Oct 21
Picture from an excellent June 2009 El Nuevo Herald series on the Soacha murders.

Writing a few days ago in El Espectador, columnist Felipe Zuleta reported that mothers of young men killed by the Colombian military have begun receiving anonymous threats.

The mothers live in the poor Bogotá suburb of Soacha, where in 2008 elements of the Colombian Army abducted young men, killing them and later presenting their bodies as those of illegal armed group members killed in combat. When news of the Soacha killings broke in September 2008, the scandal forced the firing of 27 Army personnel. Murder trials have been proceeding very slowly, with an increasing likelihood that some of those responsible may not be punished.

Now, Zuleta notes, the situation has grown more shocking.

These young men’s mothers are being threatened with death, and also submitted to acts of violence. In the last two weeks, one of them was grabbed by her hair by someone passing by on a motorcycle without license plates, another has been getting death threats, and a third had a military belt with barbed wire hung on the door of her humble house.

This all began to happen, coincidentally, after the commander of the armed forces, Gen. Freddy Padilla, showed his face to them for the first time, in mid-September. … I’m not accusing Gen. Padilla, but I wish to call his attention to what might happen to these citizens, who are neither rich nor influential and live in misery, and who could become victims of the same crimes that claimed their sons.

I don’t know about you, but it enrages me that while many of these mothers owe millions of pesos to funeral homes, after having to pay for their sons’ cadavers’ transportation from far corners of the country, the government is dispatching billions of pesos to benefit its friends and presidential campaign contributors through the Ministry of Agriculture. [Zuleta refers to the "Agro Ingreso Seguro" scandal discussed in an earlier post.]

We call on the Colombian authorities to ensure that the Soacha mothers’ security is fully guaranteed, and to investigate and punish these threats as part of a larger effort to purge the armed forces of any elements that could possibly be involved in such behavior.

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.

Feb 18

Liberal Party Senator Juan Fernando Cristo will be in Washington for a series of events and meetings next week. Over the past year, Sen. Cristo has become the legislature’s leading advocate of legislation to provide reparations to the victims of Colombia’s conflict.

In the Senate, Cristo has been the principal sponsor of a Victims’ Law: a bill compelling the state to provide “dignified, effective and integral” reparations to those who suffered “physically, morally or economically” as a result of the conflict, without regard to the identity of the victimizer.

This bill has been making its way through Colombia’s Congress; in the House of Representatives, however, supporters of President Álvaro Uribe – who have a commanding majority – gutted the Victims’ Law’s provisions so completely in November that Sen. Cristo now opposes the House version of the bill he helped to create.

Here is a translation of a column Sen. Cristo published in Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, in January. (Thanks to CIP Intern Stacy Ulmer for translation help.) We look forward to welcoming him back to Washington next week.

Reparations: a Right, or a Handout?
Sen. Juan Fernando Cristo, El Tiempo, January 13, 2009

The scene last December 16, near midnight in the full House of Representatives, when the government literally locked up more than 80 legislators with the single and exclusive goal that they approve an initiative to perpetuate the Head of State in power, caused many Colombians to feel pain for the fatherland. It has been decades since we have seen such demonstrations in Colombia of power used for personal benefit and authoritarianism.

The pain for the fatherland is even worse when we realize that the government considered it to be “crucial” for the country that the House of Representatives approve, in the second debate, an initiative that benefits just one person, though at the same time it openly promoted the postponement of a bill that seeks to benefit more than 3 million compatriots who have suffered the rigors of violence.

It is sad to recognize that the victims’ law, which had its last plenary debate after a long discussion, became an obstacle that had to be removed to fulfill the reelection obsession, so with no decency and even less discussion, they decided to postpone its approval until next March. Without thinking of the millions of Colombians, without remembering the mothers of Soacha who will not be able to get reparations, without attending to the more than 3,000 victims of the FARC, “paras” and ELN who expressed themselves at 10 public hearings throughout the country demanding a worthy treatment. In sum, they could not care any less about these victims’ suffering and their mistreatment and abandonment by the state.

