloc [commanded by 'Jorge 40'].

What were these instructions?

Because Uribe’s ideological discourse was very much like ours but within a framework of legality, we decided to support him immediately. We asked people in the towns if they had listened to Uribe and what he was promising to do. Their answer was yes, so we said we would support him and we ‘directed’ the populations to vote for him. There were no direct arrangements, I would lie if I said there were.

Mar 13

Here is a helpful English overview of Colombia’s Victims’ Law, which will go into its final debate in the country’s House of Representatives next month. It was prepared by the bill’s principal sponsor, Liberal Party Senator Juan Fernando Cristo.

Sen. Cristo is alarmed that – as the document explains – the Colombian government has moved to weaken key sections of the legislation. If the Uribe administration gets its way, victims of the state security forces – including relatives of people “extrajudicially executed” by the Colombian Army in recent years – would have no access to a special procedure to speed reparations for victims.

Sen. Cristo and the bill’s other proponents want the international community to register their support for the legislation in its original form, as Colombia’s Senate approved it last June. The summary follows. Please share it.

Colombia’s Victims’ Rights Act

Since the 1960s, the South American nation of Colombia has been embroiled in a complex armed conflict involving leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries, and narcotrafficking organizations. In a country of 45 million people, the violence has killed many tens of thousands, forced more than 4 million into internal displacement, and led to the theft of as many as 17 million acres of land. In many parts of the country, the conflict is little more than a cycle of victimization, grievance and revenge that feeds on itself, making a final resolution of the violence ever more difficult.

Breaking this cycle requires a Colombian government policy to provide truth, reparations and restitution to the conflict’s victims. A group of members of Colombia’s Congress is sponsoring a Victims’ Rights Act that would provide a legal framework for such a policy.

It would be the first “victims’ law” that Colombia has ever had, after decades of amnesty laws and sentence reductions that have sought to induce victimizers to demobilize, without any consideration of victims’ rights.

What is the “Victims’ Law”?

  • A bill presented in Colombia’s Congress in October 2007 by an important group of senators.
  • It would benefit all Colombians who, during the past 40 years of armed conflict, have suffered damage or injury that caused, whether temporarily or permanently, collectively or individually:
    • Death or disappearance;
    • Physical disability;
    • Psychological harm;
    • Emotional suffering;
    • Financial loss;
    • Denial of fundamental rights; or
    • Violations of international human rights norms or serious international humanitarian law violations.
  • Benefits would be made available without regard to the identity of the victimizer (guerrillas, paramilitaries, or Colombia’s state).
  • Benefits would also apply to victims’ relatives, spouses, permanent companions or same-sex partners.

Who supports it?

  • The bill was supported in Colombia’s Senate by all parties and political movements.
  • It has received public backing from:
    • National and international human rights organizations;
    • Victims’ organizations;
    • Agencies in the Colombian state charged with protecting and promoting human rights, like the Inspector-General (Procuraduría) and Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo);
    • The Catholic church in Colombia; and
    • International organizations like the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
  • USAID’s MIDAS program (”More Investment for Sustainable Alternative Development”) had worked arduously to elaborate a proposal to return stolen land to victims through administrative procedures. The Victims’ Rights Act incorporates much of this proposal, which would provide a quick and effective solution to the main challenge to providing reparations: the return of stolen assets.
  • The UN system supported the bill’s development, including funding a series of consultations in nine regions of Colombia with more than 4,000 victims, who gave testimony about their tragedies and made concrete proposals about how the bill would benefit them.

Why does it deserve support?

  • It is a universal law. All victims, without discrimination, would benefit, whether they be victims of the paramilitaries, the guerrillas, or state agents. With no additional burdens, and without regard to the victimizer’s identity. Victims would need only to accredit themselves through an easy process that presumes their good faith. They would face no deadlines for making their request, because the conflict is still ongoing.
  • The bill views reparation as holistic and complete, not just an economic payment of damages. It also includes other measures like restitution, rehabilitation, and guarantees of non-repetition.
  • The bill views reparation as separate from the economic, social and cultural rights applicable to all citizens. While Colombia’s state is expected to help all citizens, particularly the poor, to improve their lives, victims’ right to reparations goes beyond standard government assistance.
  • The bill creates mechanisms for the rapid return of stolen assets to affected populations. One of these is a reversal of the burden of proof: victims would not have to prove that their lands were usurped. Instead, holders of disputed land titles would have to demonstrate that they acquired them legally. Another proposal is the creation of zones of priority attention, geographical regions where victims of forced displacement would receive urgent assistance to recover their assets through an administrative mechanism.
  • To speed restitution, the bill would strengthen the Reparations Fund, which was created by the 2005 Justice and Peace Law, by making it the recipient of all proceeds from the sale of assets seized from narcotraffickers.
  • The bill would create a Land Truth Commission, which would investigate the most serious episodes of forced displacement and land theft, document their patterns and dynamics, issue technical recommendations to government agencies, and create and protect archives and databases about what its investigations uncover.
  • The bill would create a Historical Memory Center with a museum, a general archive of the conflict, medals and recognitions for victims and their relatives, and the promulgation of a National Day of Solidarity with Victims.
  • The bill would reorganize state agencies charged with providing attention and reparations to victims, by designing a National System of Integrated Aid, Assistance and Attention, and another for Reparations. This would avoid duplication of functions, while improving the quality of attention to victims, the clarity of information provided to them, and oversight of state agencies. It would ensure that victims know the route they must take, both geographically and within the government, to achieve resolution. It would include training of government officials with responsibility for providing victims with social, psychological and legal assistance. These two systems would have an operational plan including the restitution of family life, employment, freedom and dignity, as well as voluntary, safe and dignified return to places of origin.
  • The bill contemplates sanctions for officials who place obstacles in the way of, or otherwise delay, the procedures by which victims seek reparations.
  • The bill contemplates providing a differentiated focus for victims who are women, children, elderly, homosexual, afro-Colombian or indigenous.
  • The bill would create a monitoring commission to provide oversight of the law’s execution. This commission would be made up of representatives of the executive branch, state oversight agencies, and non-governmental organizations.

