Colombia: army killings escalate

The Colombian armed forces committed 955 extrajudicial executions between July 2002 and June 2007, according an investigation [online at Latin America Working Group] carried out by a coalition of 11 Colombian human rights organizations and released this month. Of these killings only two have resulted in a judicial conviction. The number of killings by Colombia’s armed forces represents a 65% increase over the previous five-year period from 1997 to 2002.

Since the last five years represent the most intense period of US training for the Colombian military, the study raises serious questions about the reasons for such a dramatic hike in killing by the US military’s trainees. A number of the military units charged in the report with killing civilians have been “vetted” (approved) for US training and other assistance.

An international mission made up of 13 jurists, forensic anthropologists and human rights experts from Europe and the United States received testimonies from 132 of the cases throughout the country from October 4 to 10. They found consistent patterns in the testimonies: the killings occur during anti-insurgent army operations, though witnesses say there was no combat; many are taken from their homes or work places to the place where they are killed; they are reported as guerrillas killed in combat; the military doesn’t preserve the scene of the killing; in many cases there are signs of torture; and the cases are assigned to military courts. In the cases where civilian courts have assumed jurisdiction, they do very little.

“Some of the executions are reportedly being committed by military units that have received US military aid and by units operating under the guidance of US military advisers,” Amnesty International said in a statement. These units include the 12th Mobile Brigade (Meta), the 16th Brigade (Casanare), and the 18th Brigade (Arauca). According to US legislation, Colombian units that have committed gross human rights abuses are prohibited from receiving US training or other assistance. A list of units approved for assistance released last year [online at Center for International Policy] showed that the US aids the 12th Mobile Brigade, yet other US and Colombian military documents indicate that even more units with histories of abuse receive US assistance. The State Department’s recently released report on foreign military training shows that units from the Army’s 17th Brigade—whose commanders and soldiers are under investigation for the February 2005 massacre and other killings in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó—and from the 4th Brigade—with jurisdiction in Medellin and eastern Antioquia, both received training at the former School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. Yet neither unit is listed as approved for training in the 2006 State Department document.

President Uribe responded with a bald-faced falsehood: “In Colombia there are no extrajudicial executions”—in spite of the judicial system’s investigations into hundreds of such acts. Colombia’s Defense Minister visited Washington in the days after the release of the report and said the increase in Army killings is “puzzling.”

The explanation isn’t hard to find. The Army still measures success by body counts—number of “guerrillas” killed in combat. And when those “guerrillas” are civilians, members of the military are almost never held accountable, leading soldiers to continue the practice.

The international mission pointed out that the Colombian Defense Ministry claims that 8,104 “presumed guerrillas” were killed in combat between 2002 and 2006, and another 2,072 members of illegal armed groups in the last year. If those were all guerrillas, the guerrillas would have been wiped out.

US Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez also took a Congressional delegation of Republicans and Democrats to Colombia as a sales job for the Free Trade Agreement last week. These included Rep. Eliot Engel who said, “Just the fact that we were able to come here and go to other places where a few years ago we couldn’t go makes us understand that this country is certainly moving in the right direction.” The delegation, however, traveled in a convoy “escorted by policemen on motorcycles who ensured that no car ventured close. When the lawmakers stepped out, guards carrying M-16s watched wearily, whispering into microphones on their sleeves.” [Washington Post, Oct. 19]

From the FOR Colombia Program, October 2007

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