The Internal Armed Conflict in Colombia
(Translated by Rudy Heller, a CSN Volunteer Translator, and edited by Teresa Welsh, a CSN Volunteer Editor)
Colombia, located in the upper northwestern corner of South America, has close to 46 million people. It has a vast natural and cultural wealth — including Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The country has been involved in an internal armed conflict for over 60 years. Legal armed groups (the National Army and the Police) and illegal armed groups (revolutionaries, paramilitaries and common criminals) seek to control geostrategic regions or belts. The lack of a State presence and the precarious socioeconomic conditions favor penetration by illegal armed actors into the regions and exacerbate the vulnerability of the civil population. In Colombia, basic rights are seriously and systematically violated. These attacks against civilians are characterized by forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions, forced displacements, threats against life and limb, and many other serious violations of human rights. So much so that the NGO Coordinación Colombia/Europa/Estados Unidos, reported recently that between 2002 and 2009, 3183 cases of extrajudicial executions took place.
The Local Context: Soacha
Just Southwest of the capital city, Bogotá, lies Soacha, with 363,019 inhabitants. Unemployment is at 22%, twice the national average of 11.8%. Due to its geostrategic, economic and political relevance, Soacha is part of a corridor that connects several states (called departments in Colombia) to the South, making it easy for illegal armed groups to pass through it. The guerilla group FARC and their counterparts, the paramilitaries, have seen the opportunity to expand their structures and activities into urban areas, especially areas known for precarious living conditions and low State presence. In fact, the lack of a state presence, socioeconomic problems and lack of security favor penetration by unlawful groups and increase the civil population’s vulnerability.
In addition to people from impoverished and excluded sectors, Soacha is a city with many people who have been forcibly displaced or demobilized from illicit groups. Between 1993 and 2003, Soacha’s population grew by 58%. Women single-heads of household also increased by 28%. These families not only experience the traumatic geographical, cultural and socioeconomic changes caused by forced displacement, but they also are subject to rejection, pressures and stigmatization by armed groups. These displaced people are very vulnerable and are the object of threats, persecution, attacks, homicides, torture, retention. And in the past few years, forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions.
Background and Requests for Protection for Serious HR Violations in Soacha
The forced disappearances of youngsters in Soacha began in January 2008, although the local ombudsman, through the Early Alert System, reported on May 31, 2007 in Risk Report No. 12, that there was evidence of illegal groups in the municipality of Soacha, state of Cundinamarca. They were intimidating the civil population and especially threatening and harassing youngsters. At first, indicated the report, there were attempts to recruit them into illegal groups. That is why the Early Alert was activated, to create awareness of the high risk to the civil population ran and looking towards the adoption of preventive measures. On June 28, 2007 the CIAT met, but did not activate the Early Alert.
On December 3, 2007 the SAT of the Ombudsman issued Follow-up Note No. 048 which highlighted the presence of illegal armed groups in the period after the paramilitary AUC demobilized in Ciudad Bolívar and Altos de Cazucá. This caused problems between the authorities and members of the civil population when defining the difference between common criminals and paramilitary groups. They tend to mingle and mix, and at times their affairs seem common and shared. Other times, they engage in violent confrontations.
Despite the risk reports and follow up notes, both of which implored the National and District authorities to implement measures to protect Soacha’s civil population, the Colombian authorities never activated the EARLY ALERT.
How Colombian Civil Society Learned of these Serious Human Rights Violations
In January 2008, many relatives of the young victims of extrajudicial executions in Soacha and Bogotá began a tireless search for their loved ones. They filed complaints at the Prosecutor General’s Office (fiscalía), searched in hospital, morgues and prisons; all to no avail. In August and September 2008, several relatives of victims who had left photos of their disappeared relatives at the National Forensic Institute, were called to see photo albums of some people who the National Army had reported as fallen guerillas, dead in combat and buried as No Names in common graves in the municipality of Ocaña, in the department of Norte de Santander. At that time, mothers and relatives of the disappeared went to the medical examiners offices and confirmed that the youngsters who had disappeared in Soacha were the same people found in common graves in Ocaña. That attracted the attention of the press to what later came to be known as the story of the “false positives.” Among those victims were Julio César Mesa Vargas (age 24), Jonathan Soto (age 17), Daniel Pesca Olaya, Eduardo Garzón Páez, Jaír Leonardo Porras (all 26), Elkin Gustavo Verano (25), Julián Oviedo (19), Diego Alberto Tamayo (25), Víctor Gómez Romero (23), Andrés Palacio (22), Joaquín Castro Vásquez (27), Jaime Estiven Valencia Sanabria (16), Jaime castillo Peña (38), Alexander Garzón Arenas (35), and Daniel Alexander Martínez (24).
