Mar 17

I’m back from Europe as of last night and will resume “real” posting tomorrow; there’s a lot to say about last weekend’s legislative elections in Colombia.

In the meantime, here in two parts is Felipe Zuleta’s recent video about the “False Positives” scandal in the poor Bogotá suburb of Soacha. CIP Intern Cristina Salas added English subtitles to the content by Zuleta, a Colombian journalist who ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat on Sunday. Zuleta’s original unsubtitled Spanish videos are posted to YouTube here.

Part 1

Part 2

Mar 08

“Within the Armed Forces, some think that the battalions have been paralyzed by fear of ending up on trial, and as a result are not fighting,” noted Colombia’s main newsmagazine, Semana, last July.

This is something that we’ve heard too, in conversations with Colombian military officers and others close to the country’s defense establishment: the “false positives” scandal has left Colombia’s Army reluctant to leave the barracks for fear of being accused of committing human rights abuses, and ending up losing officers and soldiers to years-long legal processes.

The “false positives” scandal refers to members of the military, seeking to pad their results and win incentives, allegedly killing more than 1,600 civilians in recent years, presenting their bodies as those of armed-group members killed in combat. With more than 2,000 members of the armed forces under investigation, the argument goes, Colombia’s Army is now unwilling to go on the offensive and risk more prosecutions.

This argument was taken up in yesterday’s edition of Semana by left-of-center columnist María Jimena Duzán, a fierce critic of Álvaro Uribe.

After the successful Operación Jaque [2008 hostage rescue], which was preceded by a series of blows that pierced the innermost layers of the FARC, the Army has stopped combatting, and that decision has produced an increase in the FARC’s terrorist acts in some zones of the country. According to the government’s own statistics in the last year and a half, the most important attacks against the FARC have been the work of the Police and the Air Force.

The reasons for this stoppage in the Army have to do with protuberant flaws in the Democratic Security policy that the government has not wanted to accept. Flaws that allowed, for nearly six years, inhumane practices like camouflaging extrajudicial executions as acts against terrorism, murdering innocent campesinos to make them appear to be guerrillas killed in combat.

Is this true? Has the military really stopped fighting for fear of human rights trials? Probably not: the July Semana article noted that, in fact, the Army’s statistics for the first half of 2009 showed an increase in operations, as well as soldiers killed and wounded.

If it were true, though, it would be a historically foolish overreaction to a legitimate outrage. After the horror of the “false positives” scandal, the Army’s proper reaction would be to improve training in international humanitarian law and focus more strictly on the rule of law in military operations. And to do so while continuing its offensive against the groups that are killing Colombian citizens every day.

To instead leave Colombians unprotected, while quietly blaming human rights prosecutors for its inaction, would be the height of irresponsibility. Let’s hope this “soldiers paralyzed by fear of human rights trials” notion is just a red herring.

Feb 22
When they ventured back into El Salado in November 2001, 21 months after the massacre, residents found their houses completely overgrown with vegetation. (Photo from the report of the Historical Memory Group of the CNRR.)

Ten years ago yesterday, paramilitaries finished a four-day massacre in the village of El Salado, in the Montes de María region near Colombia’s Caribbean coast. About 450 paramilitaries, unchallenged by the security forces, took control of the town and killed more than 60 of its residents. They did so without firing a shot, torturing their victims and using implements like knives and stones.

The massacre was one of the worst in Colombian history, though only one of 42 that the paramilitaries carried out in the tiny Montes de María region in 1999, 2000 and 2001. Of the 450 paramilitary fighters who participated in this act of extreme cruelty, only 15 have ever been condemned by Colombia’s justice system. Of the military personnel who allowed it to happen and possibly aided and abetted it, only four have been punished, with disciplinary sanctions.

Here is a translation of a column about El Salado by El Tiempo columnist Daniel Samper, which appeared in yesterday’s edition of the Colombian daily. Also recommended is the excellent report published last September by the Historical Memory Group of the Colombian government’s National Commission for Reconciliation and Reparations.

Colombia, an unlucky country
Daniel Samper Pizano
El Tiempo (Colombia), February 21, 2010

El Salado is a two-hundred-year-old village located in the Montes de María. 18 kilometers away is Carmen de Bolívar, which inspired the famous porro (folksong) of its most beloved son, the composer Lucho Bermúdez. At other times, El Salado was a prosperous town, known as the “tobacco capital of the [Caribbean] coast” and celebrated for its vegetables. 20 years ago it had large storehouses, good public and health services, a high school and 33 stores.

Now it is famous as the scene of one of the cruelest massacres in our history. Ten years ago today was the final day of an orgy of blood that had begun on February 16, 2000 in some nearby hamlets and, starting on the 17th, began on the streets of El Salado. During more than 70 hours, three paramilitary groups set up a machine of death in the town without being bothered by any authority. They had fought the guerrillas previously, and ended up fleeing, and so they fell upon the civilian population.

The Historical Memory Group’s report about these crimes (La masacre de El Salado: esa guerra no era nuestra, ediciones Taurus-Semana, 2009) affirms that the first troops, made up of marines, appeared on the 19th at 5 PM, “three days after the massacre had begun, and they only came by land, without air support, while two paramilitary helicopters overflew the territory of the massacre during at least three days.” While 450 men commanded by Salvatore Mancuso, “Jorge 40″ and Carlos Castaño committed all kinds of atrocities in El Salado, the Marine Brigade was off looking for guerrillas and cattle thieves in other zones. According to the Inspector-General [Procuraduría], the police and military “omitted the compliance of their functions.”

