Colombia+20, EL ESPECTADOR, June 12, 2022

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

A report presented to the JEP by the Colombian Jurists Commission  states that the Attorney General’s Office has identified members of the Colombian Army, Police and DAS[1] that have participated in crimes against human rights defenders between 1985 and 2016. That is what has happened in this country in three decades.

Agents of the now-defunct DAS and of the Colombian Army and Police  participated in crimes against human rights defenders between 1985 and 2016, according to information from the Attorney General’s Office. According to investigators in the Office, there are 484 government agents who have responsibility in several cases. Of those, 415 are involved in different formal criminal charges.

The Colombian Jurists Commission (CCJ) based the report it filed with the JEP last May 26 on this information. The report is titled “The ‘internal enemy’: dehumanization and impunity against people defending human rights”. Colombia+20 has seen the document in advance of the official report in which the CCJ characterized the crimes committed by the Colombian government in two decades.

In the report, the human rights organization complained that for 31 years, up until the signing of the Peace Agreement, the areas of the country where there were the most violent acts, such as threats, displacements, intimidations, and homicides against human rights defenders and leadership were Antioquia, Bogotá, Arauca, Norte de Santander, Atlántico, and Cesar.

The most violent year

 The highest level of violence in these three decades was registered in 1997. In that year, 1,471 social leaders complained of threats against them, especially those leaders who were doing some type of political work. Those included 1,330 individuals. Next highest was human rights activism, with 39 cases, and third was the labor union sector with 32.

It was just in 1997—a year in which there were also local elections in Colombia—that the political violence intensified, especially in departments where guerrilla and paramilitary groups were present. Human Rights Watch documented at that time that in the first eight months of that year there were at least 35 massacres in this country. Twenty-seven of them were carried out by paramilitary groups, and eight of them were committed by the FARC guerrillas.

Another piece of evidence is that in Antioquia alone that year, 566 cases of threats by illegal armed groups against social leaders were documented.

That was also the time that the secret agent and Assistant Director of the DAS, José Miguel Narváez, made the public statement saying that, “Most of the subversives are unarmed and infiltrated or disguised among the common people.” Also around that time, the Colombian Army’s 20th Brigade, in charge of intelligence, emphasized that only “15% of the subversives are actually armed. The remaining 85%, according to the military, are unarmed and are fighting the war politically.” This was documented in the CCJ report submitted to the JEP.

According to the researchers, the participation of the national government, especially by military officers or the Armed Forces, in crimes against human rights defenders at that time was indirect, and related to the stigmatization of their social roles. “The prosecutors postulated as a hypothesis that the stigmatization exercised against individuals and groups of human rights defenders led to considering them to be “a support to the subversive organizations or an obstacle to the government’s position in the war on the insurgency,” states the report.

Beyond the threats, according to the CCJ data base on sociopolitical violence, the homicides were the second kind of attack most often committed against the human rights defenders, with 290 cases in that whole year. Starting then and until 2003, the figure never went below 300 killings per year. A year later, in 2004, homicides were reduced to 214 cases. The kinds of leadership most affected in the country at that particular time and in scenarios of election violence were political leaders, also labor union leaders, and finally, community leaders.

In the Attorney General’s Office right now there are 184 investigations (of which only 161 are active) in which there is evidence of participation by government agents in the crimes. Two of those investigations were transmitted to the Military Criminal Justice system, 13 more were disqualified, and the rest were placed on file, or their statute of limitations had run.  For the CCJ, this inaction by the legal system represents a pattern of impunity, “which is explained by the few or nonexistent investigations done to seek evidence in context, and by the investigations of the victims that were done instead.”

Historic events

The Colombian Jurists Commission documented some activities taken against well-known human rights defenders that took place after 1979. Between that year and 1983, the Colombian Army arbitrarily arrested and tortured the lawyers of political prisoners Sebastián Arias, Manuel Martínez, Julio Pachón, Alfonso Salamanca, Luz Valencia, and Jorge Franco.

In 1981 there was the murder of Luis Anibal Tascón, the leader of the Katío indigenous people, and in March of 1982, the group called Death to Kidnappers murdered Cipagauta Galvis, the legal representative of political prisoners and other victims of crimes by the government. In that same year were the homicides of Alberto Alava and José Adolfo Caicedo, both defense attorneys for political prisoners. In March of 1983, José María Agudelo, also a lawyer, disappeared.

After 1983, reads the report, they documented the murder of Ignacio Mustafá, a labor union consultant. “In 1985, these arbitrary arrests by the Armed Forces were recorded: one of them was Ramón Castillo, the attorney representing the Urabá Human Rights Committee. He was arrested, beaten up, and violated by members of the National Police.”

