Many hundreds of thousands of people continued to be affected by the ongoing armed conflict. Civilians were the main victims of the conflict, with Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendants and campesinos (peasant farmers) most at risk; many lived in areas of economic and strategic interest to the warring parties. All parties to the conflict – the security forces, paramilitaries and guerrilla groups – were responsible for widespread and systematic human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). While some indicators of conflict-related violence, such as kidnapping and hostage-taking, continued to improve, others deteriorated. There was an increase in internal displacement and an upsurge in threats against human rights defenders and in killings of trade unionists. Killings of civilians by the security forces remained high. Paramilitaries continued to operate, despite government claims to the contrary. The killing of dozens of youths by the army led to the sacking of senior members of the military and forced the resignation of the head of the army, General Mario Montoya. Several high-profile hostages regained their freedom after years of captivity at the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), but hundreds of people were still being held hostage by the FARC and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN). The FARC were again thought to have been responsible for bomb attacks in urban areas. There was some progress in judicial investigations into emblematic human rights cases, although impunity remained a serious problem. The extradition of paramilitary leaders to the USA on drugs-trafficking charges undermined human rights investigations in Colombia.
Internal armed conflict
In the 12-month period ending in June 2008, more than 1,515 civilians were killed in the conflict, compared to at least 1,348 in the previous 12-month period. More than 200 people were the victim of enforced disappearance during the 12-month period ending in June 2008, compared to 119 in the previous 12-month period.
- On 26 May, an Indigenous man, Oscar Dogirama Tequia, was killed by the FARC in Ríosucio Municipality, Chocó Department. He was accused of being an army informant.
In October, mass demonstrations by Indigenous people in Cauca Department, which were part of nationwide protests in support of land rights and against human rights abuses, led to claims that the anti-riot police (ESMAD) used excessive force and that some of the protesters were violent. Dozens of demonstrators and members of the security forces were injured and there were reports that several protesters were killed. There was a spate of killings of and threats against leaders of Indigenous, Afro-descendant and campesino communites around the country, some of whom were active in campaigns on land rights.
- On 16 December, army troops fatally shot Edwin Legarda, the husband of Indigenous leader Aída Quilcué, in controversial circumstances. At the time, Edwin Legarda was travelling by car to the city of Popayán, Cauca Department, to pick up his wife, who was returning from Geneva where she had attended a session on Colombia at the UN Human Rights Council.
- On 14 October, Walberto Hoyos Rivas, a leader of the Afro-descendant community of the Curvaradó River Basin in Chocó Department, was killed by paramilitaries in the Humanitarian Zone of Caño Manso, one of several communities set up by local people to assert their right as civilians not to be drawn into the conflict. He had been active in seeking the protection of the right of Afro-descendant communities to collective ownership of lands in the Curvaradó River Basin, and had survived an attempt on his life in 2007. He was due to give testimony in the trial of two paramilitaries implicated in the killing of another community leader when he was shot.
There was a significant rise in new cases of forced displacement, from 191,000 in the first half of 2007, to 270,000 in the same period in 2008. The south of the country was particularly badly affected because of ongoing combat between the security forces and paramilitary and guerrilla groups. Those displaced by the conflict faced deeply entrenched discrimination and marginalization, making it even more difficult for them to access basic services, such as health and education.
Guerrilla and paramilitary groups forcibly recruited children. The security forces used children as informants, contrary to a 2007 Directive issued by the Ministry of Defence which prohibits the use of children for intelligence purposes. On 12 February, the government finally accepted the reporting and monitoring mechanisms under UN Security Council Resolution 1612 (2005) on children and armed conflict, but expressed reservations about extending it to cover acts of sexual violence.
In April, the government issued Decree 1290, which created a programme to allow victims of abuses by guerrilla and paramilitary groups to receive monetary compensation from the state. However, it did not address the issue of restitution of stolen lands or other forms of reparation, or of reparation for victims of violations by the security forces.
A bill on reparations for victims of human rights abuses, approved by a congressional committee in November, had not been voted on by Congress by the end of the year. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia said that, as it stood, the bill, which was weakened significantly by the pro-government majority on the committee, was discriminatory.
Extrajudicial executions by the security forces
The killings of dozens of young men from Soacha, near the capital Bogotá, forced the government to finally acknowledge that the security forces were responsible for extrajudicial executions. The killings, which had been falsely presented by the military as “guerrillas killed in combat”, were reportedly carried out in collusion with paramilitary groups or criminal gangs. In October, the scandal led to the sacking of 27 army officers, including three generals, and in November forced the resignation of the head of the army, General Mario Montoya, who had been linked to human rights violations. President Uribe said the Soacha killings would be investigated by the civilian courts rather than by the military justice system, which often claims jurisdiction in such cases and then closes them without any serious investigation.
At least 296 people were extrajudicially executed by the security forces in the 12-month period ending in June 2008, compared to 287 in the previous 12-month period. The military justice system claimed jurisdiction over many of these cases.
