Colombia - Amnesty International Report 2008


Amnesty International  Report 2013

The 2013 Annual Report on
Colombia is now live »

Head of state and government : Álvaro Uribe Vélez
Death penalty : abolitionist for all crimes
Population : 47 million
Life expectancy : 72.3 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f) : 30/26 per 1,000
Adult literacy : 92.8 per cent

The continuing conflict between army-backed paramilitaries, guerrilla groups and the security forces resulted in serious human rights abuses, especially in some regions and in rural areas. All parties to the 40-year-old conflict committed violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), including war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, fewer civilians were killed than in recent years. People continued to be kidnapped, with guerrilla groups responsible for most conflict-related cases, but there were fewer reported cases than in previous years. The killing in June of 11 hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) provoked widespread condemnation and renewed calls for the FARC to release all its hostages. Attacks on human rights defenders and civil society activists continued; most were blamed on paramilitary groups.

Fewer people were killed by paramilitary groups than in previous years. However, reports of killings of civilians by the security forces rose. Paramilitary groups remained active in many parts of the country despite the fact that they had supposedly been demobilized. The number of people forced to flee their homes by the conflict also rose. The FARC were blamed for many of the killings of candidates in the run-up to October’s local elections.

Some progress was made in several high-profile investigations into human rights abuses, but impunity remained a major concern. Around 40 Members of Congress were implicated in continuing judicial investigations into links between state officials and paramilitary groups. Several “demobilized” paramilitary leaders gave evidence about their role in human rights violations and their links with the security forces before special tribunals in return for reduced prison sentences.

Killings by the security forces

At least 280 people were reported to have been extrajudicially executed by members of the security forces in the 12-month period ending in June 2007. The victims, mostly peasant farmers, were often presented by the military as “guerrillas killed in combat”. Most of the killings were referred to the military justice system, which usually closed such cases without any serious attempt to hold those responsible accountable.

  • On 22 April, soldiers of the army’s XVI Brigade entered the home of Ernesto Cruz Guevara in Aguazul Municipality, Casanare Department. The soldiers interrogated him about guerrilla activities. Before leaving, they told his wife they were taking her husband to the local Office of the Attorney General. Ernesto Cruz’s family later identified his body; the army claimed he was a guerrilla killed in combat.
  •  In June, the Ministry of Defence issued Directive 10, which reiterated that extrajudicial executions were a violation of the right to life.

Paramilitary groups

The government claimed that more than 31,000 combatants had been demobilized and that paramilitaries were no longer active. They attributed the continued violence to drug-trafficking criminal gangs. While some paramilitary groups did evolve into drugs-related criminal gangs, and some violence was linked to disputes between such groups, there was strong evidence that traditional paramilitary groups continued to operate in many parts of the country with new names, including the “Black Eagles” and the “New Generation Organization”. There were continued reports of collusion between paramilitaries and the security forces.

According to the Eighth Quarterly Report of the OAS Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia (MAPP/OEA), published in February, 22 such groups were identified, comprising some 3,000 combatants, although other sources suggested the figure was far higher. At least 230 killings of civilians were attributed to paramilitaries either acting alone or in conjunction with the security forces in the 12-month period ending in June 2007.

  • On 23 February, Alba Milena Gómez Quintero and her 18-year-old son Miguel Antonio were killed after being taken from the taxi in which they were travelling by two suspected paramilitaries on the San Juan de Arama-Granada highway, Meta Department, in a spot which lay between two army roadblocks. Alba Milena Gómez had reportedly made an official complaint against the army, which she claimed had falsely accused her of being a guerrilla auxiliary.

Failure to reveal the truth about paramilitary abuses

Only some 10 per cent of more than 31,000 demobilized paramilitaries qualified for inclusion in the Justice and Peace Law (JPL) under which those who lay down their arms can benefit from significantly reduced prison sentences in return for confessions about human rights violations and reparations to their victims. But with only some 20 investigative units to handle thousands of cases, the process progressed slowly.

