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Wednesday, May 1, 2013
This post is cross-posted with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund's LAWGBlog. It was written by LAWG-EF Program Assistant Ruth Isabel Robles.
As President Obama prepares to sit down for meetings with President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico and other fellow elected leaders from the Americas at the Summit of the Central American Integration System (SICA) in Costa Rica, over 145 civil society organizations from 10 countries throughout the Americas, including the Latin America Working Group, sent a letter to their respective presidents urging them to address their concerns regarding the dire human rights crisis in the region.
Citing an increase in violence and human rights violations, the letter calls for a shift away from the failed militarized security policies which have exacerbated violence and human rights concerns in the region towards policies that address the root causes of violence...
A common practice throughout Latin America has been the use of the armed forces for citizen security tasks, a practice justified as necessary to combat organized crime and drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). However, the undersigned organizations call for a shift away from such policies that promote an inappropriate role for the military in the region, including those supported by the U.S., noting that these policies have played a harmful role and contributed to an increase in human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces.
In Mexico, this militarized response and lack of accountability for security forces has led to the deaths of over 80,000 people in the past six years with more than 26,000 disappeared. While in Guatemala, rates of violence are similar to those seen during the internal armed conflict, which, according to the letter, jeopardizes the peace process and fragile democracy built on the 1996 Peace Accords. But, "the starkest example of a breakdown of democratic institutions" can be found in Honduras where "the rule of law has disintegrated while violence and impunity have soared."
The imposition of large-scale extractive projects on marginalized communities is also a point of concern discussed in the letter. Free Trade Agreements have exacerbated poverty and inequality throughout the region resulting "in forced displacement, especially of indigenous, peasant, and Afro-descendant communities."
These civil society groups urge leaders to come together and generate policies to address the root causes of migration. Flawed regional security policies and the imposition of mega development projects have led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, leaving countless in the Americas with few options other than to migrate. As the debate for immigration reform gets underway in the U.S. Congress, civil society groups from across the Americas call for humane and sensible immigration reform to address the policies that force individuals to migrate in the first place.
To address the human rights situation discussed above, the organizations urge their respective officials to make concrete progress on the following measures:
An executive action taken on behalf of the United States to stop the flow of assault weapons and other firearms across the U.S.-Mexico Border
Recognize and protect human rights defenders
Propose a new model for security cooperation that provides alternatives to the ongoing war on drugs, such as regulation rather than prohibition, strong regional anti-money laundering efforts, and withdrawal of the armed forces from domestic law enforcement. They call on the U.S. government to end military aid and instead direct resources towards strengthening the institutionalization of the rule of law in these countries.
Promote development through democratic dialogue with respect for human and environmental rights
Address the root causes of migration and stop the criminalization and deportation of migrants; investigate and prosecute crimes against migrants as they travel through Mexico, as well as human rights violations at the border and within the United States
Although media reports and early statements indicate that many of the discussions will focus on economic cooperation, this letter is a clear statement from civil society that human rights priorities must be squarely on the table as well.
To read the letter in English, click here.
To read the letter in Spanish, click here.
Monday, March 11, 2013
The day after the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the country’s defense minister, Adm. Diego Molero, twice called on Venezuelans to vote for Chávez’s handpicked successor, Acting President Nicolás Maduro. Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles called Adm. Molero a “disgrace” for openly backing a candidate. A New York Times analysis notes that Maduro, who never served in the armed forces, must contend with “arguably the most powerful pro-Chávez group of all: senior military figures whose sway across Venezuela was significantly bolstered by the deceased leader.”
In December and January, the first two months of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government, Mexico’s Army killed 161 “presumed criminals” as part of its role in fighting organized crime. Nine soldiers were killed. In an early February discussion with Defense Minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, legislators said “the spirit of the Army is not to be in the streets patrolling,” but that “until the problem of insecurity is resolved,” they would likely have to stay there.
Gen. Cienfuegos may not have been President Peña Nieto’s first choice for defense secretary, alleges a February 4 New York Times investigation, which claims that the United States expressed strong misgivings about the actual next-in-line for the job, Gen. Moisés García Ochoa. Nearly two weeks later, the State Department denied that it had sought to block Gen. García.
In one of the Peña Nieto government’s first security policy changes, 10,000 Mexican soldiers and marines will form a new mobile federal constabulary police force, a “National Gendarmerie,” before the end of the year.
Mexico’s human rights ombudsman (CNDH) “recommended” 109 cases of alleged human rights abuse to Mexico’s Defense Secretariat (SEDENA, which comprises the Army and Air Force) during the 2006-2012 government of President Felipe Calderón. Of these, SEDENA claims to have closed 63. Only two have resulted in soldiers being convicted. SEDENA led all government agencies in 2012 with 15 new CNDH “recommendations.”
Guatemalan prosecutors requested a copy of the Guatemalan Army’s “Table of Organization and Equipment” for 1982 outlining the institution’s lines of command in a year in which it committed massive numbers of human rights violations. Citing reasons of “sensitivity” for national security, Guatemala’s Defense Ministry refused
to hand over the document — which would be important in prosecutions of past abuses — saying it would be secret for seven more years.
Correction as of 6:00PM EDT: The document was released to prosecutors only, but will remain unavailable to the public for seven years. (Source: the Guatemalan daily ElPeriódico, with a hat tip to Cascadia Solidaria blog.)
The abrupt transfer of judge Mariana Mota is likely to delay or derail many cases against former Uruguayan officers accused of human rights abuses during the country’s 1973-1985 military dictatorship. Shortly afterward Uruguay’s Supreme Court, which transferred Judge Mota, then struck down a legal change that sought to overturn a 1980s amnesty law.
A column of Chilean marines caused a small uproar in late January after its members were filmed chanting that they would “kill Argentines, shoot Bolivians and slit the throats of Peruvians.”
Two top Ecuadorian Army generals resigned their posts over an eight-day period in February, apparently due to discontent over the promotion of three colonels to the rank of general.
Ecuadorian Defense Minister María Fernanda Espinosa said that the government of President Rafael Correa tripled the country’s defense budget between 2007 and 2012.
“It is necessary that we have the highest participation of women [in the armed forces], above all when the commander-in-chief is a woman,” said Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. “Perhaps we’ll have a female general soon. I hope before my term is over.” An overview by Spain’s EFE news service notes that Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua Paraguay, and Uruguay all allow some degree of women’s participation in the armed forces, though usually not combat. Colombia’s army just graduated the first five female officers to have command over male soldiers.
Defense officials from Peru’s last government are under a cloud of corruption suspicions surrounding a contract with an Israeli company hired to provide military training.
Retired Gen. Hugo Pow Sang was named to head Peru’s military justice system, although he currently faces two civilian judicial proceedings for alleged corruption.
A December 2012 poll by M&R Consultores found 85.67 percent of Nicaraguans “trusting” the country’s army, with 91.4 percent supporting the Nicaraguan Army playing a role in “the fight against international narcotrafficking” and “organized crime.”
When Nicaraguan Education Minister José Antonio Alvarado was moved to head the Defense Ministry, asks El Nuevo Diario columnist León Núñez, was it a promotion or a demotion? “Political analysts who view it as a demotion say that in the Defense Ministry there is nothing to do, except read newspapers, sleep, drink coffee, put up with giving the occasional obligatory talk, and be on hand for occasional events.”
