Colombia: Human Rights Watch testifies before US Senate

Report
from Human Rights Watch
Published on 24 Apr 2002
Testimony of José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director
Americas Division, Human Rights Watch
Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, and Narcotics Affairs
Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Wednesday, April 24, 2002
Mr. Chairman, Senator Chafee, members of the Subcommittee:

I am honored to appear before you today. Thank you for your invitation to address the subcommittee.

I am submitting written testimony for the record.

The United States plays an important role in Colombia and can contribute to the defense of human rights and international humanitarian law. We support U.S. engagement when it furthers these goals. Colombia and the United States both benefit when human rights are fully respected. They are the foundation of the rule of law. They strengthen democracy against its foes, including those who use terror to achieve their goals.

Colombia must combat terror regardless of its origin. It must do so, first and foremost, by applying and upholding the law. Otherwise, the logic of terror wins a place in Colombian society.

Many brave Colombians have stood up to terror. Too many have lost their lives. Among them are human rights defenders, journalists, political and community leaders, trade unionists, and teachers. Some are prominent, among them the Archbishop of Cali, Isaías Duarte Cancino, cut down by assassins on March 16 of this year. Other victims are ordinary people -- farmers, drivers, doctors, and store owners -- perceived as enemies by guerrillas or paramilitaries or just caught in the crossfire. According to the United Nations, Colombia now leads the world in forced displacement, as thousands of families are forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods to save the lives of their loved ones.

Nevertheless, millions more Colombians remain committed to human rights and to democracy. They need help. Human Rights Watch has no fundamental problem with the United States providing that help. As I will stress today, human rights restrictions on aid should be maintained. But limiting aid to counter-narcotics purposes makes no sense in a society facing the onslaught of groups who violate human rights with such flagrant disregard for the law and world opinion.

The question is not whether to help Colombia, but how. The critical thing, Mr. Chairman, is that the assistance under consideration today should be used to combat all sources of terror in Colombia. That includes the guerrillas known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (F.A.R.C.). It also means illegal paramilitary groups allied as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (A.U.C.) as well as their patrons in the Colombian security forces.

I don't need to tell this committee about the true nature of the F.A.R.C. - about the way it terrorizes civilians or about its kidnappings and murders of political candidates and leaders. Human Rights Watch has criticized the decision made by Colombia's leaders to cede to this group, with its devastating record on abuses, control over territory and power over the lives of Colombian citizens.

We have repeatedly condemned F.A.R.C. abuses. On April 15, I wrote a letter to F.A.R.C. leader Manuel Marulanda, calling on him to release all hostages, including political figures, and to stop all kidnappings, a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

The paramilitaries pose just as great a threat to Colombian democracy and to the lives of its citizens as the F.A.R.C.

Paramilitaries associated with the A.U.C. commit most human rights violations in Colombia today. These acts of terror include massacres, targeted killings and forced displacement. Like the F.A.R.C., the A.U.C. kidnaps, threatens, and kills political leaders. It has also exercised exclusive control over vast areas of Colombia, particularly in the north, where it polices civilians and taxes economic activity. It has shown no interest in relaxing its control as guerrilla activity wanes.

Also like the F.A.R.C., the A.U.C. traffics in drugs. With its profits, it funds acts of terror. There is a direct connection, therefore, between the profits from trafficking and human rights abuses.

Indeed, paramilitaries have a long history of involvement in drugs. The current leader of the A.U.C., Carlos Castaño, helped form paramilitary groups in the 1980s in coordination with Pablo Escobar and Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha. He was trained by Israeli and British mercenaries to kill political figures, part of the traffickers' efforts to block Colombia's ability to extradite traffickers to the United States.

In a recent memoir, Castaño took responsibility for providing guerrillas with the weapons they used in 1985 to seize the building housing Colombia's Supreme Court. Castaño claims that the purpose was to kill the justices considering extradition and burn the case files of known traffickers so that they would not face prosecution. In the aftermath, ten justices and the Chief Justice died along with almost one hundred judicial employees and visitors. To this day, families search for the bodies of some of those lost.

