Colombia and the Challenge of Sexual Crimes

(Translated by Stacey Schlau, a CSN Volunteer Translator)

July 2, 2010 

The new government of Colombia should deal with the increase in the number of murders, sexual assaults, and threats against women.


By Humanas Corporation and LolaMora Productions


Lola Mora Productions: Do you know of demobilized paramilitary personnel who have become police officers?

A woman in Puerto Limón, Department of Putumayo: We understand that some police officers   were members of the AUC. This is one of my greatest fears. Lately what we have seen are threats against girls. They made them a military objective because of being seen with the police or the army. They received threats by cell phone; they had to move away.

Interviewed March 2010 1


The Democratic Security policy of outgoing President Alvaro Uribe Vélez marks eight terrible years related to guaranteeing women’s human rights in Colombia. Neither the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces nor Law 975 nor the Law of Justice and Peace (2005) have fulfilled expectations of truth, justice, and reparation for victims of sexual crimes. In Colombia, as in Iraq, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sexual violence against women is a strategy of war, a tactic to destroy the enemy. Although few call it that, the reports published in the last six years about human rights in Colombia prove that all the armed participants in the conflict are responsible for committing sexual crimes against women and girls. International organizations have alerted the European Union about the scope of the rapes.


In the past five years, various organizations and women’s groups in Colombia have increased pressure to name sexual crimes as crimes against humanity; to recognize that sexual violence has become a systematic and generalized practice. Very quickly, these organizations have been subject to threats, [in documents] signed either by paramilitary groups that have not been demobilized or by new armed splinter groups from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Women and their struggles have become an intentional objective of the violence carried out by armed groups.2


The Re-Engineering of the Paramilitary Groups

They are called the Black Eagles. They make all kinds of threats. They do not hide. They are the children of the AUC, which ended in 2006 with 30,000 members, of which 6% were women. Of these people, 10-15% wound up as criminals, as generally occurs in all the processes of the DDR3 in the world. This is a universal rule, according to Eduardo Pizarro, President of the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (CNRR). The same thing happened in Ireland, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Angola. Between 3,000 and 4,000 demobilized paramilitaries have returned to their criminal activities. The Organization of American States (OAS) has confirmed at least 22 new armed groups in the [battle for] territorial control of cocaine export and arms dealing.4


Human Rights Watch (HRW)5 has found that the effects are devastating. Currently, the new groups have a terrible impact on the humanitarian situation and on human rights in Colombia. They habitually carry out attacks against civilians and atrocious crimes that include massacres, executions, and rapes. HRW holds them responsible for the increase in forced displacement: 150,000 annually, according to a document the Committee for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights of the United Nations published recently.6


Other organizations define the process as re-engineering of the paramilitaries: “It is not a secret to anyone that in these areas micro-structures were maintained that allowed territorial, social, economic, and political control over some strategic zones. And beforehand, they recruited young men from the ghettos of the largest cities,” says the Carlos Pérez Collective Corporation of Attorneys.7


Paramilitary groups have again gotten involved in the Colombian conflict, in defense of the same interests: basically, the control of routes and trafficking in cocaine and arms, and the taking over of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities’ lands. Pizarro states that up to now, between four and five million hectares have been abandoned by these communities. In Colombia control over land reflects several goals, such as developing large-scale agriculture for export (sugar, palm oil, and other grains used in making bio-fuels), exploiting natural resources (water, coal, oil, uranium, etc.), and obtaining concessions for profitable projects to develop roads, energy, and electricity, planned in the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America initiative (IRSA).

The European Union (EU) and the United States government have been directly advised of serious violations of human rights. In May, days before signing the Free Trade Agreement between the EU and Colombia, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)8 requested that negotiations be suspended because “there is evidence that members of the government have been implicated in grave violations of human rights . . . Among them, the security forces have been implicated in assassinations, threats, arbitrary arrests, sexual crimes, and serious violations of the human rights of Afro-Colombians and indigenous people.”

Femicide Is Ignored

Silence, fear, taboo . . . all words that take attention away from a reality that has not been invented: the situation of women’s rights is critical. Between 2003 and 2007, sexual crimes increased, according to the Report on Sexual Violence and Femicide in Colombia, presented to the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights.9 The organizations that signed this report say that the numbers do not even remotely reflect the violence that women experience in Colombia, partly because “this violence rarely appears in autopsy reports.” Genica Mazoldi of the Legal Option Corporation notes that sexual crimes are committed with the backing of impunity and that “as long as impunity persists, it is very difficult to imagine that women will file charges of sexual violence as a weapon of war.”

Gloria Tobón, of the Humanas organization and the Network of Women, highlights the fact that the Law of Justice and Peace (passed in 2005) has allowed the open naming of sexual violence and “fear has begun to be felt a little.” Nevertheless, of the 14,576 charges filed with the Prosecutor’s Office under this law, only .4% are for sexual crimes.

The low number of charges of sexual crimes corresponds with the absence of guarantees that armed groups will submit to justice and intimidation; the last Report of the Task Force on Women and Armed Conflict10 affirms that there are obstacles that contribute to discouraging filing charges: “lack of recognition of women as subjects with rights and as victims; lack of confidence in state institutions; fear of being stigmatized and becoming victims again; naturalizing of violence; fear and silence; lack of knowledge or lack of information.” The federal Attorney General’s Office has also stated its concern “about the precariousness and insufficiency with which information is handled, and confirms the low level of technical skill of sources at the departmental level.”

The model of transitional justice adopted in Colombia , in order to allow for a process of paramilitary demobilization and national reconciliation, seems to have achieved the opposite: it has placed victims at a disadvantage when confronting perpetrators. While paramilitaries have had access to lawyers and economic aid for their reintegration, women do not count, either in terms of information or in terms of guarantees to move judicial processes forward.

