WORLD REPORT 2001 - Colombia

Human Rights Developments

During the year, Colombia saw little progress beyond rhetoric toward a negotiated end to prolonged conflict. Both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) and the Camilist Union-National Liberation Army (Unión Camilista-Ejército de Liberación Nacional, UC-ELN) sent delegations to Europe in government-approved efforts to further talks. Yet, in Colombia, individuals who spoke out in favor of peace and protection for civilians were eliminated ruthlessly by all sides. Continuing a disturbing trend from 1999, the average number of victims of political violence and deaths in combat rose in 2000 from twelve to fourteen per day according to the Colombian Commission of Jurists (Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, CCJ). All parties to the conflict routinely committed violations of international humanitarian law.

Colombia's armed forces continued to be implicated in serious human rights violations as well as support for the paramilitary groups considered responsible for at least 78 percent of the human rights violations recorded in the six months from October 1999. Troops attacked indiscriminately and killed civilians, among them six elementary school children on a field trip near Pueblo Rico, Antioquia, on August 15. According to witnesses, soldiers fired for forty minutes, ignoring the screams of the adult chaperones. Colombian army commander Gen. Jorge Mora seemed to justify the attack by telling journalists, "These are the risks of the war we are engaged in." Another case took place on June 18, when troops belonging to the Rebeiz Pizarro Battalion fired on a car carrying six adults and two children returning from a party, wounding all.

There continued to be abundant, detailed, and continuing evidence of direct collaboration between the military and paramilitary groups. Government investigators, for example, contended that active duty and reserve officers attached to the army's Third Brigade in Cali had set up and actively supported the Calima Front. In the twelve months since it began to operate in July 1999, the Calima Front was considered responsible for at least 200 killings and the displacement of over 10,000 people.

On February 18, some 300 armed men belonging to the paramilitary Peasant Self-Defense Force of Córdoba and Urabá (Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá, ACCU) set up a kangaroo court in the village of El Salado, Bolívar. For the next two days, they tortured, garroted, stabbed, decapitated, and shot residents. Witnesses told investigators that they tied one six-year-old girl to a pole and suffocated her with a plastic bag. One woman was reportedly gang-raped. Authorities later confirmed thirty-six dead. Thirty other villagers were missing. "To them, it was like a big party," a survivor told the New York Times. "They drank and danced and cheered as they butchered us like hogs."

While these atrocities were being carried out, the Colombian navy's First Brigade maintained roadblocks around El Salado that prevented the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and others from entering. Thirty minutes after paramilitaries had withdrawn safely with looted goods and animals, navy troops entered the village.

Officers implicated in serious abuses remained on active duty, and only in exceptional cases were they suspended. Military judges generally continued to ignore a 1997 Constitutional Court decision requiring that cases involving soldiers accused of gross human rights violations be prosecuted in civilian courts. According to the Bogotá-based office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Superior Judicial Council (Consejo Superior de la Judicatura, CSJ), charged with resolving jurisdictional disputes, also continued to flout the Constitutional Court and continued to transfer "cases of serious human rights and international humanitarian law violations to military courts."

Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramírez declared in July that military tribunals had already transferred 533 police and military cases to civilian jurisdiction, demonstrating compliance with the 1997 decision. However, after a review of 103 cases that the army disclosed to Human Rights Watch, only thirty-nine were found to be cases that could be considered human rights violations. Most of these involved low-rankingsoldiers; none were senior officers alleged to have ordered or orchestrated human rights violations. Many of the 103 were prosecuted for offenses such as drug trafficking, theft, lying, and brawling. Dozens of cases involving high ranking military officials that Human Rights Watch has followed since the 1980s should have been transferred to civilian jurisdiction, but remained shielded before military tribunals.