The basic issue that impedes an agreement between the bill’s authors and the government is not the well-publicized attempt to exclude the victims of state actors, much less the vaunted fiscal problem, nor is it the government’s refusal to accept international principles like the victims’ good faith or the law’s interpretation in their favor. No. Here there is a gigantic difference, from a conceptual and human point of view, which makes agreement difficult, and while it is not removed we will keep going.

International organizations with expertise on this matter, like the UN and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, the Inspector-General’s Office [Procuraduría], the Ombudsman’s Office [Defensoría del Pueblo], the bill’s authors and the organizations representing the victims, consider reparations to be a fundamental right of victims, independent of who the victimizer is. The government does not recognize that right, it sees the victims as an obstacle to any peace process, perceives them to be a “problem” for the state and its institutions, and considers that they should be “helped” so they don’t “bother us so much.”

The rest are legislative technicalities: whether reparations are given for “duty of guarantee” or “solidarity” reasons; what the definition of “victim;” whether there must be a judicial reparation, or at what moment the state’s responsibility is accepted. These disagreements can be summarized by saying that we have a different vision of the victim. For us, he is a citizen who suffered physically, morally or economically as a consequence of the conflict, and who has every right to receive reparations in a dignified, effective and integral manner. The government considers him to be a poor person who lives in a conflictive zone and the state, according to its possibilities, must attend to him with its assistentialist programs.

Reparation and alms are two sides of the same coin. Only when Colombian society, not just the government, recognizes that there should be an aggressive and effective state policy to provide reparations to these three million compatriots who have rights – not just a handout whenever that’s possible – can we hold the hope of achieving peace and reconciliation in Colombia. The Victims’ Law, in its Senate version, should be the first step and nothing else.

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 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.

Pro:

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.

Con:

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.

Pro:

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.

Con:

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.

Pro:

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.

May 07


In Sunday’s edition of the Colombian weekly El Espectador, Iván Cepeda – a columnist who is also a leader of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes – wrote the following column about a visit to the city of Montería. The city is the capital of the department of Córdoba, in Colombia’s Caribbean coastal region, which has long been a virtual paramilitary republic, for years strongly under the sway of Carlos Castaño, Salvatore Mancuso, and “Don Berna.”

Cepeda’s column inspired an enraged response from Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, which is excerpted and translated further below.

The Proof is Montería
Iván Cepeda Castro
El Espectador, May 3, 2008

This week I visited Montería for the first time. I did so by invitation of the Union of University Workers and Employees, Sintraunicol. The airport is near the city and adjoins the “El Ubérrimo” hacienda, which is the property of President Álvaro Uribe.

My companions spoke to me of the lawyer José Corena, who has been in charge of the President’s land business, and that of his cousin Mario Uribe [now in jail awaiting trial for collaboration with paramilitaries]. In the same region the Castaños, Mancuso and alias “Don Berna” have lands. A few kilometers away are the sumptuous neighborhoods of the region’s cattlemen and large landowners: El Recreo and La Castellana. In the latter, the Mancuso family has a large mansion. In the city are commercial properties which, everyone knows, belong to the paramilitary chief.

When I ask whether any authority has ordered the seizure of these lands and businesses, those accompanying me laugh. In that same zone are the social club and the open-air restaurants where the local high society meets. They tell me that at the parties one would frequently see the former prosecutor-general, Luis Camilo Osorio. We passed by the La Vittoriana restaurant, property of the brothers Jaime and José Maroso, partners and testaferros (property-holding figureheads) of Mancuso. This government named José to two diplomatic posts: one in Italy, the other in Switzerland. Now the paramilitary groups are led by Doménico Mancuso, cousin of Salvatore.

In the shadow of the bridge that President Uribe ordered to be built, and which goes to his hacienda, on the banks of the Sinú River, thousands of displaced people live in misery. They come from places like Tierralta and Valencia. The Civil Victims’ Committee of the department of Córdoba, Comfavic, is made up of 7,800 families. Many have more than one member murdered or disappeared by the paramilitaries. It is obvious that for anyone who lives in, or visits, the city or its nearby haciendas, it must be impossible to ignore the reality of these crimes. How can they not know that thousands of killings are being perpetrated, or not see the displaced people? How can they ignore who Mancuso and the Castaño clan were in a city in which everything is known and is commented in whispers?

