Army of terror: the legacy of US-backed human rights abuses in Colombia.
PETER SANTINA, Staff Writer, Harvard International Review
After three decades of civil war, Colombia is finally approaching peace. On August 7, 1998, Andres Pastrana assumed the presidency, replacing the discredited Ernesto Samper. The country’s two largest guerrilla armies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), had refused to meet with Samper because he received US$6 million in campaign contributions from the Cali drug cartel. The Pastrana administration has moved quickly toward negotiations with the guerrillas, agreeing to the FARC’s demand to demilitarize an area the size of Switzerland in southern Colombia for 90 days while the two sides negotiate. Pastrana was elected by the most votes in his nation’s history and has established a much more cordial relationship with the United States than his predecessor, making the first Colombian presidential visit to the United States in 23 years. President Bill Clinton and Pastrana signed a joint agreement to fight the drug trade, and Clinton promised US$280 million more in US aid to Colombia.
Since his election, however, Pastrana’s popularity in the polls has fallen nearly to the level of Samper’s, due to an enormous amount of social unrest. Mounting opposition to the government’s plans to cut public spending with privatization reforms manifested itself in a three-week national strike of 800,000 Colombian state employees. The strike, which ended on October 27, resulted in the death of seven union leaders. This tragedy highlights the key to Colombia’s human rights catastrophe: political murders. Unions are targeted by right-wing paramilitaries for their opposition to the power of business, especially multinational corporations. According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, in 1997 alone 156 trade unionists were killed in Colombia. Although unions are one target of political violence, peasants living in the countryside have suffered even more. Brutal paramilitary forces target those suspected of collaboration with the guerrillas and have committed numerous human rights abuses. This relationship between the official military and the death squads has been investigated by the US State Department, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, international think tanks, and human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
According to the US State Department, “the [Colombian] Government took no significant action to restrain these powerful paramilitary groups” in 1997. A major factor in the abuse is indeed the complicity of the Colombian government, particularly the armed forces, in the rightist agenda of the paramilitaries in the face of a growing leftist guerrilla movement. The Colombian government, threatened by the socialist rebels, has been unwilling to prosecute either paramilitaries or army soldiers for their human rights abuses because they are more concerned with losing power to the socialist rebels than protecting the basic human rights of Colombian citizens.
General Bedoya, the commander of the armed forces, has said that military courts effectively punish violators, citing a high overall conviction rate for military violations. When asked by Human Rights Watch, however, he could not cite a single conviction for a human rights violation; most military tribunal convictions are for technical offenses such as failure to follow orders. A detailed report on Colombian human rights abuses released by Human Rights Watch in 1998 states that in cases of humanitarian law violations, “allegations against officers are rarely investigated.” The US State Department noted in its 1997 report that, “at year’s end, the military exercised jurisdiction over many cases of military personnel accused of abuses, a system that has established an almost unbroken record of impunity.” The Colombian National Police, although it has improved its record since 1994, continues to show a reluctance to prosecute paramilitaries. According to the Attorney General, the National Police have not addressed over 200 warrants for the arrest of paramilitaries.
Problems with the military and human rights, however, extend beyond a lack of prosecution for abuses. The State Department’s Colombia Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997 blamed government forces for “numerous serious abuses,” including extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances, and the torturing and beating of some detainees. On July 29, 1998, President Samper publicly apologized to the families of 49 people murdered by government agents between 1991 and 1993. In each of the state massacres mentioned by Samper, defendants accused of responsibility were absolved by military tribunals until the human rights branch of the Organization of American States found the Colombian government liable for the deaths. Samper conducted a similar ceremony in 1995, in which he accepted government blame for military sweeps through the town of Trujillo in 1989 and 1990 that left 107 peasant leaders and activists dead.
These crimes pale in comparison, however, to those of the brutal paramilitary forces. In the first nine months of 1997, 69 percent of the 3,500 political murders in Colombia could be attributed to right-wing paramilitary groups, according to the US State Department. Death squads continue to roam the Colombian countryside, terrorizing peasants who they suspect of sympathizing with the guerrillas. On October 25, seven trucks of about 100 paramilitary troops entered the northeastern city of San Carlos. They killed ten civilians and abducted 15 others who were on their blacklist of alleged guerrilla collaborators, and left graffiti condemning Pastrana’s overtures of peace toward the guerrillas. Later that same day, other paramilitaries invaded the town of Altos del Rosario and murdered 11 residents.