Legislative background

The Colombian Senate approved the Victims’ Rights Act described here, with the support of both pro-government and opposition parties, in June 2008. It then passed to the House of Representatives where, during its third debate in November 2008, it suddenly encountered government opposition to some of its central provisions.

The Álvaro Uribe administration, and the pro-government legislative majority, objected to the inclusion of victims who had suffered at the hands of the state security forces. They argued that doing so would place the government on equal moral footing with Colombia’s illegal armed groups, which would harm the armed forces’ morale. Colombia’s executive branch also rejected provisions in the law recognizing the government’s responsibility to guarantee victims’ permanent right to reparations, establishing the presumption of the victim’s good faith, and interpreting state jurisdictional questions in the victim’s favor. The three latter principles had been promoted by the United Nations.

Discriminating among victims according to their victimizer, however, would contravene international standards for reparation and restitution of victims. In Colombia, it would mean that victims of the security forces would have to seek redress through the regular justice system, which moves so slowly that cases are routinely not resolved for ten years, if at all. While direct victims of the state are a small minority of the conflict’s total number of victims, many have very urgent claims. They include the relatives of hundreds of civilians whose bodies have appeared throughout Colombia over the past few years. These victims, according to widespread allegations and dozens of criminal cases and firings of officers, were killed by members of Colombia’s Army seeking to present them as illegal armed-group members killed in combat.

The Victims’ Rights Act will be debated a fourth and final time in April 2009, and will then go to a vote and reconciliation between Colombia’s House and Senate. Before then, it is important that the international community accompany the Colombian conflict’s victims by supporting a legal framework that provides restitution and reparations to all of the conflict’s victims, without regard to the identity of the victimizer, in accordance with international standards defined by the United Nations.

Oct 08

Here, thanks to an excellent translation from CIP Intern Anthony Dest, is the text of an article that appeared this weekend in the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. It summarizes the “Justice and Peace” testimony of Raúl Hasbún, a shadowy businessman and paramilitary leader who was a key player in the AUC’s bloody late-1990s expansion in the northwestern region of Urabá. Hasbún was the key connection for the payments that Chiquita Brands, the U.S. fruit company, admitted making to the paramilitaries.

Perhaps most striking about this article is how thoroughly it confirms what Colombia’s human-rights defenders were alleging at the time about paramilitary ties with the military, local government and the regional business establishment. At the time, of course, those allegations were fiercely denied by all involved.

Hasbún’s Confessions

The businessman turned paramilitary boss told the attorney general’s office revealing secrets about a gruesome chapter in the history of Urabá, Colombia’s banana growing region.

The day that Raúl Hasbún arrived at the office of Pedro Juan Moreno, the government secretary of the then governor of Antioquia, Álvaro Uribe, he left with more than he expected. Hasbún, a businessman in the banana industry, relayed to Moreno the interest of various Urabá land-owning farmers in creating a government-sponsored surveillance cooperative, a “CONVIVIR,” in the region. Moreno, however, told him not to create just one, but twelve. In a few months, Urabá had twelve CONVIVIR units that consisted of 150 people, 800 radios, cars, and weapons.

Throughout the mid-1990s CONVIVIR had the support of the national government. The issue was, however, that Hasbún was not only the owner of banana plantations and extensive cattle ranches, but he had also become commander ‘Pedro Ponte’ of the Campesino Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU).

In his own “Justice and Peace” confession (which began in July), he did not hesitate to admit to giving the order to kill people who ’smelled like guerrillas.’ Without blinking, he confessed to the San José de Apartadó massacre of 1998. He said he ordered the massacre because the town was so secluded, and the logistics of getting there were so difficult, that it wasn’t worth it to make an incursion just to kill one or two people. Therefore, in order to make the most out of the trip, they killed the largest amount of people that could possibly be associated with the FARC.