In the Rural Regions: The Return of the Paramilitaries and Domestic Violence

What for the CNRR is a historic step, for others is a process filled with traps, gaps, and systematic errors.11 Paramilitary demobilization has normalized the modus operandi of these groups because it has meant the return of old assassins to the communities. Since 2007, some demobilized men have re-made their lives; others, thousands, have returned to bearing arms. The return has meant for women that the perpetrators continue exerting control over their lives and their bodies. The testimony presented to the CIDH in 2008 notes that “femicides committed by armed men in Colombia have increased, with signs of torture on the bodies of women,” and they aver “that when demobilized men return to their families, domestic violence has increased in those homes.”

Sometimes, what is ignored in the capital city is an open secret in the jungle regions. In the interior, the policy of Democratic Security has not stopped crimes against women and children either: Putamayo is an example.

This is a department that borders on Ecuador, torn apart by violence and the authorities’ abandonment, where women tell stories of murders and disappearances that were never prosecuted. “My youngest daughter was disappeared by the AUC. I have kept my mouth shut for eight years, without being able to ask for mercy or anybody’s help.” This woman, who prefers not to reveal her name, lives in the town of La Hormiga, and she filed a complaint about the disappearance about a year and a half ago. If she did not do it before it was because “we didn’t dare to do anything because we were threatened so severely.” To this date, she has not had an answer.

Gloria Tobón says that it is in these areas that the conflict is lived most harshly: “The majority of the victims are there, the leaders persecuted and the women questioning the war.” The continuum of sexist and gendered violence is a product of the last demobilization. “In the 90s and now, girls are subject to abuse at home, in school, and in the streets,” states Rocío Calvache, a psychologist who practices in Puerto Caicedo, Putumayo, and who has coined the term normopathy, to describe the behavior of apparent normality that both men and women in Colombia use to cope with the violence and horror.

Free Testimony

Normalizing when confronting crime is not pathological, but rather a product of impunity or injustice. This is how the low numbers of charges filed and the continuum of violence are explained. If a crime is not confessed, it is as though it did not exist. There is no victim, so therefore there is no justice. This seems to be the logic that guides the modality of free testimonies given to the paramilitaries who participated in demobilization [The option of Free Testimony given to these paramilitaries is the opportunity to receive a lighter sentence in return for freely confessing without being questioned by a judge]. It is a fact: in these confessions without interrogation or investigation they omit crimes of sexual violence.

The recent history of universal and transitional justice has brought to light a perverse mechanism of defense of those listed as war crimes or crimes against humanity: any massacre or atrocity against the civilian population will be confessed by the accused before an individual or collective sexual crime. The gaps in Colombian paramilitaries’ confessions follow the same tendencies as those of their counterparts in ex-Yugoslavia or in the hearings of the people’s tribunals of the gacaca in Rwanda.

These are the contradictions of a crime that, in a patriarchal environment, is encouraged and not judged as it should be. The Law of Justice and Peace and the rewards for paramilitaries who confess do not respect Resolution 1325 of the United Nations, because they impose trivial sentences on those guilty of crimes against humanity—this is the case of the sexual violence perpetrated by some paramilitaries who are now demobilized—between three and eight years in prison for voluntarily confessing their crimes. There are organizations ready to knock at the door of the International Criminal Court because “many crimes against humanity perpetrated against women by armed men are going through the system, and we women are working in organizations; it is a space we have and that is very important,” says Gloria Tobón of the National Network of Women, “May sexual violence be judicialized, those guilty punished, and reparation effective,” she concludes.

On the international front another kind of pressure is being exerted. Oxfam International has asked the European Union for a zero tolerance policy regarding violations of human rights in Colombia, “especially sexual crimes against women in the areas of armed conflict.” Zero tolerance should include the demand to investigate, judge, and sanction those found guilty and compensate the victims, because those in the affected regions do not forget. Luisa Margarita Gil Olaya, Coordinator of programs for those affected by the conflict for the New Rainbow Corporation, says, “if we do not recognize here that there is a phenomenon of victims or violence that has impoverished us, we will not be able to continue the nation building project.”

*The Humanas Corporation and Worldcom Foundation-LolaMora Productions have since 2006 run an international campaign, “Challenging the Silence: Media Against Sexual Violence”:
1.- The testimony and interviews for this article were gathered by LolaMora Productions in Putumayo and Bogotá en March 2010,

2.- Sisma Mujer received a threatening letter at the beginning of 2010, which said: “We are not a new group. We are the Black Eagles and we are here. We are the army of social restoration.”

3.- Processes of Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration into civilian life for war combatants.

4.- Caramés, A. y Sanz, E. DDR 2009. Analysis of the existing DDR programs in the world during 2008. Bellaterra: Escola de Cultura de Pau, 2009.

5.- Report: Inheritors of the Paramilitary Groups: The New Face of Violence in Colombia, Human Rights Watch, 2010.


7.- Collective Corporation of Lawyers Luis Carlos Pérez, Report on the Situation of Rights of Victims in North Santander (1999-2008), Colombia 2008.


9.- Report: Sexual Violence and Femicide in Colombia, submitted to the Interamerican Comission for Human Rights, by Casa de la Mujer (Women’s House), Mujeres que Crean (Women Who Create), Ruta Pacífica (Pacific Route), and Vamos Mujer (Let’s Go Woman). Washington, October 23, 2008.

10.- IX Report on sociopolitical violence against women, youth, and girls in Colombia. Mesa de Trabajo Mujer y Conflicto Armado (Task Force on Women, Work, and Armed Conflict). December 2009.

11.- Caramés, A. y Sanz, E. DDR 2009. Analysis of the DDR programs in the world during 2008. Bellaterra: Escola de Cultura de Pau, 2009.

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