How can I bring you, dear reader, more news of grief and regret, when common words form a gulf of such pain? No one wants to be a singer sounding one note only. But what should be done with the abundant information tying our nation to tragic events?
José Álvaro left his 14-year-old daughter Jenny Torres to take care of her two younger brothers Jimmy, 9, and Jeferson, 6, on October 14, while he worked on a nearby farm in Tame, Arauca. He left a cell phone with her, but after she didn’t answer several calls, he went home and, not finding them, reported their disappearance.
The children’s bodies were found the next day in a shallow grave with signs of strangulation and knife wounds. Jenny Torres’ body showed signs of rape. Army Lieutenant Raul Muñoz was arrested last week for the crime and for another rape of a teenage girl in the area committed on October 2. Two colonels and other officers from the same army unit have also been suspended.
Lt. Muñoz belongs to the 45th Counter-guerrilla Battalion, which is part of the 5th Mobile Brigade. The battalion and brigade have been approved for U.S. assistance every year since at least as far back as 2003 through last year.
The military, for the most part, has reacted responsibly, aggressively investigating, isolating a suspect unit, and turning evidence over to civilian agencies. However, the commander of the Army’s 18th Brigade, General Rafael Alberto Neira Wiesner which operates in the same state and received much U.S. aid from 2002-2008, initially urged a local leader to condemn the community group investigating the crime as “playing the game of the guerrillas.” After evidence indicated Muñoz’s culpability, General Neira met with the children’s father, José Álvaro Torres, to apologize. Torres said no one could pardon this crime.
The United States, by law, should have cut off assistance to the 45th Counter-guerrilla Battalion, in 2005, after the Jesuit human rights group Center for Popular Research and Education reported the killing by 5th Mobile Brigade troops of nine-year-old Karly Johanna Suárez Torres in November 2004. Members of the 5th Mobile Brigade reportedly committed five more killings of civilians in 2007, but aid continued to flow. The State Department recently informed our partners at US Office on Colombia that assistance to the 5th Mobile Brigade has been suspended.
A European Union-supported study found that girls in Arauca live in constant fear of getting caught in combat and of sexual violence by soldiers and members of other armed groups. In April of this year, the human rights group Humanidad Vigente reported the rape of another girl in the area by army troops, reportedly of the 18th Brigade. That is the context in which Lt. Muñoz committed his crimes.
How is it that the United States can assist a battalion at least seven years in a row and not identify and address this kind of psychopathic behavior? What was the United States teaching the 45th Counter-guerrilla Battalion? In the new Congress, where Republicans now control committees in the House and Democrats in both chambers act in fear, who will ask these questions of those in the State Department and MilGroup who might have answers?
In another part of Colombia, an Army officer, Edgar Iván Florez Maestre, testified last December about “legalizations” — calculated killings of civilians, for pay, that were then claimed as guerrillas killed in combat. The killings were carried out by members of the ”˜Calibio’ Battalion and, according to the soldier’s testimony, coordinated by the battalion commander, at that time receiving U.S. assistance. But a colonel he named as coordinating these macabre killings has never been investigated. In fact, Colombia’s current attorney general has said more than once that he will not prosecute higher-level commanders implicated in such killings.
Usually hidden inside military experience, there is transformation here. Some soldiers, like Florez Maestre, have spoken out about the abuses they have witnessed (and in some cases participated in). “I want it to be known that they talked to us of human rights and legality knowing that on the other hand they were doing bad procedures, so there was a double morality,” Florez Maestre said. “I want all this to become public.”
His sorrow is a seed for something quite different, a better path. To get on that path ourselves, we need to resolve our own double morality. Jenny Torres and her brothers won’t come back, but by not looking away, by working to end these wars, we help prevent more pain and degradation like that of the Torres family, of Raul Muñoz, and of those U.S. officials who put aside the abuses of the 5th Mobile Brigade to keep preparing its soldiers for war.