Finally, we arrived at the University of Córdoba. The employees and students have begun a movement to demand the resignation of the current president, Claudio Sánchez Parra. They also demand truth and justice. Since 1995, 19 people belonging to the university have been murdered. On February 18, 2003, Mancuso called professors and employees to Santa Fe de Ralito [where the paramilitary leaders were gathered as they began negotiations with the government], and warned them that if they did not attend they should be prepared for the consequences. Present at the meeting was a delegate from the government, Félix Manssur Jattin. After reading the CVs of the professors, which had been taken from the University’s files, Mancuso introduced them to Sánchez Parra and said to them, “This person here by my side is my friend, and in the University I must have men that I trust.” The new president put Mancuso’s relatives in posts in the University leadership. Even though the Prosecutor-General’s Office and the Attorney-General’s office are carrying out investigations against him, he remains in the presidency. This week the Victims’ Movement will lead a petition of the government and will carry out an international campaign calling for his immediate firing.

Perhaps there are photos, witnesses or recordings of the meetings of the landholders, politicians and soldiers with Mancuso, while thousands of people were being killed or displaced. But beyond these elements of hard evidence, the whole social order, the nearness of the large haciendas and the centers of Montería’s high society show the reality of a criminal power: the city itself is the proof.

Excerpt from “Words of President Álvaro Uribe during the inauguration of the Montería Transportation Terminal
Presidency of Colombia, May 6, 2008

Let me touch on another issue. There are people in Colombia, like Doctor Iván Cepeda. They dress themselves up in the protection of victims.

Continue reading »

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.
Feb 14

On February 4, Colombia’s nationwide – and worldwide – public protests against the FARC guerrillas were wildly successful. Much of that success owed to organizers’ efforts to stay “on message” and avoid politicization, which they mostly did. This guaranteed the largest possible participation.

Now, victims of Colombia’s other armed groups want a day of their own. Led by the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, they are calling for a national and worldwide day to reject Colombia’s paramilitary groups and those who aided them. They are planning to convene on March 6th.

These victims too deserve a massive turnout. Even a quick look at today’s news from Colombia reminds us that paramilitary power and impunity are still at crisis levels.

  • Yesterday, in the comfortable cell block housing a few dozen paramilitary leaders in the Itagüí prison outside Medellín, a surprise search yielded a 9mm pistol, a grenade, and US$6,000 in cash.
  • In his “Justice and Peace” testimony yesterday, paramilitary leader “Diego Vecino” spoke – without naming names – of his deep and broad support for leading politicians in the Montes de María region of Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
  • The OAS secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, recognized that new paramilitary groups – many of them resembling mafias more than pro-government militias – are forming throughout the country.
  • Meanwhile, new testimonies are emerging about the Colombian military’s involvement in a recent rash of “extrajudicial executions” – civilians detained and killed, with their bodies later presented as those of guerrillas killed in combat. This week, a former paramilitary fighter gave evidence about cadavers presented as guerrillas in Antioquia in 2002.

The victims of paramilitaries and state actors did not have an opportunity to express themselves on February 4th, and they deserve a moment of their own with similarly broad participation. The conflict’s victims need to know that their fellow citizens stand with them, regardless of who victimized them. In exchange, the protest’s organizers must do their utmost to avoid seeing their own event become politicized – to devolve into an anti-government rally or something similarly divisive.

This would all seem to be uncontroversial – why shouldn’t the March 6 event receive levels of support similar to what Colombia saw on February 4th? Colombia’s mainstream media appears to be supportive; editorials in the El Espectador newspaper and Cambio newsweekly have already offered endorsements of the March 6 effort, reminding readers that “the country’s rejection of paramilitary violence is overdue.”