Friday, January 11, 2013
Amid the political crisis surrounding ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s absence, a few analysts have sought to measure the mood within the country’s armed forces. Ewald Scharfenberg at Spain’s El País sees three principal factions, which he calls “ideologues,” “pragmatists,” and “institutionalists.” Alfonso Ussia of Spain’s La Razón calls them “officialists,” “unionists” and “institutionalists.” Rocío San Miguel of Caracas’s Control Ciudadano think-tank warns that Vice President Fernando Maduro is not in the chain of command, and that with Chávez out of contact the armed forces are currently “orphaned.”
The Mexican Army’s and Air Force’s involvement in fighting organized crime is an “atypical situation” that “cannot, and should not, in any way, be prolonged.” The author of that phrase is surprising: Gen. Guillermo Galván, who served as Mexico’s secretary of defense until last December. Gen. Galván wrote the preface to a book on the fight against organized crime published by Mexico’s Secretariat [Department/Ministry] of Defense.
19 officers who graduated Peru’s military academy in the same year (1984) as President Ollanta Humala, a former officer, are now generals holding key army posts. This is a record.
Former soldiers of El Salvador’s army, veterans of the country’s 1980s civil war, blocked main roads — including border crossings with Honduras and Guatemala — to demand pension payments. Last year the Salvadoran government approved a US$50 monthly stipend to former members of the FMLN guerrillas over 70 years of age.
A “serious setback in human rights” and “incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights” is how the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, in a January 4 statement, characterized Colombia’s December 28 approval of a constitutional amendment that will send many more human rights cases to the military justice system, which has a strong tradition of lenience toward accused soldiers.
The infosurhoy.com website points to a regional poll by the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty (FLACSO) showing strong Latin American support for involving the military in internal missions. Of 9,057 people surveyed in 28 cities of 18 countries, 84% supported giving armed forces a role in fighting narcotrafficking, and 83.2% (86% in Mexico) favored a role in fighting organized crime. 85% — 91% in Brazil and Ecuador, 73% in Paraguay — oppose abolishing the armed forces. 77% see no risk of a military coup in their country.
Argentina’s vice-president, Amado Boudou, rang in the new year in Gonaïves, Haiti, accompanying Argentine infantry troops stationed there as UN peacekeepers.
The Nicaraguan Army’s “Ecological Battalion” has set up five posts in Nicaragua’s northern Caribbean coastal region, a sparsely populated zone susceptible to narcotrafficking activity. The posts, which will operate for three months, are a response to a request from 200 local farmers concerned about worsening security.
Thursday, January 3, 2013
President Hugo Chávez said that if he can't govern, he wants Vice-President Nicolás Maduro (left) to succeed him. But National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello (right), a former army officer, may have more support from the military. (Photo source: Associated Press
On January 10, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is supposed to be in Caracas, being sworn in for a new term in office. But Chávez continues to convalesce in Havana, his condition “delicate,” in the words of Vice-President Nicolás Maduro, following another cancer operation.
With the country’s political leadership uncertain, and concerns about possible instability growing, eyes are turning to Venezuela’s armed forces. But the military’s current and potential political role is difficult to understand, especially after 14 years of rule by President Chávez.
Some of the most thoughtful analysis of the Venezuelan armed forces in the current crisis is coming from Ewald Scharfenberg, the Caracas correspondent for Spain’s El País newspaper.
Here are some excerpts from Scharfenberg’s recent writing, which I’ve found helpful in trying to understand what is happening. The first two paragraphs are from a January 3 article published in English; the rest are translated excerpts of Spanish pieces published on December 30 and January 2.
Venezuela’s military is constitutionally neutral but Chávez has packed its leadership with loyalists. The military plays an important role in running the country, particularly its oil industry. There are three members of the armed forces in the cabinet, while 11 of the 23 provinces are run by army men. Retired military officers say there are deep divisions within the armed forces. But they believe many of the roughly 8,500 rank-and-file officers who form the core of the 125,000-strong military would accept the voters’ choice.
In the run-up to October’s elections, the chairman of Venezuela’s joint chiefs, General Wilmer Barrientos, said on national television that the military would “heed the constitution and respect the will of the people.”
The military’s advantage: not arms, but manpower
In any scenario, the military’s sign-off appears to be indispensable. Not so much because of its firepower, but because of the logistical and administrative control that the armed forces maintain over vital state functions. … Chavismo, as it learned during 14 years of governing, was able to give shape to an institutionality that functions: the misiones [economic assistance projects], the food distribution networks [both of which relied on military participation]. …
If the military sector wants to influence Venezuela’s political drift, it won’t have to do it in a high-profile way, through a classic pronouncement. It would be enough to put that [logistical and administrative] apparatus at the disposal of one of the succession candidates, while denying it to the other. This is the trophy that, along with the mythology of comandante Chávez, [Vice President Nicolás] Maduro and [National Assembly President Diosdado] Cabello are disputing. If at the moment Maduro has an advantage because Chávez specifically named him as his successor, the long term could favor Cabello [a former army officer]. The majority of army officers currently commanding the troops are part of the military academy class of 1987, the same as Cabello.
A possible “Egyptian Scenario”
All that is known of the military sector is that it is an archipelago of groups united by criteria of loyalty to specific leaders, of economic convenience, and of professional and ideological principles.
There is a consensus that all those groups will be united in the event that the transition starting January 10, when Hugo Chávez is expected to be unable to present himself for his 2013-2019 swearing-in, overflows institutional capacities, and that the need to establish public order through dissuasion or force thus demands esprit de corps.
But that would be the nightmare scenario. In general, the officer corps prefers to avoid open interventions. Since February 27, 1989 [a day of violent protests and rioting in Caracas], on the occasions in which it has been obligated to carry out repressive functions, the cost for the institution has been high, in terms of cracks in internal discipline and of judicial cases opened against soldiers who then feel abandoned by the civilian politicians who ordered them. In addition, such exposure would place the military under the scrutiny of the international community, which has enough cases of illicit activities and human rights violations at its disposal to pressure some key officers.
So the role that the armed forces would be expected to play would be a type of “Egyptian scenario,” in which the officers, behind the scenes, would define the “red lines” up to which indefinition and disorder can be tolerated. The armed forces’ watchful tutelage, amid a constitutional transition of power, would require it to reorder itself internally to figure out who among them would be the leading voice for its supervisory role.
Factions within the officer corps
Who are the contenders? It is certain that the factions most likely to represent military opinion during the crisis maintain their loyalty to the Bolivarian [pro-Chávez] process, whether because of political conviction or because of a more abstract loyalty to the letter of the constitution. Nonetheless, nuances can be discerned that set apart three groups, which in a very schematic way can be called “ideologues,” “pragmatists,” and “institutionalists.”
Of the first, the current representative is the minister of defense, Adm. Diego Molero. It is meaningful that Chávez, knowing the health situation he was facing, named him to the post last October. Why trust in Molero at such a delicate moment? Maybe because of his declared socialist convictions. According to some sources, Molero’s appointment met with resistance in the barracks. He is an officer with few professional credentials — he ranked 53rd of 56 students in his military academy graduating class — and without support among the troops. … Chávez’s illness leaves him in a position of weakness. In fact, the President only swore him in on December 10, two months after his designation, and minutes before Chávez left for Havana to be operated. Which left the leader without an opportunity to legitimize himself among his peers, above all in the Army, which resents having a naval officer commanding such a key portfolio.
