WOLA’s latest urgent update on the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
WOLA’s latest urgent updates, split into two alerts, about the abuses committed within the context of Colombia’s national strike, as well as the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
The creation of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP in Spanish) as part of the 2016 Peace Treaty between the Colombian State and the guerrilla group FARC has seen its work much criticized over claims from certain powerful factions that it has a hidden agenda to free former FARC leaders and imprison senior military commanders.
Investigations carried out by the JEP have been a major success of the peace agreement and the process that followed. But most of the right-wing section of governing party Centro Democrático have been working to cut its funding and complicate the implementation of the peace deal.
Founded on the principle of transitional justice, the JEP works by recognizing accountability for past crimes from the conflict and establishing alternative sentences. This does mean some powerful people – politicians, businesspeople, and landowners – may feel threatened because its investigations may reveal their past connections to both official and nonofficial repression unleashed upon trade unionists, peasants, politicians, and civilians in the name of defeating the FARC.
Ariel Avila, from the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, states that as transitional justice moves forward ‘victims will be more at risk. As ex guerrilla members, military officers, parapoliticians, begin to tell the truth, they will inform on those who supported them, those who benefitted from the war, people who, for the most part, are within the scope of legality’.
Hostages and human rights violations
The JEP recently accused seven FARC leaders for promoting kidnapping as a systematic practice and inflicting human rights violations on hostages, and also announced it will investigate and prosecute state security forces for war crimes, as the Colombian army stands accused of allegedly murdering at least 6,402 innocent civilians under what is called ‘false positives’ – counting them as guerrilla fighters to give the impression they were winning the war against the FARC.
Almost 80 per cent of those crimes were committed between 2002 and 2008 when right-wing political leader Álvaro Uribe was president and, since the JEPs’ creation in 2017, he and some of his followers – known as ‘Uribismo’ – along with Iván Duque’s current government have been persistently critical of the body.
This has led the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to express concern about ‘persisting public statements questioning the suitability of the JEP and their staff, and about the legislative proposals to abolish the Special Jurisdiction for Peace’, and the damage being done to the JEP was revealed in a detailed report from 14 senators of different opposition parties in the Colombian Congress, led by Senator Juanita Goebertus (Green Alliance Party).
The main targets of the attacks by the government and Uribistas are the reforms in the rural sector, voluntary coca crop eradication, and the implementation of transitional justice, which the peace treaty committed the government to achieve. Returning land to thousands of peasants displaced by violence would reverse gross inequalities in land distribution, as would the political strengthening of local communities.
But rural elites strongly oppose these moves and the state has been largely absent in these rural areas, contributing to a rise in illegal mining, illicit crops, and now the killings of social leaders and ex-FARC guerrilla combatants. The president of the JEP recently claimed ‘a social leader is killed every 41 hours’ and, according to a report by the Colombian Commission of Jurists along with other local groups, these killings are being committed by hit men, FARC dissidents, organized crime, and even members of the armed forces.
Most cases are not being solved and the Inter American Commission for Human Rights indicates most government investigations focus on the material authors of the crime, not those who gave the order. Human Rights Watch says that, because of such state shortcomings, investigations and prosecutions are facing significant hurdles particularly with regard to the ‘intellectual authors’ of many killings.
Rural communities under pressure from criminals
OHCHR estimates 513 human rights defenders and 248 former FARC combatants were killed between 2016 and the end of 2020 but this is disputed by the government. Many of those who died had accepted the peace agreement, committing themselves and their communities to stop harvesting coca in exchange for receiving state financial assistance and shifting to producing legal goods. But Duque’s government, believing alternative crops do not work, froze the scheme alleging a lack of funds.
This put communities under renewed pressure from organized crime and guerrillas to produce coca again, an option made easier by the ban on the coca fumigations which were used by the US government between 1994 and 2015 to keep crop levels down and reduce drug production.
Fumigations were ended in 2015 by the Colombian Supreme Court due to evidence that the crop spraying harmed the environment as well as human and animal health, but the risk of cuts to aid and loans from the Donald Trump US administration recently pushed Duque to try and lift these restrictions.
His government has launched military-civil stabilization operations in areas of high conflict and illicit crop production, but peasants and indigenous communities see fumigation as another breach of the peace treaty and they intend to resist it.
They also consider stabilization to be too dependent on the military, and various experts also consider this approach to be inefficient and a poor substitute for the lack of a proper state presence in rural Colombia.
Now with the change of administration in the US, Joe Biden has already expressed interest in the protection of human rights and appears less likely to be supportive of restarting fumigation as well as any ongoing resistance of the Colombian government to the peace agreement, especially as key Democrats in the Obama administration and Congress supported the negotiation and approval of the peace deal and many are now in the Biden administration.
The trick for Duque now – and Uribe – is to successfully balance their own partisan policy preferences with the country’s need for long-term military, strategic, and economic ties to Washington.
A Google search for appearances of “Colombia” during the first six months of 2020 at house.gov, the domain of the U.S. House of Representatives, yields no more than 20 meaningful results. Most of those were brief mentions of the country’s record coca cultivation levels, or the impact of Venezuela’s crisis.
