Last Updated:2/10/02
Letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell from Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, February 5, 2002

February 5, 2002

Mr. Colin L. Powell
Secretary of State
Department of State
Washington DC 20520

Dear Secretary Powell:

On January 10, 2002, President Bush signed PL 107-115, an act appropriating funds for foreign operations and related programs in FY 2002. PL 107-115 requires that before funds may be made available for assistance for the Colombian armed forces, certain human rights conditions must be met, namely: the leadership of the Colombian armed forces must be suspending members of its ranks credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights or to have aided and abetted paramilitary forces, the armed forces must be cooperating in the prosecution in civilian courts of those alleged to have committed these crimes, and the armed forces must be taking effective measures to sever links with paramilitary groups. The principle behind these conditions is that an armed force privileged to receive financial or material assistance from the United States may not be engaged directly or indirectly in the commission of human rights abuses. The fundamental importance of this principle is highlighted by the events of September 11, in which irregular forces purposely targeted non-combatants - civilians who were simply going about their normal lives, traveling and working.

The task of evaluating compliance with the human rights conditions comes in the face of ample evidence that the provision of military assistance to Colombia has escalated the country's civil war and led to the deterioration of the human rights and humanitarian situation. Press accounts of the war frequently cite a figure of 3,000 non-combatant deaths each year, the toll of those civilians caught in the cross-fire between the army, its paramilitary allies and the guerrilla groups. But through August of 2001, CINEP, a Jesuit research institute, had documented 9,092 deaths - an average of 38 per day. At the end of 1999, the daily death toll was 12. 277,000 people were believed to have been newly displaced by August of last year. By November, one estimate placed the figure as high as 360,000 - as compared to 288,000 in 1999 and 315,000 in 2000. Responsibility for human rights abuses is shared by among the armed groups, including the armed forces, the various guerrilla movements and paramilitary organizations. Yet analyses
consistently attribute 75 to 80 percent of the abuses to paramilitary forces. Of special concern are continuing attacks on human rights defenders, including union leaders, who are at risk for exercising their most basic rights to freedom of expression and association and for insisting on due process.

In evaluating compliance with the conditions, we recall that in accordance with the Colombian constitution, the president of Colombia is the supreme commander of the armed forces. Final authority over the armed forces and responsibility for their actions thus lies with the president. If the armed forces are not taking the necessary steps to prevent human rights abuses on the part of their members, it is the president as head of national government that is ultimately responsible for that failure.

It is also important to note that similar human rights conditions to those found in P.L. 107-115 were in effect during FY 2001. The Clinton Administration made the decision to waive those conditions in order to allow assistance to be provided to the Colombian armed forces, a decision we disagreed with. Nevertheless, last year's conditions clearly specified the Congress' expectations regarding the behavior of the armed forces and the Colombian government.

It is the position of the RFK Memorial that the Colombian government is not in compliance with the required conditions and that the armed forces are therefore not eligible to receive United States military assistance. Although the Colombian armed forces may have occasionally acted in ways that would be consistent with the requirements imposed by the conditions, there is no evidence to suggest that systematic and consistent steps are being taken to break long-standing patterns of criminal behavior. On the contrary, during 2001, even though human rights conditions were in place, there were many new cases of human rights abuses in which members of the armed forces were involved, either directly or indirectly. The same behaviors which prompted the imposition of conditions continued during 2001.

Your office has previously been supplied with detailed, credible information on the responsibility of members of the Colombian armed forces for human rights abuses, on linkages between members of the armed forces and paramilitary groups, and on the many ways in which sectors of the armed forces facilitate or fail to prevent violations of human rights and humanitarian law by illegal paramilitary forces. These documents provide clear benchmarks for evaluating the armed forces' compliance with the human rights conditions. Cases are identified and documented; key military officials who have been credibly linked to abuses are identified for suspension and prosecution; and specific military units with documented ties to paramilitary forces are similarly identified.

It is our understanding that virtually no progress has been made on any of the benchmarks since August of 2000. With regard to the suspension and prosecution of military officials involved in human rights violations, those few military officials who are detained are not brought to trial but are eventually simply released. A particularly notorious case is that of General Rito Alejo del Río, who was arrested by the Human Rights Unit of the Attorney General's office (the Fiscalía) on July 23, 2001, for alleged support of paramilitary organizations while he was commanding the army's 17th Brigade. Shortly thereafter a new attorney general, Luis Osorio, took office. He immediately objected to the arrest, initiating a process which resulted in Gen. del Río's release. The new attorney general also forced the resignation of the head of the Human Rights Unit, who had to flee the country, and other officials. Gen. del Río has not been suspended from duty.