The government claimed major improvements in curtailing abuses by paramilitaries, but the facts did not bear this out. Paramilitary activity increased and paramilitary groups were considered responsible for ninety-three massacres in the first five months of 2000. Most arrest warrants issued by the attorney general against paramilitaries were not enforced due to inaction by the military, and paramilitary leaders remained at large and collected warrants like badges of honor. At this writing, there were twenty-two outstanding arrest warrants against Carlos Castaño, the main paramilitary leader, for massacres, killings, and the kidnapping of human rights defenders and a Colombian senator, among other crimes.

The government repeatedly claimed that it had set up special units to pursue paramilitaries, but these groups appeared little more than paper tigers. One, the "Coordination Center for the Fight against Self-Defense Groups," announced with fanfare on February 25, had not even met more than six months later.

Carlos Castaño often announced publicly and well in advance what his forces planned to do, yet military commanders commonly failed to deploy troops to protect civilians, even when local authorities informed them about threats. Since January, Human Rights Watch learned through publicly available sources of over twenty threatened attacks on villages that were later carried out. Only in exceptional cases were measures taken to protect civilians and pursue paramilitaries known to be in the area. Authorities also received reliable and detailed information about the location of permanent paramilitary bases, often within walking distance of military sites, yet failed to act against them, contributing to an atmosphere of terror.

Castaño, who claimed to command 11,200 armed and trained fighters, maintained many permanent bases and roadblocks, moved himself and his troops with apparent ease, and used computers, the Internet, radios, vehicles, and helicopters to prepare death lists and coordinate massacres. In an unprecedented hour-length television interview in March, Castaño described himself as the "fighting arm of the middle class."

Armed opposition guerrillas also committed abuses, and were considered responsible for 20 percent of the killings of civilians recorded in the six months from October 1999. The FARC received foreign dignitaries, U.N. officials, and Wall Street billionaires in the five southern municipalities ceded to them to promote peace talks, but continued to murder civilians, execute captured government soldiers and rival guerrilla combatants after surrender, threaten and kill civilians who refused to accede to their demands, take hostages, and force thousands of Colombians to flee and become displaced. The group maintained an estimated seventy battle fronts throughout Colombia thought to include at least 17,000 trained, uniformed, and armed members.

In dozens of attacks, the FARC employed methods that caused avoidable civilian casualties in violation of international humanitarian law, including the use of gas canisters packed with gunpowder and shrapnel and launched as bombs. In an attack on Vigía del Fuerte, Antioquia, in March, for example, FARC-launched canisters left the town a virtual ruin and caused numerous civilian casualties, including the town mayor. Witnesses told journalists that some of the twenty-one police agents who died were executed by the FARC, among them several who had sought medical attention in the local hospital.

After a visit to the FARC area in June, Human Rights Watch investigated evidence linking the group to at least twenty-six murders there. In addition, the office of the Public Advocate (Defensoría) reported sixteen cases of missing persons, either forcibly recruited, killed by the FARC, or forced to flee. Thousands more were believed to have fled the area as forcibly displaced. The FARC publicly acknowledged nineteen executions.

In an interview with Human Rights Watch in Los Pozos, Caquetá, FARC commander Simón Trinidad dismissed international humanitarian law as "a bourgeois concept."

The FARC rarely punished its members for committing abuses. To the contrary, the few cases they acknowledged showed that punishment amounted to little more than a slap on the hand and rarely extended to the commanders who ordered or covered up killings. For example, the two guerrillas who killed Americans Terence Freitas, Lahe'ena'e Gay, and Ingrid Washinawatok on March 5, 1999, were eventually sentenced to construct fifty meters of trench and clear land.

For their part, far from respecting dissent, UC-ELN guerrillas threatened groups that supported humanitarian accords meant to protect civilians, among them Children, Planters of Peace (Niños, Sembrando Semillas de Paz) and Conciudadanía, both based in Antioquia. The group continued attacks on oil pipelines and power pylons, and for prolonged periods prevented transit on vital roads, converting thousands of detained travelers into human shields against army counterattack.