In November, during a visit to Colombia, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said extrajudicial executions in Colombia appeared to be systematic and widespread.
Paramilitary groups remained active, despite claims by the government that all paramilitaries had demobilized in a government-sponsored process that began in 2003. Paramilitaries continued to kill civilians and to commit other human rights violations, sometimes with the support or acquiescence of the security forces. Some 461 killings were attributed to paramilitaries in the 12-month period ending in June 2008, compared to 233 in the previous 12-month period.
- On 14 June, members of the paramilitary Peasant Self-Defence Forces of Nariño entered San José de la Turbia in Olaya Herrera Municipality, Nariño Department. They warned the community that the navy was nearby and that they were working together. They called out the name of Tailor Ortiz. When he raised his hand, the paramilitaries said, “We’re going to kill this one right away”. They tied him up and shot him in the head. They then said: “Each time we come, we’ll come for someone else”.
Some 1,778 bodies of victims of enforced disappearance by paramilitaries were exhumed by the authorities from 1,441 graves between 2006 and 2008. By the end of 2008 the remains of only around 300 victims had been identified and returned to their families. The exhumations were dogged by serious deficiencies, making it more difficult to identify both the victims and the perpetrators.
The security forces continued to use supposedly demobilized paramilitaries in military and intelligence operations despite a ban, introduced in 2007, on such deployments.
The Justice and Peace process
More than 130,000 victims of paramilitary violence made official claims for reparation under the Justice and Peace process. This process allows paramilitaries who have laid down their arms to benefit from significantly reduced prison sentences in return for confessions about human rights violations and reparations for their victims. However, 90 per cent of paramilitaries were not eligible for inclusion in the process and thus evaded justice. Threats against and killings of victims testifying in the process continued, while many paramilitaries failed to collaborate fully with the Justice and Peace tribunals, in particular failing to return land misappropriated by them. This continued to undermine the right of victims to truth, justice and reparation.
In May, 15 national paramilitary leaders were extradited to the USA to face drugs-related charges. Their extradition followed claims by the Colombian government that they had failed to abide by the terms of the Justice and Peace process. The US government maintained that Colombian investigators would have access to the extradited paramilitaries. However, concerns remained that the extradition had undermined investigations in Colombia into human rights violations committed by the paramilitaries and into the links these may have had with Colombian politicians and other state officials.
In May the Constitutional Court ruled that the government’s protection programme for victims and witnesses participating in the Justice and Peace process was in breach of the state’s constitutional and international obligation to prevent discrimination and violence against women.
Around 70 members of Congress were still being investigated for alleged links to paramilitary groups. However, many legislators resigned from their posts, thereby ensuring that responsibility for investigations was transferred from the Supreme Court of Justice to local units of the Office of the Attorney General, increasing the risk of possible political manipulation. While cases against some legislators were dropped, others were found guilty by the Supreme Court and sentenced to terms of imprisonment.
Tensions increased between the government and the Supreme Court over the scandal, with the former claiming the Supreme Court was politically motivated and the latter accusing the government of seeking to undermine the investigations. Most of the legislators implicated in the scandal were members of the pro-government coalition.
In December, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures on behalf of the Supreme Court judge co-ordinating the para-political investigation, Iván Velásquez. These imposed certain obligations on the government regarding the judge’s security.
"Some 461 killings were attributed to paramilitaries...compared to 233 in the previous 12-month period."
The FARC and the ELN continued to kill civilians and carry out kidnappings. More than 189 killings of civilians were attributed to guerrilla groups in the 12-month period to June 2008, compared to 214 in the previous 12-month period.
- On 16 January, two boys aged 12 and 14 were killed, allegedly by the FARC, in La Hormiga Municipality, Putumayo Department. Their families’ homes were burned down. The killings were apparently in reprisal for the boys’ refusal to join the FARC.
The use of landmines by guerrilla groups was widespread. In 2008, more than 45 civilians and 102 members of the security forces were killed and 160 and 404 injured, respectively.
On 27 June, three Indigenous children from the Las Planadas Telembí reservation in Samaniego Municipality, Nariño Department, were killed after they stepped on mines placed by guerrillas.
There were a series of bomb attacks in urban centres, some of which the authorities blamed on the FARC, and in which civilians were the main victims.
- The Colombian authorities blamed the FARC for detonating an explosive device in Ituango, Antioquia Department, on 14 August. The explosion killed seven people and injured more than 50 in an area of the town where a fiesta was being held. The FARC denied responsibility for the attack.
In March, Colombian troops attacked a FARC base in Ecuador killing the group’s second-in-command, “Raúl Reyes”. The operation led to a deterioration in relations between Colombia and neighbouring countries.
The Colombian government claimed that information recovered from the computer of “Raúl Reyes” following the raid revealed the existence of a FARC “support network” in several European countries, as well as the names of Colombian politicians with links to the FARC. FARC leader “Manuel Marulanda” also died in March, albeit of natural causes.
