The Colombian Government on Extrajudicial Executions: No Answers. Cimitarra River Valley, an Emblematic Case
Organización campesina del Magdalena Medio que construye la Zona de Reserva Campesina del Valle del Río Cimitarra. Premio Nacional de Paz en 2010.
Organización no gubernamental defensora de los derechos humanos.
On March 25, 2007, in the rural area of the municipality of Remedios, Antioquia department, troops from the Calibío Battalion of the Colombian Army’s 14th Brigade -under the command of Lieutenant Castellanos and Sergeant Palomino - captured two young local residents, one of whom escaped. The other, Carlos Mario García, 21, remained in the soldiers’ custody. The community demanded that the Army release Carlos Mario, and what it received was the young farmer’s lifeless body, presented as a "guerrilla fighter killed in combat."
On Sunday, Jaunary 27, 2008, Miguel Ángel González Gutiérrez left his farm. On his way out, he was intercepted by patrol from the Calibío Battalion. The same soldiers later killed him, justifying his death as a casualty of combat. Miguel Ángel was a well-known rural leader. He was also the son of Miguel Ángel González Huepa, a leader of the Peasant Farmer Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC) arrested eight days earlier (and currently facing prosecution on charges of alleged "rebellion") due to his activities as a rural leader and human rights activist.
According to the report by the observation mission on extrajudicial executions in Colombia, organized in October 2007 by the Coodinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos (a coalition of 117 Colombian non-governmental organizations that work to promote and defend human rights), approximately 1,000 of these killings were committed between July 2002 and June 2007. This represents an increase of 65.51 percent over the period from 1997 to mid-2002. The most affected Colombian department are Antioquia, with 183 victims, Valle del Cauca, with 53, Arauca, with 40, and Guajira, with 36.
The members of the mission met with the vice minister of defense, the director of the military justice system, the Public Prosecutor’s Office delegate for human rights, the national human rights ombudsman, the assistant attorney general, the president of the Constitutional Court and the president of the Disciplinary Tribunal of the High Council of the Judiciary. All showed supposed interest and seriousness in the issue.
At the same time, the Public Prosecutor’s office is currently filing a number of disciplinary proceedings against state agents linked to extrajudicial executions. But only 11 of 670 cases of crimes between 2002-2007 have resulted in convictions. As such, the assistant attorney general told the mission that it is trying to clarify the events in a quick and timely manner, but would not recognise the fact that many investigators decline to take on these cases.
The Defense Ministry’s guidelines must also be taken into account. These establish sanctions for members of the military who commit such crimes, pointing to the fact that attacks on civilians provide no military advantage, and committing to give full support to criminal and disciplinary investigations in the event that such excesses occur.
Nevertheless, the high rates of killings of innocent civilians, who are later made to pass as guerrillas killed in combat, the testimony of victims’ relatives or witnesses to the events, and the results obtained in the investigations carried out by the Prosecutor’s and Attorney General’s Offices and, show that the Defense Ministry’s parameters for protecting human rights and international humanitarian law are not being applied in practice.
In the first place, those responsible, instead of facing charges, have obtained promotions and other rewards, due precisely to all the "kills" they have achieved. In addition, the majority of these cases have been taken on by the military justice system. This not only makes the prompt clarification of the event more difficult, it also intimidates and creates fear among many witnesses or family members when the time comes to testify. Many of these trials occur in military facilities.
The central government’s response to the revelation of these facts, which have provoked condemnation throughout the international community, has been completely hostile. In March 2008, the Washington Post published an article on the rise of extrajudicial executions in the country during President Uribe’s two terms in office (citing reports by human rights organizations and United Nations investigations), reporting that "under intense pressure from Colombian military commanders to register combat kills, the army has in recent years also increasingly been killing poor farmers and passing them off as rebels slain in combat, government officials and human rights groups say."
After the article’s publication, which sparked national and international controversy, justice minister Carlos Holguín rejected the accusations, saying that the report’s claims were part of a strategy to discredit the successful work being done by the armed forces, and that what the organizations making such denunciations are really seeking is to bring Colombia before international tribunals and thus receive more funding.
He also claimed, in these very words, that "people have always talked about this; that when a guerrilla dies they come out saying that he was a saint, that he was a worker or farmer, but the truth is these stories are getting repetitive."
The worst part of this terrible scenario is that claims such as Holguín’s or the vague answers given to the observation mission during its visit not only allow for a higher level of impunity toward these crimes (as they demonstrate the lack of interest in facilitating more and deeper investigations). They also end up delegitimizing and stigmatizing, in the public eye, the human rights organizations’ work to demand that the government give true guarantees for truth, justice and comprehensive reparations.
This reality affects the residents of rural areas, who directly and permanently suffer from the armed conflict, most severely. One of the most serious situations is that of the Cimitarra River Valley, where the Colombian Army has perpetrated the extrajudicial execution of at least 15 peasant farmers that have been presented publicly as guerrillas killed in combat (see table 1) from 2002-2008. Currently, the Peasant Farmer Association of the Cimitarra River Valley is facing state persecution that includes the illegal suspension of the Rural Agricultural Reserve (a measure taken to protect small, traditional farmers) in 2003, legal charges against its leadership based on fabricated evidence, the forced disappearance of four civilians from rural areas during the same period (see table 2), threats and the theft of their possessions by soldiers, among other mechanisms of repression.
The persistent human rights violations, especially extrajudicial executions, remain in impunity, creating a state of permanent unease for the region’s rural population.