How did the owner of more that 4,000 hectares of land become a criminal? According to him, he once tried to sell a farm, but no one wanted to buy it because there were so many guerrillas in Urabá. Disappointed because his wealth was diminishing and he was being extorted by the guerrillas, he searched for someone who could introduce him to Fidel Castaño, who already had a paramilitary group in Urabá, so that he could offer Castaño his help. He was soon invited to a farm where he met Carlos and Vicente Castaño. From that moment on he began to collaborate with the paramilitaries. Soon afterwards in 1996, the Castaño brothers put him in charge of a group of forty armed men.

Without sacrificing the image of a respectable business man, Hasbún became the head of a bloody and ambitious paramilitary group that worked under the guide of Vicente Castaño. Hasbún used information that he gathered from CONVIVIR units for the purposes of the paramilitary group. He said that the twelve CONVIVIR groups in Urabá worked as a network. The information that they gathered was sent directly to him, as a paramilitary head, at the same time that it was sent to the military and police. The paramilitary groups generally carried out the operations because they had better resources. “On one occasion, the CONVIVIR gave the military the exact location of some guerrillas. When the military decided to act, two trucks were out of gas and one had a dead battery. As soon as they were about to leave, it turned out that they didn’t have radios. Finally, they decided not to carry out the operation.” According to Hasbún, the CONVIVIR paid for the military’s gas and allowed the police and DAS [the Colombian intelligence agency] to borrow cars and even radio transmitters. When intelligence was not able to arrest and try someone, the paramilitary groups would receive the information and immediately kill the person.

This was all possible because the system that the paramilitaries had created made the CONVIVIR units incredibly rich. According to Hasbún, “[they] had a huge influx of money. Millions and millions of pesos.” Hasbún carried out every order that Vicente Castaño gave him, which guaranteed that all of the money that he took would either go to CONVIVIR or to the paramilitaries. Carlos Castaño had many meetings with companies working in the banana industry, and he was able to reach an agreement where the companies would pay CONVIVIR three percent of every box of bananas exported. This money was collected by the CONVIVIR in Papagayo, which was managed by Arnulfo Peñuela, who is now in prison for his relationship with the paramilitary groups. These payments continued until 2003 in cases such as that of Chiquita Brands, a company that has since recognized that it financed the paramilitary groups in Urabá this way. Even though Hasbún denies it, other paramilitary leaders assure that one of every three cents collected by the CONVIVIR went to the paramilitary groups.

Hasbún insists that very few people in the banana industry knew of his double life as a businessman and a paramilitary, but people who lived in the region during that time period say otherwise. Everyone knew that Raúl Hasbún, owner of more than five farms and the legal representative of many units of the CONVIVIR, was ‘Pedro Ponte,’ commander of the paramilitary groups that ordered the murders and massacres that made Urabá the most violent region in the country.

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Aug 27

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, accompanied by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, is visiting Colombia during an especially agitated week.

The international representatives’ observation visit is taking place in the midst of a worsening conflict between President Álvaro Uribe and his country’s Supreme Court, which is investigating ties between paramilitary death squads and dozens of politicians, most of them Uribe’s supporters. The brother of the interior minister, until recently the chief prosecutor in Medellín, is facing allegations that he is linked to one of the country’s principal fugitive narcotraffickers and sponsors of “new” paramilitary groups. The country’s main newsmagazine revealed Sunday that paramilitary representatives had meetings in Colombia’s presidential palace earlier this year to discuss ways to discredit the Supreme Court’s investigations. And President Uribe has responded to the pressure by launching pointed verbal attacks on journalists and opposition politicians.

Here are translations of two columns that capture the present moment well. Both appeared in the Colombian daily El Espectador. The first, published today, is from veteran Colombian journalist Cecilia Orozco. The second, published yesterday, comes from César Rodríguez of the judicial-reform think-tank DeJuSticia.

Suicidal Desperation
By Cecilia Orozco Tascón
El Espectador, August 27, 2008

International Criminal Court Prosector Luis Moreno Ocampo and Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón found quite a spectacle upon arriving in the country:

  • The President of the Republic, live on television, shows a video reconfirming that two shady individuals tied to the narco-paramilitary “Don Berna” entered the “Casa de Nari” in their own vehicle, a privilege before reserved only for ambassadors and high-ranking personalities. ["Casa de Nari" is how the paramilitary representatives, in recorded conversations, referred to the presidential palace, the Casa de Nariño.]
  • The President of the Republic, speaking before some intimidated reporters at a press conference, says that there is “trafficking in false witnesses” at the Supreme Court; that [Supreme Court "para-politics" investigator] magistrate Iván Velásquez (whose mere existence is becoming a dangerous obsession for him) “gets drunk” with other witnesses; that Senator [Gustavo] Petro, from the Democratic Pole opposition, “manipulates” still more witnesses.
  • The President of the Republic states that the Prosecutor-General’s Office handed down a politicized finding in the case of “Tasmania,” probably because it found that case to have been an attempt to frame ["para-politics" investigator] Velásquez. ["Tasmania" was the nickname of a former paramilitary who, in a letter that Uribe read in a press conference last October, alleged that Velásquez had tried to induce him to testify against the president. "Tasmania" retracted this claim in June, explaining that his lawyer had put him up to it.]
  • The President of the Republic also criticizes Prosecutor-General [Mario] Iguarán because his entity is infiltrated by the mafia and because “it did not react” to the corrupt acts of [Guillermo] Valencia Cossio [the interior minister's scandal-tarred brother].
  • The President of the Republic accuses ex-president César Gaviria, head of the Liberal Party opposition, of having allied during his term with the “Los Pepes” gang. ["Pepes" = "People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar," a hit squad formed in the early 1990s by the Cali cartel, whose members included individuals who would become top paramilitary leaders later in the decade.]
  • The President of the Republic orders an investigation of journalist Daniel Coronell for covering up “crimes.” [Coronell had interviewed Yidis Medina, a one-term congresswoman who had confessed to him that her tie-breaking committee vote, which allowed President Uribe to run for re-election in 2006, came in exchange for bribes and favors.]