Yet the March 6 protest has become controversial, sadly, because of the virulent opposition it has inspired from the Colombian government. The Uribe administration, which enthusiastically joined the February 4 protests against the FARC, is rejecting the March 6 anti-paramilitary protests in the strongest possible terms.

“I personally will not participate, as I did enthusiastically in the march against the FARC,” was the response of José Obdulio Gaviria, a presidential advisor considered to be President Uribe’s chief ideologist. “It will be difficult for Colombian society to participate in this type of event, when we just finished marching against the people who are convening it.”

Gaviria’s words are terribly unfortunate. Not only does a top Colombian government official reject the March 6 protests, he alleges that its organizers, the National Victims’ Movement, are indistinguishable from the FARC. This is the worst sort of slander, and the Colombian government must not let it stand.

Before the February 4 march, an editorial in Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, excoriated doubters who worried that the anti-FARC protest would become politicized.

The positions of those who have sought to disqualify the march, calling it “Uribista,” are cynical and shameless. As though only the uribistas have the right to protest against the FARC’s kidnappings, or as though doing so were an act of pro-government politicking. This is a sectarian and frankly twisted way to politicize an initiative that originated cleanly and spontaneously from common citizens.

Similarly, the doubters – including the doubters in Colombia’s government – should not get a free pass this time.

To paraphrase El Tiempo: Those who seek to disqualify the March 6 protest, calling it “pro-FARC,” are also cynical and shameless. As though only the FARC has the right to protest against the paramilitaries’ thousands of unpunished, unclarified abuses, and the powerful people who helped them occur – or as though to do so were an anti-state act. This is a sectarian and frankly twisted way to politicize an initiative that originated cleanly and spontaneously from common citizens.

President Uribe must not let his top advisor’s dangerous and irresponsible words stand as the official de facto position of the Colombian government. Instead, the Colombian government should join in support of the March 6 event, in order to demonstrate to the world:

  • That it cares just as deeply about the tens of thousands of Colombians who fell victim to the paramilitaries and to state security forces;
  • That it supports efforts to end impunity for decades of horrific abuses, instead of seeking to deny them or sweep them under the rug; and
  • That it believes all armed groups’ abuses – whether in support ofor against the state – must be rejected equally.

Colombians, no matter how they feel about President Uribe, should participate in the March 6 event, standing with the victims and with those who are trying to uncover the truth and win a measure of justice. Colombians should send a message to their government’s more ideologically inclined officials – a message that should be common sense: it should be possible to call publicly for justice without being tarred as a guerrilla supporter.

Jul 19
Iván Cepeda accepting the Baldwin prize last month.

Last December we posted translated comments from Iván Cepeda at an event in San Onofre, Sucre. Cepeda – the son of murdered leftist Senator Manuel Cepeda, a columnist for El Espectador and this year’s recipient of the Baldwin Human Rights Prize – is a leading figure in the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes in Colombia, which formed during the paramilitary negotiations to advocate for their victims’ rights.

San Onofre, on the Caribbean coast just south of Cartagena, is one of the first places in Colombia where victims came forward to tell the authorities about mass graves filled with the paramilitaries’ victims. At the victims’ rights event in San Onofre’s municipal stadium last November 27, Iván Cepeda publicly accused the town’s current mayor of having worked with paramilitaries. Here is what he said.

A first-order responsibility that has been exposed here is that of the current Mayor of San Onofre, Mr. Jorge Blanco Fuentes, who still has not renounced his post, but who should do it immediately for ethical, penal, and political reasons.

Mr. Blanco was the only candidate for the mayorship [in October 2003 elections] because of the pressure exercised by “Cadena.” His candidacy was launched at a public event in mid-2002, organized by this paramilitary leader at the “March 29″ cockfighting pit in Verrugas. Cadena’s crimes were clearly known by Mr. Blanco, since before he became mayor, at the apogee of the regime of terror, he was the municipal treasurer. Mr. Blanco also participated in other public events with the paramilitaries. His first decision as mayor was to fire, illegally, all the municipal government’s career administrative officials, and to replace them with the paramilitaries’ political appointees, while the paramilitaries also controlled the municipal council. Those dismissed could not claim their benefits and were compelled to sign resignation letters and acknowledgements of termination pay that they never received. Something similar happened to the personnel at the municipal hospital. Mr. Blanco attended a meeting on July 16, 2006 in which paramilitary leader Diego Vecino, various councilmen, and the ex-Congresswoman Muriel Benito Rebollo [currently in prison pending trial for paramilitary collaboration] also participated, with the goal of finding ways to pressure the population to guarantee that the ex-congresswoman’s brother, Edgar Benito Rebollo, would be the municipality’s next mayor. The meeting took place in the house of Mrs. Estefanía Balseiro, mother of the ex-congresswoman.

