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.

Jul 15

Here is a translation of an eloquent column posted to Semana magazine’s website yesterday, written by the magazine’s former editor María Teresa Ronderos.

Let’s hope she’s right – she may be overstating the extent of the Colombian military’s generational change, but it is certain that its more moderate officers are far more influential than ever before, and the July 2 hostage rescue reinforces their position within the institution.

Ronderos’ column doesn’t put it this way, but it does raise the interesting question of whether the military’s move toward a lighter touch puts them out of step with Colombia’s President. Between his rhetoric about NGOs and his arguments with the justice system, Álvaro Uribe appears to adhere to the old ways, including a belief in the “attorney-general’s syndrome” and an inability to distinguish between human-rights defenders and guerrilla supporters.

Why history was divided in two

The celebrated rescue of Íngrid, William Pérez, Lieutenant Malagón, Keith Stansell and the other souls who spent so many years captive in the jungle marks a definitive rupture in the history of Colombia’s war.

First, because the Army had the hard evidence, the strongest ever obtained, that it can deal decisive blows to its enemy, that it can win the war, obeying national and international legal precepts.

During several decades the Army and, in general, the Colombian armed forces jealously guarded the secret conviction, as though it were part of its identity, that the war against the guerrillas cannot be won by obeying all norms of democracy.

In the past – that is, 15 years ago – the officers spoke of the “attorney-general’s syndrome,” because it was this entity [Procuraduría] that called them to account every time a violation was committed. So they said that as long as they had the Procuraduría breathing down their necks, it would be impossible for them to defeat the guerrillas. And more recently, since the 1990s, they used the “guerrilla” epithet to describe non-governmental organizations, human rights defenders and journalists who denounced them when their men committed violations.

Many soldiers went still further. Responding to the interests of businessmen and large landowners, and sometimes of narcotraffickers, they allied with paramilitary groups, so that these might fight the guerrillas without ethical or legal limits. We have borne witness to this today in Colombia thanks to the mass confessions of paramilitaries in the Justice and Peace processes, the product of the demobilization of the largest paramilitary organization the country ever had, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. The “paras” are telling of how colonel so-and-so gave them the arms, this other general trained them, the other captain who was their accomplice, etcetera. Not all of what they say is true, but when the trials end, we will surely find that many truths were said.

These have not been the only soldiers. Because of course there have been brave officers and soldiers, who have given an enormous sacrifice to preserve democracy from terror, while abstaining from using its methods.

But this culture that reigned so long among the military – nurtured by the civilians who commanded them – is changing, and the hostages’ rescue marks a point of no return. Finally, years of human rights courses, pressure from Colombian civil sectors, inquisitions from foreign organizations and governments, from civilians and, above all, soldiers who from within the armed forces, with great bravery have dedicated themselves to the difficult security mission that society set for them, have produced the cultural transformation that the Colombian military forces needed. It is meaningful that today Freddy Padilla de León, a general who throughout his career has been a member of this legitimizing faction, now heads the armed forces.

An important factor in this organizational change has been the United States. Paradoxically it was a professor of dirty wars during the Cold War, but since the Clinton era, since it gave $5 billion dollars to the Colombian state to recover the lost monopoly of force, and the government and Congress have permanently conditioned its aid on compliance with international human rights standards. Since it gave the money, it imposed the philosophy.

It is not that this tendency to win unholy victories is extinct within the security forces. There is still complicity between soldiers and paramilitaries; and extrajudicial executions are still committed (there were 127 denunciations of possible extrajudicial executions in 2006 and 73 in 2007); that is, campesinos are killed and made to appear as guerrillas killed in combat, in order to demonstrate effectiveness to the commanders. But these practices now do not reflect the dominant thinking in the armed forces, and an institutional effort is being made to avoid their repeat. Best of all, they are beginning to be viewed badly by many soldiers, above all the youngest.

In this sense, the rescue of Íngrid Betancourt and the other 14 kidnap victims is a tipping point in the Colombian Armed Forces’ cultural transformation. That July 2, they registered a great success, perhaps a mortal blow to the guerrillas, but equally importantly they did it while following the law. Operation Check, as the rescue was called, is the harvest reaped from this new mentality, and at the same time it is a lesson for those who still think that the means used do not matter (lies, human rights violations, persecution of critics), that the only important thing is to achieve results. Now it is clear that it is the other way around: the better things are done, the greater the legitimacy and, as a result, the larger is the military and political success.

Ethical means are what led to the triumph of the democratic state.


The second thing that changed forever is that the FARC have been exposed in all of their weakness.

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Apr 20

Gen. Mario Montoya, the head of Colombia’s army, continues to face questions of alleged links to paramilitary groups. These allegations, first published by the Los Angeles Times in March, are among the reasons why, according to Sen. Patrick Leahy’s staff, the senator decided this week to “re-freeze” $55 million in military aid to Colombia. (That aid had been held up by a law requiring the State Department to certify that the Colombian military’s human-rights record is improving; that certification was issued on April 4.)

The allegations about Gen. Montoya center on “Operation Orion,” a late 2002 military offensive in Medellín’s western slums that was seen as one of the first tests of President Álvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy. The Colombian Army’s 4th Brigade, then headed by Gen. Montoya, carried out several weeks of house-to-house fighting. When “Operation Orion” ended, leftist guerrilla militias had been expelled from Medellín’s Comuna 13 neighborhood – but the paramilitary presence remained.

More evidence is emerging about the role that paramilitaries played during the “Operation Orion” offensive that Gen. Montoya led. A disturbing new contribution appeared on Sunday in Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo. Here, thanks to CIP Intern Alessandra Miraglia, is a translation of testimony from one of the paramilitaries’ victims during the offensive.

“I saw my grave being dug”

Carlos Cano managed to escape from the paramilitaries, with three shots in his body, as they were about to put him in a grave. He currently lives outside the country. He is a witness to what happened in Comuna 13 after the military operation ‘Orión.’

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Apr 13

We remain disappointed about the State Department’s decision, announced Tuesday, to certify that Colombia has improved its human-rights performance. The certification freed up $55 million in 2006 military aid that had been on hold.

It is praiseworthy that the State Department delayed the certification, which must occur twice per year, for over ten months. Nonetheless, after reading through the department’s 59-page “memorandum of justification” (large PDF) explaining its decision, we still don’t understand what has improved sufficiently to allow State to take this step.

The decision is especially confusing in the current climate, in which Colombia’s military has seen itself caught up in a flurry of scandals. In the past year, officers have been accused of torturing recruits, killing police on behalf of drug traffickers, planting car bombs, killing civilians and passing them off as guerrillas, and – along with the presidential intelligence service – working closely with paramilitaries. Amid all of these serious human-rights questions, it is unfortunate that the State Department has given Colombia’s Defense Ministry a chance to celebrate this “recognition” of its record.

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