On the other side the Court, Magistrate Velásquez, Senator Petro, the Prosecutor-General, César Gaviria, Coronell and, behind him, several journalists’ organizations, respond to these aggressions, making use of their legitimate right to presumed innocence. All of these taking place on the same day.

Moreno and Garzón, the representatives of international justice, must have been stupefied by the spectacle… and convinced that the black episodes that shake the country cannot be resolved internally because, under the present circumstances, there are no guarantees that anyone here can act with autonomy and liberty: neither the magistrates, nor the prosecutors, nor the politicians, nor the independent journalists. What a great paradox the President has provided, or perhaps, has crafted for his own enjoyment! Democratic security has allowed him to place the guerrillas on the verge of defeat and to demobilize – albeit partially – the paramilitaries, the reasons why he has awakened – until now – the nation’s almost unanimous admiration. But it was not enough for him to cloak Establishment Colombians, in whose name he serves as head of state, with a climate of tranquility and respect.

In his senseless decision to avoid democratic controls, he has been firing buckshot at anything that moves, and he gives the impression of reacting with the suicidal desperation of someone who has been cornered. Unfortunately his tactic of distraction in order not to contaminate himself with the double scandal covering his government – the shady messengers’ visits to the Palace, which will keep on occurring as we have been notified, and the recently named Interior and Justice Minister’s brother’s relations with the cartel of Don Mario – will not work at all, and will only manage to floor the accelerator on the country’s institutional chaos. When was it that the hero of 90% of Colombians lost his reason?

The International Criminal Court has arrived
By César Rodríguez Garavito (professor, Universidad de los Andes, founding member of DeJuSticia)
El Espectador, August 26, 2008

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Aug 06

Here is a translation (thanks to CIP Intern Stephanie DiBello) of Camilo González’s grim assessment of the “Justice and Peace” process. Three years ago last month, Colombia’s Congress passed the law giving paramilitary leaders light sentences in exchange for full confessions and reparations to victims. González, a former health minister and the director of Colombia’s INDEPAZ think-tank, published this piece in today’s El Tiempo.

A Balance in the Red
Camilo González Posso
Director, INDEPAZ

The third anniversary of the passage of Law 975 of July 2005, inappropriately known as the “Justice and Peace Law”, came and went almost unnoticed. The media’s attention was concentrated on other urgent items, such as the arrest of the President of the U Party [the largest pro-Uribe political party] and his transfer to jail to accompany other presidents of parties of the government’s coalition and other former presidents of the country’s Congress.

The Prosecutor General’s report is a good starting point for taking stock and asking the competent authorities about the outcomes of justice, reparation, truth or guarantee of non-repetition. Some of the figures are noteworthy: in three years no one has yet been sentenced; out of 3,431 people being processed for atrocities, only 9 have finished the confessions process. As of yet there is not one single victim who has been able to process his/her demands in a reparation proceeding, and not one peso from the perpetrators has been taken away through judicial sentencing.

Out of a total of 3.5 million paramilitary victims, only 147,000 were brave enough to enlist for some kind of compensation. Barely 10,500 of them were able to attend a hearing, without any result, and less than 2,000 have legal representation.

The 20 paramilitary heads who have given confessions turned in a paltry US$2 million and 99 farms (75% of the total money belonged to the “Mellizo” [narcotrafficker and sometime paramilitary leader Miguel Ángel Mejía Múnera, captured in May]). This contrasts with the US$5 billion accumulated by the narco-paramilitaries via narcotrafficking operations, the expropriation of more than 1.5 million hectares of land, and the appropriation of public funds in alliance with their “para-politician” partners.

And to give the complete picture, at the moment in which the internal fights among those being processed began evolving into denunciations of the government, Doctor Uribe considered it a high priority to get those paramilitary heads and guardians of the secrets of “para-power” out of the country, to be processed in the United States for some tons of cocaine.

The ex-narco-paramilitaries’ revelations about their partners in crime ended up being subordinated to the narcotrafficking proceedings, and their “truths” turned into bargaining chips for sentences even lighter than those anticipated under Law 975.