At first the media related the story of 11 youngsters from Soacha, victims of extrajudicial executions, and later it became known that they were 17. The number of incidents denounced by inhabitants of Soacha is much greater, but official reports have not been filed for fear of retaliation.
After finding the common graves and other irregularities during the investigation, the government expelled 25 people from the military, including three generals. This decision was made public on October 28, 2008, at a press conference run by President Álvaro Uribe and General Freddy Padilla, head of the Armed Forces. This event caused mixed reactions and messages, including one from General José Joaquín Cortés, one of the generals retired after the false positives were made public. He stated that he tried to warn about the penetration of drug traffickers in the troops in Ocaña but he was removed from his post without being able to present his findings. The former Commander of the Army’s Second Division also stated that there were indications that this penetration was not just by drug traffickers but also by smugglers, and it involved two or three squads and was at the level of sargents, commanders, second lieutenants and lieutenants.
The Road to Death
The Soacha case is one of the most iconic of what has come to be known as the “false positives” and perhaps opened the door to reveal that these were not just isolated cases but a problem that is prevalent nationwide.
In the investigations of the forced disappearance and subsequent extrajudicial execution of the 17 youngsters from Soacha and Bogotá reveal “the road to death” which began in Soacha, south of Bogotá and ended in Ocaña, very close to the Venezuelan border.
According to mothers and relatives, the assassinated youth had never expressed any intention of leaving Soacha. Due to their precarious economic conditions, several of them had never even been outside of Soacha, and that is the reason why nobody understands how the Army argues that the youth were killed in combat, particularly if you consider that the places where the Army reported combat are more than 14 hours away from Soacha and the autopsies show that the victims were murdered 2 days after their disappearance. These times can be confirmed with the last sightings of the victims and proves that these young men were never away from Soacha and their families for any length of time. There was no time for these youngsters to receive military training and be part of the illegal groups.
The investigations that have taken place during the judicial process have shown that the military had contact with a band of recruiters who deceived the youngsters with false promises of employment to get them to move to Ocaña, lured by promises of work. They moved to Ocaña where the recruiters then turned the youngsters over to the military. The military took their ID cards and simulated encounters in order to report their deaths as guerillas gunned down during combat.
Family members of the victims have stated that they had brief cell phone conversations with the youngsters the day after they disappeared. They indicated that they were in Ocaña, that they had been arrested but that they would return soon. Long after the youngsters’ deaths had been registered, family members continued receiving telephone calls from the cell phones that the youngsters had with them when they disappeared.
Family members retraced this road to death. They left Soacha and went to Ocaña to recover the bodies of their children. They found decomposed bodies, some in plastic bags, others buried in the nude.
How These Serious Crimes were Carried Out
The IG’s Office revealed that in most cases the youngsters were lured to Ocaña with false employment promises by recruiters who then turned them over to members of the Army as soon as they arrived at the Transportation Terminal in Ocaña. Most victims were taken to a house owned by one of the members of Ocaña’s Fifteenth Brigade, where they were kept under lock and key. They were subsequently taken out in private vehicles and taken down intermunicipal roads. The military set up false inspection stations where the victims were told to hand over their ID cards. They were then moved to another vehicle and taken to the place were they were ultimately assassinated. All of these youngsters were buried as “No Names” and their bodies were identified by their family members 6 months after their disappearance. It has been established that the military involved paid the recruiters $200,000 pesos (approx. USD 100) for each youngster.
Who were these Young Men who Disappeared and then were Reported as “No Names” Killed by the Colombian Army During Combat
Most victims were youngsters of precarious socioeconomic backgrounds, many of them heads of households who held informal jobs or worked in the construction industry. This made them very vulnerable and easy prey for the bands of recruiters who knew that any offer of employment would be attractive to them. This offer was also the perfect pretext to get these youngsters to travel to distant places such as Ocaña without arousing suspicions. These youngsters were in no position to reject job offers as they were always looking for anything that would improve conditions for their mothers and relatives. This was precisely the argument used by the recruiters to deceive their victims.
By living in one of the areas with the greatest number of displaced people, where crimes are committed often as a result of the region’s social deterioration, the recruiters thought that the disappearances would not be noted. They certainly never thought that the entire nation would be concerned. That is why they went to different neighborhoods in Soacha to recruit youngsters to later be sold as chattel to the Army. The recruiters also thought that because these were very low income people they would never find legal representation nor would they denounce these crimes or raise any kind of an alert about these serious crimes. As a result, these grave violations would be considered isolated incidents.