Molero was an authentic surprise. Those who seemed destined to occupy the ministry were Army Gen. Wilmer Barrientos, the current chief of the Strategic Operational Command (CEO), and Gen. Carlos Alcalá Cordones, the commander of the Army. The two belong to the class of 1983 and were tied at the time to the Revolutionary Bolívarian Movement-200 (MBR-200), the internal clique that surfaced in 1992 with the coup attempt led by Chávez and three other officers. But while Alcalá Cordones is seen as an institutionalist officer, firmly attached to the parameters of military professionalism, Barrientos may be a pragmatist, of the faction more willing to wait to know which way the wind is blowing before taking a side. …
It is also expected that the eleven retired officers recently [in December] elected as state governors will play some role. In addition to the personal influence that each one may have over the rank and file, especially the generals (like ex-Ministers of Defense García Carneiro and Rangel Silva, or the Governor of Bolívar State, Rangel Gómez), they are considered connoisseurs of the ins and outs of politics, a bit of baggage that may be crucial in a scenario where bridges must be built between civilians and officers.
Another possibility that can’t be discarded is that, in the darkness of the military “black box,” another unknown leadership may be germinating, as Chávez himself was until the early hours of February 4, 1992 [when he launched his failed coup attempt].
January 10 and after
The first test of fire for the military has a date. On January 10, the new president must be sworn in. Despite the official secrecy about the president-elect’s health, it is expected that Chávez won’t be there. In political gossip some expect an agreement to declare the president’s temporary absence, which would open a space of 90 days, renewable once, so that Chávez can assume the post or, if he is ultimately absent, so that new elections can be convened.
Some doubts about this procedure remain. … But all must transpire in peace: if uncertainty gives way to disorder in the streets, the military may see itself as obligated to intervene.
This possibility, feared by all, could cause fractures within the military rank and file, as happened in April 2002 during the brief coup that removed Chávez from power for 47 hours. “Among the officers are different groups who aren’t necessarily in contact with each other, or share the same interests,” warns the expert Rocío San Miguel [of the NGO Control Ciudadano.]
The other great unknown is the Bolivarian Militia. With 120,000 members, light weaponry and poor organization, it is not a rival to any professional security force. But it was constituted by mandate of President Chávez, and it sees itself as a praetorian guard of the [Bolivarian] process. Tied to the most extreme Chavistas, it may be able to prevail in a conflict. But these are questions that nobody wants to see answered: the constitutional order is preferred by both civilians and soldiers.
Monday, December 17, 2012
This post is cross-posted with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund's LAWGBlog. It was written by LAWG-EF Executive Director Lisa Haugaard
On December 11th, the day after International Human Rights Day, the Colombian Congress approved a justice “reform” bill that will likely result in many gross human rights violations by members of the military being tried in military courts—and remaining in impunity. The bill, along with a separate ruling by the Council of State, unravels the reforms put in place after the “false positives” scandal in which over 3,000 civilians were killed by soldiers.
In 2007, I participated with a dozen lawyers, human rights activists, a forensic scientist and a judge in an International Verification Mission on Extrajudicial Executions and Impunity in Colombia. We heard from witnesses, family members and lawyers about 130 cases of extrajudicial executions committed in seven different regions of the country. These were not about civilians killed in crossfire or with excessive use of force. The stories we heard were chillingly similar: young men who were seen being taken from their homes, farms and streets by groups of soldiers. When their families came looking for them on a military base, these mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers were shown a dead body, now dressed up as a guerrilla. There was their loved one, dead, and called a guerrilla killed in combat.
Now we know that the scandal was far, far worse than we knew then. In 2008 when the Soacha scandal broke, we learned that members of the army were paying criminal “recruiters” to pick up young men whom they thought would not be missed, and delivering them to soldiers to kill in staged battles. When the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Philip Alston, came to investigate in June 2009, he not only documented the enormous scope of the problem, but also noted that soldiers were carrying out these killings for to win incentives such as bonuses or days off. Murder to up their body counts.
The Attorney General’s office is investigating more than 3,000 civilians murdered by soldiers, most between 2004 and 2008. The coalition of human rights groups in Colombia known as the Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos (CCEEUU) has documented 3,512 extrajudicial executions between 2002 and 2010 committed in 31 out of 32 provinces. Of the 80 percent of these cases for which a presumed perpetrator could be identified, 89.2 percent involved members of the armed forces, 8.6 percent the police, and the remainder were from the air force, navy and the prison system. At least 21 territorial brigades and 19 mobile brigades were identified as perpetrators. More than 44 percent of extrajudicial executions were in the zones where the First and Seventh divisions of the army operated.
Under international pressure, the Colombian government put in place some reforms that helped bring the numbers of new extrajudicial executions down dramatically. It established an accord that allowed the Attorney General’s office to investigate the scene of the crime where extrajudicial executions were alleged and make the determination of whether cases should go to civilian or military courts. It began to enforce the Constitutional provision that stated that grave human rights abuses committed by soldiers should be tried in civilian, not military courts, and hundreds of cases were transferred to civilian jurisdiction. But while Colombia did make progress in investigating and prosecuting extrajudicial executions, prosecutions were slow, and higher-level officials under whose command multiple extrajudicial executions took place escaped justice. Indeed, some were promoted.These still limited advances are at risk with the new law. What are the problems with the law?
Which human rights crimes are excluded from military jurisdiction.
The initial version excluded very few crimes from military jurisdiction. After much pressure from Colombian and International human rights groups, the UN, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the U.S. government, the draft law excludes from military justice what sounds like an appropriate list of grave abuses: genocide, crimes against humanity, forced displacement, sexual violence, forced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial execution. That does sound like an improvement. According to the government, the changes will not "generate impunity."
But, as always, the devil is in the details: For example, in Colombian jurisprudence, there’s no official crime listed as “extrajudicial executions.” Most of the “false positive” cases have been tried as “homicides of protected persons,” a crime that is considered a violation of international humanitarian law rather than a human rights violation. Under the new law, violations of international humanitarian law routinely go to military courts. So, not only may new extrajudicial executions be tried in military courts, but many of the false positive cases could be transferred out of the civilian court system into the black hole of military justice. “Sexual violence” is also not a crime, using that phrasing, in the Colombian legal system. Moreover, other gross violations committed by members of the military will now go automatically to military courts, including cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and arbitrary detention.
Who is the first on the scene to investigate potential extrajudicial executions.
It is our understanding that the law gives the military justice system control over the initial investigations. If initial investigations are not handled well, the trail goes cold. Beyond what was established in this law, Council of State just declared void the important agreement between the Attorney General’s office and the Defense Ministry that ensured that the Attorney General would investigate alleged crime scenes for extrajudicial executions and make the initial determination of whether the case would go to military or civilian courts. With these changes, it is much more likely that extrajudicial executions and other crimes committed before execution, including torture, will go uninvestigated.
Who decides where cases go.
The new law sets up a new council (“Tribunal de Garant?as”) that will determine which cases go to military courts, and which to civilian courts, when there is a dispute. Half of the council members must be ex-military. Even if you had the perfect list of human rights crimes that should be excluded from military courts, if the decisions are made by a biased council, wrong decisions will be made.
Where soldiers and officers serve their time.
