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 25

Yesterday the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has frequently been critical of the Colombian government, issued a very strong report finding fault with the human rights and democracy situation in Venezuela.

In response, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called the report “pure garbage” and announced that Venezuela will pull out of the Commission.

The report itself is 300 pages long; here is a quick summary prepared by CIP Intern Cristina Salas.

Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela

The last visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to Venezuela occurred in May 2002, following the attempted coup that occurred in April and at President Chávez’s request.

To follow up on recommendations made in the Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Venezuela, which was published as a result of that visit, the Commission has tried unsuccessfully to get the State’s consent to visit the country. The Commission does not consider that these denials prevent it from analyzing the situation of human rights in Venezuela. The report Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela reveals that human rights protected in the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights are being constrained in the following matters:

Political Rights and Participation in Public Life

Among the factors that hinder enjoyment of political rights in Venezuela is the Comptroller General of the Republic’s administrative resolutions preventing opposition candidates’ access to power. These disqualifications contravene the Inter-American Convention, since they were not the result of criminal convictions and were ordered lacking prior proceedings. The State also restricts some powers of democratically elected opposition authorities.

The Commission notes excessive use of state force and the actions of violent groups to punish, attack or intimidate people who express dissent or demonstrate against official policies. Over the past five years, criminal charges have been brought against more than 2,200 people in connection with their involvement in public demonstrations.

Independence and Separation of State Powers

The independence and impartiality of the judiciary system is one of the weakest points in Venezuelan democracy. The vagueness of the Organic Law of the Supreme Court of Justice allows judicial officials to be appointed discretionarily and without being subject to competition. Also, since most of them have provisionary status, they can be removed if they make decisions contrary to government’s interests.

Freedom of Thought and Expression

Freedom of thought and expression is hampered by violent acts of intimidation committed by private groups against journalists and media outlets, by discrediting declarations made by high-ranking public officials against the media and journalists, and by opening administrative proceedings with high levels of discretion.

Serious violations of the rights to life and humane treatment in Venezuela as a result of the victims’ exercise of free expression include the deaths of two reporters. The report points out cases of prior censorship, the proceedings to cancel television and radio stations’ broadcasting concessions, and the order to cease 32 stations’ transmissions. The Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, which governs freedom of expression, is vague and metes out harsh punishments decided by a body of the executive. Moreover, the offenses of desacato (disrespect) and vilipendio (contempt) introduced in the Penal Code in 2005 impose criminal liability for the exercise of freedom of expression.

President Chavez relies on the legal framework to broadcast his speeches simultaneously across the media, with no time constraints. The duration and frequency of these presidential blanket broadcasts could be considered abusive as the content might not always be serving the public interest.

The recent Organic Education Law, meanwhile, gives the state broad margin to implement the principles and values that should guide education. The Inter-American Commission is also concerned about the possibility that authorities could close down private educational institutions.

The Defense of Human Rights and the Freedom of Association

Human rights defenders in Venezuela suffer attacks, threats, harassment, and even killings. Authorities have opened unfounded judicial investigations or criminal proceedings against those who have criticized the government. Witnesses and victim’s relatives are also intimidated if they denounce to state authorities. The Commission has knowledge of six cases of violations of the right to life of human rights defenders between 1997 and 2007. Furthermore, high-ranking public officials undermine defenders’ and human rights NGOs’ authority and deny them access to public information.

The Right to Life, To Humane Treatment, and to Personal Liberty and Security

Public insecurity is an issue of gravest concern for the Commission. In many cases, the state’s response to public insecurity has been inadequate or incompatible with respect for human rights. The Commission considers that citizens who receive military training should not be involved in domestic defense, as is done in Venezuela through the Bolivarian National Militia.

In 2008, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman of Venezuela documented these staggering figures in relation to excessive use of state force: 134 complaints involving arbitrary killings, allegedly by state security agencies; 2,197 complaints of violations of humane treatment by state security officials; 87 allegations of torture; 33 cases of alleged forced disappearances reported during 2008, and 34 during 2007.

Homicides, kidnappings, contract killings, and rural violence are the most frequently security problems that Venezuela’s citizens face. In 2008, there were a total of 13,780 homicides in the country, an average of 1,148 murders a month and 38 every day. [That murder rate, 49 per 100,000, is higher than Colombia's - 34 per 100,000 - and one of the highest in the world.]

The Commission’s report also notes with extreme concern that in Venezuela, violent groups with police and military-like training such as the Movimiento Tupamaro, Colectivo La Piedrita, Colectivo Alexis Vive, Unidad Popular Venezolana, and Grupo Carapaica are perpetrating acts of violence with the involvement or acquiescence of state agents.

The report claims the main problems in Venezuela’s violent prisons include delays at trial, overcrowding, lack of basic services, failure to separate convicts from remanded prisoners, and presence of weapons. More than 65% of Venezuela’s inmates have not yet been convicted and remain in preventive custody. Impunity reigns in most cases of serious human rights violations.