El Salado’s was a foretold massacre. Two months before, a helicopter scattered flyers over the town warning the inhabitants to eat, drink and celebrate the New Year because they had few days left. For years the town was a victim of the guerrillas’ merciless attacks and extortions, and now came the paramilitaries’ threats for supposed complicity with the FARC. Few inhabitants thought that the threats would be carried out. But in the course of four days the paramilitaries killed 61 citizens, among them three minors under 18 years old and ten elderly people.

Out of respect for our Sunday readers, I will abstain from describing the cruelties that were committed: from women impaled through the vagina to men beheaded with knives. At the end, 4,000 people abandoned the area, and only a few hundred remained in what became a ghost town. Thus began the interminable history of those displaced by violence in Bolívar. Many ended up begging on the street corners of the coastal cities.

15 paramilitaries — none of them of any importance in the hierarchy — were found guilty in trials related to the massacre, and four marine officers received disciplinary sanctions.

A few years ago, numerous displaced people decided to return to El Salado. They had, and continue to have, the generous support of several foundations, NGOs, authorities and private businesses. But upon returning, they discovered that the region’s lands, which had provided them with food, had suffered a reverse land reform: large investors controlled them, and a hectare [2.5 acres] that was worth 300,000 pesos (US$150) today costs ten times as much.

The case of El Salado was dramatic, and is still more so because it is a metaphor for what happens in Colombia. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians get caught in between the opposing forces, and on occasion do not even have the authorities’ protection. The justice that comes later is slow and mean. And someone is growing rich through this war. The rebuilding of El Salado could be a note of optimism in a depressing panorama.

Feb 03

Last Thursday we posted excerpts from two articles in Spanish-language media about a mass grave in the town of La Macarena. The grave is in the middle of a historically guerrilla-controlled zone in Meta department that, in the past five years or so, has been the site of several U.S.-supported military operations. The articles indicated that the La Macarena gravesite contains as many as 2,000 bodies, and that many of the bodies were deposited by the Colombian Army.

Though official investigations of the site won’t begin until March and we are, of course, not present in the zone, we’re following this closely. If true, these allegations could have strong implications for U.S. policy toward Colombia, which has included generous support for military units based in this zone. We have communicated with governmental, non-governmental and journalistic sources. Without violating these communications’ confidentiality, what we’ve heard can be summarized as follows.

  • Sources agree that the site in question is an official cemetery in the La Macarena town center, not a clandestine area where bodies were dumped.
  • The cemetery includes a large number of “NN” (name unknown) gravesites. The military recognizes burying unidentified individuals killed in the very frequent combat that has taken place between the armed forces and the FARC. The Army says that all of its burials have been duly registered with the Technical Investigations Unit (CTI) of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía).
  • Estimating the number of dead at these gravesites is not possible at this time. Official sources doubt that the number is anywhere near as high as 2,000, and it is unclear how the media reports derived that estimate. If even a fraction of that total were “NN” cadavers, however, it would still be unusually large, as the town center of La Macarena municipality  is home to only about 4,000 people.
  • The mayor of La Macarena, quoted in one of last week’s articles as saying “we became the site for the depositing of the war dead,” now insists that the cemetery is not a mass grave site. He says that the cemetery contains 1,000 human remains, many from nearby combat incidents, and that 346 are unidentified combat dead buried since 2004. The mayor’s remarks came yesterday at a press conference for reporters brought to La Macarena by Colombia’s minister of defense.
  • There is no clarity about the timeframe of the burials. Some sources contend that most of the bodies were buried before 2005, when the FARC had nearly uncontested dominion over La Macarena, which between 1999 and 2002 was part of the demilitarized zone where FARC-government peace talks took place. Bodies buried before 2005 would be considered more likely to have been buried by the FARC. The news reports, however, claim that most bodies are from the post-2005 period.

Much remains to be clarified. It will be especially difficult to determine whether any of those buried are “false positives” — civilians killed and claimed as guerrilla combat deaths — or others extrajudicially executed on suspicion of guerrilla ties. (Colombian human rights groups have documented a large number of “false positives” in Meta department.)

All of this will have to await further investigation, forensic and otherwise. Meanwhile, one source says, the people in the zone who had made the original denunciations about the grave — a group that includes employees of state institutions — are now too fearful to give any more information.

Feb 02

Last week Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, ran an article with a rather outrageous headline:

Clowns, Aromatherapy and Suckling Pig for the 46 Soldiers Charged with ‘False Positives’

The article details an event, hosted by the Colombian armed forces’ human rights department, held to attend to dozens of Colombian soldiers recently released from prison. The soldiers, who still await trial, are accused of participating in a plot to kidnap young men in the poor Bogotá suburb of Soacha, kill them, and then present their bodies as those of armed-group members killed in combat, thus reaping rewards.

The Soacha “false positives” scandal, which came to light in September 2008, shocked Colombia and those who carry out Colombia policy here in Washington. As a result it was very troubling to see, in January, nearly all of the defendants released from preventive detention after a court determined that the pre-trial procedures had taken too long. Though the judicial delays were largely caused by defense lawyers’ maneuvers and efforts to move the cases to more lenient military courts, the soldiers were let out of jail and immediately confined to a base in Bogotá.