The result of the extraditions show that Law 975/2005 was misguided from the start: it was defined as a law having nothing to do with narcotrafficking and crimes of government officials, and was intended to apply to narco-paramilitiaries by assuming them to be anti-subversive or quasi seditious. The most important proceedings abruptly ended when the situation got out of control and the government extradited them, recognizing that in essence they actually were narcotraffickers.

On balance there are, of course, documented statistics, some truths revealed, cases in the Supreme Court, an idea of the profundity of the barbarity, and a break with the strategies of dirty war. But in the red lies the battered goal of justice and peace. In this country so accustomed to the the law being something to be evaded … there is also a law of evasion.

Aug 06

Below is a translation of Patricia Lara’s column in today’s El Espectador about the probable extradition of former paramilitary leader Hebert Veloza García, alias “HH.”

Veloza is one of the bloodiest of paramilitary leaders. He played a command role in the horrific paramilitary takeover of the Urabá region in northwestern Colombia during the second half of the 1990s, a campaign that involved near-daily massacres and enjoyed the security forces’ blatant support. Then, after the ELN kidnapped wealthy worshipers at an upscale Cali church in 1999, HH worked with local businesspeople and authorities to form the Calima Bloc, which went on to terrorize much of Valle del Cauca and Cauca departments, carrying out notorious massacres like the Alto Naya killings in 2001.

Veloza demobilized along with the “Bananero Bloc” of the AUC in November 2004. He then thought better of it and became a fugitive. The Colombian authorities captured him in April 2007. Upon his arrest, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said that Veloza was disqualified from participating in the “Justice and Peace” process, which would have allowed him a lighter jail sentence in exchange for full confession of his crimes.

However, Veloza later managed to enter the Justice and Peace process, where he quickly became a star witness, one of the most forthcoming of all the former paramilitary leaders. He has confessed to over 3,000 murders, identified the whereabouts of many mass graves, and talked openly about the collaboration he received from banana companies like Chiquita Brands and from the Colombian military – including Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, who commanded the army’s Urabá-based 17th Brigade in 1995-1997, while Álvaro Uribe was the governor of the surrounding department of Antioquia. Last month Veloza turned in a USB memory drive with thousands of files belonging to deceased AUC leader Carlos Castaño.

Veloza has declared his intention to “say everything. How the security forces coordinated the movement of troops and helped us move weapons. We paid them to give information and cooperate.” In lengthy interviews given over the past week (El Espectador, Semana video), he has reiterated his desire “to tell the truth about why the victims’ relatives died, where the graves are, and who participated” before his extradition – recently approved by Colombia’s Supreme Court – goes forward.

Will “HH” be extradited – and thus silenced, at least for a while – before he gets a chance to tell the Colombian authorities about the members of Colombia’s political, business and military elite who aided and abetted his campaign of murder?

Here is Patricia Lara’s column.

Do it for your honor, Mr. President
By Patricia Lara Salive

A barbarity is going to be committed: to extradite to the United States, for trafficking a scant five kilos of cocaine, someone who has confessed to murdering 3,000 people and who wants to tell secrets about the complicity of military officers, politicians and businessmen with the Self-Defense Groups.

In effect, Hebert Veloza García, alias HH, the paramilitary who delivered to the authorities the USB memory from Carlos Castaño’s computer (by the way, why are its contents not discussed?) and who is now in the extraditables’ cell block, relates in an impressive interview in Sunday’s El Espectador some deeds that it would be unheard of not to finish investigating and punishing. He says, for example:

About Castaño’s USB: “I turned over the USB (…) and they put me in isolation. If I turn over more information they will reopen Gorgona [a small Pacific island that Colombia once used as an Alcatraz-style prison] to stick me there. It is very hard to tell the truth (…). There are 9,000 files [on the USB] in which everything is spoken of and many important people appear.”

About politicians: “Today we are like the ugly girlfriend: at night they caress us and during the day they don’t even look at us (…). Power is very good and politicians will do anything to have it.”

About the murder of Jaime Garzón [a popular TV comedian killed in 1999]: “The information we had was that he had ties to the ELN and that he was acting as an intermediary between kidnap victims’ relatives and the guerrillas. And it was people from the high command of the Army who gave us this information.”

About Gen. Rito Alejo del Río [commander of the Urabá-based 17th Brigade from 1995-1997, widely accused, but never convicted, of aiding and abetting paramilitaries]: “I don’t know why they haven’t tied him to any criminal investigation. I’ll just give you one piece of information: when I was the commander in Urabá and he was the commander of the 17th Brigade, I kidnapped two people who had been detained by the Army, held at the Brigade headquarters. I got them out of the brig (…) with complicity. I took them out in a car from the brigade itself, in a covered red Trooper (…). They were from the FARC’s 5th Front and they had kidnapped a woman in Buenaventura. I entered the Brigade, took the people out, we took them to Buenaventura and disappeared them. (…) Gen. Rito Alejo went to see Carlos Castaño many times and they met at ranches near the border of Córdoba and Urabá [Antioquia]. The security forces were very tied down when it came to fighting the guerrillas, and we used the same methods the subversives did. Our results benefited the Army. There is more (…) I patrolled with Col. Byron Carvajal [recently convicted for planning the massacre of an elite police counter-drug Unit in Jamundí, Valle, in 2006] in 1995 and we fought the guerrillas (…). I went anywhere I wanted, like Pedro in his own house. I entered brigades’ headquarters, police barracks, I did what I wanted.”