Impunity remained the norm in most cases of human rights abuses. However, there was continued progress in several high-profile investigations, mainly as a result of international pressure. Among those cases where some progress was made were the killing by the army and paramilitaries of eight members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Apartadó Municipality, Antioquia Department, in February 2005; and the killing by the army of 10 officers from the judicial police, a police informer and a civilian, in May 2006 in Jamundí, Valle del Cauca Department.
However, in most of these cases there were very few, if any, advances in identifying chain-of-command responsibility.
Human rights defenders and trade unionists
There was an increase in threats against human rights defenders and killings of trade unionists, especially around the time of the 6 March demonstrations in Colombia and abroad in protest at human rights violations by paramilitaries and the security forces. Responsibility for these attacks was attributed to paramilitaries.
At least 46 trade union members were killed in 2008, compared to 39 in 2007. Some 12 human rights defenders were killed in 2008, similar to the figure recorded in 2007.
- On 20 September, two gunmen on a motorbike shot and killed Ever González in Bolívar Municipality, Cauca Department. Ever González, a campesino leader from the NGO CIMA, had drawn public attention to extrajudicial executions in Cauca.
President Uribe again made statements undermining the legitimacy of human rights work.
- In November, following the publication of reports on Colombia by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), he accused Amnesty International of “blindness”, “fanaticism” and “dogmatism”. He also publicly accused HRW’s Americas Director of being a “supporter” and an “accomplice” of the FARC.
Kidnapping and hostage-taking
Former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was the most high-profile of a number of hostages who regained their freedom in 2008 after years of captivity at the hands of the FARC. Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages were freed following a military operation on 2 July. The operation proved controversial as one of the soldiers involved wore a Red Cross emblem, in violation of IHL.
On 4 February and 20 July, millions of people marched in Colombia and around the world in protest at FARC kidnappings. The FARC and ELN continued to hold hundreds of hostages.
The number of kidnappings continued to fall; 437 were recorded in 2008 as compared with 521 in 2007. Criminal gangs were responsible for most of the kidnappings carried out during the year. Of those kidnappings which were specifically conflict-related, guerrilla groups were responsible for the vast majority.
Violence against women and girls
All the parties to the conflict continued to subject women and girls to sexual abuse and other forms of violence. Guerrilla groups also reportedly forced women combatants to have abortions or take contraceptives, in violation of their reproductive rights.
- On 24 September, gunmen shot and killed Olga Marina Vergara, a leader of the women’s coalition Ruta Pacífica de Mujeres, at her home in the city of Medellín. Her son, daughter-in-law and a five-year-old grandson were also killed in the attack. The killings coincided with the launch of a new report by the Ruta Pacífica on violence against women in the context of the armed conflict.
On 14 April, the Constitutional Court issued a judicial decree on the rights of women displaced by the conflict. The decree made an explicit link between displacement and sexual violence, and concluded that the conflict had a disproportionate impact on women. It called on the government to establish 13 specific programmes to protect women displaced by the conflict.
US military aid
In 2008, US assistance to Colombia amounted to around US$669.5 million. This included some US$543 million from the Foreign Operations funding bill, of which US$235 million was allocated for social and economic projects. The remaining US$307 million was earmarked for the security forces, and 30 per cent of this was conditional on the Colombian authorities meeting certain human rights conditions. This marked a continuation of the trend towards redressing the imbalance in US assistance between security and socio-economic concerns. In August, Congress released the last portion of the US$55 million military funding for the Fiscal Year 2006 that it put on hold in April 2007 because of concerns over extrajudicial executions by the security forces. Also in August, Congress put a hold on an additional US$72 million for military funding in Fiscal Years 2007 and 2008 for the same reasons.
Reportedly in response to the Soacha killings, the US State Department vetoed three military units, which meant they became ineligible to receive US military assistance.
The report on Colombia of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, published in February, stated that although there had been some improvements “the situation of human rights and international humanitarian law remains a matter of concern”. In terms of the fight against impunity the report claimed that “structural problems persist in the administration of justice”. The report also expressed concern about the persistence of extrajudicial executions by the security forces and about grave and systematic violations of IHL by guerrilla groups. It also noted the links between certain members of the armed forces and what the report termed “new illegal armed groups”.
The Representative of the UN Secretary General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons visited Colombia in November, and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention did so in October.
In December, Colombia’s human rights record came under scrutiny at the UN Human Rights Council under the Universal Periodic Review mechanism.
Amnesty International visitsAmnesty International delegates visited the country in February, March, April, June, July and October.
Amnesty International reports“Leave us in Peace!” – Targeting civilians in Colombia’s internal armed conflict (28 October 2008)
Colombia: Ingrid Betancourt gains her freedom (3 July 2008)
Colombia: Amnesty International condemns bomb attack (1 September 2008)
Colombia: Killings of Indigenous and Afro-descendant land right activists must stop (21 October 2008)