A year later there is a documented case in which Ramón Emilio Arcila, an attorney and social leader in Marinilla (Antioquia) in connection with a series of demonstrations where he was seized and held for a week by the Police. In 1987, according to the report, was the case of José Francisco Ramírez, a civic leader and a former leader of the Patriotic Union Party. He was killed by military officers. In that year, the cases of Luis Fernando Vélez, Carlos Gónima were registered. Both of them were human rights defenders and were murdered. And also the case of Alirio de Jesús Pedraza, who was forcibly disappeared on July 4, 1990.

On that point, the investigation concludes that “the victimization of lawyers and judges between 1979 and 1991, and the violence against lawyers was connected with the human rights violations in this country. It found that the homicides and attacks against legal professionals present a different dynamic for three periods, leaving a total of 105 acts of violence.”

One of the conclusions in the report is that up until 1990, the role of the government’s agents in some of these cases was indirect. That means, done by accusations and stigmatization, and then the ones who carried out the crimes were the paramilitary groups. One of those cases is that of Martín Calderón Jurado; he was a consultant to the Committee for Solidarity and Defense of Human Rights, and also President of the National Association of Campesino Borrowers. On October 8, 1988, he was intercepted on a road that leads to Chitagá (Norte de Santander) by a group of paramilitaries, who killed him, firing 50 shots. That leader had already complained of threats and stigmatizations that came from members of the Colombian Army.

The violence in the ‘90’s

Even though between 1991 and 2001 the political panorama of the country changed after the new Constitution, the report that the CCJ furnished to the JEP specifies that the human rights situation in Colombia got worse. The human rights defenders were the object of threats on their lives, through telephone calls, anonymous notes, and in-person threats.

“They were told that they would have to abandon their work or suffer the consequences. Then, the attacks and extrajudicial executions of them were common events in Colombia. People that defended human rights were the victims of baseless criminal investigations, usually supported by intelligence information from the Colombian Army, but with no relation to any evidence that would connect the human rights defenders with illegal armed groups. Besides that, several organizations complained to the Commission that the government’s intelligence staffs were carrying out intelligence activities that opposed their human rights work,” states the report.

For the period of 1990-1995, the Inter-Church Commission for Peace and Justice documented 51,439 violent actions taken against leaders. Of those, 4,736 were murders. There were also the forced disappearances of 1,088 people, 569 acts of torture, 1,148 threats, and 5,024 arrests. The majority of those murdered were members of political organizations; next were labor union leaders, civilian and popular organizations, campesinos, indigenous people, human rights organizations, and students. To analyze this period, the report explains that, “Since 1993, we included the alleged responsibility of the armed actors, showing that between 1993 and 1995, not only paramilitaries but also agents of the Colombian government participated directly in the social-political violence toward people that were threatened, harassed, murdered, or disappeared, without the government providing the necessary guarantees for them to be able to carry out their work of defending and promoting human rights.”

During that period, human rights organizations reiterated the imminent risk that members of Asfaddes (Association of Families of Detained and Disappeared Persons) were experiencing, as in 1992, they were victims of accusations, threats, harassment, and attacks.

That organization, also known as Collective 82, was the first one in the country to complain about the forced disappearances of labor leaders and student leaders in Bogotá. At first, it was by agents of the now-defunct F2, a Police intelligence agency in the ‘80’s.

One of the cases considered by CCJ to be most emblematic was the case of Angel Quintero and Claudia Monsalve, both leaders and human rights defenders in the group of families of the victims of disappearance. In October of 2000 in Medellín, both of them were accosted by armed men who forced them to get into an SUV to make them disappear. Investigations of this crime have turned up information that both of their telephone lines had been intercepted illegally by personnel from the Urban Gaula[2] in Medellín. At that time, Lieutenant Mauricio Santoyo Velasco was part of the Gaula. Years later he was promoted to the office of Secretary of Security in the President’s Palace of Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

In the administration of Álvaro Uribe Vélez

The Policy of Democratic Security was commenced in those years. According to the CCJ report, the result of that was an increase in the registration of human rights violations attributed to government agents. It also involved the civilian population in the armed conflict, without regard for the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants. In that period there were 958 attacks on social leaders, beginning with threats (663 cases), followed by murders (124), arbitrary arrests (101), attempted killings (44) among other kinds of victimization.