There, El Tiempo reports, the soldiers were given a day with their families, who were brought from all over Colombia to see them.

The event started at 8:00am with a Catholic Mass attended by two generals of the institution, followed by a conference held by several psychologists.

Around mid-morning, the soldiers were separated from their families: the uniformed personnel were taken to one of the casinos, decorated with candles and aromatherapy scents. According to one person who attended the event, they then had a long relaxation and meditation therapy.

Simultaneously, the wives, mothers and sisters of the militaries received a  ‘spa’ treatment in the other casino. They got facials, massages and hair dyes done by a renowned beauty brand. Meanwhile, the children were entertained by a group of clowns.

El Tiempo spoke to five of the families that attended the event, who pointed out that the militaries were told to go on vacation once they were released, but when the minister [of defense] gave the order to confine them, they were sent back to Bogotá immediately.

I contacted the Colombian Army’s human rights office about the event. (It is unclear why this event was the responsibility of the human rights office, which presumably exists to offer training, channel human rights complaints, and cooperate with judicial investigations.) An official there was clearly displeased with El Tiempo’s coverage, contending that the reporter who wrote the story was not present at the event, and that the lunch was “austere,” not suckling pig. He added that since the soldiers were not allowed to leave their bases, the event sought to give them a chance to see their families, whom some had not seen since 2008. The event did consist of a mass and psychological support for the soldiers, as well as clowns (“soldados payasos”) for the soldiers’ children.

While this clarification is helpful, this treatment for soldiers who may have dome something unspeakably awful contrasts very poorly with the treatment being given to the relatives of the young men killed in Soacha. Their mothers, who live at or below the poverty line, are still receiving threats, getting few responses from the government, and even had to pay their sons’ funeral expenses. This disparity in the government’s responses to perpetrators and victims is very troubling.

Jan 11

Colombia’s Defense Ministry has ordered the confinement of seventeen officers and soldiers facing trial for the 2008 murders of young men whose bodies were later presented as those of armed-group members killed in combat. As discussed in this blog’s last post, the seventeen had been set free Friday after a court ruled that, due significantly to defense lawyers’ delaying tactics, the time to prosecute them had run out.

The 17 are now confined to the base of the Colombian Army’s 13th Artillery Battalion, situated near the La Picota prison in southern Bogotá, where they will apparently be given desk jobs while their court case slowly proceeds.

  • Statement of Colombia’s Defense Ministry: “At the instruction of the Minister of Defense and the Commander-General of the Armed Forces, the personnel must remain within the military unit, restricted to internal tasks, and they will not be assigned to any type of tactical or operational mission.”
  • Statement of Colombia’s Presidency: “It is difficult to understand why now that terrorists’ interference to block justice has been overcome, impunity can still result from decisions rooted in the expiration of time periods.”
  • El Tiempo: “The government’s main concern is that this judicial decision could affect the Colombian state internationally, in the sense that this could be seen as a synonym for impunity in the country, which also generates a lack of credibility.”
Jan 09
Image source: El Tiempo.

It is with revulsion that we learn of a Colombian court’s decision yesterday to release 17 Colombian Army personnel for the 2008 Soacha murder case.

The officers and soldiers were awaiting trial for conspiring to kidnap and kill unemployed young men in a slum on Bogotá’s outskirts, only to present their bodies hundreds of miles away as those of armed-group members killed in combat. By raising their “body count” through this unconscionable scheme, the soldiers qualified for a schedule of rewards, as established by Defense Ministry orders. This so-called “False Positives” scandal now involves hundreds of cases since 2002 under official investigation all over Colombia, with over 1,000 potential victims.

Because of its high-profile nature — it forced the resignation of Army chief Gen. Mario Montoya — the Soacha case is a key test of whether Colombia would be able to investigate and punish these crimes.

Colombia is failing that test. Yesterday, 17 alleged perpetrators were released because a judge decided that prosecutors’ time had run out. This issue had come up before, in October. At the time, a judge avoided letting the soldiers go free, giving prosecutors a 90-day extension. He agreed that most of the delay was the fault of the soldiers’ defense lawyers, who were clearly trying to “run out the clock” by throwing up a series of procedural roadblocks, including demands that the murders be tried in Colombia’s military justice system instead of the civilian courts.

It appears that the delaying tactics have worked. The message this sends about impunity for human rights abuse — even in the most egregious cases, like Soacha — could hardly be more poisonous. It is also a huge slap in the face to the Soacha victims’ grieving relatives, who had already been receiving threats.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Office in Colombia had uncharacteristically strong words about yesterday’s events.

“I am extremely worried about the impact and the repercussions that this decision could have over the more than 1,200 cases of extrajudicial executions that the Prosecutor-General’s Human Rights Unit is investigating, as well as on the mothers of the victims and the witnesses,” said Christian Salazar Volkmann, representative in Colombia of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Office continues to view as extremely serious the pattern under which many of these acts were committed.

Even Colombia’s Ministry of Defense, headed by a minister who has called human rights prosecutions were the work of “enemies of the fatherland,”  appeared chagrined, calling on the justice system to continue its investigations and prosecutions of the Soacha cases, even with so many of the perpetrators now once again enjoying their freedom.