About the victims’ bodies: “In Urabá, when we began, all the bodies were left where the people were killed. But the security forces protested and asked us to keep working, but to disappear the cadavers. That is why mass graves were implemented… (The problem was that) the mortality rates increased rapidly and this was not helpful (…). I traveled freely in a white Hilux [pickup truck], which they called ‘road to heaven,’ and we killed people every day, in all the municipalities of Urabá. The only one who denounced this was Gloria Cuartas [at the time, the outspoken mayor of Apartadó, one of Urabá's main towns].”

About the victims: “The biggest victims will be the victims who are going to be left without the truth (…). It is necessary to tell the truth about this war in which only the rich benefited, and the poor lost.”

President Uribe: you, who gave such heartfelt praise to General Rito Alejo, cannot allow Veloza to go now without having finished telling his truth. Accept his request to delay his extradition. Do it for the good of the fatherland. But do it as well for your own honor, since you were the governor of Antioquia during this period.

Jun 15

Today’s edition of the Colombian newsweekly Semana reports that, here in Washington, extradited and convicted FARC leader Ricardo Palmera, “Simón Trinidad,” is being detained in the same part of the D.C. jail as many of the newly extradited paramilitary leaders.

According to SEMANA’s sources,’Trinidad’ identified himself to his new neighbors and they did the same. Since then, without ever seeing each others’ faces since they don’t leave their cells, they have communicated by shouting. Although very little is known about the content of their chats, it is known that “Trinidad,” as an expert in the ways of the prison, helps his arch-enemies with some basic jail survival advice: the lawyers’ visits, how to get books, what to do if they feel ill, issues of daily life.

Who would have thought: the voices that once gave orders to kill, kidnap, extort, massacre and submerged the department of Cesar and the country in a fratricidal war, today are only heard to instruct about how to care for one’s toilet paper, or how to protect oneself from the winter cold or ease the heat in summer.

Trinidad and former Northern Bloc leader Rodrigo Tovar, alias “Jorge 40,” are both from the small elite of the northeastern Colombian city of Valledupar, Cesar, where they knew each other in the years before they joined their separate armed groups. Now they are together again – but only briefly, as Trinidad will soon be moved to a prison in Colorado.

Jun 12

Here is the introduction to an astoundingly good new report by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund on the “Justice and Peace” process, the “para-politics” scandal, and the paramilitaries’ victims’ efforts to learn the truth and achieve restitution. It is available as a PDF file, and an Executive Summary [PDF] features recommendations for U.S. policymakers. Congratulations to the LAWGEF for this achievement.

The Other Half of the Truth: Searching for Truth, Justice and Reparations for Colombia’s Victims of Paramilitary Violence

The only way to change the nation’s destiny is to help the victims tell their story.
– Colombian journalist Hollman Morris

On February 4, 2008, Colombians marched in the millions in a powerful rejection of violence by the FARC guerrillas. It was an inspirational, authentic cry by Colombians weary of horrific guerrilla tactics, and a show of solidarity for the suffering of the many Colombians held for years as captives of the FARC. While the march was a citizens’ effort, the government supported it enthusiastically, and President Álvaro Uribe offered “our voice of gratitude to all the Colombians who today expressed with dignity and strength a rejection of kidnapping and kidnappers.”

For many of the victims of paramilitary violence, the march’s enormous scale raised the question of why the same Colombian society that stood so united behind the victims of the FARC would fail to stand behind them. Why did so few seem to care about the families of the thousands of people who had been killed or disappeared by the paramilitaries, about the mass graves in the countryside, about the bodies that washed up on the banks of the rivers, or about the several million people forced to flee their homes, many by paramilitary violence? Why would the government lend support and credibility to this march, but remain mute about paramilitary crimes? Victims called for a second march a month later, to reject the violence by paramilitaries, as well as the actions of the soldiers and politicians who had supported them. As movement leader Iván Cepeda explained, victims wanted Colombian society to “offer a just homage to the displaced, the disappeared, the families of those assassinated or massacred… We don’t want just a moment of remembrance, we want solidarity.” Yet Colombian society was divided about participating, the government failed to support this march, and march organizers faced a wave of death threats and violence.

The tale of the two marches helps to explain why a process that demobilized thousands of paramilitaries, members of a murderous armed group, would be so controversial. The victims, after an astounding period of violence, expect and demand not only an end to violence, but some tangible measure of truth, justice and reparations. But the victims of paramilitary violence are still waiting for the acknowledgment they long for, from the government and Colombian society: to recognize what they suffered, to admit the role of government officials, politicians and members of Colombia’s armed forces in aiding and abetting paramilitary atrocities, and to say: “Never again.” There is a palpable fear that the demobilization is a sham—with groups that never really demobilized, others rearming, and paramilitary power maintaining a lockhold over national politics and local communities.