Mayor Blanco did not take these charges lying down. He got Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office to initiate criminal proceedings against Iván Cepeda on charges of slander and libel of a public official. (No such crime exists in the U.S. criminal code.) A prosecutor in Sucre’s capital, Sincelejo (a town also under heavy paramilitary influence), has been pursuing the case against Iván Cepeda with particular vigor.

This case is so bizarre that twenty-eight members of the U.S. Congress, from both parties, sent a letter on Monday to Colombian Prosecutor-General Mario Iguarán protesting the treatment that Cepeda is receiving. Here is the text of that letter, and the list of signers. (PDF version)

July 16, 2007

Doctor Mario Germán Iguarán Arana
Attorney General of the Nation
Ministry of Justice
Diagonal 22-B (Avenida Luis Carlos Galán)
No. 52-01
Bogotá
COLOMBIA
FAX: 011-(571) 570-2017

Dear Attorney General Iguarán: Continue reading »

Jul 16

Don BernaDiego Fernando Murillo (”Don Berna”), the dominant paramilitary leader in Medellín, is to begin his confession before Colombian prosecutors today, as required by the “Justice and Peace” law. A remarkable 13,000 victims have registered to view Don Berna’s testimony on closed-circuit television.

Though he has been in prison for two years, Don Berna is considered one of the most powerful people in Medellín. Whether he has truly demobilized is far from clear.

El Tiempo reports this morning:

“Don Berna’s” multiple dead, displaced and disappeared may not tangle him up as much as his risky past in [Colombia's narco-] mafia.

During the 1980s he belonged to the Moncada and Galeano clan, which did business with the Medellín cartel. Later, he joined forces with the narcos of Valle del Cauca in the “Pepes” [People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar] to combat Pablo Escobar.

The United States has asked for his extradition on narcotrafficking charges.

These unholy relationships continued until 1997, when he began to become part of the AUC and rose to the rank of inspector general.

He was the first of the big chiefs to go to the Itagüí maximum-security prison. “Don Berna” has remained silent and enigmatic.

Many still attribute to him an immense amount of power in the Antioquian capital [Medellín], and although the mayor’s office dislikes these claims, academic researchers insist that the city’s current calm owes in part to the former “para” leader having ordered his gangs to cease their violence. Continue reading »

Jun 24
Freddy Rendón, alias “El Alemán,” confessed to almost nothing in his appearance before prosecutors.
El Tiempo ran this photo of Rendón’s supporters, dressed in the colors of Colombia’s flag and playing loud music, holding a rally outside the courthouse in Medellín.
El Tiempo ran this photo of indigenous people from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta showing support outside the hearing of local warlord Hernán Giraldo, whom their banners called “our leader.” Some tried to pass themselves off as victims and enter the building. Giraldo’s son-in-law reportedly paid their travel costs.
In this photo published by Medellín’s Popular Training Institute (IPC), a priest holds a mass for supporters of feared paramilitary leader “Macaco,” who gathered across the street from the courthouse where he was admitting to nothing.
This El Tiempo photo shows El Alemán’s victims, wearing loved ones’ photos, mingled with his t-shirt-clad supporters outside the Medellín courthouse.

After a sputtering start at the beginning of the year, several more demobilized paramilitary leaders have begun appearing before prosecutors to give their confessions. This is part of the “Justice and Peace” process established by law in 2005 and modified by Colombia’s Constitutional Court in 2006. Some 2,812 paramilitaries accused of crimes against humanity must admit to their crimes, detail their ill-gotten wealth, and reveal their structures of command and support.