For the U.S. government, the implication of yesterday’s move is clear: as long as impunity continues to reign in these “false positives” cases, it is impossible to certify that Colombia’s human rights performance is improving.

Oct 27
Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva on August 12, telling the armed forces that human rights prosecutions are the work of “enemies of the fatherland.”

On October 14, we shared an alarming El Tiempo article about an impending deadline for the prosecutions of seven Colombian army personnel accused of murdering young men in the slums of Soacha, a poor Bogotá suburb. In early 2008 the officers and soldiers allegedly arranged for the young men to be killed, and for their bodies to be presented hundreds of miles away as those of armed-group members killed in combat.

According to El Tiempo, Colombian military defense lawyers’ delaying tactics had brought both cases dangerously close to a deadline for deciding whether they must go before a civilian court or before a far more lenient military tribunal. If the October 22 deadline passed, the seven accused military personnel could have had the right to be freed.

We saw no further updates on these cases in the Colombian media, so we asked around. It turns out that the outcome is largely positive, so far.

The soldiers’ defense lawyers requested a hearing to determine whether the soldiers and officers could be freed. At that hearing, which took place on October 20, the judge refused to free them, arguing that the defense lawyers’ own tactics had caused the delays that brought the case up against the October 22 deadline. Shortly afterward, Colombia’s Supreme Judiciary Council finally gave the long-awaited order that the cases be tried in the civilian justice system.

One colleague in Colombia’s non-governmental human rights community affirms that the military defense lawyers’ delaying tactics, and the military justice system’s jurisdictional challenges, are very common in these “extrajudicial execution” cases. These tactics are likely to be strengthened by a newly created Military Public Defender’s system in the Defense Ministry, launched in August in line with a recommendation of the Colombian Defense Ministry’s 2008 human rights policy (PDF).

While a public defender program isn’t necessarily negative – most of the accused so far have been low-ranking soldiers who lack the resources to hire a lawyer – we must be troubled by the words uttered by Colombia’s defense minister, Gabriel Silva Luján, at the August 12 inauguration of the public defender’s office.

“May a colonel not tremble, may he have no fear before the codes [of justice], may a general or a soldier not tremble in the face of a [human rights] complaint, may their will to fight not be stopped by a judicial action by the enemies of the fatherland.”

Telling the assembled military brass that those who dare to try human rights cases are “enemies of the fatherland” is dangerous, irresponsible, and throws even more strongly into question the Colombian security forces’ commitment to end impunity for human rights abusers.

It also calls further into question the State Department’s September decision to certify that this commitment was somehow strengthening. And it makes Defense Minister Silva undeserving of the red-carpet treatment that the U.S. Defense Department and the Southern Command chose to give him during his visit to Washington and Miami yesterday and today.

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.

Oct 14

El Tiempo reports today that Colombia’s judicial system is coming dangerously close to freeing army officers and enlisted men involved in the Soacha “false positives” case.

This serious human rights abuse case, revealed in September 2008, involved a group of military personnel who arranged for the abduction and murder of about 20 young men from the suburban Bogotá slum of Soacha, only to present the victims’ bodies hundreds of miles away as those of armed-group members killed in combat, a result that earned rewards like bonuses and time off.

The Soacha scandal forced the firing of 27 members of the armed forces in late 2008. But the judicial cases against the responsible officers have moved excruciatingly slowly.

Today’s El Tiempo piece reports on one case, in which the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) claims to have “solid evidence” that two officers and five enlisted men were involved in the murder of two young men from Soacha.

A year later, Colombia’s judicial system still has not decided whether their case is to be tried in the civilian criminal justice system or in a military court. Colombia’s military justice system has a long tradition of extreme leniency in such cases and is meant to try “acts of service,” not human rights crimes. Disputes over jurisdiction in human rights cases are supposed to be settled in favor of the civilian justice system. In this case, though, Colombia’s Supreme Judiciary Council (Consejo Supremo de la Judicatura), which is supposed to decide whether cases go to civilian or military justice, has still not produced a decision.

And time is running out. El Tiempo says that in seven days – October 21 – the deadline for deciding the defendants’ legal situation will run out, and they will have to be freed.

The same thing, on the same date, may also happen in a second case involving a sergeant, a corporal and a private linked to seven murders.

The article notes:

El Tiempo established that the Prosecutor-General’s Office has already sounded the alarms, as have the victims’ families. … Now, what is intended to be established is whether there have been any delaying tactics on the part of the defense of any of the soldiers.

“We believe that the delay in the Judiciary Council to reserve the jurisdictional conflicts is added to the fact that the military’s defenders are trying to entangle the process by making many absurd petitions, and the judges lack the character not to give the defense lawyers everything they ask for,” a high Prosecutor-General’s Office official told El Tiempo.

If soldiers accused of murder are allowed to walk free because of their defense counsel’s delaying tactics – as could happen in one short week, if nothing changes – it will be a blow not just to the victims’ families, but to the credibility of the U.S. government, which certified a month ago that “the Colombian Armed Forces are cooperating fully with civilian prosecutors and judicial authorities” in human rights cases.

Sep 15

The State Department’s report to Congress justifying its September 8 decision to certify Colombia’s human rights record is here [PDF].