While the Senate is controlled by the Republican Party, the Democrats won the majority of the House in the 2018 elections. Since then, the House has spoken little about Colombia. But surprisingly, over the last few weeks, it has made statements about Colombia’s peace process, its social leaders, and its military espionage scandals.
On July 6, 94 Democratic legislators signed a letter expressing their concern about these issues.
Days later, the 2021 foreign aid budget bill passed the full House. This bill, and its accompanying narrative report, do much to move U.S. assistance to Colombia in a more pro-peace, pro-human rights direction.
- It appropriates $458 million in new assistance for Colombia in 2021, of which less than $200 million would go to the country’s police and military forces. By contrast, the Trump White House had requested, in February, $413 million, of which more than $250 million would go to the armed forces and police.
- It lists specific purposes for which U.S. aid should be used, placing implementation of the peace accord at the center, along with a greater presence of civilian state institutions in ungoverned zones. It calls for greater attention to victims, small farmers, women, and indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples, as well as coca substitution “as agreed to in the peace accord.”
- It conditions fumigation, freezing 20 percent of the State Department’s $189 million in International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement funds until the Department certifies that Colombia’s coca reduction strategy “is not in violation of the 2016 peace accord.”
- As in past years, it adds human rights conditions holding up 20 percent of $38.525 million in one of the main military aid programs, Foreign Military Financing (FMF), until the Department certifies that Colombia’s justice system is holding gross human rights violators accountable; that the Colombian government is taking effective steps to protect social leaders and ethnic communities; and—in a new measure—that the Colombian government “has investigated and is taking steps to hold accountable” officials involved in illegal surveillance of civilians, “including the use of assets provided by the United States for combating counterterrorism and counternarcotics for such purposes.”
Two Amendments About Colombia
In addition, on July 21, the House passed its version of the 2021 Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual bill making adjustments to the law underlying the Pentagon and the U.S. military, including budget guidelines. This is perhaps the only major bill likely to pass through both chambers and become law before the November election. The NDAA includes two amendments on Colombia.
The first, proposed by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), requires the Secretary of State, working with the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence, to submit a report assessing allegations, revealed by Revista Semana in January and May, that U.S. aid to Colombia has been misused for “unlawful surveillance or intelligence gathering directed at the civilian population, including human rights defenders, judicial personnel, journalists, and the political opposition.” That report must detail:
- Any use of U.S.-provided assistance for such activities;
- Colombian security forces’ involvement in illegal intelligence gathering between 2002 and 2018;
- An assessment of the full extent of such activities, including identification of units involved, relevant chains of command, and the nature and objectives of such surveillance or intelligence gathering”;
- Steps that U.S. diplomatic, defense, or intelligence agencies took to respond to misuse of assistance;
- Steps that the Colombian government took in response to misuse of U.S. assistance; and
- The adequacy of Colombian military and security doctrine and training for ensuring that intelligence operations are in accordance with human rights standards.
The second amendment, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), places limits on U.S. support for aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas. Though it will probably not block any U.S. aid for aerial glyphosate spraying, it is noteworthy that a high-profile Congresswoman expresses concern about the issue. A spokesperson told Business Insider that aerial fumigation was a destructive tactic of the US’s failed drug war. It negatively impacted the yield of many farmers and the public health of many Colombians.
The amendments prospered in significant part because of Rep. McGovern’s chairmanship of the Rules Committee, a powerful committee that meets each evening to approve (rule “in order”) amendments to be debated during the next day’s proceedings. Rep. McGovern is the member of the House who has most closely followed Colombia from a pro-peace and pro-human rights perspective. He told Business Insider on July 27, “If it was up to me, I would end security assistance to Colombia right now. Those who are responsible for illegal acts ought to be held accountable … Clearly that doesn’t happen in Colombia.”
In the days following the amendments’ passage, McGovern appeared in numerous Colombian media outlets, including El Tiempo, El Espectador, and Semana. His message was quite critical of the current direction of U.S. policy, and voiced strong dismay at the Colombian military’s human rights abuses and the excesses of forced coca eradication undertaken by the Duque administration.
Two Incompatible Stances
It is clear that the Trump administration and the House have completely different priorities in Colombia today. The White House brings up record numbers of hectares of coca, and upholds Colombia as a partner and an ally in diplomatic efforts against Venezuela. In contrast, the House condemns slow implementation of the peace accord and the human rights abuses covered up by the Colombian government.
While Democrats are increasingly reluctant to accept these realities, very few Republicans today openly defend a militarized approach in Colombia. In the 1990s, a group of Republicans in Congress pressured the Clinton administration to increase military aid and fumigation in Colombia. In contrast, no Republican in Congress today advocates something similar with such force.
As a human rights advocate, I’ll give some credit to my own community: we are a solid group of experts and activists who have been working together since the 1990s to give higher priority to peace and human rights in U.S. policy toward Colombia. We have deep detailed knowledge, and a lot of institutional memory. Strategically minded donors have helped maintain this installed capacity, and when opportunity strikes, we can seize it.