Unfortunately, this is not simply a recent phenomenon–the Colombian government and armed forces have a long history of cooperation with the death squads. In 1968, the Colombian government legalized the organization and promotion of groups of armed civilians, known as “peasant self-defense groups,” in the context of the growing guerrilla movement. These small private armies were equipped, trained, and logistically supported by the armed forces. The political and economic elites who felt threatened by the guerrillas were particularly supportive of these “self-defense” groups, as they are of the paramilitary forces in Colombia today. These groups were eventually banned in 1989, because of their inneither established procedures to break up the paramilitary groups that they had created, nor did it cut them off from future aid from the armed forces.
Perhaps the most prominent Colombian paramilitary figure is Carlos Castano, who traces his first involvement in paramilitary activity to the training he received in the Bombona Battalion of the armed forces in the early 1980s, when the military, business owners, and ranchers formed the activist group Death to Kidnappers (MAS). By 1983, Colombian internal affairs had registered over 240 political killings by the MAS death squad, whose victims included elected officials, farmers, and community leaders. In his report, Internal Affairs Chief Carlos Jimenez Gomez identified 59 active-duty members of the police and military who belonged to MAS, including the commander of the army’s Bombon Battalion.
The government again contributed to the formation of paramilitary groups in 1994, when it established “special private security and vigilante services” whose members were allowed to arm themselves in self-defense. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, known paramilitaries participate in these “Convivir” associations. The Office of the Superintendent of Private Vigilante and Security Groups admitted in November 1997 that it was incapable of fulfilling its responsibility to oversee these legal, state-supported paramilitary organizations. Members continue to be investigated on charges of homicide, torture, and other grave human rights abuses by the government.
The massacre of May 16, 1998, in Barrancabermeja is a clear example of the friendly relationship between the military and the paramilitaries. Camilo Aurelio Morantes, the head of the paramilitary Autodefensas de Santander y Sur del Cesar (AUSAC), has admitted to ordering the attack on Barrancabermeja, which left 32 civilians dead. Morantes is known by the army and the government to be a paramilitary leader, yet he has not been prosecuted for his leading role in the massacre. Furthermore, witnesses have alleged that soldiers waved the paramilitaries through the army check-point while entering and leaving Barrancabermeja. The government investigated the role of ten of the soldiers involved, and the only one detained was an Army corporal who was charged for personally participating in the massacre. A humanitarian worker in Antioquia told Human Rights Watch, “I can’t count the number of times I’ve been stopped at a joint army-paramilitary roadblock. The soldiers are there with their green uniforms and the paramilitaries with their blue uniforms. It’s like different units of the same army.”
US Military Aid
The United States provides a great amount of support for the Colombian armed forces despite its abusive track record. First, the United States continues to train Colombian military officers at both the US Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning and the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg. Representative Joseph Kennedy and the Washington Office on Latin America jointly released a report in July 1998 documenting the specific abuses of Colombian graduates of the School of the Americas.
Before the report was released, a video was shown of Colombian soldiers beating unarmed farmers participating in a peaceful protest and then attacking cameraman Richard Velez, who suffered serious internal injuries. The soldiers were operating under the command of SOA graduate Nestor Ramirez. Another SOA graduate, General Hernan Jose Guzman Rodriguez, was dismissed in November 1994 to improve the armed forces’ public image. Guzman protected and supported the death squad MAS between 1987 and 1990, during which time it was responsible for at least 147 murders. In 1986, Guzman commanded soldiers who detained, tortured, gang raped, and executed a Colombian woman and then invented a story that she had committed suicide by shooting herself in the nape of her neck. Guzman’s portrait has hung in the SOA “Hall of Fame” in Ft. Benning since 1993. A final example is Captain Gilberto Ibarra, SOA class of 1983, who forced three peasant children to walk in front of his patrol and detonate mines, killing two of them and seriously wounding the other.