The following are some initial reactions after reading through the 157-page document.

Impunity reigns: some arrests, but only a tiny handful of convictions

The certification document is unable to make the case that Colombia’s judicial system has improved its ability to prosecute and punish military personnel involved in human rights abuse. This is a major failing. During the 13 1/2-month period covered by the current certification, the State Department notes, “no members of the Armed Forces above the rank of major were sentenced for human rights-related crimes.”

The details of the report, in fact, show “no members of the Armed Forces above the rank of lieutenant.” Here is the breakdown of all the military personnel sentenced for human rights abuses between June 29, 2008 and June 15, 2009:

  • Private (Soldier) 22
  • Third Corporal 3
  • First Corporal 1
  • Second Sergeant 1
  • Sergeant 1 escaped, currently a fugitive
  • Sub-Official 1
  • Lieutenant 3 plus 1 contesting the verdict

This is evidence of a remarkable record of avoidance of punishment, especially given the number of outstanding cases, detailed in the certification document, that continue to drag on.

The certification document lists some important steps against impunity, but nearly all are arrests and indictments:

Despite the challenges it faces, the Prosecutor General‘s Office made several important advances in human rights cases during the certification period, which this report defines as June 16, 2008, to July 31, 2009, including:

  • Arresting four retired generals for collusion with paramilitary forces;
  • Reopening its case against retired General Rito Alejo del Río for his alleged crimes during “Operación Genesis;”
  • Reopening the La Rochela case – including investigations against three retired generals – and indicting ten members of the 17th Brigade for the January 18, 1989, massacre in which 12 investigators were killed in Simacota (Santander);
  • Charging five members of the Army‘s 2nd Artillery “La Popa” Battalion, including its commander, with collusion with paramilitary forces and the homicide of 20 individuals between June and October 2002;”
  • Charging ten soldiers from the 17th Brigade in the February 20-21, 2005, massacre of eight people in San José de Apartadó (Antioquia); and
  • Obtaining 30-year sentences against seven soldiers for the January 12, 2006, homicide of Edilberto Vasquez Cardona, a member of the San José de Apartadó Peace Community. …

In the past, NGOs have noted that while low-ranking officers may be held accountable in cases of human rights violations, commanding officers are rarely prosecuted. As listed in Annexes A through D, between June 16, 2008, and June 15, 2009, the Colombian government reported that among those detained by the Prosecutor General‘s Office were one colonel, three lieutenant colonels and two majors. The Prosecutor General‘s Office indicted at least one general, two colonels, five lieutenant colonels, and two majors. In addition, the Prosecutor General‘s Office continued case proceedings against at least four colonels, one lieutenant colonel and four majors. During the certification period, no members of the Armed Forces above the rank of major were sentenced for human rights-related crimes.

Extrajudicial Executions – fewer, but proving very difficult to punish

The number of new cases of extrajudicial executions, or “false positives,” committed by the military has declined in 2009. However, a year after the revelations of killings of young men in the Bogotá suburb of Soacha shocked the country and forced the Colombian government to take the issue seriously, there have been almost no convictions. This is despite a number of victims between 2002 and 2009 that, according to the certification document, ranges from a low official estimate of 551 to a high NGO estimate of 1,142 people murdered by the security forces. Despite a recent drop, these cases are simply failing to move forward in Colombia’s judicial system, the document acknowledges:

Overall, investigations into cases of extrajudicial killings are proceeding slowly. While some advances have been made in more recent cases, older cases continue to languish. The Prosecutor General‘s Office reports that its caseload dropped dramatically in 2008, tracking a similar decline in cases reported by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), and most international and non- governmental organizations agree that numbers of extrajudicial killings have fallen substantially in 2009. However, it is unclear whether this reduction is an indicator that directives, training and disciplinary actions adopted by the Ministry of Defense are working. Some NGOs believe there may simply be a lag in reporting of cases, and that 2009 cases will be reported more as the year progresses.

The DAS wiretaps and surveillance: hard to be optimistic about investigations

The State Department document expresses strong concern about the ongoing scandal, about which details continue to emerge, surrounding the presidential intelligence service (DAS) and its practice of illegally wiretapping and following judges, opposition politicians, journalists and human rights defenders. The report devotes three paragraphs to the DAS scandal (which technically is not an armed-forces issue, as the DAS is not part of the Defense Ministry). It offers little reason to believe that this alarming practice is going to be thoroughly investigated and punished, indicating that the case is likely to drag on.

The Colombian government has denied official sponsorship of the alleged crimes, and offered a reward for the capture of rogue DAS officials it claims were behind the illegal activities. The Prosecutor General‘s Office continues to investigate the allegations, and it is unclear at this time to what level of the Colombian government any orders can be traced. The conclusion of Prosecutor General Iguaran‘s term in office on July 31, 2009, worries human rights groups, who fear this may delay the investigation.

The importance that the Prosecutor General‘s Office has placed on prosecuting these crimes is a positive step for Colombia. This investigation will likely be an ongoing concern in Colombia for some time. In fact, media reports allege that illegal wiretapping and surveillance by the DAS continues to date. It is vital that the Office conduct a rigorous and thorough investigation in order to determine the extent of these abuses and hold all actors accountable.