This process is not going well at all. In fact, it is rapidly becoming a perverse caricature of what it should be.

After six months, only 40 of the 2,812 have appeared to give confessions. Authorities don’t even know the whereabouts of about 700 of them. One of the first leaders to testify, Salvatore Mancuso, began his process last December. He has made a handful of appearances, and is not scheduled to report again until September.

At least Mancuso has confessed to crimes and named some names. (Whether he is telling “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” remains to be determined.)

Instead, some of the more recent paramilitary defendants have chosen to stonewall. They are admitting to almost nothing.

In late May, Iván Roberto Duque (”Ernesto Báez“), the nominal head of the AUC’s powerful Central Bolívar Bloc, insisted that he committed no serious crimes because his role in the group was little more than that of a spokesman and ideologist. An exasperated representative of the government’s Inspector-General’s office said to him, “Señor ‘Báez,’ if you are not going to confess to any crime covered by the Justice and Peace Law, then you are in the wrong place.”

Hernán Giraldo, whose Tayrona Bloc carried out a reign of terror over northern Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, insisted that his crimes were very few. He said that his role was largely political after 2000, and blamed others for most of the murders and massacres attributed to him. Giraldo, a prominent and long-wanted narcotrafficker, said he only owns a few “finquitas” (small farms) with which to raise money for reparations to his victims. Asked about the locations of mass graves where his victims’ bodies can be found, Giraldo said that he knows of nothing in particular, “but I can ask around.”

His hair in a ponytail and his shirt unbuttoned halfway to his navel, Freddy Rendón (”El Alemán“), whose Élmer Cárdenas Bloc dominated much of the violent Urabá region, also denied nearly all responsibility. St. Petersburg Times reporter David Adams was in Medellín during the trial; his account is a must-read.

In court, Rendon admitted only to ordering the assassination of a local mayor whom he accused of collaborating with the guerrillas. He also admitted to kidnapping and murdering four peasant leaders in Rio Sucio in late 1996.

Other than that he was vague on details. “You can be certain that they are dead,” he told the court. “What I can’t be precise about is with how many bullets, two, or three or five.”

One of the most feared of all the paramilitary leaders is Carlos Mario Jiménez (”Macaco“) of the Central Bolívar Bloc. Macaco is widely believed to be up to his elbows in paramilitarism and narcotrafficking to this day. The account of his confession in El Tiempo, then, is amazing.

It’s as though the more than a decade that Carlos Mario Jiménez spent as head of the Central Bolívar Bloc was a blank. … Jiménez announced that he would compile information with imprisoned AUC members about the location of 78 bodies, but he denied any direct participation in the deaths. Nor did he speak of massacres or the mass graves atrributed to him in Putumayo, Barrancabermeja and southern Bolívar.

Meanwhile Ramón Isaza of the eastern Antioquia paramilitaries – one of the oldest AUC leaders, who reportedly organized his first militia back in 1978 – claimed that the early stages of Alzheimer’s were keeping him from remembering his hundreds of alleged crimes. Isaza actually called on his victims to come forward to “help him remember” the abuses he committed. El Tiempo columnist María Jimena Duzán noted that Isaza had no problem remembering the names of local candidates he was endorsing in a recently taped telephone conversation.

Continue reading »

Jun 07

This week’s posts have focused on two very important events:
the foreign aid bill in the House, and the U.S. government’s disappointing data about coca-growing.

But there is so much else happening right now, and so little time to write about it, that we’ve been reduced to posting a list of bullet points and hoping to revisit some of them in more detail later. For today at least, we can only apologize for the brevity.