The new law makes official what has been happening in practice: soldiers and officers accused of the most heinous crimes will serve their pre-trial detention not in prison but in “centros de reclusión,” and those convicted can serve their time either in prison or special military detention centers. Semana magazine uncovered the luxurious conditions at the Tolemaida center, where convicted officials were able to leave for vacations, run businesses and even teach courses for current military members.
A special fund to defend soldiers.
Soldiers accused of grave human rights violations will have a taxpayer-funded defense.
Why the change?
Members of the military have been clamoring for “judicial security,” claiming that they are being unfairly prosecuted and that they need protection in order to carry out their combat duties. The Santos Administration, under pressure from the military, has shepherded this bill through the Congress. In the final debate, 54 senators voted in favor, 5 against. Senator Juan Manuel Galán, the bill’s sponsor, sounded a nationalistic and defiant note: “This bill isn’t a bill for impunity, but here we are not legislating because some international human rights organizations have come to Colombia during the final debate to tell us Colombians, us legislators what we have to legislate.”
Now that the Colombian Congress has taken this huge step backward, what recourse is available? First, the Colombian government has indicated that it could take steps to ensure that “extrajudicial executions” and “sexual violence” be defined in Colombian law, making it thus more likely that those crimes would go to civilian courts. The international community should hold the Colombian government accountable for this. And all eyes should be on the review of alleged extrajudicial execution cases in civilian courts—as we fear that many such killings will get transferred back to military courts.
But major damage to Colombia’s commitment to human rights has been done. The U.S. State Department should withhold military aid, as the new law violates conditions that require that gross human rights violations allegedly committed by the military be tried in civilian courts. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which just removed Colombia from its watch list, could reconsider. And the International Criminal Court, which has been watching Colombia, is another potential point of pressure.
I keep thinking about the mother of a young man who was offered a job as a bricklayer, but who was taken by soldiers and killed. Just in her area of the Caribbean coast, several dozen young men were similarly offered bricklaying jobs, disappeared and killed, presumed victims of soldiers seeking to increase their body counts. These mothers want the bodies of their sons returned to them, with dignity. And they want justice for their sons. The passage of this justice “reform” bill has just made that just demand harder to achieve.
Friday, November 2, 2012
The following links and summaries are some recent news highlights from around the region.
- Last Tuesday, Bolivia's Constitutional Tribunal declared a long-standing law criminalizing defamation of government officials, known as the "desacato" law, unconstitutional for violating freedom of speech. Under the law, individuals can incur a three-year prison sentence for insulting a member of the government.
- Later in the week Bolivian media was abuzz following comments from Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, who warned those who might dare to criticize the president via social media, saying "I am always going online, and I am writing down the first and last names of the people who insult him on Facebook and Twitter." Morales' Movement for Socialism party (MAS) is currently attempting to push through a law monitoring Bolivian citizens' political commentary on digital news sites and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
- Earlier this month, reports revealed the government was harassing journalists from media outlets that reported on government corruption, causing them to flee over fears of incarceration. In a most recent example, a Bolivian journalist was set on fire by four masked men while on air at a radio station in the southern city of Yacuiba, along the Argentine border and a drug smuggling route. Fernando Vidal, 78, was a harsh critic of the local government and was reporting on trafficking in the area at the time of the attack. Vidal along with other journalists have been increasingly denouncing a rise in smuggling across the border, particularly of liquid petroleum gas.
Amnesty International said the attack is "one of the worst instances of violence against journalists in Bolivia in recent years.” Four men have been arrested in the case. Bolivian Interior Minister Carlos Romero along with Vidal's son-in-law, also a journalist, believe two local government officials hired the men.
- In Mexico, workers are protesting after the country's Senate passed through a version of labor reform legislation. Members from the conservative National Action Party (PAN) as well as president-elect Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) supported the bill despite differences over certain details in the law, like the election of union leaders by secret ballot, a provision opposed by the union-friendly PRI party, but was ultimately included in the draft.
Lawmakers say the bill seeks to increase transparency of trade union finances and union leader elections-- the country's two most prominent union leaders (Elba Esther Gordillo of Mexico’s largest teachers’ union and Carlos Romero Deschamps of the Oil Workers Union) won uncontested re-election. Mexican trade unions dominate state industry and their leaders are often accused of corruption. The government says the new reforms will create thousands of new jobs, making Mexico more competitive. Some economists and politicians say the reforms could create upwards of 150,000 jobs a year.
Workers however rose up saying that under the proposed law, it will be easier for companies to fire employees and they will be forced to accept lower wages. Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) called the reform "simplistic," saying it is not the "magic bullet" to create jobs and could harm workers' interests, particularly those in the informal sector who account for 28.8 million of the country's 50 million workers. Congressman in the lower house will now vote on the bill, however the vote has been delayed as the PRI fight to protect union interests.
- The PAN, PRD and Citizens' Movement (MC) parties held a press conference Wednesday where they announced they would form a united legislative opposition front against PRI president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto to fight "clientelistic and corrupt practices" during his six-year term.
- A faction of the Zetas reportedly split off and formed a new group called the Legionaries, according to Insight Crime. A banner hung by the group in Nuevo Laredo in northern Mexico says the organization has a "clear mission to kill people from the Zetas and their families" and their business is "solely and exclusively drug trafficking." The formal split comes following the capture of Zetas leader Ivan Velazquez Caballero, alias "El Taliban" and the recent killing of another head, Heriberto Lazcano, alias "Z-3," whose death was finally confirmed by authorities who used his dead father's DNA to corroborate his demise after Z-3's body disappeared from the morgue.
- Manuel Osorio-Arellanes, from Mexico, pleaded guilty Tuesday in the 2010 shooting of US border patrol Agent Brian Terry. He claimed to be part of a group that crossed into the US to steal from marijuana smugglers and had entered the country the week prior to the shooting to stash guns and food supplies.
- There were massive protests in Colon, Panama last week in response to a government law allowing for the sale of state-owned land to private companies in Latin America's biggest duty-free zone. Three people were killed, including a 9 year-old-boy, prompting groups like Amnesty International to call for investigation into excessive use of force.
After the bill was passed last Friday, protesters from trade unions, student groups and business associations took to the streets, claiming that the sell-off will cause layoffs and a loss of revenue. The Panamanian government has since repealed the law, with assembly president Sergio Galvez saying "An error has been corrected," after the measure passed.
- A free-trade agreement between Panama and the US was entered into force on October 31, meaning that about 86% of US products will now enter the country tariff-free. The agreement was signed by former President George W. Bush in June 2007 and approved by Panama’s parliament the same year. The U.S. Congress did not ratify the agreement until October 12, 2011, held up with concerns over labor rights and tax laws for U.S.-based corporations in Panama. Opponents of the agreement said it would normalize Panama’s status as a the second-largest tax haven in the world and allow it to remain conducive to laundering money from criminal activity, creating vulnerability to terrorist financing, as was cited in a 2006 Wikileaked memo. President Obama signed the treaty into law on October 21, 2011.
- Last Monday was the final debate in the US Presidential elections, covering foreign policy. There was virtually no mention of Latin America, causing analysts, politicians and voters to express dismay with both candidates.