General Ospina is not incarcerated

The document mentions four retired generals now under investigation:

In 2008, the Prosecutor General‘s Office authorized the opening of investigations into four former Army generals for alleged collusion with the now demobilized United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Carlos Alberto Ospina (former commander of the Armed Forces), Julio Eduardo Charry (former Army commander in the Uraba region), Ivan Ramírez Quintero (former commander of the Army‘s 1st Division), and Rito Alejo del Río (former commander of the 17th Brigade) were all accused of having connections to the AUC and reportedly named in testimony (”versiones libres”) by former AUC leaders, including Salvatore Mancuso and Francisco Villalba. … The four retired generals are incarcerated, pending the results of the investigation, and have denied involvement with the AUC.

Some of the four may be incarcerated, but not all of them. In the case of Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina, it could hardly be more to the contrary. He is currently a professor at the Defense Department’s Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington. (Staff listing / bio [PDF])

Case of Colonel Hernán Mejía

On April 14, 2009, five members of the Army‘s 2nd Artillery ―La Popa‖ Battalion (10th Armored Brigade in the department of César), including its commander, Army Colonel Hernán Mejía Gutiérrez, were indicted for colluding with paramilitaries in the homicide of 20 individuals in June and October 2002. … Criminal proceedings were begun in 2007.

The discussion of Colonel Mejía’s judicial proceedings fails to mention that key witnesses have been murdered, and others have mysteriously retracted their testimony, severely weakening the prosecution’s case.

A strong case for increasing judicial funding

The certification document makes several references to the weakness of Colombia’s judicial system. This is a serious problem, and the lack of resources for judges, prosecutors and investigators is a severe handicap and a significant measure of political will to punish human rights abuse. The difficulty of prosecuting military human rights abuse, however, is more than just a matter of resources; doing so requires going after some very powerful and often quite ruthless individuals. But the report makes little mention of this other set of obstacles that the judicial system faces.

Some excerpts referencing the judicial system:

[H]undreds more cases of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses are awaiting resolution, but the Prosecutor General‘s Office lacks the financial resources and personnel to do so quickly. In fact, NGOs have criticized the impunity that results from the backlog of cases, and some worry that the departure of Prosecutor General Mario Iguaran as of July 31, 2009, will cause further delays. In 2008, the Colombian government increased the budget and personnel levels of the Office, which was a step in the right direction and an indicator of the government‘s commitment to ending impunity, but more trained investigators and prosecutors are needed to address its overwhelming case loads. To help address this need, the United States, through the Department of Justice, is providing training and equipment to the Human Rights Unit within the Prosecutor‘s General‘s Office along with other sections of the Office. …

The demobilization of over 30,000 paramilitary members between 2005 and 2006 was an important step for Colombia. However, Colombia now faces the challenge of delivering justice with respect to the crimes committed by these individuals. The Colombian government also continues to vigorously investigate and prosecute the parapolitical scandal, with 86 members of Congress, 34 mayors and 15 governors linked to crimes. These tasks continue to overwhelm the understaffed and underfunded civilian judicial system, though the government increased funding and personnel levels for the Prosecutor General‘s Office in 2008, and the United States is providing assistance to the Justice and Peace Unit within the Prosecutor General‘s Office to aid in the investigation and prosecution of crimes committed by former paramilitary members. …

Colombian funding for the [Prosecutor-General's Justice and Peace] Unit remains insufficient to respond to the workload. Though increased from 2007 funding levels (10.2 billion pesos = $5.1 million), the Unit‘s 2008 (15.0 billion pesos = $7.5 million) and 2009 funding levels (14.8 billion pesos = $7.4 million), 1.8 billion pesos ($900,000) of which is earmarked for a search project for the disappeared), must cover the personnel increase and infrastructure strengthening. This effectively makes these allotments a reduction over 2007 levels. 26 While U.S. assistance does not provide direct support for salaries or the hiring of new prosecutors and investigators, the United States does continue to fund training and technical assistance to help build the capacity of the Justice and Peace Unit.

There is much more that is deserving of comment, but this is what jumps out upon a first read-through.

Jun 18

Here are excerpts from today’s press statement from Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for extrajudicial executions. Alston just finished a ten-day visit to Colombia, where he investigated allegations of “false positives” and other killings of civilians by the parties to Colombia’s conflict. The headings are ours, not his.

The “false positives” problem goes beyond Soacha

[T]here are two problems with the narrative focused on falsos positivos and Soacha [the headline-grabbing scandal, which broke in September, surrounding military killings of young men in Soacha, a poor Bogotá suburb]. The first is that the term provides a sort of technical aura to describe a practice which is better characterized as cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit. The second is that the focus on Soacha encourages the perception that the phenomenon was limited both geographically and temporally. But while the Soacha killings were undeniably blatant and obscene, my investigations show that they were but the tip of the iceberg. I interviewed witnesses and survivors who described very similar killings in the departments of Antioquia, Arauca, Cali, Casanare, Cesar, Cordoba, Huila, Meta, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Santander, Sucre, and Vichada. A significant number of military units were thus involved.