This report will examine the official framework for the paramilitary demobilization and the limited opportunities for truth, justice and reparations that it has offered to date. Then, it will highlight some of the often heroic efforts by diverse actors—human rights activists, journalists, members of the judiciary, and especially victims—to push the boundaries and wring, if not yet reparations and justice, at least a little more truth from this process.

For the limits to the truth offered by the official framework began to unravel as many different actors in Colombia tugged at truth as if at a tightly wound ball of yarn. One hundred and twenty-five thousand people, far more than expected, attempted to register as victims with government agencies. Victims groups, many vociferously denouncing the official process, began to carry out their own truth sessions, mock trials and alternative registries of stolen land. Human rights groups assailed the obstacles to achieving justice through the demobilization law, and redoubled their efforts to document new abuses by the military and the rearming of paramilitary groups. Journalists published investigative stories and thoughtful opinion columns that sparked public debate on a subject long shrouded in silence. Colombia’s highest courts pried open the door to more justice than contemplated by the executive by setting some minimum standards for application of the demobilization law and hauling the politicians behind the paramilitaries into court. By the end of 2007, Semana columnist María Teresa Ronderos could say, “Like rabbits out of a magician’s hat came the names of businessmen, military and other accomplices of the paramilitary barbarie…. The truth that emerged this year has been sufficiently enlightening… that this year can pass down in history as the one in which we began to discover the truth.”  

Download the entire report

May 14

Because we’ve been accompanying Luis Eladio Pérez on his visit to Washington, we’ve had little time at the computer to analyze yesterday’s remarkable extraditions of most of the old AUC leadership. You, the reader, probably have a fuller idea of what has been happening during the past 24 hours.

Nonetheless, our initial take on the extraditions is: Whether this is good news or bad news hinges on the truth of one part of President Uribe’s statement yesterday.

The Government has asked, and the United States has accepted, that the State and People of Colombia may send representatives to the trials to be conducted in the United States, in order to continue the quest for the truth – the truth about the crimes investigated, most of them committed before this administration came into office; the truth  in relation to trials already in progress, propitiated by the firmness of our security policy.

Further, the judicial cooperation agreements with the United States will make it easier to exchange evidence, and for the Colombian authorities to obtain evidence in the United States. The United States has reiterated its commitments on these points.

Now that they have little to lose – and probably feel that they owe nothing to Colombia’s political and economic elites -  the paramilitary leadership may be more willing than before to talk about who helped them over the years, what their financial and logistical networks looked like, and perhaps what happened to their victims. From a jail cell in Miami with little hope of leniency, they have little incentive to stay quiet and protect those who helped them.

The question is whether those who wish to share such information will be able to do so. President Uribe and his government must be held to the statement above. Colombian investigators must have the access to the paramilitary leaders necessary to fully and aggressively comply with the “quest for the truth.”

If they have this access, and if the paramilitaries decide that they have no reason not to talk about those “on the outside” who helped them over the years, then yesterday’s extraditions are a triumph for the fight against organized crime and lawlessness in Colombia.

If they do not – if the paramilitary leaders, like most extradited narcotraffickers before them, are held incomunicado or remain silent in their jail cells – then it will be a tragic victory for the politicians, economically powerful individuals and military officers who made paramilitarism possible in Colombia. If that happens, we would find that President Uribe did nothing more yesterday than banish into a silent exile some of the star witnesses of the “quest for the truth.”

May 09

Shortly after midnight Wednesday, Colombian authorities put Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias “Macaco,” on a DEA plane and sent him to the United States to face drug charges.

Jiménez was a longtime leader of the Central Bolívar Bloc, one of the most powerful, drug-money-fueled paramilitary groups. At least as recently as last year, he was perhaps the most powerful paramilitary leader in Colombia, controlling organizations in several regions all over the country. In 2007, the U.S. government requested his extradition to face drug-trafficking charges.

“Macaco” was kicked out of the paramilitary demobilization-negotiation process last year, when evidence indicated that he was conspiring from his jail cell to ship drugs and murder enemies. He will now stand trial in the United States on charges of shipping cocaine northward. U.S. authorities are also likely to press Jiménez for information: his knowledge of Colombia’s narcotics, organized crime, and paramilitary networks is no doubt encyclopedic.

Macaco’s extradition sounds like good news, and it mostly is. But it was bitterly opposed by advocates for the victims of paramilitary crimes. The arguments are strong on both sides, and they go something like this.


Sending Macaco to the United States sends a strong message to the remaining paramilitary leaders that they cannot continue to carry out criminal activities, in violation of the terms of the “Justice and Peace” law. When Macaco was ejected from the “Justice and Peace” process, he lost privileges like a reduced prison sentence and avoidance of extradition.


The U.S. justice system will be trying and punishing Macaco only for drug trafficking. He might never have to face a judge for the mass murder he has committed. With Macaco a continent away, his many victims will be unable to learn what happened to their loved ones. It will also be difficult to win back lands and other property he stole from victims, or to use his assets to fund reparations.