- Some saw the lack of discussion about Latin America as a positive sign. In a press conference after his meeting with Hillary Clinton, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio de Aguiar Patriota said of the debate, "it’s true that Latin America was not present, to my knowledge, and Brazil was not mentioned, but I think that the debate concentrated really on problem issues and concerns. And today, Brazil, South America in particular, is more of a region of the world that offers solutions than problems. So we interpret that in this positive light."
Similarly in an opinion piece for Christian Science Monitor, Geoff Thale from WOLA said the scant discussion of Cuba could signal a more rational approach towards the island.
- The Global Post profiled the relatives of US presidential candidate Mitt Romney,whose father was born in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. They are reportedly part of a Mormon community often targeted by the cartels.
- A total of 15 Colombian government security force members since formal peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government began in Oslo, Norway on October 18. Last week nine soliders were killed in combat, while six police were killed Monday in the southwestern Cauca department.
- The FARC proposed a cease-fire during the talks, but President Juan Manuel Santos has repeatedly refused their request. A group of Colombian NGOs has called on the government to stop fighting for the month between December 15 and January 15. A recent Gallup poll showed 72% of Colombians support the peace process, but only 39% believe they would be successful. Another recent poll indicates President Santos' approval rating has gone up seven points to 58% since the announcement of the peace talks.
- In an interview with W Radio, President Obama said his hope was that a "peaceful Colombia would be created and that the FARC lay down their arms and recognize that although they disagree with the government they should participate in the political process instead of using violence."
- Last Thursday, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, criticizing a proposed constitutional amendment which would expand the jurisdiction of the military. According to the letter, the measure would, "result in serious human rights violations by the military—including extrajudicial executions, torture, and rape—being investigated and tried by the military justice system."
- Colombia is also in the process of producing their own unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or "drones." Although Colombia has been using US drones since 2006, this will be the first domestically-produced UAV used by the country's military.The drones will reportedly be used for military operations as well as for other functions such as monitoring oil pipelines.
- Colombian drug lord Henry de Jesus Lopez Londoño, alias "Mi Sangre," was arrested
in a Buenos Aires supermarket. Mi Sangre was a top leader of the Urabeños drug gang and was in charge of expanding and maintaining the group's presence and control throughout Medellin, Colombia's second-largest city.
- Speaking at a trade-show on defense and security, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said within two years the country would be adding 25,000 members to its armed forces,which currently have about 450,000 members, making it the second-largest military in South America following Brazil.
- The Honduras Truth Commission released a report on human rights violations before and after the 2009 coup. The blog Honduras Accompaniment Project summarizes the reports findings: "In total, the Truth Commission received “1,966 reports from citizens about human rights violations by state agents and armed civilian apparatuses protected by state institutions” between June 2009 and August 2011. Based on these reports, the Commission analyzed 5,418 human rights violations and categorized 87 forms of aggression."
- In Brazil several convictions have been handed out to officials in former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's government-- including his then chief of staff Jose Dirceu-- who were found guilty of using public funds to pay monthly installments to opposition congressmen in return for their support, known as the "Mensalão" case, in which about 40 officials were implicated. The case is historic in showing a strengthening of the rule of law in the country as Brazil has a long history of impunity for political corruption.
- In another landmark legal proceeding, a federal judge in Sao Paulo agreed to charge a soldier and two officers with the kidnapping of a dissident during Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship, marking the second accusation of a top military officer for human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship, despite a 1979 amnesty law.
- On October 28th, Brazil held run-off municipal elections, with President Rousseff's and former President Lula's Workers’ Party (PT) winning the majority of the mayoral races, including Sao Paulo. Analysts say this puts the party in a favorable position for the 2014 presidential elections.
- In Sao Paulo 600 police were sent to the city's largest favela, Paraisópolis, as part of a larger initiative that was launched on Monday called "Operação Saturação," or "Operation Saturation,"intended to stifle drug trafficking and organized crime throughout the city. According to numbers from Sao Paulo's Secretary of Public Security,crime rates in Sao Paulo are on the rise, with the city registering 144 homicides in the month of September against the 71 that occurred in the same month last year and 145 homicides in October, an 86% increase from 2011 when 78 murders were registered in the same month that year.
According to government statistics, 40 people have been killed since last Thursday, 124 in the past 23 days, with a large part of the murders being carried out by men on motorcycles or in cars. A spokesman for the Sao Paulo police force denied the operation was launched in response to the recent wave of murders, saying they "received intelligence that there were criminals, weapons and drugs" inside the favela and that "there will be more actions like this in the coming days."
- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez replaced Defense Minister General Henry Rangel Silva, appointing Navy Admiral Diego Molero Bellavia to the post. Rangel, a close ally of Chavez, will be the candidate for Chavez' United Socialist Party (PSUV) for governor of Trujillo in state elections on December 16. The US accused Rangel in 2008 of "materially assisting" the drug trafficking operations of Colombia's Farc guerrillas.
- President Chavez said on Thursday he will be attending the upcoming Mercosur presidential summit set for December 7 in Brasilia. Venezuela became a full Mercosur member July 31 following the group's decision to suspend Paraguay, whose Senate had barred Venezuelan participation. Brazil's foreign ministry noted the benefit of Venezuela's inclusion to the regional trade bloc saying, “With the entry of Venezuela, Mercosur has now a population of 270 million inhabitants (70% of South America population), GDP at current prices of 3.3 trillion dollars (79.6% of South American GDP) and a territory of 12.7 million km2 (72% of South American area), extending from Patagonia to the Caribbean and asserting itself as a global energy power.”
Friday, October 5, 2012
On September 28, 2012, the Center for International Policy (CIP), the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF) held the first "Just the Facts" conference to discuss security trends in the Americas. The goal of the event, titled "Security, Civil-Military Relations, and U.S. Policy in the Americas Today," was to take the pulse of regional security at a key political moment for the United States.
The conference was made up of three panels. The first panel looked at internal or citizen security threats like organized crime, the debate about whether to confront such threats using military force, and recommendations for U.S. policy. The second panel focused on the United States, considering the Defense Department's assistance programs and coordination with diplomatic priorities in the region. The third panel discussed the state of human rights in the region today, with a focus on justice, accountability, and the efficacy of conditions in U.S. aid.
You can now watch all three panels online. On the same page, you can also find additional resources and powerpoint presentations provided by the panelists.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
This post is an excerpt from a report recently released by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund. Written by LAWGEF's executive director, Lisa Haugaard, the brief report provides an update on the human rights situation in Colombia. The update focuses on three topics--military jurisdiction, the Victims' Law, and the human rights defenders' verification mission--and provides recommendations to U.S. policymakers for each human rights concern. Download the full update on human rights in Colombia as a PDF here.
Santos Administration Presses for Step Backwards for Human Rights:
Human Rights Crimes by Soldiers May Return to Military Jurisdiction
by Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group Education Fund
The Santos Administration is pushing through Congress a provision regarding military jurisdiction that threatens to undo much of the progress achieved since early 2007 in ensuring justice for severe human rights crimes committed by members of the military. In particular, it would unravel key reforms instituted to address the "false positive" scandal in which more than 3,000 civilians were allegedly killed by soldiers, often to up their body counts and obtain incentives. Soldiers detained or purchased from criminal "recruiters" live young men whom they believed would not be missed, killed them and dressed them up in guerrilla uniforms, in order to claim them as killed in combat.