Military denials or cover-ups

Some officials continue to assert that many of the cases were in fact legitimate killings of guerrillas or others. But the evidence – including ballistics and forensics reports, eyewitness testimony, and the testimony of soldiers themselves – strongly suggests that this was not the case. The “dangerous guerillas” who were killed include boys of 16 and 17, a young man with a mental age of nine, a devoted family man with two in-laws in active military service, and a young soldier home on leave. I cannot rule out the possibility that some of the falsos positivos were, in fact, guerillas, but apart from sweeping allegations, I have been provided with no sustained evidence to that effect by the Government. Evidence showing victims dressed in camouflage outfits which are neatly pressed, or wearing clean jungle boots which are four sizes too big for them, or lefthanders holding guns in their right hand, or men with a single shot through the back of their necks, further undermines the suggestion that these were guerillas killed in combat.

A further problem concerns the systematic harassment of the survivors by the military. A woman from Soacha described how, in 2008, one of her sons disappeared and was reported killed in combat two days later. When another of her sons became active in pursuing the case, he received a series of threats. He was shot and killed earlier this year. Since then, the mother has also received death threats. This is part of a common pattern.

Not just “a few bad apples”

The key question is who was responsible for these premeditated killings? On the one hand, I have found no evidence to suggest that these killings were carried out as a matter of official Government policy, or that they were directed by, or carried out with the knowledge of, the President or successive Defence Ministers. On the other hand, the explanation favoured by many in Government – that the killings were carried out on a small scale by a few bad apples – is equally unsustainable. The sheer number of cases, their geographic spread, and the diversity of military units implicated, indicate that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military.

The gap between policies and practice

Starting in 2007, the Government has taken important steps to stop and respond to these killings. They include: disciplinary sanctions, increased cooperation with the ICRC and the UN, the installation of Operational Legal Advisors to advise on specific military operations, increased oversight of payments to informers, the appointment of the Suarez Temporary Special Commission, the appointment of Delegated Inspectors to army divisions, requiring deaths in combat to be investigated first by judicial police, modifying award criteria, and creating a specialized unit in the Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalia).

These encouraging steps demonstrate a good faith effort by the Government to address past killings and prevent future ones. But there remains a worrying gap between the policies and the practice. The number of successful prosecutions remains very low, although improved results are hoped for in the coming year. Three problems stand out. The first is that the Fiscalia, and especially its Human Rights Unit, lack the requisite staff, resources and training. A substantial increase in resources is essential. The second is that in some areas military judges ignore the rulings of the Constitutional Court and do all in their power to thwart the transfer of clear human rights cases to the ordinary justice system. The transfer of information is delayed or obstructed, wherever possible jurisdictional clashes are set up, and delaying tactics are standard. Delays, often of months or years, result and the value of testimony and evidence is jeopardized.

The good news is that there has been a significant reduction in recorded allegations of extrajudicial executions by the military over the last 6-9 months. If this trend is confirmed, it will represent a welcome reversal of course, but the problem of impunity for past killings must still be addressed. …

Officials’ unfounded accusations against human rights defenders

[H]uman rights defenders (HRDs) are frequently intimidated and threatened, and sometimes killed, often by private actors. They have been accused by high level officials of being – or being close to – guerrillas or terrorists. Such statements have also been made against prosecutors and judges. These statements stigmatise those working to promote human rights, and encourage an environment in which specific acts of threats and killings by private actors can take place. It is important for senior officials to cease the stigmatization of such groups. …

A clear position on Colombia’s “Victims Law”

It is my understanding that the current draft law on victims’ rights – approved by the commission set up to reconcile the texts approved in the Senate and the House of Representatives – contains a definition of victim that includes victims of state agents and generally puts them on equal standing with victims of paramilitaries. It is imperative that as the draft law moves forward, that victims of both state and non-state actors continue to be treated equally.

Apr 29

Last fall, Colombia was horrified by revelations that members of the Army – or criminals in their employ – had been luring away young men with promises of employment, killing them, then presenting their bodies as those of guerrillas or paramilitaries killed in combat. The dead were called “falsos positivos” – roughly, “false positive results against armed groups” – and the scandal forced the November 2008 retirement of Army Chief Gen. Mario Montoya.

The Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination, a network of Colombian human-rights groups, issued a report alleging that 535 civilians had been killed by Colombia’s security forces between January 2007 and June 2008, about one per day.

Colombian security and defense officials long denied that “false positives” were a problem. Now, they are insisting that they have put the problem behind them. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos has said in at least two recent high-profile speeches that there have been no new cases of “false positives” since October.

We have had problems, as in the cases of extrajudicial executions or “false positives” that have been denounced, but we worked immediately, with all effort and rigor, and we can say that, since last October, no denunciations have been received about cases since then.

Is that correct, though? A recent report by the highly respected Colombian NGO CINEP and a new memo from the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination [PDF] both indicate otherwise. The CINEP report documents three possible new cases between October and December 2008 in Casanare, Cordoba, and Putumayo. The CCEEU memo mentions these cases, as well as a few others in which the victims were executed but not later presented as killed in combat – their bodies were disposed of instead.

The CCEEU argues that forced disappearance is replacing “false positives” as the “new modality” of military human rights abuse.

They seek to give the sensation that the order to end the executions is being followed, but continuing the same practice, only now placing special care in ensuring that the new executions are not reported (publicly) and the cadavers are diligently hidden, in order to leave no traces of the troops’ responsibility for these illegal acts.