The narrative of Colombian suffering at the hands of US-aided soldiers is long, varied, and deep. Most of us try to turn it off sometimes. But some people can’t turn it off — the family and close friends of those killed or disappeared, the perpetrators, those accompanying the victims, investigators who take their jobs seriously.
I am thinking of professional soldier John Quirama. He has been based in the eastern Colombian state of Vichada for the last several years. This week, on the Colombian news program Noticias Uno,Quirama denounced the participation of his battalion in the extrajudicial killing of 22 people in 2007 and 2008, and in a drug trafficking organization led by the most wanted criminal in Colombia, Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero Castillo, alias “Cuchillo.”
The killings were “false positives” of civilians who had been recruited for nonexistent job, then executed by the battalion and claimed as guerrillas killed in combat. Two of them were demobilized guerrillas, according to Quirama, combatants who had turned themselves in on faith in the government’s offers to remaking their lives, then killed.
The soldier had denounced the crimes to a regional attorney general’s office, but nothing had happened and instead he had received threats by officers in his unit.
The 43rd “Acevedo” Battalion that carried out these acts is part of the 28th Brigade, the army unit with jurisdiction in Vichada. Both the 43rd Battalion and 28th Brigade received US assistance in fiscal year 2007-08, precisely the period when the battalion committed the crimes denounced by Quirama. The battalion and brigade were approved for US assistance again in the subsequent two years. It isn’t known if they are still approved to receive assistance.
The more than 3,000 extrajudicial killings reportedly committed by the army analyzed in our recent report, “Military Aid and Human Rights,” did not include the killings denounced by Quirama. The data compiled from Colombian government and human rights organization sources showed seven killings in Vichada, five of which occurred in December 2006 in Cumaribo, the town where the 43rd Battalion is based, but witnesses had not identified a military unit for any of the killings.
Quirama is one of several courageous lower-ranking soldiers who have publicly spoken out about killings committed by their units. Lifting up that courage is as important as calling on the State Department to cease all assistance to the 28th Brigade until these reports are fully investigated and those responsible brought to justice.
The U.S. Department of State announced today that Secretary of State Clinton has certified progress in human rights in Colombia. The action released tens of millions of dollars of funding for the Colombian military, despite worsening impunity for thousands of civilian killings attributed to the army and strong opposition by Colombian and U.S. human rights organizations.
“The Colombian government has taken positive steps to improve respect for human rights in the country,” the State Department said. U.S. officials apparently feared “losing” the funds, in effect rewarding a worsening human rights record with certification.
Colombia “has taken a significant step backward during the last year-long certification period, particularly in failing to bring human rights crimes by security forces to justice,”eighteen human rights organizations wrote earlier this month. The certification is especially destructive because even in the most high-profile cases of army murders, previous progress was reversed: in the San José Peace Community massacre, and in the killings for pay of young men from Soacha, soldiers on trial for participating were released earlier this year.
Certification requires progress in dismantling paramilitary groups, yet these groups have grown in the last year, now operating in 600 of 1,090 municipalities. The certification also flouts a new condition on respect for human rights defenders: 26 defenders have been killed in the last year, nine of them May alone, and threats to defenders have risen exponentially.
Certification expends some of the U.S. Government’s leverage to strengthen respect for human rights in Colombia. But the State Department has another decision pending that will reflect human rights priorities: approval of Colombian military units for U.S. assistance.
U.S. officials are reportedly studying the FOR report on extrajudicial killings and military aid, as they determine which army units the United States will support in the fiscal year that begins October 1. FOR and others are pressing the State Department to respect the law this time.
By the Youth Network of Medellín (Red Juvenil de Medellín)
The National Army continues irregular recruitment of youth in the streets of the city.
Public forces represented by the Colombian National Army, disregarding all the constitutional norms and rights contained in the international treaties that regulate the right to personal liberty, continue to perform the so-called batidas or redadas, which are prohibited in the universal system of human rights and in the Interamerican system. [The Public forces] ignore the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the United Nations’ statement on three Colombian cases, and continue depriving the liberty of youth that walk the streets towards their workplace, school, or those simply present in a public space, to take them to battalions, ignoring due process, established in Law 48 of 1993; this practice has become a common act wherein the army holds a batida and take youth to complete their military service.