Most of the victims had close ties to the Soacha community because this was where they worked and lived with their families. The families have indicated that they were friendly boys with hopes and dreams to move forward, to have meaningful jobs, to be good workers despite having no access to healthcare, education nor formal jobs. Many of these youngsters had had to mature and to take on serious responsibilities at a young age because they came from single parent homes with their mothers as heads of household. So as a result it is the older sons that take on the role of father who must care for their younger siblings.
It is important to point out that several of the victims had steady jobs in Soacha and some were also going to school. Two of the victims were minors and one had a mental disability so that although 26 years old, his mental capacity was that of an 8 year old. These facts combined with the other evidence, counteract the Army’s assertion that the victims were part of armed and illegal groups, and that they had traveled to other cities to join up with criminal gangs.
Threats Against the Victims’ Families
Several relatives of the victims have denounced to different government authorities that they have been objects of threats and harassment. They have been told to stop their accusations and their involvement in the legal processes. They have been told that if they do not desist, they will be murdered. Some of the victims’ relatives have had to move in order to protect their lives. They still continue receiving threats, and are aware that they are often being followed on their way to and from work and home.
Given the frequency of the complaints of threats and harassment by the victims’ relatives, the Ministry of Interior (through its Protection Program) has assigned them material protection, including providing them with cell phones. These were given on May 4, 2010. However, two days after that, one of the relatives began receiving threatening calls to that phone demanding that she remove the SIM Card that had been given to her. These facts were brought before the office of the Ombudsman in Soacha and also before the National Police.
To date, the victims’ relatives have no knowledge of any progress made in their denouncing of what has happened.
• The investigations of the homicides of youngsters in Soacha and Bogotá were initially carried out by military criminal justice (with the resulting limitation in bringing forward evidence). Several cases have stagnated for over a year in the files of military criminal investigation authorities.
• Despite the fact that 17 of the victims were from Soacha and Bogotá, and that they disappeared and were murdered in similar circumstances, the investigations of these events were split up and assigned to different jurisdictions. Some were removed from the Bogotá area and were sent to faraway cities like Cúcuta, Bucaramanga and Cimitarra, making it impossible for the relatives of the victims to help out in the investigations or to be in touch with the investigating officials.
• Colombian law establishes terms for the criminal processes to move forward. However, in the Soacha cases, these timeframes have been ignored. Thus, some of the members of the military who had originally been detained have been released because the terms for detention have expired.
• There has been an unjustified delay in the development of hearings, which has kept the victims’ families from having timely access to judicial decisions regarding the events.
• Hearings are regularly suspended and continued for 30 and 45 days, which again results in keeping the authorities from reaching timely decisions.
• The disturbance of crime scenes has also been a systematic factor in the case of extrajudicial executions, particularly in the simulations of the supposed military encounters. Add to this that in most cases it was members of the military who did the initial analyses of the cadavers. It resulted in the impossibility of collecting evidentiary materials that could clear up the facts.
• Two years after the events, criminal justice and discipline continues to avoid providing definitive decisions regarding these cases.
• Of the 25 members of the military who were removed from office in October 2008, none have been processed criminally nor have they even been connected in any way to these very serious crimes.
• Despite the fact that these processes have been remitted to the appropriate jurisdiction of civilian justice, because there should be no jurisdiction within the military because of the gravity of the violations of human rights, the members of the military who were initially detained were kept in military quarters, where they were afforded special benefits.
Recommendations to Move the Soacha Cases Forward
• The Prosecutor General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la Nación) should define as soon as possible the petition to transfer the investigations that were filed in Cúcuta and Bucaramanga, to the National Human Rights Unit and the DIH in Bogotá.
• The Fiscalía General de la Nación should guarantee the means needed for the relatives of victims to have access to the State’s information on the status of the investigations, particularly in those cases in which the investigations are not taking place in Bogotá.
• The investigative judges who become aware of delaying tactics and procedural misconduct by defense attorneys, should process the corresponding paperwork so that the appropriate disciplinary measures are started.
• Prosecutors, judges and a judicial police team should be designated to support and foster the investigations with the purpose setting close dates for all the hearings that need to take place.
• The judges in charge of quality assurance must keep in mind that the members of the military that are ordered for detainment by the prosecutors must not be held in military districts but in regular places of detention, where they are to remain until they face the crimes for which they are being investigated, knowing that these are serious violations of human rights.
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