Although paramilitary leaders who confessed revealed some information about those whom they killed, information on their victims’ identities and the whereabouts of their bodies remained sketchy. More than 1,100 bodies were exhumed from numerous mass graves between 2006 and the end of 2007, but most of these were discovered as a result of information from rank-and-file paramilitaries outside the JPL process. The vast majority of bodies remained unidentified. Most of the at least 4 million hectares of land estimated to have been stolen by paramilitaries had yet to be identified and very little land had been returned to its rightful owners.

Most paramilitaries escaped effective investigation through Decree 128 and Law 782, which granted de facto amnesties to those not under investigation for human rights abuses and who admitted to being members of paramilitary groups, an offence known as “conspiracy to commit a crime”. However, in July the Supreme Court of Justice ruled that membership of paramilitary groups was not a political crime and, as such, amnesties were not applicable. This left some 19,000 paramilitaries in legal limbo.

Several victims and those representing them in the JPL process were killed, allegedly by paramilitaries.

  • Carmen Cecilia Santana Romaña, who represented victims seeking the return of their lands and their right to participate in the JPL hearings, was killed by unidentified gunmen on 7 February in Apartadó Municipality, Antioquia Department.
  • Yolanda Izquierdo, who represented survivors at the JPL hearing of paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, and who was herself a victim, was shot dead in Montería, Córdoba Department, on 31 January, by gunmen suspected of being linked to paramilitaries.

‘Para-political’ scandal

More than 40 legislators were under investigation by the Supreme Court for their alleged links to paramilitaries; almost half of them were in detention at the end of the year. In December, one of these, Erik Morris, was sentenced to six years in prison. Hundreds of other state officials, including governors, mayors, and members of the security forces, were being investigated by the Offices of the Attorney General and Procurator General. In November, Jorge Noguera, the former director of the civilian security agency, the Department of Administrative Security, was disqualified from public office for 18 years by the Office of the Procurator General for his links to paramilitaries.

Several Supreme Court judges investigating the scandal, and their families, were reportedly threatened.


Impunity remained the norm in most cases of human rights abuses. Although there was some progress in a number of high-profile cases, in many there were no advances in identifying chain-of-command responsibility.

  • In November, an army captain was arrested for his role in the killing of eight members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Municipality of Apartadó, Antioquia Department, in February 2005. The Office of the Attorney General claimed the killings were carried out by the army in collusion with paramilitaries. In February, the Attorney General’s Office had announced it was investigating 69 soldiers for the killings. More than 160 members of the community have been killed since 1997.
  • In November, it was made public that a team from the Office of the Attorney General had reopened investigations into 294 of the thousands of killings of members of the left-wing Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica) party since 1985. Paramilitaries and the security forces were believed to have been responsible for most of these killings.
  • In October, former justice minister and senator Alberto Santofimio was sentenced to 24 years in prison in connection with the killing of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán in 1989.
  • In September, three members of the air force were sentenced by a civilian judge to six years’ house arrest for what was described in the ruling as the accidental killing of 17 people in Santo Domingo, Tame Municipality, Arauca Department, in 1998. The military justice system had previously acquitted the three men, claiming the deaths occurred after a truck belonging to guerrillas exploded. The September ruling concluded the killings were caused by a cluster bomb released from an air force helicopter.
  • In August, four members of the army and a civilian were sentenced to 40 years in prison for the killing of three trade unionists in Saravena Municipality, Arauca Department, in August 2004. The army had claimed they were guerrillas killed in combat.
  • In July, retired army Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega was arrested for his part in the enforced disappearance of 11 people during a military assault on the Palace of Justice in Bogotá after M-19 guerrillas took hostage those inside in November 1985. Over 100 people died during the military assault, including 12 Supreme Court judges. In September, Attorney General Mario Iguarán said there was strong evidence that many of those who disappeared were alive when they left the building.

Guerrilla groups

The FARC and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) continued to commit human rights abuses and serious and repeated violations of international humanitarian law, including killings of civilians and hostage-taking. More than 210 killings of civilians were attributed to guerrilla groups in the 12-month period ending in June 2007.

