Rights groups allege Colombian atrocities

Times Staff Writer

The number of civilians killed by the Colombian armed forces has soared, activist groups allege, with many of the abuses committed by army units that had been vetted by the State Department.

There were 329 so-called extrajudicial killings by the Colombian military and police last year, a coalition of Colombian rights groups asserts in a report, a 48% increase from the 223 reported in 2006.

The Colombian Commission of Jurists, a Bogota-based civil society group that is responsible for verifying many of the deaths, said last week that a significant number of killings of civilians by the armed forces had been reported so far in 2008 in five Colombian states, but provided no precise numbers.


A separate analysis of last year’s killings by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a New York-based peace group, alleges that 47% of the homicides were committed by army units that had been scrutinized in 2006 or 2007 by the State Department, which determined that they had complied with human rights requirements, making them eligible for U.S. military aid and training.

Backed by more than $4 billion in U.S. military aid since 2000, the Colombian military recently has shown dramatic progress in its decades-long struggle against leftist rebels and right-wing militias. A 40% increase in the number of uniformed forces, tactical training by U.S. advisors and improved communications have been important factors.

Colombia’s immensely popular president, Alvaro Uribe, has become the United States’ No. 1 Latin American ally in its war on terrorism and drugs, and a political counterweight to anti-U.S. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

But the Colombian military has been plagued by accusations of atrocities, including extrajudicial killings called “false positives” in which armed forces allegedly kill civilians, usually peasants or unemployed youths, and brand them as leftist guerrillas.

The continuing allegations have led Congress to criticize U.S. military aid under Plan Colombia and have been an obstacle to approval of a binational free trade agreement.

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on State Department and foreign operations and author of the 1996 law that makes foreign military aid conditional on human rights compliance, expressed dismay.


“While the secretary of State certifies sufficient progress on human rights in Colombia, multiple sources report that unlawful killings by the Colombian army are continuing despite efforts by the minister of defense to stop it,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “After providing billions of dollars in training and equipment to the Colombian army, we should expect better, including vigorous investigations and prosecutions of these crimes.”

In a recent interview, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos acknowledged that human rights were the “Achilles’ heel” of his military forces. Since taking office two years ago, he said, he has made improving that record a priority, resulting in a comprehensive human rights policy he unveiled in January.

“Now we can see that the military has a human rights concept different than before in its relation to society and individual citizens, because they know perfectly well that their legitimacy depends on support from the people,” Santos said.

Without challenging the figures, a U.S. government official in the embassy in Bogota, the capital, said such numbers were only “examples among a wide variety of statistics” gathered by various civil society groups that monitor human rights in Colombia.

“At the end of the day, Colombia has made enormous strides under the Uribe administration to address this crucial human rights issue,” said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “We applaud the progress while acknowledging that the situation is not yet perfect.”

With U.S. input, the Colombian military command issued a number of human rights- oriented directives last year, including changes in the code of conduct and “rules of engagement” -- the circumstances under which soldiers can fire on perceived enemies.


One, in an effort to battle impunity, gives civilian investigators more powers in examining killings. Another made captures and demobilizations of rebels, not body counts, the primary measure of an officer’s battlefield competence and the basis for points for promotion.

Since a British review found that Colombian human rights training was too much theory and not enough practice, the military has begun requiring soldiers to spend more time funneling through the “human rights trail,” including one at Colombia’s largest military base, called Tolemaida, 70 miles south of the capital.

The trail consists of eight set scenes that dramatize human rights issues soldiers deal with in combat, from treatment of guerrilla prisoners to the rights and customs of indigenous people.

“It’s like a work of theater where soldiers play roles to learn what they have to do in given situations,” said Col. Juan Carlos Gomez, human rights training chief for the Defense Ministry.

Some of the impetus for the policy changes came after a devastating report in October by human rights advocates that said the number of extrajudicial killings by the Colombian military and police over a five-year period ending June 2006 was 50% higher than during the preceding comparable period.

The study also alleged that as of June 2007, Colombian military courts had won only four convictions in more than 900 cases of alleged murder involving uniformed soldiers and police.


“The changes don’t produce results overnight,” Santos said. “We still have problems. You take a professional soldier who has 10, 12 or 14 years in the jungle and suddenly you ask him to work in a different way, it’s a big effort and sometimes impossible.

“But the process continues, and the story today is different from that of a few years ago.”



Special correspondent Jenny Carolina Gonzalez contributed to this report.



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