The internal armed conflict continued to have devastating consequences on the civilian population, with Indigenous communities particularly hard hit. All the warring parties – including the security forces, guerrilla groups and paramilitary groups – were responsible for serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. Although fewer civilians were extrajudicially executed by the security forces and forcible displacement increased at a slower rate than in previous years, other human rights abuses intensified. There was a rise in killings of members of marginalized social groups and Indigenous Peoples, and in threats against human rights defenders and other activists. Witnesses to killings and victims of human rights violations and their families were threatened and harassed.
In September, the government announced it would disband the civilian intelligence service (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS) after evidence emerged that it had illegally intercepted the communications of human rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians and judges for at least seven years, and colluded with paramilitary groups.
The Supreme Court of Justice investigation into the “parapolitical” scandal continued to make progress. Some 80 Members of Congress – most belonging to parties from the ruling coalition – were under investigation for their alleged links to paramilitary groups.
Tensions increased with several countries in the region, especially Venezuela, following the government’s decision to allow the US military to use seven military bases in Colombia.
The internal armed conflict
The warring parties failed to distinguish between civilians and combatants, resulting in forced displacement, killings of civilians, sexual violence against women, hostage-taking, enforced disappearances, forced recruitment of minors and indiscriminate attacks against the civilian population. There was a sharp increase in violence in some of the country’s larger cities. This increase was attributed to the armed conflict, drug trafficking-related crimes, and acts of “social cleansing”.
Some 20,000 enforced disappearances reportedly continued to be investigated by the Office of the Attorney General.
The number of internally displaced people continued to rise, although at a slower rate than in recent years. In 2009, more than 286,000 people were newly displaced, according to the NGO Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, CODHES). Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendant and campesino (peasant farmer) communities were most affected.
The government refused to support a bill, the Victims’ Law, which would have granted reparation to victims of the conflict on the basis of non-discrimination, regardless of whether the perpetrator was an agent of the state or not. The bill was rejected by Congress in June.
Indigenous Peoples’ rights
During his visit to Colombia in July, the UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous people described the human rights situation facing Indigenous Peoples in Colombia as “grave, critical and profoundly worrying”. More than 114 Indigenous men, women and children were killed in 2009, an increase compared with 2008. More than half of those killed were members of Awá communities.
- On 26 August, 12 Awá, including six children and an eight-month-old baby, were killed by gunmen on the resguardo (Indigenous reservation) of Gran Rosario in Nariño Department. One of the victims, Tulia García, had been a witness to the killing of her husband, Gonzalo Rodríguez, by the army on 23 May.
- On 4 February, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revoluncionarias de Colombia, FARC) killed 15 Awá, including two pregnant women, in Barbacoas Municipality, Nariño Department.
Indigenous leaders and their families were also threatened.
- On 11 May, the 12-year-old daughter of Indigenous leader Aída Quilcué was threatened at gunpoint outside her house. Aída Quilcué had been receiving protection ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights since her husband was killed by soldiers in December 2008.
In January, the Constitutional Court issued Order 004/09, which concluded that the survival of some Indigenous Peoples was at risk because of the armed conflict.
In April, the government endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In 2007, Colombia had abstained when the Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly.
The civilian intelligence service
In April, the media revealed that the DAS, which operated under the direct authority of the president, had been involved in massive, long-standing, illegal espionage against human rights defenders, opposition politicians, judges and journalists to restrict or neutralize their work. The operation was reportedly carried out in close co-operation with paramilitary groups. Members of the diplomatic community in Colombia and international human rights defenders were also targeted.
In May, the Attorney General charged one former DAS director, Jorge Noguera, with homicide and membership of paramilitary groups. Some of the activists intercepted by the DAS had been subjected to death threats and spurious criminal charges. In September, President Uribe said the DAS would be abolished and a new intelligence service created.
In March, Congress approved an Intelligence Law, which outlawed intelligence gathering on individuals on the grounds of their political affiliation or membership of a trade union or social or human rights organization. In September, a decree implementing the Intelligence Law ordered a review of intelligence files compiled on those grounds by all the security services, including the military. Such files had often been used to mount unfounded criminal proceedings against activists. By the end of the year, no information was made available on the results of the review.