An article of the justice reform bill (currently article 13) would modify the Colombian Constitution to provide that all acts committed by security force members during military operations would be presumed to be acts of service, and thus would be subject to military jurisdiction. This initial presumption would apply to any crime—including rape, torture, forced disappearance and extrajudicial executions. According to the United Nation's Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights' representative in Colombia, this would amount to an "historic step backwards for human rights" in the country.
As the provision would modify the Constitution, it needs to be approved in two congressional sessions. It was approved in one round last year, and is likely to come up again in March for final consideration.
The proposed provision would result in the military justice system opening the initial investigations into all alleged human rights abuses committed by security forces during operations. This will nullify Directive 19, emitted by Juan Manuel Santos as defense minister in 2007, which called for the investigative body (CTI) of the Attorney General's office to be the first to investigate deaths in combat. The agency that first investigates a potential crime scene has the capacity to set the investigation on the right or wrong course. "Even when a case is transferred to civilian jurisdiction, after military jurisdiction has carried out the initial steps, it becomes almost impossible to correct the skewed direction of the investigation," according to a leading Colombian human rights network. This change will not only affect investigations of new crimes, but could also lead to the transfer of hundreds of extrajudicial execution cases—the false positives—from civilian jurisdiction back to military justice authorities, a tremendous step backwards.
While the Colombian government maintains that human rights crimes would be subsequently transferred to civilian authorities, practice has shown that when the military justice system initially investigates, human rights crimes are rarely brought to light or to justice. "This is evidenced by the military courts' glaring lack of results in obtaining convictions against those responsible for cases of false positives," according to Human Rights Watch. Many of the false positive cases were closed by military justice officials, according to the UN. Despite clear jurisprudence (prior to this new proposal) regarding the obligation to investigate and prosecute human rights crimes in civilian jurisdiction, military authorities have a very poor track record when it comes to promptly transferring alleged cases of human rights violations to civilian jurisdiction. According to UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Philip Alston, "the most significant obstacle to effective prosecution of extrajudicial executions by members of the security forces are the continuing jurisdictional conflicts [between military and civilian justice systems] and the failure of military judges to transfer cases to the civilian justice system." Even without this proposed step backward, too few cases are being transferred to civilian courts. After a brief period in which hundreds of cases of alleged extrajudicial executions were moved to civilian courts, the transfers of cases from military to civilian jurisdiction slowed again in 2010, according to both the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and State Department.
The military justice system's reluctance to investigate human rights crimes, and its lack of independence from the military's retired and active leadership, are qualities far too deeply engrained for some technical fix of the military justice system to resolve. Moreover, unlike in the United States, the Colombian military on a daily basis conducts law enforcement operations within Colombia's national territory and interacts with the civilian population, making it all the more urgent that the military be accountable to Colombia's civilian authorities for human rights crimes. However, there is no objection to efforts to improve the military justice system's handling of appropriate matters, such as violations of military discipline.
Unprecedented efforts were invested to achieve gains since 2007 to ensure justice for human rights crimes committed by the military. The State Department and U.S. Embassy under Republican and Democratic administrations since early 2007 invested political capital in ensuring the transfer of hundreds of extrajudicial executions to civilian courts. The U.S. Senate held up significant portions of Colombia's military aid over the issue of impunity for extrajudicial executions. The United Nations made an intensive effort via the UNHCHR office and the landmark visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions. Colombia's human rights networks and relatives of victims of extrajudicial executions made well-coordinated, heroic efforts to document and expose the "false positives" crimes, even as their allegations were dismissed and they faced constant threats. Semana magazine shone with its investigative journalism on the subject. Then-Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos chose to embrace reforms. This not only resulted in advances in justice for these cases, but also led to a dramatic drop in new extrajudicial executions. This constellation of Colombian and international effort is unlikely to be resurrected if these gains slip away.
The proposal would make it impossible for the State Department to certify compliance with the human rights conditions provision that, "The Colombian Armed Forces are suspending those members, of whatever rank, who have been credibly alleged to have violated human rights, or to have aided, abetted or benefitted from paramilitary organizations or other illegal armed groups; all such cases are promptly referred to civilian jurisdiction for investigation and prosecution, and the Colombian Armed Forces are not opposing civilian jurisdiction in such cases; and the Colombian Armed Forces are cooperating fully with civilian prosecutors and judicial authorities."
In addition, this backward step would make it difficult for the Colombian government to comply with its obligation to "prevent violence against labor leaders, and prosecute the perpetrators of such violence," in cases involving members of the military. Such cases are not just in the past. On January 9, 2012, a member of the Sintrapaz union, Victor Manuel Hilarion Palacios, was traveling to work when he was allegedly killed by Colombian army troops. As noted in a February 1 letter from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to President Obama, "According to reports, the soldiers who later delivered his body to the Technical Investigation Unit (CTI) of the Fiscalia office in the town of Villavicencio stated that he had been killed in crossfire—yet the colleagues and relatives who went to collect his body discovered it bore signs that he had been brutally beaten and tortured."
U.S. policymakers should urge the Colombian government to withdraw this proposal to expand military jurisdiction. If this proposal goes into effect, the State Department cannot in good conscience certify Colombia meets the human rights conditions attached to U.S. security assistance. This proposal would also affect Colombia's ability to meet its commitment under the Labor Action Plan to "prosecute the perpetrators" of violence against trade unionists.
Thursday, December 1, 2011
"Santos is handing the military what Uribe never dared to give them," writes La Silla Vacía
The Colombian government is backing legislation that, if approved, would curtail military accountability for human rights abuses. If these provisions had been promoted by the 2002-2010 government of hardliner Álvaro Uribe, there would have been a firestorm of justifiable criticism. But so far, President Juan Manuel Santos’s government’s human rights counteroffensive has received little attention.
Return of the “fuero militar”
Colombia’s military justice system exists to try and punish “acts of service” like insubordination or going AWOL – not abuses committed against noncombatants. When human rights abuse cases have gone before the military courts, significant convictions have never resulted. This is why military defense lawyers routinely fight to keep their clients’ cases in the more lenient military system, and out of the civilian criminal justice system. When the armed forces judge themselves, their victims do not receive justice.
Fifteen years of jurisprudence, legislation and decrees have sought to change this. They have reduced military courts’ jurisdiction, the so-called “fuero militar,” to exclude human rights crimes like extrajudicial execution, forced disappearance or torture. Now, many cases – and nearly all of the most prominent cases – go to the civilian system.
Colombia’s civilian courts and prosecutors had recently begun to make progress. A handful of high officers had been jailed for their role in past crimes, including notorious paramilitary massacres. A fraction of the thousands of “false positives” cases – in which soldiers stand accused of murdering civilians and presenting their bodies as those of combat kills – had been moving forward, slowly, in the civilian system.
That may be about to change. Colombia’s Congress is currently considering a sweeping judicial reform bill, with a series of constitutional amendments. In early November, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón quietly convinced senators to include a small but radical provision (Article 15) in this bill.
The language would create the “presumption” that all crimes committed by active members of the security forces are acts of service, and thus within the military justice system’s jurisdiction.
With this added language, the justice reform bill passed the second of eight debates in Colombia’s Senate on November 8, days after an army raid killed the FARC guerrilla group’s maximum leader, Alfonso Cano.