  • Four people were killed, reportedly by the ELN, in San Joaquín, Mercaderes Municipality, Cauca Department, on 14 March.
  • Four people were killed, allegedly by the FARC, in Yarumal Municipality, Antioquia Department, on 1 January. At least two of the victims were community leaders.
  • In Arauca Department people fled their homes after the ongoing conflict between the FARC and ELN led to armed skirmishes and to the selective killing of civilians. Among the victims were community and social leaders accused by each side of supporting the other.
  • The FARC continued to target elected officials and were also allegedly responsible for most of the 29 killings of candidates in the run-up to the local elections held on 28 October.
  • Four mayors and councillors were killed in the departments of Caquetá, Chocó and Valle del Cauca between 7 and 10 July.
  • The use of anti-personnel mines by guerrilla groups continued to be widespread. In 2007, more than 180 civilians and members of the security forces, who continued to be the main victims of land mines, were killed and 680 injured.
  • Five members of the Awá Indigenous community, including two children, were killed by landmines reportedly laid by the FARC in Ricaurte Municipality, Nariño Department, on 14 and 15 July.
  • Preliminary peace talks between the government and the ELN were suspended in August following disagreement over the terms of a cease-fire.

Kidnapping and hostage-taking

There was widespread condemnation after 11 of the 12 deputies from the Valle del Cauca Departmental Assembly, kidnapped by the FARC in April 2002, were killed in uncertain circumstances on 18 June. The FARC claimed they were killed in crossfire during combat with an unidentified armed group, but the authorities disputed this.

The international community became increasingly involved in discussions over the exchange of FARC prisoners for hostages held by the guerrilla group after President Uribe authorized the release from prison of the FARC’s “diplomatic representative”, Rodrigo Granda, in June, and the simultaneous release of more than 100 convicted FARC prisoners. President Uribe authorized Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to help broker an agreement, and a meeting between President Chávez and FARC leaders took place in Caracas in November. However, later that month President Uribe ended Venezuela’s mediation role after President Chávez reportedly contacted the head of the Colombian army, in contravention of an agreement not to talk directly to Colombia’s army chiefs about the hostage issue. This led to a deterioration in diplomatic relations between the two countries. The much-anticipated release of three high-profile hostages held by the FARC had failed to materialize by the end of the year.

Although kidnappings continued to fall – from 687 in 2006 to 521 in 2007 – the figures remained high. Guerrilla groups, mainly the FARC and to a much lesser degree the ELN, were responsible for kidnapping around 150 people, the vast majority of conflict-related kidnappings, while criminal gangs were responsible for most of the rest. Some 125 kidnappings could not be attributed.

Violence against women

All parties to the conflict continued to subject women and girls to sexual abuse and other forms of violence. Women guerrilla combatants were forced to have abortions or take contraceptives, in violation of their reproductive rights.

  • On 23 May, army soldiers reportedly raided a house in Toribío Municipality, Cauca Department, where they attempted to sexually abuse an 11-year-old girl.
  • On 26 March, five paramilitaries from the Black Eagles – two women, two minors and a man – reportedly entered the home of two sisters aged 14 and 10 in Bello Municipality, Antioquia Department. Some of the paramilitaries allegedly beat the two girls and sexually abused and killed the older one. A
  • 60-year-old neighbour, José Mendieta, who came to the girls’ assistance, was reportedly stabbed to death by the assailants.
  • Paramilitaries and criminal gangs reportedly forcibly recruited women and girls as sex workers in various parts of the country. In Putumayo Department, at least five women who had been forcibly recruited for sex work were reportedly killed.

Civilians targeted

Civilians continued to bear the brunt of the conflict, especially those belonging to Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant farmer communities, many of whom lived on lands of economic interest to the warring parties. At least 1,340 civilians were killed or forcibly disappeared in the 12-month period ending in June 2007. There were also more than 305,000 new cases of displacement in 2007. Between 3 and 4 million people had been displaced since 1985.