The ‘parapolitical’ scandal
Some 80 Members of Congress were under criminal investigation in 2009 for their alleged links to paramilitary groups.
In September, the Supreme Court ruled it was competent to investigate Members who had resigned their posts in an effort to ensure that their cases were investigated by the Attorney General’s Office, where they hoped to be treated more leniently.
Several of the magistrates involved in investigating the scandal who had been threatened and harassed continued to receive protection measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Extrajudicial executions by the security forces
Revelations in 2008 that the security forces had extrajudicially executed more than a dozen young men from Soacha, near the capital, Bogotá, forced the government to adopt measures to combat the problem. The number of cases of extrajudicial execution fell sharply in 2009 compared with 2008. Some 2,000 extrajudicial executions carried out by army personnel over a number of years were under investigation by the Attorney General’s Office in 2009, but progress was slow. There was renewed resistance from within the military justice system to civilian jurisdiction in cases where military personnel were accused of human rights violations.
Witnesses to extrajudicial executions as well as relatives of those killed were threatened and attacked.
Following his visit to Colombia in June, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings said that extrajudicial executions “were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military”.
Paramilitary groups continued to operate in many parts of the country, sometimes in collusion with sectors of the security forces. Their continued activities belied government claims that all paramilitaries had laid down their arms following a government-sponsored demobilization programme that began in 2003.
The government claimed that violence attributed to these groups was solely drug-related and criminal in nature. However, the tactics employed by these groups to terrorize the civilian population, including death threats and massacres, reflected those used by paramilitary groups prior to demobilization. Human rights defenders, community leaders and other social activists continued to be targeted by such groups.
There was evidence that paramilitary groups were again becoming more organized. In a report published in October, the Organization of American States’ Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia referred to “these illegal structures’ capacity for renewal, especially among their leaders, which is a challenge for the authorities to prevent their restructuring”.
There was an increase in killings of people from marginalized social groups in urban areas, mostly carried out by paramilitaries. Victims included young people; the homeless; petty criminals; sex workers; lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender people; and drug addicts. According to the NGO Research and Popular Education Centre (Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular, CINEP), there were 184 such killings in 2009, compared with 82 in 2008.
There was an increase in efforts by paramilitary groups to exert social control over communities living in poverty through the mass distribution of threatening leaflets. In 2009, CINEP recorded 83 such threats distributed in many parts of the country, compared with 58 in 2008.
The Justice and Peace process
Only around 3,700 of the 31,000 paramilitaries who had allegedly demobilized since 2003 had participated in the Justice and Peace process by the end of 2009. However, the whereabouts of many of these were unknown. The Justice and Peace process allows former paramilitaries to benefit from reduced sentences in return for confessions about human rights violations. Some paramilitaries confessed to human rights abuses and implicated others, including people in politics, business and the military. However, the process still fell short of international standards on the rights of victims to truth, justice and reparation.
Some 90 per cent of those who were demobilized continued to escape effective investigation as a result of Decree 128 and Law 782, which grant de facto amnesties to those not under investigation for human rights violations. In June, Congress approved a law to regularize the legal status of 19,000 supposedly demobilized paramilitaries after the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that they could not benefit from amnesties. The law authorized the Attorney General to suspend, interrupt or abandon investigations against them, thus enabling them to evade justice.
In July the Supreme Court annulled on procedural grounds the sentence handed down in March by the Justice and Peace Tribunal on the paramilitary Wilson Salazar Carrascal, alias “El Loro”. By the end of the year, no paramilitary had been sentenced under the Justice and Peace process.
Most of the 18 paramilitary leaders extradited to the USA on drug-trafficking charges refused to co-operate with the Colombian justice system in its investigations into human rights violations. Colombian judicial officials experienced difficulties in gaining access to the few who did agree to co-operate.
Some paramilitaries returned a small portion of the 4-6 million hectares of land stolen by them, but there were concerns that some of these lands could again fall under the control of such groups or their backers. Some of the few original owners whose land was returned were threatened or killed.