In northeastern Colombia, where the UC-ELN attempted to win government support for a protected territory where they could operate openly and hold talks on social change and possible peace, violence was particularly acute. In the municipalities of San Pablo, Cantagallo, and Yondó, thousands of civilians protested the proposed government withdrawal, fearful of guerrilla abuses, paramilitary retaliation, and more war. At the same time, the area was increasingly controlled by advancing paramilitaries apparently tolerated by the Colombian military. A report by nongovernmental organizations found that over 3,700 people in the region had been forcibly displaced during the first three months of 2000 and dozens had been murdered.

The UC-ELN tried to generate talks similar to those between the government and the FARC, and even negotiated the temporary release of jailed leaders to take part in July discussions in Geneva, Switzerland, and an October meeting in San José, Costa Rica. However, talks appeared to bring little hope, and the group's estimated 1,500 fighters were increasingly pressed in the field by offensives launched by Colombian the armed forces, paramilitaries, and rival FARC units.

In areas where control was contested and around its camps, the UC-ELN continued to use landmines.

Both the FARC and UC-ELN continued to kidnap civilians for ransom or political concessions, a violation of international humanitarian law. Colombian police estimated that half of the over 3,000 kidnappings carried out each year were the work of guerrillas; the rest were attributed to common criminals. In April, FARC commander Jorge Briceño, known as "Mono Jojoy," announced that all Colombians with assests of over U.S. $1 million should pay the FARC what he cynically termed a "peace tax" or risk being taken hostage. Some hostages, including a three-year-old and a nine-year-old, were imprisoned in the area reserved for government talks. As of this writing, three passengers seized on an Avianca airlines flight on April 12, 1999, remained in UC-ELN custody, used as bargaining chips to compel the government to make concessions.

Forced displacement of civilians remained acute. In a report released in 2000, Francis Deng, the U.N. secretary-general's representative on internally displaced persons, described Colombia's situation as "among the gravest in the world. . . . [D]isplacement in Colombia is not merely incidental to the armed conflict but is also a deliberate strategy of war."

According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, there were at least 1.8 million forcibly displaced people in Colombia and between 80,000 and 105,000 Colombian refugees in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama, although they were not recognized as such by the governments of these countries. In only the first six months of 2000, an estimated 134,000 Colombians were newly displaced, most by paramilitaries, followed by guerrillas and the armed forces.

Although law 387, passed in 1997, outlined a broad and comprehensive plan to assist the forcibly displaced, it had yet to be implemented and key elements, like a national network of information, remained unaddressed. Indeed, Colombia's Constitutional Court ruled in August that the state had failed to enforce the law and was in violation of its duties. However, it appeared unlikely that even this unusual decision would stimulate the political will necessary to address the problem.

In January, Panama granted temporary protection to 393 Colombians who had fled combat in Juradó, Chocó. Most later returned to Colombia. Church workers in Sucumbíos, Ecuador, estimated that in the first seven months of 2000, at least 5,000 Colombians had crossed into Ecuador. Nevertheless, only 120 had gained formal status as refugees and received assistance from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). In 2000, the Canadian government provided resettlement to over 500 refugees from Colombia.

Journalists continued to be attacked and threatened for their work. In one particularly brutal incident, El Espectador reporter Jineth Bedoya was abducted on May 25 by paramilitaries while inside La Modelo, Bogotá's maximum security prison. Bedoya was taken from the lobby in full view of guards, drugged, bound, gagged, and driven to a city three hours away. There she was beaten, tortured, and raped by four men who accused her of being a guerrilla sympathizer. Before abandoning her at a local garbage dump, the men told her they had plans to kill more journalists.

In February, FARC commander Manuel Marulanda Vélez told journalists that they had been unfair to his group and would be made to pay. At the time, the FARC was holding seventy-three-year-old media businessman Guillermo "La Chiva" Cortés hostage. Cortés was later rescued. Other journalists who wrote frequently about the war, including Francisco Santos of El Tiempo and Ignacio Gómez of El Espectador, left the country because of threats.

The government made limited progress in establishing legal structures intended to protect human rights. On January 13, President Andrés Pastrana signed the Ottawa Convention on landmines and promised to rid the country of an estimated 50,000 devices. After languishing for twelve years, a bill criminalizing "disappearance," torture, and forced displacement was made law.