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

On a positive note, the report highlights Venezuela’s achievements in ensuring the literacy of the majority of the population; reducing poverty, unemployment and infant mortality rate; expanding health coverage among the most vulnerable sectors; increasing people’s access to basic public services; and great progress toward attaining the Millennium Development Goals.

However, one issue relating to economic, social, and cultural rights is the constant intervention and political control of the State in the functioning of trade unions, hampering the right of free association.

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 28
Picture from the El Nuevo Herald coverage of the mass grave.

Miami’s El Nuevo Herald and Spain’s Público have run stories in the past two days about a shocking find in La Macarena, about 200 miles south of Bogotá.

Residents say that after it entered the strongly guerrilla-controlled zone in the mid-2000s, Colombia’s Army began dumping unidentified bodies in a mass grave near a local cemetery. The grave may contain as many as 2,000 bodies.

Público reports:

Since 2005 the Army, whose elite units are deployed in the surrounding area, has been depositing behind the local cemetery hundreds of cadavers with the order that they be buried without names. …

Jurist Jairo Ramírez, the secretary of the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Colombia, accompanied a delegation of British legislators to the site several weeks ago, when the magnitude of the La Macarena grave began to be discovered. “What we saw was chilling,” he told Público. “An infinity of bodies, and on the surface hundreds of white wooden plaques with the inscription NN [name unknown] and dates from 2005 until today.”

Ramírez adds: “The Army commander told us that they were guerrillas killed in combat, but the people in the region told us of a multitude of social leaders, campesinos and community human rights defenders who disappeared without a trace.”

El Nuevo Herald reports:

A spokesman of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) in Bogotá revealed to El Nuevo Herald that a mission from that institution’s Technical Investigations Corps (CTI) has already gone to the cemetery and confirmed the existence of “a large number” of cadavers in the grave, though it only made a few excavations.

“We became the site for the depositing of the war dead,” declared Eliécer Vargas Moreno, mayor of the municipality. …

Residents of La Macarena interviewed over the phone by El Nuevo Herald, under the promise that their identities would not be revealed, expressed their suspicion that among the bodies are relatives who disappeared during the last four years. They denied that the bodies are those of guerrillas and asked for the chance to prove it.

Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office will make its first excavations at the site in mid-March. While we are not jumping to conclusions, we will be watching this case closely.

La Macarena, the site of the grave, has been a very important site of U.S.-aided military operations since the mid-2000s. In this area, the U.S. government supported and advised the Colombian Army’s 2004-2006 “Plan Patriota” military offensive, and since 2007 has supported the “Plan for the Integral Consolidation of La Macarena” or PCIM, part of the new “Integrated Action” framework that is now guiding much U.S. assistance.

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.

Dec 14

From their U.S. jail cells, top Colombian paramilitary leaders often write letters and give testimonies in which they claim to have had long relationships with top Colombian government and military officials. We discuss these allegations only rarely, because the sources are individuals with political axes to grind and little record of truth-telling.

The same standard does not apply on the ultraconservative opinion page of the Wall Street Journal. In today’s edition, columnist Mary O’Grady unquestioningly takes the testimony of a demobilized FARC fighter at face value. Her column not only fails to verify her source’s allegations: it gravely threatens the security of a community and the organizations working with it. This is shameful.

The Colombian government arranged for Ms. O’Grady to interview Daniel Sierra Martinez, a FARC deserter who went by the nickname “Samir.” He told her some very troubling things about the relationship between the FARC and the “Peace Community” of San José de Apartadó, a town in the northwestern region of Urabá that has tried to remain neutral, and as a result has had over 150 of its members killed since 1997 – most by paramilitaries, but some by the FARC.

[T]he peace community of San José de Apartadó, according to Samir, was not the least bit neutral. Rather, he says, the FARC had a close relationship with its leaders dating back to the early days.

Samir says that the peace community was a FARC safe haven for wounded and sick rebels and for storing medical supplies. He also says that suppliers to the FARC met with rebels in the town, where there were also always five or six members of the Peace Brigades International.

According to Samir, the peace community helped the FARC in its effort to tag the Colombian military as a violator of human rights. When the community was getting ready to accuse someone of a human-rights violation, Samir would organize the “witnesses” by ordering FARC members, posing as civilians, to give testimony.

Samir’s allegations are serious, but raise questions.