The senators acted with the Santos government’s blessing. Senators leading the charge to apply the “fuero militar” to human rights cases came from the Conservative and “U” parties, two of the largest in President Santos’s ruling coalition. On a few occasions in recent months, President Santos and Minister Pinzón had expressed support for including human rights cases in the fuero militar. Non-governmental organizations’ calls on these officials to abandon the idea, including a September 2011 letter from Washington-based groups CEJIL, LAWG and WOLA, went unheeded.
If approved, this constitutional change will let the military judge itself for its own abuses against civilians. Even notorious cases like “false positives” could be stripped from civilian prosecutors. The victims’ loved ones could be denied justice as untransparent military tribunals issue acquittals, or simply allow cases to languish.
The law would undo a long struggle to get human rights cases into the civilian justice system. This struggle brought decisions from Colombia’s Constitutional Court in 1997 and 2000 determining that human rights cases belonged in civilian justice. It brought Presidential decrees and Defense Ministry directives and policies favoring civilian jurisdiction. These resulted from repeated recommendations of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the U.S. Department of State, and all major human rights groups.
Quoted in early November, retired Gen. Juan Salcedo Lora, president of Colombia’s Association of Retired Officers (ACORE), made clear his disdain for these efforts.
“Officers and subofficers must think twice before carrying out an operation, always looking in the mirror of what has happened to their innocent comrades … All because people wedded to the subversive groups’ ideology tore apart our fuero militar in the high courts.”
If the law once again allows the military to try itself, it will be impossible for Colombian officials and their Washington allies to talk about human rights progress in Colombia. The country will have adopted a legal framwork worthy of a rogue state.
Colombia’s Congress has another controversial piece of legislation before it. On November 30 a committee of its Senate passed, in the third of eight debates, a two-article bill called the “Legal Framework for Peace.” One of these articles would allow security-force members accused of human rights crimes to enjoy a benefit that was offered to demobilizing paramilitary leaders five years ago: light jail terms in exchange for full confessions.
The proposed constitutional amendment declares that, in principle, a future law could allow soldiers to avoid the 40-year prison term normally handed out for murders of civilians. Instead, if the paramilitaries’ “Justice and Peace” process is a guide, they perhaps could serve for 5 to 8 years after revealing the “truth” and making reparations to victims.
There are several reasons why it would be bad policy to apply lighter penalties to the military at this time.
It will deny justice for victims: families of the “false positives” victims, for instance, might see their loved ones’ murderers set free in just a few years, the last and worst of a string of insults.
It will hold the armed forces to the same standard as illegal armed groups. “Alternative penalties are peripheral measures for the demobilization of illegal groups,” argues Liberal Party Rep. Guillermo Rivera, who sponsored Colombia’s new Victims’ Law but opposes the new bill’s application to the military. “The security forces operate within the framework of legality and aren’t demobilizing. On the contrary, strict loyalty to democratic order is demanded, and this is based on respect for human rights.”
Reduced sentences are a post-conflict, transitional justice measure. But Colombia is not a post-conflict country. Passing this measure while the bloodshed continues effectively says to the armed forces: “Go ahead and commit human rights violations. No matter how many you commit, it’s almost certain that you’ll never spend more than eight years or so in prison.”
Military Public Defenders
A somewhat less controversial measure going through Colombia’s Congress is the Technical Defense bill, which would create a corps of defense lawyers to represent members of the military accused of crimes, including human rights abuses. This corps would be funded from Colombia’s Treasury, as opposed to the current system in which a non-governmental lawyers’ organization (the Defensoría Militar or Demil) is funded via contributions from soldiers’ paychecks.
Again, this is not necessarily controversial – it would be unfair to force poorly paid soldiers to hire lawyers to prove their innocence. But it’s worth noting that victims don’t enjoy anything near the same benefits. The few publicly funded lawyers representing victims of Colombia’s conflict have untenably high caseloads because of a severe lack of funding.
While these measures move through Colombia’s Congress, the Santos government has deftly placed the country’s nongovernmental human rights defenders on the political defensive.
The story begins with the July 1997 paramilitary massacre in Mapiripán, a town along the Guaviare River in southeastern Colombia. This is a very notorious case in Colombia, as it was the first time that the AUC paramilitary group operated in the country’s south, it took place over several days with clear support from the security forces, and two senior army officers were jailed for allowing it to happen.
In 2005 the Inter-American Human Rights Court determined that about 49 people were massacred in Mapiripán, and ordered the Colombian government to pay reparations to twenty-six relatives. But in mid-October, the Justice and Peace Unit of Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s office (Fiscalía) alleged that, according to evidence gathered from demobilized paramilitary fighters’ confessions, it could only confirm twelve deaths in the massacre, and that some of those claimed killed were in fact still alive. Prosecutors intimated that some who received reparations did so fraudulently, as in the case of a Mapiripán resident who confessed to receiving court-ordered payments by falsely claiming that her husband and two sons were killed in the massacre.
Top government officials used this finding to launch an attack on human rights NGOs, particularly the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, which represented several Mapiripán victims’ families before the Inter-American Court. Others used the occasion to question the Inter-American human rights system itself.
“This is very serious, it’s sad that situations like these, of crooks who can’t be called anything but corrupt, undermine the credibility of the Inter-American Human Rights Court,” said President Santos. “What has happened weakens the credibility of a respected institution like the Court and the Inter-American human rights system. These are the big losers with the Mapiripán case,” added Vice-President Angelino Garzón. “If lawyers are involved, it’s even more serious. It is wrong that there exists a minority of lawyers dedicated to these types of activities,” said Justice Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra. “Will the Lawyers’ Collective respond for its fraud against the Colombian state in Mapiripán?” tweeted former President Uribe. Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady attacked the Lawyers’ Collective in a November 7 column entitled “A ‘Human Rights’ Swindle in Colombia.”
“We are disappointed that President Santos has breached his commitment to ‘disarm his words,’ because, like those of his predecessor Álvaro Uribe, they continue to make Colombia a dangerous place for human rights defenders,” laments a November 21 communiqué from 27 U.S., Canadian and Mexican human rights groups.
The Lawyers’ Collective says that it too was deceived by any false victims. In a strong statement, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission recalled that its information about Mapiripán was ratified by Colombia’s government itself.
“For almost a decade, the Colombian State has had knowledge of the fact that these persons had been determined to be victims of the Mapiripán massacre, and at no time did it call it into question.”
None deny that some very unscrupulous people may have falsely claimed to be victims of the Mapiripán massacre. But still, neither does anyone deny that a large massacre did happen in Mapiripán. Or that this massacre was aided and abetted by Colombia’s military.
Beyond Mapiripán, it’s possible that people have fraudulently presented themselves as victims in other cases. If so, the Colombian government must work to clarify what happened. But it must do so without shifting the entire burden of proof on the victims themselves.
In cases like Mapiripán – where the paramilitaries themselves were the only witnesses, then cut up bodies and dumped them in a river – it is impossible for most victims’ relatives to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that their claims are truthful. In the confusion of a week-long massacre, evidence of a victim’s death may no longer exist. Groups like the Lawyers’ Collective must be aware of the danger of fraud, but are limited in the due diligence they can perform.
That’s why it has been unseemly to see the enthusiasm with which some officials have jumped on the Mapiripán example to attack human rights defenders, at exactly the same time that they seek to loosen military accountability for human rights crimes.
As this situation continues to unfold, a few observations are necessary.
The human rights counteroffensive appears to be an ill-advised attempt to appease radicalized sectors of the military.