Political conflict extended to Colombia's 168 prisons. In December 1999, a paramilitary group broke through a wall at Bogotá's La Modelo prison, and killed eleven inmates. Four months later, paramilitaries attacked the La Modelo cellblock housing common criminals. After a day of fighting, authorities counted thirty-two dead, including one dismembered prisoner, and dozens wounded. Overcrowding remained a serious problem.

Defending Human Rights

Human rights defenders, community leaders, government investigators, and journalists continued to face threats, attacks, and death throughout the year. Four human rights defenders were killed and three "disappeared" during the first ten months of 2000.

Threats were particularly acute in the oil-refining city of Barrancabermeja, long the home of a vibrant and broad-based human rights movement. On July 11, Elizabeth Cañas-whose son and brother were seized by paramilitaries in 1998 and have yet to be found-was shot and killed in Barrancabermeja. Cañas was a member of the Association of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared (Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos-Colombia, ASFADDES). By September, dozens of human rights defenders and trade unionists had received death threats. Almost all appeared to be the work of paramilitary groups who vowed to "sip coffee" in guerrilla-controlled neighborhoods by year's end.

Angel Quintero and Claudia Patricia Monsalve, also ASFADDES members, were "disappeared" in Medellín, Antioquia, on October 6. Indigenous activist Jairo Bedoya Hoyos, a member of the Antioquia Indigenous Organization (Organización Indígena de Antioquia, OIA) who worked on human rights issues, was also "disappeared" on March 2.

The Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (Corporación Regional para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, CREDHOS) received over a dozen telephone death threats in August and September. Its members were featured on a death list circulated in Barrancabermeja in September; a trade unionist on a separate list was murdered in July, a lawyer remained in critical condition after an attack, and another lawyer had fled Colombia.

Demetrio Playonero, a displaced person and human rights leader, was murdered, apparently by paramilitaries, on March 31. After shooting him in the head in front of his wife at his farm outside Yondó, Antioquia, the gunmen breakfasted, then stole the farm's cattle. In May, Jesús Ramiro Zapata, the only remaining member of the Segovia Human Rights Committee, was killed near Segovia.

Government prosecutor Margarita María Pulgarín Trujillo, part of a team investigating cases linking paramilitaries to the army and regional drug traffickers, was murdered in Medellín on April 3, apparently because of her work. Several of her colleagues had already fled Colombia because of death threats from a gang of hired killers known as "La Terraza," close allies of Carlos Castaño. Although several members of "La Terraza" were either dead or under arrest by October 2000, the group remained active and able to instill terror in those it threatened.

Civilian groups, including human rights organizations, also faced attack from the FARC, which in October 2000 characterized them as "paid killers [for the Colombian military]." In a statement on why they failed to honor an invitation to an October 2000 peace meeting in San José, Costa Rica, sponsored by a broad coalition of human rights, peace, and community groups, the FARC dismissed the effort as organized by "the enemies of Colombia and its people." In such ways, the guerrillas contributed to a general atmosphere of fear and intolerance that endangered human rights defenders.

Government efforts to protect threatened defenders continued to be slow, inadequate, and often irrelevant. Even as government offices provided bullet-proof glass to threatened offices and distributed bullet-proof vests, defenders continued to be murdered by experienced killers who often benefitted from impunity. Cases involving the murder of human rights defenders-among them the 1996 killing of Josué Giraldo Cardona; the 1997 killings of Mario Calderón, Elsa Alvarado, and Carlos Alvarado; the 1998 killings of Jesús Valle Jaramillo and EduardoUmaña Mendoza; and the 1999 killing of Julio González and Everardo de Jesús Puerta-remained either under investigation or with only the material authors of the crimes identified or under arrest. In all cases, the people who planned and paid for the killings remained at large.