Castaño also admitted to planning and carrying out the assassination of a presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro, in 1990. Traffickers are also believed responsible for the assassination of Luis Carlos Galán, the leading candidate, in 1989.

Currently, Colombian government authorities say that paramilitaries have established "an extremely close alliance" with drug traffickers, including in areas once controlled by guerrillas. Colombian intelligence sources estimate that 40 percent of the country's total cocaine exports are controlled by paramilitaries and their allies in the narcotics underworld. Some paramilitaries are themselves wanted by Colombian authorities for trafficking, among them:

  • DIEGO MURILLO BEJARANO, "DON BERNA," a close adviser to Castaño and former security chief for the Galeano trafficking family, part of the Medellín Cartel. Bejarano has also been linked by the authorities to Medellín gangs, among them "La Terraza," used to carry out high profile assassinations, including of human rights defenders;

  • HERNÁN GIRALDO, an AUC associate, occupies the area around Santa Marta on Colombia's Caribbean coast. His group is linked to the murder in November 2001 of two Colombian police officers working with the D.E.A. as well as dozens of political killings. Along with murder, Giraldo is wanted for drug trafficking and the formation of paramilitary groups. Newsweek describes him as one of the top five traffickers in Colombia (May 21, 2001) and says that Colombian police estimate that he heads a burgeoning drug syndicate that accounts for $1.2 billion in annual shipments to the United States and Europe, putting him among the country's top five cocaine traffickers;

  • LUIS EDUARDO CIFUENTES, a former associate of Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, Cifuentes is facing charges related to trafficking and the torture and murders of Colombian police officers Capt. William Javier Montilla and Ancízar Sánchez, whose bodies were found on Oct. 25, 1998, near Puerto Salgar, Cundinamarca.
Mr. Chairman, it may be tempting to believe that if we help Colombia deal with the F.A.R.C, the paramilitary threat will take care of itself. The paramilitaries, it is said, are only interested in supporting the government against the F.A.R.C. Once the guerrillas go away, this line of thinking goes, the paramilitaries will lay down their arms.

To me, that's about as naïve as saying that the F.A.R.C. is only interested in social justice for the poor. Both these groups are mafias, Mr. Chairman. Both kill for money and for power. Neither is going to go back to farming just because its purported political goals are met.

As a practical matter, let's consider what will happen if Colombia delays confronting the paramilitaries as it fights the guerrillas. As the F.A.R.C. cedes control over territory, the A.U.C. will move in. It will become more powerful and able to commit violations with impunity. The A.U.C. will capture an even larger share of Colombia's narcotics exports, giving it more money to purchase more powerful weapons and continue to terrorize Colombia.

This is not just speculation. It has already happened in Barrancabermeja, site of Colombia's largest oil refinery. There, the Colombian police report that the A.U.C. now controls the city as well as the criminal syndicate that steals gasoline from pipelines to resell to cocaine laboratories, among others. Earlier this month, paramilitaries abducted a human rights worker, DIOFANOL SIERRA VARGAS, from his home in Barrancabermeja. They executed him on the spot.

The A.U.C. will also try to seize greater political power in Colombia. Again, this is not just a "what if" question. Prior to March 2002 congressional elections, A.U.C. leader Salvatore Mancuso claimed that paramilitaries expected to have a hand in electing 35 per cent of the new legislature. Both presidential candidates Horacio Serpa and Juan Camilo Restrepo reported threats against their supporters throughout Colombia. Paramilitaries destroyed campaign posters for candidates they opposed and told voters to cast ballots for their slate or risk attack. Like the F.A.R.C., the A.U.C. kidnaps, threatens and kills political leaders.

Finally, as the A.U.C. grows in power, it will become even harder to convince guerrillas to lay down their weapons. Paramilitaries have a long history of murdering guerrillas after they surrender. Since 1984, paramilitaries have been linked to hundreds of killings of members of the Patriotic Union political party, formed to create a way for guerrillas to give up violence and participate peacefully in the political process.