For this, the Youth Network of Medellin wants to publicly denounce the following acts:
Due to the aforementioned actions, and because of the obligations of the State to defend and guarantee human rights, human dignity and liberty, we make the following demands:
Equally, we invite all young people from different spheres of life and non-violence to continue resisting this context of militarization, and social and community organizations to continue supporting us and denouncing these cases.
Youth Network of Medellín
Fifteen peace, human rights, religious and solidarity organizations in the United States called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week to comply with the law and “act decisively” to suspend aid to all units implicated in killings that remain in impunity.
The letter gave detailed information on Colombian Army units aided by the U.S. and reportedly responsible for hundreds of extrajudicial killings. U.S. legislation known as the Leahy Law prohibits U.S. aid to foreign military units credibly reported to have committed gross abuses unless those responsible have been brought to justice.
Citing official investigations and nongovernmental human rights reports, the letter notes that aid to commanders and intelligence groups within a unit that has a pattern of abuses constitutes aid to the whole unit, and that assistance to those commanders and intelligence groups should be suspended.
The letter said the units described “represent only some egregious examples” and cited United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston as stating that “There have been too many killings of a similar nature to characterize them as isolated incidents carried out by individual rogue soldiers or units.”
The groups also urged Clinton to publish required reports on foreign military training, as the State Department is nearly three years behind on that reporting.
The letter was signed by Fellowship of Reconciliation, U.S. Office on Colombia, Washington Office on Latin America, United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, Alliance for Global Justice, Open Society Foundations, and nine other groups.
Download the letter here. For more information, contact John Lindsay-Poland, Fellowship of Reconciliation, johnlp[ at] forusa.org.
December 16, 2010
April 9th marked the seventeenth anniversary of the killing of Manuel Cepeda Vargas, a Colombian Senator with the left-wing political party Union Patriotica (UP). For the first time, this year there was formal recognition of the wrong that occurred nearly two decades ago. This is a result of a 2010 ruling by the Inter American Human Rights Court that found the Colombian state responsible for the killing of Cepeda Vargas, and which ordered it to “organize a public act of acknowledgment of international responsibility for the facts”.
The April 9th solemn act, held in Congress and presided over by the Colombian Interior Minister, was quite remarkable. In a country where 98% of human rights crimes pass without a conviction, on behalf of the State, the Minister accepted responsibility and asked forgiveness.
The most remarkable aspect of the April 9th solemn act, however, were the terms under which forgiveness was granted. The son of the leader and now Congressman, Iván Cepeda, on behalf of his family delivered a moving speech in which he discussed authenticity and requests for pardon, and the meaning of granting forgiveness:
“A petition of pardon in situations in which crimes against humanity have been committed is a solemn act. To be authentic, it requires unambiguously admitting the facts, showing willingness to investigate them, naming to whom the request is addressed, publicly acknowledging the damaged caused, and expressing a commitment not to repeat similar actions in the future.”
Iván Cepeda accepted the Colombian state’s recognition of its responsibility as “an act of hope that we will together build a peace in Colombia, based on democracy and justice”. He concluded by saying “It is important to ask forgiveness and to forgive, but it is even more important to ensure that in our homeland no more crimes are committed for which the Colombian state must ask for forgiveness and for which the victims must forgive.”
The Union Patriotica, a political party established in 1985, was the result of a 1984 peace negotiation process between the FARC guerillas and the Colombian government, in which former guerillas and their supporters came into peaceful politics. Its supporters saw it as an engine to create the economic, social and political transformations required for peace with social justice. Despite success in the polls, the UP became the target of a systematic assassination campaign, primarily led by the Colombian armed forces in alliance with paramilitary groups. Over 5,000 Union Patriotica members were killed, tortured, or forcibly disappeared over the past twenty-five years. Manuel Cepeda Vargas was the party’s last member of Congress.