Members of the Colombian military continued to accuse government investigators, agencies, and nongovernmental organizations of having been infiltrated by opposition guerrillas, and questioned the legitimacy of investigations. The Colombian Armed Forces General Command maintained on its official web site a text that directly accused Human Rights Watch and the U.S. embassy's human rights officer of forming part of a "strange and shameful alliance" with a criminal drug trafficking cartel. After the February 2000 release of Human Rights Watch's report, "The Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links," Gen. Fernando Tapias, Colombia's commander-in-chief, and army General Mora, echoed this rhetoric by suggesting that Human Rights Watch was in the pay of drug traffickers.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

The Bogotá office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights undertook invaluable work, visiting regions shaken by war and pressing Colombian government authorities on the dozens of recommendations made by U.N. rapporteurs and others that remained unaddressed. Presenting the office's blistering annual report, Mary Robinson noted that the situation "has deteriorated significantly. This is a sad and sobering comment to have to make, as I reflect back on my own visit to Bogotá in October 1998."

The report paid special attention to continuing evidence of ties between the military and paramilitary groups. The office noted that "disciplinary and judicial investigations reveal that direct links between some members of the Armed Forces and paramilitary groups persist" and described the government's efforts to break these links as virtually nonexistent.

However, a weaker message was sent in April, when the Commission on Human Rights issued an unusually mild chairperson's statement, drafted by the E.U. and adopted by consensus. The statement welcomed "the continued readiness of the Colombian Government to cooperate with the permanent office of the High Commissioner," ignoring the Bogotá office's reports to the contrary. Even as the Colombian government agreed to allow the office to remain until April 2002, U.N. staff noted a marked drop in cooperation by Colombian officials.

These concerns were echoed in July, when Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed "deep concern" about human rights in Colombia, "particularly the high incidence of kidnapings and massacres of civilians."

The UNHCR continued to expand its presence in Colombia, and opened three field offices in 1999 and 2000, in Barrancabermeja, Apartadó, and Puerto Asís.


United States

The character of Colombia's conflict changed with the entry of the United States as a major investor. The $1.3 billion infusion of mostly military aid was meant to be only one part of Plan Colombia, a multinational proposal to assist the country; yet, as of this writing, there were few other contributions to what was meant to be support totaling $7.5 billion.

In response, the FARC announced rewards for the capture of combat pilots, increased attacks on military helicopters and airplanes, and reportedly began arming villagers in southern Colombia to resist the fumigation of drug-producing crops, meant to be a centerpiece of the U.S. effort. Guerrillas used mainly rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and claimed to have downed at least one National Police helicopter in April. In September, a FARC spokesperson declared U.S. military personnel "legitimate targets" of guerrilla operations.

Debated heatedly yet passed overwhelmingly by the U.S. Congress, the Colombia package was the largest single military assistance program ever approved for a Latin American country. The plan included $519.2 million for the Colombian military, most designated for the purchase of UH-60 Black Hawk and UH-1H Huey helicopters, logistical support, intelligence, and training; $116 million for the Colombian National Police; $68.5 million for alternative development, crop substitution, and assistance for peasants who may be forced to abandon their farms; $58 million for law enforcement and judicial reform; $51 million for human rights programs; and $37.5 million for programs benefitting the forcibly displaced.

Among those actively supporting the aid were Occidental Petroleum, which has major drilling sites in Colombian war zones; Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of the P-3 "Orion" radar surveillance airplane used to track drug smuggling and included in the package; Texas-based Textron, which will make the UH-1H Huey helicopters included in the plan; and United Technologies, whose Connecticut-based subsidiary, Sikorsky, will make the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

Although the package featured strict human rights conditions, President Clinton waived all but one for reasons of U.S. national security on August 22, allowing aid to go forward even as American officials acknowledged that the forces they were funding maintained ties to paramilitary groups, had failed to suspend or prosecute implicated officers, engaged in abuses, and refused to enforce civilian jurisdiction over human rights crimes. "You don' t hold up the major objective to achieve the minor," said a spokesperson for the office of White House adviser and U.S. drug czar retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

Human Rights Watch protested the waiver and single certification issued by the State Department, issued after President Pastrana signed a directive based on the entrance into law of a new military penal code. Along with Amnesty International and the Washington Office on Latin America, Human Rights Watch argued that the directive complied only partially with U.S. law, so should have resulted in a denial of certification.