With regard to breaking the links between the armed forces and paramilitary forces, human rights organizations continue to document ongoing collaboration between military units and paramilitary organizations. In several cases the commanders of the military units involved were already on the list of officers who should be suspended, yet they have not been. Some of those commanders were complicit in new cases of human rights violations during 2001, including attacks on human rights defenders and a failure to prevent paramilitary massacres. A key example is that of Rear Admiral Rodrigo Quiñones. Rear Adm. Quiñones has long been linked to the murders of at least 57 trade unionists, human rights workers and community leaders in 1991 and 1992, when he was head of Navy intelligence and ran an intelligence network based in Barrancabermeja. In February 2000 he was the officer in charge during a massacre in El Salado, Bolivar. Military and police units stationed nearby failed to stop the killing and established roadblocks preventing human rights and humanitarian assistance groups from entering the town. Not only was Adm. Quiñones not suspended or punished; he was promoted the following June. In January 2001 Quiñones was linked to yet another paramilitary massacre. More than 100 paramilitaries attacked the village of Chengue in Sucre province, killing 27 people. The incident occurred even though the people of Chengue and two other towns had written to President Pastrana in October 2000 to plead for protection.

As an organization that works closely with human rights defenders, the RFK Memorial is especially concerned with the ongoing threats, harassment, intimidation and assassination of Colombian defenders. Targeting defenders is a key component of the paramilitary campaign against the rule of law in Colombia that continued apace during 2001. Paramilitary organizations publicly describe human rights workers as guerrilla collaborators, circulate death lists naming human rights workers, and directly threaten human rights workers who report on their abuses or work in regions the paramilitaries are attacking.

Paramilitaries carry out these activities even in places where the Colombian armed forces have a heavy security presence, such as Barrancabermeja. Throughout the paramilitary siege of Barranca that began in December 2000 and continued in 2001 (and which the armed forces did nothing to prevent) the human rights organizations Organización Feminina Popular (OFP) and the Corporación Regional para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (CREDHOS) were continually and systematically threatened by members of paramilitary organizations. Leaders and members of OFP, including Jackeline Rojas and Yolanda Becerra, were threatened in person and over the telephone by paramilitaries. In March Dany Rada was designated a "military target." During 2001 OFP endured the armed presence of paramilitaries in its offices, threats to take over office space, armed pressure on local communities not to participate in OFP's activities and threatening acts during public activities.

Attacks against CREDHOS pre-date the 2000-01 paramilitary incursion. The organization was declared a "military target" by the Autodefensas de Santander y Sur del Cesar (AUSAC) in July 1998. Between early 1999 and the present, members of CREDHOS' board of directors have endured twenty threats, two attempted assassinations and a break-in at their office, and people associated with CREDHOS have been assassinated. In December of 2000 there was an attempt on the life of Juan Manuel López, a member of the board of directors. In January 2001 paramilitaries visited the homes of Iván Madero Vergel and José Guillermo Larios, members of CREDHOS, and Maderos later received threatening phone calls. In March six armed men arrived at the home of Pablo Javier Arenales, a human rights promoter and vice president of CREDHOS. In September a death notice naming Arenales and Larios and signed by the "Urban Clean-up Unit" of the AUC was sent to an NGO in Bogota. In October CREDHOS member Julián Rodríguez was murdered.

Paramilitaries were able to threaten and harass these two organizations without impediment in spite of the armed forces presence around Barrancabermeja. The threats and attacks continued even though the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights had ordered the Colombian government to take precautionary measures, i.e. to provide protection, in 2000. We are unaware of anyone brought to justice for any of the attacks against OFP and CREDHOS.