Those most responsible for those crimes committed between 2002 and 2010 were the paramilitaries, with 521 attacks. Unknown or never identified persons are responsible for 199 cases, followed by agents of the government, with 192 attacks in those eight years. Later, it was documented that the guerrillas were responsible for 44 cases, and one case was perpetrated by a foreign agent. At the same time, as reported by the Commission, the department with the most victimizations was Santander, then Bogotá, then Cauca, and Valle, Antioquia, Arauca, Meta, and Atlántico, to mention some of them.

For its part, the CCJ emphasized that, “During that period the government promoted a hostile context, by means of stigmatizing claims and implementation of a policy of espionage and stalking by intelligence agencies.” In the document, they specify, for example, that between January of 2002 and December of 2009, at least 110 people were murdered; 11 of those had been forcibly disappeared. “In those cases we were able to identify the participation of the government in 43% of the cases (63 victims). Of those, there was direct perpetration (9 victims) and omission, tolerance, or support of paramilitary groups (54 victims),” reads the document.

In fact, they specify that this period was the one in which the most threats to social leaders were registered. Between 2000 and 2005, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which receives complaints from the whole continent, received 44 cases from Colombia, which led the Commission to determine that those activities are being “directed to cause generalized fear and, as a consequence, discourage other human rights defenders, as well as to frighten and silence the complaints, demands, and claims from the victims, thus feeding impunity and impeding the full realization of the Rule of Law and Democracy.” One of the most violent of those eight years was 2008, when 40 murders of labor leaders and 16 murders of teachers were documented.

To try to mitigate the crisis being experienced at that time, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, in a visit to this country in 2009, reported that there had been 39 communications to the national government, warning of the imminent risk that human rights defenders were experiencing with the elevated number of homicides, disappearances, and threats.

The situation in the Santos administration

For the period of 2011-2016, just before the signing of the Peace Agreement with the FARC, according to the Somos Defensores (We Are Defenders), this administration did not protect the rights of social leaders, “because, during those years, the attacks never diminished and, on the contrary, they increased year after year.” They explain that, in fact, of the 2,244 attacks registered in those five years, “there was impunity in 100% of the investigations.” Besides that, they explain that in this period there were other different kinds of attack, such as sexual violence, the arbitrary use of theft in the penal system, and theft of sensitive information. For the first time in the report, two cases of sexual violence are documented, as well as 34 cases of theft of information.

Even though at this time there had already been a demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, according to this document, “2014 was the year with the most reports of attacks by paramilitary groups. This finding is important because it shows that the paramilitary phenomenon in this country did not end with the demobilization of those organizations.” According to the researchers, the groups that still remained in the country and called themselves paramilitaries, such as the AGC (Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or Clan del Golfo) were the ones responsible for 1,673 attacks that year. The next highest number of attacks was by unknown or unidentified persons, 726, and after that, agents of the government with 269 cases.

“There is one constant in the paramilitary violence from 1996 until 2006. In that time, the years with the most attacks were 2004 and 2003, with 401 and 400 cases respectively. That figure was diminishing as the groups began the process of negotiation with the administration of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, as follows: in 2005, 295 cases; in 2006, 136 cases. The lowest point in the paramilitary violence against social leaders and human rights defenders from July of 1996 to December 31 of 2015 was in 2007, when there were only 65 cases,” the document explains.

However, beginning in 2011, according to the researchers, the figure began to increase again, going from 166 cases in 2011 to 249 in 2012. A year later, in 2013, there were 384 events, and in 2014 there were 657. “This peak in the number of attacks went down in 2015 to 313 cases. Nevertheless, the figure is similar to those seen before the demobilization, so it’s important to analyze the process of demobilization, laying down arms, and reintegration of the groups, to see whether that eliminated paramilitary violence or whether, on the contrary, the paramilitary organizations continued to operate in the country.

Violations against social leaders and human rights defenders were registered in 87 municipalities in 23 departments, with 536 victims identified. The departments of Antioquia, Bogotá D.C., Arauca, Norte de Santander, Atlántico, and Cesar are the ones that registered the most violent acts, with 57.6% of the cases occurring between 1985 and 2016.

According to the CCJ researchers, that data cannot be analyzed as “the simple personal attitudes of public officials involved in the investigations, given that these cases have had, up until the present time, governmental policies that support not only the ideas in themselves, but also taking actions that led to the consolidation of their plans.”

That’s the reason that they furnished the document to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace at this time, so that the Court could study the possibility of opening a subcase or an investigation branch regarding violence against human rights defenders in Colombia in the Macrocase they will open soon with relation to the concentration of criminal activity in the Armed Forces.

[1] Department of Administrative Security, abolished in 2012

[2] GAULA:  Unified Action Group for Liberation of Persons, part of the Colombian Army.

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