  • President Uribe is in Washington all day today. Here is his schedule. Here is a statement from several NGOs. Here is a piece in today’s Houston Chronicle in which Rep. Sam Farr (D-California), an Appropriations Committee member, warns, “you can wear out your welcome up here.” A Los Angeles Times article adds, “it’s not clear how far Uribe’s forceful personality will take him with the current Congress.” On Friday Uribe will go to New York; at an event there, he will give Bill Clinton something called the “Colombia is Passion” award.
  • Monday’s Wall Street Journal reported on the Colombian government’s extensive, and expensive, hiring of high-powered lobbyists to influence top congressional Democrats. “The team includes the public-relations firm of Burson-Marsteller, headed by former Clinton pollster Mark Penn, who is also a top adviser to Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The firm has set up a campaign-style operation to respond immediately to any critical news about Colombia.”
  • A bipartisan delegation of five House members is back from a weekend trip to Colombia. Their agenda was planned entirely by the U.S. and Colombian governments. They got a big dose of President Uribe, even attending one of his “town hall meetings” in Cali.
  • Uribe’s unilateral release of imprisoned guerrilla leaders is continuing. Rodrigo Granda, the so-called “FARC foreign minister” who Colombian authorities went so far as to abduct from Caracas in late 2004, was released on Monday – yet his statement struck a defiant tone indicating that the FARC’s conditions for releasing hostages have not changed. We still have our fingers crossed. We still hope that the prisoner release is not, in fact, a colossal blunder revealing a basic misunderstanding of both the FARC and the basic tenets of negotiation and conflict resolution. But with every passing day, it is looking more like exactly that.
  • A couple of weeks ago, paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso’s confession to authorities “confirmed what human rights groups and others have long alleged,” as the Washington Post put it. Since then, though, other paramilitary leaders have been clamming up, offering very little information. Central Bolívar Bloc leader Iván Roberto Duque (”Ernesto Báez”) denied any involvement in serious crimes, portraying himself as little more than an AUC ideologist. Élmer Cárdenas Bloc leader Freddy Rendón (”El Alemán”) admitted nothing. Tayrona Bloc leader Hernán Giraldo, one of Colombia’s most powerful drug traffickers, told authorities that he only owns a few “finquitas” (small farms) with which to pay for reparations to victims.

  • Why, asks the prominent human-rights group CODHES, were two U.S. Army officers present at a May 10 Colombian government meeting with internally displaced community leaders in the highly conflictive department of Caquetá? The officers – major and a lieutenant-colonel – “told the displaced population and local authorities that they must understand that “the FARC doesn’t have a war against the police, but against the community” and that they “know about wars because they were in Iraq, where they learned that the strategy of terrorists is to separate the population from the legitimate authorities.” What were they doing there?

  • The Colombian peso has risen more against the dollar this year than any other currency in the world. It has gone from 2,500 to 1,900 pesos to the dollar, and Colombian Treasury officials have been unable to stop it. Some wonder whether this owes to a flood of narco-dollars entering the country. Opposition Senator Gustavo Petro told the Financial Times that “Colombia is in a ‘narco-bubble,’ with growth underpinned by a strong inflow of dollars from drug trafficking.”
  • The Center for American Progress published a thoughtful report on U.S. policy toward Colombia, recommending a turn away from Plan Colombia’s mostly military focus and more assertive advocacy of peace. The report, written by Columbia University conflict-resolution expert Aldo Cívico, is the first time that the CAP – a large and influential “think tank” founded by former Clinton administration officials and other prominent liberals – has issued recommendations about policy toward Colombia.
  • Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights) will honor victims’ movement leader Iván Cepeda with its prestigious Roger Baldwin Liberty Award. “This award recognized the importance of Ivan’s human rights work and that of other Colombian human rights defenders who are unfairly stigmatized by the Colombian government,” they told the Associated Press. Congratulations, Iván!
  • The Bogotá office of a U.S. peace and human rights group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, was burglarized over the weekend. FOR says it “appears to be a politically motivated attack on its offices,” adding that “The individuals destroyed electronic equipment, including part of a satellite phone stole clothing and cash but took out and did not steal a credit card and the passport of one of the FOR team members.” This is of great concern, as FOR does important, essential work, especially with “peace communities” like San José de Apartadó. They have published an alert with suggested actions.

That was a long list, wasn’t it? If your head isn’t spinning right now from the sheer pace of events, then you’re probably not paying attention!