In June 2010 and May 2011, civilian courts began handing down stiff sentences related to one of the most sensitive cases in Colombian history: the October 1985 takeover by M-19 guerrillas, retaking by the military, and subsequent destruction of Colombia’s Palace of Justice in downtown Bogotá. In the confusion, eleven Palace of Justice cafeteria workers were seen leaving the building, but disappeared in military custody. Twenty-five years later, judges sentenced retired Col. Alfonso Plazas Vega and retired Gen. Jesús Armando Arias Cabrales to decades in prison for the crime.
Something snapped in Colombia’s armed forces after these verdicts, along with others in cases like Mapiripán and “false positives.” Things have reached such an extreme that some commanders may be refusing to fight.
According to a report by the Sergio Arboleda University’s Alfredo Rangel – who supports sending human rights cases to military courts – the army is “demotivated” by these judicial sentences.
“The judicial uncertainty to which members of the security forces are submitted as a consequence of the fuero militar abolition and the military justice system’s disarticulation are elements that justify demotivation in combat and explain the drop in the level of offensive operations against guerrilla groups.”
“In as many words,” La Silla Vacía journalist Juanita León writes in an important analysis, “an important part of the armed forces is on strike (de brazos caídos). As an officer currently imprisoned for a ‘false positive’ explained it to La Silla Vacía, ‘[FARC leader Alfonso] Cano’s death proves nothing. That operation was carried out with special troops with international support. But the rank and file is demotivated.’”
Gen. Javier Rey, commander of the Army’s Aviation Division (which has received heavy U.S. funding), told a gathering in early November that low morale isn’t the problem – the problem is the civilian justice system.
“One thing is morale, and another is distrust toward the justice system that is judging us, which doesn’t know what combat is like. That’s why we need the fuero militar and a strong military justice system.”
Note that the military is not pushing for civilian judges and prosecutors with special training for dealing with combat cases. Instead, they are pushing for the right to try their own personnel even in cases, like “false positives,” which do not involve combat. And the Santos government – facing the very real possibility that military inaction will leave it to blame if security deteriorates – is pushing to give the armed forces more protection from human rights prosecutions than Álvaro Uribe ever tried to give them.
If these claims of “brazos caídos” and “demotivation” are true, they reflect very badly on Colombia’s armed forces. The message is that if they must fight according to internationally recognized human rights standards, then they will not fight. This poisonous message would fly in the face of claims – often made by U.S. officials, citing it as a result of U.S. aid – that the Colombian military’s human rights performance is greatly improved.
If the legislation succeeds, the State Department cannot certify that human rights conditions on aid are being met.
U.S. foreign aid legislation is quite clear on this. Thirty percent of State Department aid to Colombia’s armed forces is held up until the Secretary of State can certify that “The Government of Colombia is suspending, and investigating and prosecuting in the civilian justice system, those members of the Colombian Armed Forces, of whatever rank, who have been credibly alleged to have committed violations of internationally recognized human rights.”
These certifications have been controversial in the past, and the State Department has often waited until the last possible moment (at times up to the expiration of tens of millions of dollars in aid) to issue them. If, however, Colombia moves backward – sending human rights cases from the military to the civilian justice system – it will specifically violate the language of the conditions, and the State Department will be unable to certify. Thirty percent of military aid will be frozen – and so will official U.S. claims of human rights “progress” in Colombia.
Note that the human rights counteroffensive began after the U.S. Congress ratified the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
Budget cuts are forcing steady reductions in U.S. aid. And now, with the October ratification of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, the Obama administration’s leverage on human rights is much reduced. The Colombian government need worry much less about the U.S. reaction.
What happens next
The justice reform bill, which would expand military jurisdiction over human rights crimes, is likely to come to its third of eight votes in Colombia’s House on December 1. The “peace framework” bill with alternative sentencing for soldiers passed a Senate Committee, its third vote, on November 30. Both bills are moving quickly toward passage, while the Inter-American Human Rights Court has granted Colombia’s government three months to prepare a challenge to the reparations granted to victims of Mapiripán. The human rights counteroffensive is proceeding apace.
Juan Manuel Santos has initiated some enlightened policies, particularly on victims’ rights and land restitution. After years of President Uribe calling his political detractors guerrilla supporters, President Santos has improved the tone of the Colombian government’s discourse. But actions matter too, and the Colombian government is taking actions that fly in the face of many years of reforms, jurisprudence and international recommendations.
If this human rights rollback succeeds, then the United States needs to show more distance between itself and the Santos government. The Obama administration needs to communicate its concerns clearly, and by all means avoid defending the very unfortunate course that its “ally” is taking.
Friday, September 9, 2011
This week has brought with it big changes for the Colombian defense establishment, in what may be an attempt to quell rising perceptions that the guerrilla groups are reversing gains made during the previous administration. On Monday, September 6, Juan Carlos Pinzón was sworn in as the new Minister of Defense, to whom President Juan Manuel Santos pledged an additional 1.5 trillion pesos ($838 million) to fund a “decisive step” toward defeating terrorists. Between 2006 and 2009, Pinzón served as Deputy Minister of Defense. In this role he led design of the consolidation policy of then President Uribe’s Democratic Security plan as well as the structural reform of the Defense Ministry. Until this point in the Santos administration, he served as the President’s Chief of Staff.
Aside from Pinzón, the entire military high command was replaced. All appointees have strong anti-narcotics and counter-insurgency backgrounds, echoing President Santos’ recent pledges to intensify the offensive campaign against the guerrillas.
Commander of the Armed Forces:
General Alejandro Navas will replace Admiral Edgar Cely as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. General Navas is a counter-insurgency expert who, since August of last year, served as the Commander of the Army. During his career, General Navas also led the Joint Command for Special Operations, the Rapid Response Force and the Omega Joint Task Force - a group made up of 15,000 elite soldiers of the Army, Air Force and Navy with the main purpose of ensuring that the FARC’s strategic plan to take power and extend its influence failed. Navas has received over 50 decorations and medals including the medal for Distinguished Service six times. He is renowned for the support and admiration of his commanding troops.
Air Force Commander:
General Tito Saúl Pinilla will take over command of the Air Forces from Air General Julio Alberto González. Prior to this appointment he was the Commander of the Joint Command of Special Operations for the General Military Command. He has also led the Headquarters of Air Operations, served as the Director of Intelligence for the Joint Command Leadership, and was the commander of the Air Force’s Activities with the Omega Task Force.
Vice-Admiral Roberto García Márquez will now head the Navy and is considered an expert in the drug war. Prior to this appointment, García Márquez was the Deputy Chief of Joint Administrative Command of the Armed Forces. Between 2006 and 2009, he commanded the Naval Force of the Caribbean. Three months ago, while he was serving as Chief of Naval Operations, 12 tons of cocaine were seized, making it one of Colombia’s biggest wins against narcotrafficking in 2011.
General Sergio Mantilla Sanmiguel, the former chief of the Caribbean Joint Command, has been appointed to fill the vacancy left by General Alejandro Navas as Commander of the Army. General Mantilla is a specialist in military resources and holds a Masters degree in Resource Management and National Strategy from the National Defense University in the United States. General Mantilla was also the commander of the Army’s 7th Division, is a specialist in military intelligence, and has received more than 40 medals over the course of the year.
This blog was written by CIP Intern Jessica Lippman