Colombian prosecutors and investigators will be able to travel to the United States to interview Macaco. Through an 18th-century law called the Alien Tort Claims Act, victims may be able to sue Macaco in U.S. courts. With Macaco’s threatening presence out of the picture, it may be easier to take back property he stole and return it to its original owners.


Investigators may visit Macaco, but probably only for a few cases. The Alien Tort Claims Act is rarely used, and has never involved hundreds (or thousands) of plaintiffs against one defendant.

Meanwhile, we will now be unlikely ever to find out what Macaco knows about who helped him over the years. In the past, Colombian narco-traffickers extradited to the United States have taken with them their secrets about past associations.

The “para-politics” scandal must be a tea party compared to what Macaco knows. Politicians, military officers, large landowners and businessmen who colluded with Macaco must have been relieved when he got on that DEA plane.


Did Macaco ever intend to talk about his outside support network? By some accounts, Macaco was enforcing a code of silence among the rest of the paramilitary leaders. Macaco and Salvatore Mancuso even came to blows over the issue, according to this recent Semana magazine interview with Davíd Hernández, a paramilitary witness.

Semana: Is it true that there was a fight between Macaco and Mancuso in the prison?

DH: Just after they were brought from La Ceja [to Itagüí], in the first meeting, Mancuso stood up and said, “After the way they took us here and to La Ceja, now is when we have to start throwing water at all those politicians, at all those military officers, at all those police.” Macaco opposed him, stood up and said, “You are a snitch, you can’t do that, I’m never going to do that.” And they grabbed each other and came to blows. Macaco punched Mancuso. Macaco has always said that he will not throw water at any politician, and so far he has been true to his word.

It is just as possible that, with Macaco gone, some of the other paramilitary leaders might be more willing to talk about their illicit relationships with powerful Colombians.

Apr 17

(I’m writing from the Bogotá airport, where I’m on my way back to Washington. Expect some posts over the next few days about my visit earlier this week to San José del Guaviare, the town in southern Colombia where the U.S.-funded aerial fumigation program began 14 years ago.)

The Colombian newsweekly Semana has posted to its website a remarkable and troubling PowerPoint presentation (PDF version here, accompanying an article here) from Colombian Senator Armando Benedetti. Though Sen. Benedetti is a member of the pro-Uribe “La U” political party, he is one of a handful of uribista legislators who have criticized the government’s handling of efforts to demobilize, prosecute and reintegrate former paramilitaries while attending to their victims.

Two and a half years after these efforts – known as the “Justice and Peace process” – began, Sen. Benedetti’s slideshow paints a distressing picture. Here are a few current statistics that should make you very angry:

  • 125,368 Colombians have registered as victims of the paramilitaries, seeking reparations, restitution of stolen assets, or simply the truth about what happened to disappeared and murdered loved ones.
  • Though Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría del Pueblo) is required by law to offer legal assistance to the victims, only 13 percent of registered victims have come to the ombudsman for assistance. Only 9 percent of victims are represented by a lawyer. The Defensoría has assigned a total of 68 ombusdmen to assist paramilitary victims; they are present in three cities. That means each ombusdman has a caseload of 815 of the victims who have requested help from the Defensoría.
  • 15 victims inscribed in the Justice and Peace process have been killed under circumstances believed to be related to their claims. 92 have reported receiving threats as a result of their claims.
  • The Justice and Peace unit of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía), which is handling 3,257 cases of armed-group leaders accused of serious crimes, has 23 prosecutors.
  • The Justice and Peace unit of the Attorney-General’s Office (Procuraduría), which is supposed to oversee the prosecutions, has 12 lawyers assigned to it.
  • Of the 3,257 paramilitary leaders accused of serious crimes in the “Justice and Peace process,” only 127 have even begun the process of giving voluntary confessions, and only 4 have completed the initial versión libre (”free confession”) stage. At this rate, Sen. Benedetti estimates, it will take 2,157 years to complete the “Justice and Peace” judicial process.
  • 9,467 victims have come forward to denounce that the paramilitaries forced their displacement from their homes. (The actual number of people displaced by the paramilitaries is far higher.) But so far, paramilitary leaders have confessed to only 48 cases of forced displacement.
  • 91 victims have come forward to denounce that they were subjected to sexual violence by the paramilitaries. (The actual number of such victims is far, far higher.) But so far, paramilitary leaders have confessed to only 2 acts of sexual violence.
  • The Defensoría has only 12 psychologists on hand to provide psycho-social support to the 125,368 victims registered so far.
  • The Justice and Peace law requires paramilitary leaders to turn over all illegally required assets to fund reparations to their victims. So far, only 12 of the 3,257 paramilitary leaders have so far turned in any goods. (The list of goods, which includes 70 pairs of used shoes and a 29-inch television in bad condition, can be found here [PDF] as part of a scanned document from the Procuraduría.) The total value of cash and goods turned over by paramilitary leaders so far totals US$470,685 – or US$3.75 per registered victim.