Human rights organizations that provide early warning of paramilitary incursions become targets for paramilitary attack and are even vilified for their efforts by the Colombian armed forces. The Asociación para la Promoción Social Alternativa, Minga, whose president Gloria Florez is an RFK human rights laureate, contacted the 5th Brigade several times during 2001, warning of impending paramilitary massacres in the municipalities of Tibú and El Tarra in the Catatumba region, and also monitored the situation in Cauca and Nariño. In early September Minga staff members on their way to meet with government officials in Bogota were followed into a car park and harassed by men they believed to be paramilitaries, one of whom appeared to reach for a gun before fleeing. This happened shortly after the circulation in August of a message on the internet declaring that the the Grupo de Limpieza Urbana, the "Urban Clean-up Unit," of the AUC would be starting a campaign to get rid of urban guerrillas. Earlier in August, the Commander of the 3rd Brigade, Brig. Gen. Francisco René Pedraza Peláez, wrote a letter complaining about the content of an independent verification commission report on an Easter week massacre in the Alto Naya region of Cauca. The General asserted that suggestions that the 3rd Brigade had not done its job were strengthening the enemy and undermining troop morale, and went on to imply that Minga had links to ELN guerrilla group. Minga has previously been accused of guerrilla collaboration by military officials. Meanwhile, in spite of warnings from Minga to the 5th Brigade, in late December 14 people were massacred in Corregimiento la Angalia in Tibú. At least 6 more people have been killed and 176 have disappeared in the same area during January.

Human rights defenders who seek to protect communities from attack by accompanying them or soliciting international support for them are also targets. During May Berenice Celeyta Alayón, another RFK human rights laureate, received anonymous death threats and was under constant surveillance by men believed to be paramilitaries. Prior to receiving the threats, Berenice's organization NOMADESC had denounced the killing of trade unionists in Valle de Cauca province and the massacres of civilians living along the River Naya in Valle and Cauca, calling on the Colombian authorities to take protective action. Berenice took the lead in soliciting precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights on behalf of 26 union members from Valle and on behalf of Afro-Colombian communities in the Buenaventura region. The threats began after Berenice met with members of the Inter-American Commission to follow-up on the measures issued on behalf of the union leaders. The Commission subsequently ordered precautionary measures on Berenice's own behalf.

There continue to be instances of direct armed forces involvement in threats and attacks against human rights defenders. The case of union leader Wilson Borja Díaz is well-known. Mr. Borja is the president of the Federation of Government Services Workers of Colombia (FENALTRASE). On December 15, 2001, he was the target of an assassination attempt in Bogota. The attack, in which Borja was shot three times and his car was hit by 56 bullets, was carried out by several military and police agents and paramilitaries. After several months abroad for treatment and recovery, Mr. Borja returned to Colombia and became the manager for the presidential campaign of Luis Eduardo Garzón and a candidate for Senate. Thirteen people were initially linked to the December 2000 assassination attempt, two of whom, a known paramilitary and an ex-corporal of the army, were never captured. At least two of those detained have since been released, including Police Captain Carlos Fredy Gómez Ordóñez, who sold a telephone used in the assassination attempt to one of the paramilitaries involved. Although others are still in detention, including Army Major César Alfonso Maldonado Vidales, only one person has thus far been ordered to trial. He is Evangelista Basto Bernal, former army official and a member of military intelligence. Meanwhile, in the last weeks of 2001 the threats against Mr. Borja resumed. He was forced to leave the country again on December 23.

A second case of direct involvement by sectors of the armed forces is that of Alirio Uribe Muñoz, a lawyer with the Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo. The Colectivo is a pro-bono firm of lawyers which represents victims of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Mr. Uribe is Wilson Borja's lawyer and has served as lead counsel in several other highly sensitive cases, including the criminal case against Rear Admiral Rodrigo Quiñones for the killing of 57 trade unionists, human rights defenders and community leaders in 1991-92 (cf. reference above). He has been under threat since 1999 when a military intelligence report linked to the army's 13th Brigade identified him as part of an ELN network. His name appeared on a death list in August 1999, leading the Colectivo to write directly to President Pastrana for relief. Last spring, in the context of the investigation of the assassination attempt on Mr. Borja, a search of the home of Evangelista Basto Bernal turned up a photo of Mr. Uribe, along with his home and office addresses. Basto Bernal denied knowing how or why the material was in his possession. The UN Special Representative on human rights defenders and the Special Rapporteur on disappearances and summary executions sent communications to the Colombian government on this case. The Inter-American Commission had ordered precautionary measures for Mr. Uribe in 2000. In May 2001 these were extended to all eight members of the Colectivo, two of whom are currently in exile due to threats from sectors of the military.

Mr. Uribe's case is an example of the larger problem of misuse of military intelligence files to persecute human rights defenders. The Administrative Department of Security (DAS), the national police, the judicial police and the army all maintain intelligence files believed to contain false or unconfirmed allegations of collaboration between human rights defenders and guerrilla organizations. There is substantial evidence that the files have been used to target defenders and other social leaders for assassination. In a recent meeting of the Ministry of Interior's "Risk Committee," charged with evaluating the degree of risk faced by individual defenders who seek protection, information was provided that indicated that a high percentage of the approximately 30 cases of assassinations of social leaders and students in Barranquilla were individuals who appeared in intelligence reports from diverse state security agencies. The files are either misused by the security forces themselves, or the false information is shared with paramilitary forces who then target human rights defenders and others - or both, as in the Borja case.