Compounding the difficulty of judging the degree to which “false positives” continue is the way in which they are discovered. It may take several months to determine that the armed forces may have had a role in the case of one of the hundreds of people who disappear every year in Colombia. In the notorious case that brought the scandal to world attention last fall – the discovery of the bodies of missing young men from a slum near Bogotá buried in a province near the Venezuelan border – the lag between disappearance and discovery was at least six months.

An editorial in Monday’s edition of the Bogotá daily El Espectador looks at the issue and determines that, indeed, the Colombian defense minister may be speaking too soon.

We celebrate that the Army is carrying out a serious diagnosis to bring an end to this criminal conduct, that the investigations’ advances are communicated to public opinion, and that drastic measures are taken to restore credibility and trust to the institution. But the Minister should think twice before assuring that “false positives” are a thing of the past.

Mar 24

“The Armed Forces of Colombia, in this process of being effective and transparent, will gladly correct any error. They don’t accept ‘false positives,’ nor will they allow themselves to be tied up by false accusations.

“Today we see hundreds of false accusations, when in reality only 22 cases of  ‘false positives’ have any juridical foundation.

“We are the first to demand that there be no ‘false positives,’ that there be total transparency. But we have to be the first to denounce that many people, basing themselves on the issue of ‘false positives,’ have caused these false accusations to increase, in order to try to paralyze the security forces’ actions against the terrorists.”

- President Uribe yesterday, alleging that nearly all allegations of “false positives” are unfounded accusations from people seeking to slow down the Colombian military’s efforts to fight guerrillas. The term “false positives” refers to hundreds of cases in which soldiers are believed to have killed civilians, only to present their bodies as those of illegal armed-group members killed in combat.

Colombian non-governmental human-rights groups believe that as many as 1,192 civilians were victims of “false positives” between July 2002 and June 2007, and 535 between January 2007 and June 2008 alone. As of the end of last year, Colombia’s attorney-general’s office (Fiscalía) was investigating 716 cases, with over 1,000 victims, while the inspector-general’s office (Procuraduría) was reviewing 943 cases involving at least 2,742 members of the Army. It is unclear where President Uribe’s reference to 22 cases with juridical foundation comes from.

Jan 09

Location of Atánquez, site of the New Year’s Eve attack. Map from Wikipedia.

Here is a translation of Cambio magazine’s coverage Thursday of what appears to have been a serious December 31 attack on an indigenous community in Atánquez, in the municpality of Valledupar, in the northeastern Colombian department of Cesar. There, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, a grenade explosion at a New Year celebration killed five members of the Kankuamo indigenous group, a community that had already been hit extremely hard by the conflict.

Increasingly likely that emerging criminal groups carried out the attack in Atánquez

On Monday, January 5, Erika Fuentes, an 18-year-old Kankuama indigenous woman, became the fifth fatal victim of the grenade explosion that, on New Year’s night, stained with blood the celebration of an “open house and yard,” which is the name that the community of Atánquez, in Cesar, gives to its popular dances that are open to outsiders. The attack left an additional 67 people wounded.

Amid the pain the act produced, the young girl’s relatives heard the ultimatum that the mayor of Valledupar, Rubén Carvajal, gave the authorities. “The municipal government gives a period of 40 days for the authorities to tell the Kankuamo people who were those responsible for the possible massacre that occurred in their territory.”

“40 days could be a century for us,” replied Jaime Arias, governor of the Kankuamo cabildo. And he announced that he will employ the autonomy that the Constitution recognizes for indigenous communities to carry out an “agile, independent and conclusive” investigation of their own. His urgent haste owes to the fear generated by the possibility that the December 31 tragedy could be a signal that violence has returned to the indigenous territory most battered by the paramilitaries during the time of [AUC Northern Bloc leader Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias] “Jorge 40.”

And while Arias told Cambio that it is still premature to talk about a return of the massacres, and that it is fair to recognize that the AUC demobilization has so far had a positive effect, the fear has deep historial roots. “We don’t want a history of blood and pain to be revived,” he affirmed, and with statistics in hand he recalled that 300 Kankuamos have been murdered since 1986 by extremist groups, in some cases allied with the security forces. That violence, which he characterizes as “systematic,” reached its highest crest between 2000 and 2003, when 90 members of this ethnic group met with death.

The state’s apparent indifference about what happened in Atánquez, the center of one of the most important indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, led the Inter-American Human Rights Court to order the adoption of provisional protective measures because, in its judgment, the Kankuamo people were victims of an ethnocide. The decision came before the 2005 paramilitary demobilization, in the face of the government’s delay in implementing the precautionary measures the [Inter-American Human Rights] Commission had requested.

The year-end tragedy happened days after the government requested that said Court lift the precautionary measures.

According to the Cesar governor’s office and sources in the Army and Police, in the region are emerging criminal groups who are trying to occupy the spaces left behind by the demobilized, and during October and November 2008 pamphlets circulated in Valledupar from a group calling itself the “Gaitanista Self-Defense Groups of Colombia.” According to the intelligence services, this was a small group within the criminal organization of [fugitive narcotrafficker and backer of new paramilitary groups Daniel Rendón, alias] “Don Mario.”

Everything indicates that the emerging groups are seeking in Kankuamo territory the same thing as the paramiitaries who came before them: territorial control in a region where the central government expects to build the Besotes dam, in the Guatapurí River basin, and the promotion of development projects that especially favor growers of industrial oil palm.