Friday links (Sunday edition) Does criticism of friends go unheard?
Sep 152009

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.

4 Responses to “Notes on the human rights certification”

  1. Tambopaxi Says:

    So I look at these depressing details and indeed, it is more of the same ‘ol, same ‘ol…

    You know, Adam, I like your blog, (I may not agree with it all the time, and I do disagree on Honduras) and it provides many insights into Colombia, but when/how can constructive change be made, if not in Colombia, then in our policy re: Colombia, if Congress doesn’t react decisively and creatively to these kinds of reports?

    I consider Colombia to be one of the best countries – if not the best – in Latin America; I lived there for years and I love the place. Still, it’s got a dark side to it, a malaise, that needs to be addressed head on, and Uribe’s not the man to do it, and never has been (still another reason he shouldn’t have a third term). I think he’s done a good job (not great, but good) in dealing with the FARC, and to lesser extent, the paras, but Colombia needs a leader who’s capable of dealing with the deeper problems of corruption/violence in its governmental institutions, civilian and military, and who wants to do so… (Btw, I recognize that the drug war is integral part of the same problem; it happens that I think we’ve lost that war, should acknowledge that, and legalize drugs, but that’s not subject of your posting here…)

    Anyway, back to my question: Is there any way, any hope of getting Congress to take action in calling the DOS report for what it is, (pick your own term) and holding them to truly account for this?

  2. Plan Colombia and Beyond » Does criticism of friends go unheard? Says:

    [...] the Center for International Policy Notes on the human rights certification Sep [...]

  3. Marcos Says:

    As much as I’ve become extremely displeased and cynical about this blog+comments section, I actually could even agree with Tambopaxi’s basic sentiment. The problem begins when we go into talking about details and more details.

    In other news…guilty until proven innocent appears to be the guiding principle here, except when the finger is being pointed in the other direction.

    Not that there aren’t many people who are guilty among the cases listed above and that are free because of impunity or whatever reason, but surely there are some innocents as well?

    Imagine that.

    Regards,

    Marcos

  4. Plan Colombia and Beyond » Running out the clock on the Soacha case Says:

    [...] 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 [...]

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