International human rights bodies have repeatedly urged the Colombian government to establish appropriate controls over the collection and use of intelligence files, procedures to allow individuals access to their intelligence files, and mechanisms to ensure civilian review of any decision to deny such access. In April 1998 President Samper committed the government, specifically the Procuraduría, to collaborate in reviewing the intelligence files of human rights defenders and organizations. An initial list of 29 names was provided to the government by the human rights community to begin the review process. However, to date, the comprehensive review and purging of the files that is required has not taken place. The continued existence of the files, and their use by members of the military and by paramilitaries, makes the government an accomplice in the resulting human rights violations.

While some human rights defenders are able to call upon the international community for the protection the Colombian government fails to provide, many more cannot. Since July 1996 54 human rights defenders have been assassinated and another 14 have been disappeared. Of the 47 cases where the identity of the assassins is known, paramilitaries are responsible for 36. During 2001 there were several new murders:

Iván Villamizar Lucini - A human rights defender in Norte de Santander province, killed on February 12 by paramilitaries.

Kimy Pernia Domico - A leader of the Embera Katio indigenous people, Kimi was disappeared by paramilitary forces on June 2 in Tierralta, Córdoba. On June 12 police Colonel Henry Caicedo Garcia made statements on Radio Caracol that the indigenous of Alto Sinu were helping the FARC guerrillas. In April 2000 in an agreement between the Embera Katio of Alto Sinu and the government, one of the points was that state officials would abstain from making this type of declaration. Kimi was one of eight indigenous leaders assassinated during 2001.

Gonzalo Zarate - On June 5 Gonzalo Zarate and his brother Humberto were killed by unidentified gunmen at their home in Villavicencio, Meta. Gonzalo was secretary from 1992-96 for the Comité Cívico por los Derechos Humanos del Meta, founded in 1991. In 1992 four of its members were gunned down and an associated health clinic was forced to close after death threats. In 1993 three members were disappeared. On October 13, 1996 president Josué Giraldo was murdered in Villavicencio. Authorities failed to bring those responsible to justice and took no action against the death threats. After Zarate's assassination, authorities from the Fiscalía and judiciary reportedly appeared, removed the bodies, raided the residence and interrogated the wife and children in an arbitrary form. Islena Rey is the only one surviving member of Comité Cívico.

Irma Rosa Jaramillo Lafaurie - A lawyer, human rights defender, and former advisor to the World Bank-funded Program for Development and Peace in the Middle Magdelene River region, Irma was assassinated and decapitated by paramilitaries on July 1, 2001, in Simiti, Bolivar.

Yolanda Cerón - Director of the Catholic church organization Pastoral Social, Yolanda was assassinated by two gunmen thought to be paramilitaries on September 19, 2001, in Tumaco, Nariño. She was shot eight times in broad daylight as she left her office. She and her colleagues had been denouncing the deteriorating human rights situation in Nariño since the arrival of paramilitary forces in September 2000.

The situation of the union movement demands particular attention. According to the most recent figures provided by the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), 171 union members were assassinated in Colombia during 2001. Of the 89 cases where the identity of the assassins is known, paramilitaries are responsible for 84. Half the killings occurred in four provinces notorious for paramilitary presence, Antioquia, Santander, Valle, and Cesar. Not one person has been brought to justice in these cases. The toll is astounding, as is the Colombian government's failure to act against those responsible.

Although the cases described above are but a handful of those that occurred last year, they reflect the continuation of the long-established patterns that last year's human rights conditions were intended to change. Military-paramilitary ties have been maintained, and the human rights situation on the ground has deteriorated further. It must be emphasized that the people being attacked and killed by paramilitary forces, including human rights defenders, are civilians and non-combatants. We feel compelled to recall that the major paramilitary organization which the Colombian government and armed forces continue to allow to operate unimpeded, the AUC, is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. Providing assistance to an army which maintains its ties to a terrorist organization should be unthinkable.

We respectfully request that you decline to certify compliance on the part of the Colombian government and its armed forces with the human rights conditions contained in P.L. 107-115. Thank you for your attention.


Kimberly Stanton, Ph.D.
Program Director for Latin America and Africa
Center for Human Rights

Cc: Lorne W. Craner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Senator Edward M. Kennedy

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