  • In September, almost 1,000 Awá Indigenous people, almost half of them children, were displaced from the Inda Sabaleta reserve in Tumaco Municipality, Nariño Department, following fighting between the army and guerrilla groups.
  • In April, more than 6,000 people were forced to flee their homes in Nariño Department following repeated outbreaks of fighting between the army and guerrilla groups.
  • Paramilitaries and guerrillas continued to recruit children. UNICEF estimated there were between 6,000 and 7,000 child soldiers in Colombia.
  • There was also a series of bomb attacks in urban areas, some of which the authorities attributed to the FARC.
  • A car bomb exploded outside a police building in Cali, Valle del Cauca Department, on 9 April. One civilian was killed and more than 30 were injured.
  • An explosive device detonated in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca Department, on 16 March, killed four people and injured seven.

Human rights defenders and other activists

Human rights defenders, trade unionists, social and community activists, and journalists continued to be targeted, principally by paramilitaries.

During the year, the offices of several human rights NGOs were broken into and sensitive information stolen, including Reiniciar, Corporación Jurídica Yira Castro, Fellowship of Reconciliation, and Justapaz.

In February, some 70 NGOs, trade unions, and other social organizations reportedly received email death threats from paramilitaries. In June, eight human rights NGOs in Nariño Department received email and telephone death threats, reportedly from the New Generation paramilitary group. This group had sent similar threats to 13 NGOs in Nariño in March.

  • On 4 November, Yolanda Becerra, President of the Popular Women’s Organization, was attacked at her home in Barrancabermeja, Santander Department, by two hooded armed men. They reportedly shoved her against a wall, threatened her with a gun, and gave her 48 hours to leave the city.
  • On 4 April, Judith Vergara, a community activist from Comuna 13 in Medellín, Antioquia department was shot dead while travelling by bus in the city.
  • At least 39 trade union members were killed in 2007. The Permanent Representation of the International Labour Organization in Colombia, set up to monitor the rights of trade unionists in the country and the work of the special unit created by the Attorney General to investigate killings of trade unionists, began operating in January.
  • Efforts to secure a free trade agreement between Colombia and the USA were hampered by concerns in the US Congress over the killing of Colombian trade unionists.
  • President Uribe again made comments which implied that human rights organizations were linked to guerrilla groups. In July, he said “the guerrillas have another strategy: every time there is a casualty in the guerrillas, they immediately mobilize their chorus leaders in the country and abroad to say that it was an extrajudicial execution”.

US military aid

In 2007, US aid for Colombia amounted to some US$727 million, some 82 per cent of which was destined for the security forces. The total included some US$595 million from the Foreign Operations funding bill, 25 per cent of which was dependent on progress by the Colombian authorities on certain human rights indicators. In April, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice certified that Colombia was making progress on human rights and authorized the release of all 25 per cent of Fiscal Year 2006 certifiable aid. But the US Congress withheld the release of the money to the armed forces, worth some US$55.2 million, because of concerns over extrajudicial executions and the para-political scandal. Despite three rounds of questions and answers, the US Congress did not accept the justification for certifying Colombia’s progress on human rights and the money remained on hold at the end of the year.

In December, US President George W. Bush signed into law significant changes in US assistance to Colombia. Military and police assistance under the Foreign Operations funding bill was cut by 31 per cent and social and economic aid increased by 70 per cent. Human rights conditions were extended to 30 per cent of aid and require the Colombian authorities to dismantle “successor armed groups”, an acknowledgement by the US government of continued paramilitary activity in Colombia. The total amount of assistance to Colombia was US$44 million less than the amount requested by President Bush for 2008.

Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

In September the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced that the Colombian government had agreed to extend the mandate of the OHCHR in Colombia for a further three years.

Regarding the government’s compliance with UN human rights recommendations, the OHCHR report on Colombia, published in March, stated that “the picture… was still mixed, particularly in the case of the recommendations on the review of intelligence files, the reduction of impunity, the cutting of links between public servants and members of paramilitary groups, and the improvement of the quality of statistics on human rights and IHL”. The report also expressed concerns about the continuing presence of paramilitaries, the increasing reports of extrajudicial executions carried out by the security forces and breaches of IHL by the guerrilla groups, in particular the FARC.

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