Victims or their families participating in the Justice and Peace process, those accompanying them, and judicial officials investigating human rights violations were threatened and killed. This dissuaded many victims from participating in the process.
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 the killing of civilians, the recruitment of children and hostage-taking.
Widespread use of anti-personnel mines by the FARC continued. In 2009, more than 111 civilians and members of the security forces were killed and 521 injured by landmines.
The FARC launched indiscriminate attacks in which civilians were the main victims.
- On 13 January, the FARC launched an attack using explosive devices in the urban centre of Roberto Payán Municipality in Nariño Department. Six people died, including three children.
According to government figures, the overall number of kidnappings fell to 213 in 2009, from 437 in 2008. Most kidnappings were attributed to criminal gangs, but guerrilla groups were responsible for the majority of conflict-related kidnappings.
On 21 December, the FARC kidnapped and killed the Governor of Caquetá Department, Luis Francisco Cuéllar.
In February, the FARC released several high-profile hostages. Among them were Sigifredo López, a Deputy in the Valle del Cauca Assembly, who had been held captive since 2002; and former Governor of Meta Department Alán Jara, held since 2001. That same month, the FARC also released three police officers and a soldier.
There was some progress in key human rights investigations, but impunity for human rights violations remained a serious concern.
- In November, retired army General Jaime Uscateguí was sentenced to 40 years in prison for his part in the 1997 Mapiripán massacre in Meta Department.
- In September, the Council of State upheld a 1995 ruling by the Office of the Procurator General dismissing General Álvaro Velandia Hurtado and three other officers from the army for their involvement in the enforced disappearance, torture and killing of Nydia Erika Bautista, a member of the M-19 guerrilla group, in 1987.
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders, especially those working in more remote areas, were threatened and killed. Community leaders were at particular risk of attack. At least eight defenders and 39 trade unionists were killed in 2009.
Death threats targeting human rights and social activists and organizations increased; most were attributed to paramilitary groups.
Human rights defenders and social activists accused of having links with guerrilla groups continued to face criminal proceedings, often based solely on information from military intelligence files and paid informants. However, long-standing proceedings against some defenders were finally dismissed by the courts. The offices of a number of human rights organizations were broken into and sensitive information stolen.
During a visit to Colombia by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders in September, President Uribe said that human rights work was legitimate. However, high-ranking officials, including the President, continued to make statements linking such work with support for guerrilla groups.
US military aid
In 2009, the USA allocated some US$662 million in military and non-military assistance for Colombia. This included US$543.5 million from the State and Foreign Operations funding bill, of which US$305 million was earmarked for the security forces; 30 per cent of this was conditional on the Colombian authorities meeting certain human rights requirements. In August, US$55 million in security assistance withheld in 2008 was released following “positive steps” by the Colombian government on human rights. By November 2009, US$19 million in security assistance funds from 2008 and US$31 million in security assistance funds from 2009 was being withheld by the US Congress because of ongoing human rights concerns.
The report on Colombia of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, published in March, stated that, although the government had made efforts to combat extrajudicial executions, serious violations of human rights continued to take place. It expressed concerns about continued statements by government officials linking human rights defenders and social activists with guerrilla groups; human rights abuses by guerrilla groups; and the serious risks to the civilian population posed by “illegal armed groups that have emerged since the paramilitary demobilization”. The report also stressed that few victims of human rights violations had been accorded their rights to truth, justice and reparation.
In March, the UN Human Rights Council formally adopted the outcome of the December 2008 review of Colombia’s human rights record under the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The government made a commitment to comply with most of the recommendations, including urgent implementation of the full recommendations of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
UN Special Rapporteurs on the independence of judges and lawyers; on human rights defenders; on indigenous people; and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions visited Colombia during 2009.
On 1 November, the declaration made by Colombia under Article 124 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, by which Colombia had declared that for seven years it did not accept the jurisdiction of the Court with respect to war crimes, came to an end.
Amnesty International visits/reports
- Amnesty International delegates visited Colombia in February, July, September and October.
- The Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó Humanitarian Zones – Communities in resistance in Colombia
- The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó – Communities in resistance in Colombia
- Everything left behind: Internal displacement in Colombia