  • How does Samir respond to the San José Apartadó community’s vehement denials of his allegations, especially a list of people whom the community accuses him of helping to kill over the years?
  • What did this alleged “close relationship” with the leaders of San José de Apartadó actually look like? Did the FARC meet with them? To discuss what? What might the community’s leaders possibly have received from the FARC as a result of this association? (They clearly have received neither wealth nor protection.)
  • If guerrillas used the community’s territory (which includes many square miles of countryside beyond the town) for medical or supply purposes, did they do so with the community’s permission? With the permission of the community’s leadership, or just some rogue members? Was this permission given willingly? Or did they do so clandestinely?
  • Why mention Peace Brigades International, a highly disciplined, non-violent accompaniment group whose volunteers follow rigid codes of behavior and vetting of those they accompany?
  • The San José de Apartadó community’s declared neutrality has long irritated the Colombian armed forces and Álvaro Uribe’s government. Past efforts to accuse the community of working with FARC – including some rather ugly statements after a horrific 2005 massacre – have fallen apart as facts came to light. Is Samir telling the truth, or is he just agreeing to be part of a frame-up in exchange for a lighter sentence?

A real journalist would have sought answers to these questions, or at the very least provided more context, before giving Samir unchallenged access to the pages of the Wall Street Journal. But real journalism is not what Mary O’Grady set out to do. Her column, whose webpage bears the title “The FARC’s NGO Friends,” is a smear job that threatens the security of people working to defend human rights in a very dangerous corner of Colombia.

Oct 29

We’ve grown accustomed to hearing Colombian government officials accuse the country’s human rights organizations of supporting guerrilla groups. While they never present proof, the notion that human rights defenders are “spokespeople for terrorism” of the left is a regular theme in speeches by President Álvaro Uribe and others. (See examples in the section that begins on page 33 of this report, recently produced by a coalition of Colombian groups.)

But here is an accusation we’ve never heard before. This 20-second video shows Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos, in a Colombian television interview granted last Thursday. Santos is responding to news that Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) reopened an investigation into allegations that, ten years ago, he urged paramilitary leaders to set up a presence in Bogotá:

Santos seems to think that Colombia’s human rights NGOs are now in league not just with the guerrillas, but also with the right-wing paramilitaries – and that the judicial system should investigate.

Keep in mind that, in the Uribe government, the human rights portfolio is managed by the Vice President’s Office.

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 26
On the road outside Puerto Asís. (I don’t have a Villa Sandra picture.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Investigation of possible mass grave with 800 cadavers in Puerto Asís

Verdad Abierta, October 21, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct 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 16

(I’m spending Friday at a conference at Syracuse University. Meanwhile, we’re pleased to help get the word out about this important hearing Tuesday afternoon with Margaret Sekaggya, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Read the statement from her September visit to Colombia, when she found that “patterns of harassment and persecution against human rights defenders, and often their families, continue to exist in Colombia.”)

Commission Hearing Announcement
Human Rights Defenders in the Crosshairs:
The Ongoing Crisis in Colombia
Margaret Sekaggya,
UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders
Tuesday, October 20
2 - 3:30 p.m.
Room: TBD

Please join the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for a hearing on the situation of human rights defenders in Colombia. The hearing will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday, October 20, (room: tbd). The hearing is open to the media and the public.
The ongoing 44-year-old armed conflict in Colombia has created one of the worlds most dangerous environments for human rights defenders, social leaders, labor activists, and journalists, despite some protection efforts by the Colombian government. During last year’s Universal Periodic Human Rights Review of Colombia at the United Nations, the subsequent Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review on Colombia (A/HRC/10/82; Jan. 9, 2009) reflected the global concern regarding extra-judicial killings and disappearances of individuals.
Recognizing the dangers that human rights defenders face from paramilitary, guerilla fighters and drug lords, the working group recommended that the Colombian government fully implement Presidential Directive 7 of 1999, and give stronger and unambiguous public recognition and support to human rights defenders.  The recommendations also included sanctioning those who make unsubstantiated allegations against human rights defenders and strengthening the protection program for NGO representatives. The report further recommended that the Colombian government fully investigate and punish crimes against human rights defenders to end the climate of impunity and called for the visits of all relevant human rights rapporteurs to Colombia.
Margaret Sekaggya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders and former head of the Ugandan Human Rights Commission, visited Colombia last month from September 7-18 and met with the Uribe government, civil society, judicial institutions, diplomatic delegations, and authorities in Bogota, Barranquilla, Medellín, Cali and Arauca. Ms. Sekaggya will be joined by other human rights experts to present and discuss the findings of her trip.
Other witnesses include:·
  • Principe Gabriel Gonzalez Arango, Colombian Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee·
  • Reynaldo Villalba Vargas, President, José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective·
  • Andrew Hudson, Manager, Human Rights Defenders Program, Human Rights First
  • Kelly Nicholls, Executive Director, U.S. Office on Colombia.

If you have any questions regarding this hearing, please contact Hans Hogrefe (Rep. McGovern) or Elizabeth Hoffman (Rep. Wolf) at (202) 225-3599.

James P. McGovern, M.C.
Co-Chair, TLHRC

Frank R. Wolf, M.C.
Co-Chair, TLHRC