Among those killed by paramilitaries was Patriotic Union Senator Manuel Cepeda, shot in Bogotá in 1994. His assassins were paramilitaries working with active-duty army soldiers. Currently, a case involving 1,554 slain members of the Patriotic Union party is being negotiated between families of the victims and the Colombian government under the auspices of the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights.

The longer Colombia waits to confront the paramilitaries, the harder they will be to beat. That's why Colombia needs to deal with both the F.A.R.C. and the A.U.C. at the same time rather than fighting one in a way that empowers the other.

Secretary of State Colin Powell recognized this when he placed the A.U.C. on the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations on September 10, 2001. Subsequently, the United States suspended the visas of suspected A.U.C. members and supporters and put dozens of names on a watch list in case those individuals applied for U.S. visas.

These were positive steps. More is needed.

First, if the United States provides aid to Colombia for counter-terrorism, the Administration must make clear to Colombian officials that it expects assistance to be used equally against all designated terrorist groups in Colombia. With respect to the A.U.C., the goal should be to bring indicted leaders to justice and to reassert the full authority of the Colombian government in those regions the paramilitaries currently control.

Second, the Colombian government must break persistent links between paramilitaries and its security forces, in particular the army and the navy. At their most brazen, these relationships involve active coordination during military operations between government and paramilitary units; communication via radios, cellular telephones, and beepers; the sharing of intelligence, including the names of suspected guerrilla collaborators; the sharing of fighters, including active-duty soldiers serving in paramilitary units and paramilitary commanders lodging on military bases; the sharing of vehicles, including army trucks used to transport paramilitary fighters; coordination of army roadblocks, which routinely let heavily-armed paramilitary fighters pass unchallenged; and payments made from paramilitaries to military officers for their support. Human Rights Watch has found credible evidence showing that the source of these funds was taxes levied on traffickers, cocaine laboratories and farmers who grow coca leaf.

One of the most disturbing forms of collaboration involves paramilitaries delivering corpses to military units that are supposed to be fighting the F.A.R.C. This allows those units to inflate their body counts, while "legalizing" killings by the paramilitaries. Some of the bodies may well be guerrillas the A.U.C. has killed in action; others are likely innocent victims. In both case, this practice encourages human rights violations while creating a distorted measure of military success against the F.A.R.C.

These are not isolated incidents, but rather widespread patterns of behavior and collusion. These links paired with the A.U.C.'s involvement in trafficking make it, in the words of General Gary Speer, acting head of U.S. Southern Command, "the most critical long-term threat" to Colombian democracy.

Overall, President Andrés Pastrana and his defense ministers have failed to establish control over the security forces and break these criminal ties. Even as President Pastrana publicly deplores atrocities, the high-ranking officers he commands fail to take steps necessary to prevent killings by suspending security force members suspected of abuses, ensure that their cases are handed over to civilian judicial authorities for investigation and prosecution, and pursue and arrest paramilitary leaders.

Indeed, we have seen serious setbacks, among them the release late last year of the only top paramilitary leader in custody in Colombia. A corrupt judge, now deceased, used a bogus legal technicality (vencimiento de términos) to free Víctor Carranza, who government investigators say maintains an alliance with Castaño and the A.U.C. Carranza remains at large despite the fact that a new arrest warrant has been issued for him.

In order to protect democracy and ensure the rule of law, the United States must continue to condition military aid on real and verifiable progress by the Colombian military in breaking these links to paramilitary groups and upholding human rights. The U.S. Congress designed these conditions to encourage progress towards compliance with standards that Colombia's own elected leaders and military commanders say they support.

As the State Department has acknowledged, these conditions have not yet been met.

The U.S. Congress also removed the presidential waiver option that was included in previous legislation, recognizing that this waiver sent a contradictory and damaging message that human rights is not really a priority in the U.S. relationship with Colombia. Those who continue to abuse human rights to achieve their goals understand this message very well.

Finally, we also urge the U.S. Congress to ensure that there are also funds allocated to support the critical institutions -- the office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía), Internal Affairs (Procuraduría) and the Public Advocate (Defensoría) -- striving against great odds to enforce the law in Colombia, protect civilians, and prosecute and punish those responsible for crimes.

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