The persistence of human rights abuses within the Colombian military was underscored in September, when the U.S. suspended aid and training to the army's Twelfth and Twenty-Fourth brigades. Both had previously passed the vetting process carried out by U.S. officials and mandated by the Leahy Amendment, which prohibits the United States from funding foreign security force units accused with credible evidence of having committed human rights violations.

Colombia's neighbors also expressed serious concern that the U.S. plan could push coca growing and drug trafficking across Colombia's borders, generate new refugee flows, and cause fighting to spread. During a visit to Colombia, Ecuadoran President Gustavo Noboa reportedly asked President Pastrana to notify his government of all military operations in southern Colombia so that the Ecuadoran army could prepare for repercussions. Brazilian leaders openly criticized the aid, and began to reinforce their border with Colombia.

In December 1999, the first U.S.-trained Colombian army battalion completed its training and was deployed. A second battalion began to train the following August. U.S. law mandated that fewer than 500 U.S. troops and 300 contractors be deployed in Colombia at any one time barring an emergency. But reflecting a global trend to "out-source" war, some analysts projected that as many as 1,000 U.S.-related personnel could be in Colombia on any given day, including retired U.S. special forces members employed by for civilian companies such as DynCorp Inc. and Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI), which were hired by the U.S. State and Defense Departments.

The department of Putumayo, along Colombia's southern border with Ecuador and home to 50 percent of Colombia's illegal coca crop, was to the be the first target in the U.S. strategy, which had as its centerpiece a "Push into Southern Colombia" to eradicate coca bushes, destroy cocaine laboratories, and disrupt supply and shipment routes. U.S. officials acknowledged that forced displacement was one likely outcome of the strategy, and proposed setting up government-controlled "temporary" camps to distribute assistance. However, groups working with the internally displaced protested, arguing that this strategy risked "fomenting the conflict, targeting innocent civilians, and substantially increasing internal displacement in Colombia."

The potential for new human rights abuses became clear as the U.S. strategy was implemented. Paramilitaries virtually took over Putumayo's urban centers, such as Puerto Asís, where armed fighters walked with guns in their belts, yet with no interference from either the army or the police. In September and October, an armed strike called by the FARC had left residents without food, gas, medicine, or telephone service, and combat between guerrillas and paramilitaries raged while government troops remained largely in their barracks.


European leaders proved deeply skeptical of the U.S. military build-up in Colombia even as the E.U. and member states supported negotiations with guerrillas and greater respect for human rights. Although President Pastrana asked the EU to contribute $1.5 billion to Plan Colombia, at a July donors' summit of twenty-six nations in Madrid, he came away with almost nothing. Of the E.U. member states, only Spain pledged $100 million. France's Le Monde termed the meeting a "crushing failure for Colombian diplomacy."

Prior to the meeting, 150 delegates representing Colombian and international nongovernmental organizations, academics, environmentalists, and human rights groups met in Madrid and called on the international community to fund peace initiatives, not the Colombian military. The E.U. found that argument persuasive, and in October announced that its $144 million contribution to Plan Colombia would go to nongovernmental, economic, and humanitarian aid programs focused on peace, human rights, and economic development.

The E.U. publicly denounced abuses by all sides and called on the Colombian government to address "persistent grave violations." After her September visit to Colombia, British cabinet minister Mo Mowlam, an architect of the Northern Ireland peace accords, said that the United Kingdom and most European countries would withhold individual donations to Plan Colombia unless the Colombian security forces reformed.

Five countries-France, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, and Cuba-pledged to help the Colombian government negotiate with the UC-ELN. Yet, even as some of these governments met with the UC-ELN leadership to discuss possible talks, the European Union exerted strong pressure to end kidnappings and release all hostages.

Relevant Human Rights Watch


The Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links, 2/00