What will happen in the next elections?
The next steps are in the Senate, where the 2021 State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill has yet to be drafted. There, the Appropriations Committee will probably reveal its bill after the August legislative recess. It will not become law before the November election. The NDAA, meanwhile, may pass after conciliation between the House version and the Senate version, which does not include the McGovern or Ocasio-Cortez amendments.
The Colombian government appears to have been blindsided by the House Democrats’ July barrage. We’ve seen an angry note from Ambassador Francisco Santos to some of the signers of the 94-person letter, repeating the Duque administration’s talking points—which leave out key information—defending its protection of social leaders and rejecting concerns about peace accord implementation.
That letter’s brusque tone indicates that the Duque government has decided to continue refraining from engaging the increasingly progressive Democrats. With public opinion running strongly in the Democrats’ favor 13 weeks before major elections, adhering mainly to the Republican Party seems like a strategic error.
On Tuesday, July 22, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2021 fiscal year, which authorizes budget appropriations for Department of Defense-related activities.
The approved bill includes two key amendments about U.S. engagement in Colombia: it prohibits funding to be used for aerial eradication in any way that violates Colombian law, and it requires a report on illegal surveillance of civilians by the Colombian government, and a plan for avoiding the misuse of support for that activity.
The NDAA still needs Senate approval. The Republican-majority Senate is currently considering its version of the bill, which does not include these Colombian provisions. For several weeks, a House-Senate committee will work to reconcile differences between the two bills; they are likely to finish their work before Fiscal Year 2020 ends on September 30.
The House-approved language underscores rising alarm among members of Congress over Colombian government policies and inaction that are undermining efforts to build peace, address the root causes of the country’s civil conflict, and improve accountability of the security forces.
The first NDAA amendment, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), prohibits the use of U.S. funds to “directly conduct aerial fumigation in Colombia unless there are demonstrated actions by the Government of Colombia to national and local laws and regulations.” The Iván Duque administration is trying to restart aerial spraying of coca crops in Colombia, as part of an aggressive push to intensify coca eradication efforts—an expansion that is being aided by nearly a quarter of billion dollars in 2020 U.S. assistance for drug interdiction and eradication.
Aerial fumigation is a counter-drug strategy that brings few benefits (none of them long-lasting), and which carries very high risks of harm to health and the environment. Eradication efforts carried out without input from local communities will likely intensify violence and social protests—a phenomenon that we’re already seeing without aerial spraying.
The U.S. government shouldn’t support aerial spray programs in Colombia—the fact that the NDAA bill makes this clear is a significant step in the right direction, and should help signal to the Iván Duque government that U.S. Members of Congress recognize the problems and risks of the eradication-heavy approach.
The second NDAA amendment, introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), states that no U.S. intelligence equipment donated to or purchased by the Colombian government should ever be used in illicit surveillance operations. The amendment also orders the Department of Defense to produce a report on recent instances of illegal surveillance of social leaders, journalists, and military officials by the Colombian government, to be published 120 days after the NDAA becomes law.
The amendment correctly recognizes that U.S. assistance should not, in any way, be linked to military intelligence activities that involve illegally spying on reformers and the free press. It sends a strong message that, with Colombia facing an urgent moment in building peace and security, it’s of critical importance that rogue elements of military intelligence be held accountable.
These amendments to the NDAA cap a few weeks of notable activity in favor of peace and human rights in Colombia in the House of Representatives. A July 6 letter that 94 Members of Congress sent to the Colombian government asks that the Iván Duque administration intensify efforts to implement the 2016 peace accords and protect social leaders. On July 15, the House Appropriations Committee approved language in the State Department and Foreign Operations bill for the 2021 fiscal year that is very supportive of funding initiatives related to Colombia’s historic 2016 peace deal. WOLA enthusiastically applauds the House’s important push to support more effective, rights-respecting drug and security policies in Colombia.
May 22, 2020
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Ambassador Michael Kozak
U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg
U.S. Department of State and U.S. Embassy to Colombia, Bogota
Dear Ambassador Kozak and Ambassador Goldberg,
We write out of deep concern, which we are confident you share, regarding the revelations that Colombian Army intelligence units compiled detailed dossiers on the personal lives and activities of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, union leaders, and possible military whistleblowers. As you know, the group contained U.S. citizens, including several reporters and a Colombian senator.
This scandal is disturbing in itself and for what it says about Colombia’s inability to reform its military and intelligence services. In 1998, the 20th Military Intelligence Brigade was disbanded due to charges that it had been involved in the 1995 murder of Conservative Senator Álvaro Gómez Hurtado and his aide and, according to the 1997 State Department human rights report, targeted killings and forced disappearances. In 2011, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), Colombia’s main intelligence service, was disbanded due to the massive surveillance, as well as threats against, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, Supreme Court judges, and reporters. In 2014, Semana magazine revealed army intelligence was spying on peace accord negotiators in the so-called Operation Andromeda. In 2019, Semana exposed another surveillance campaign using “Invisible Man” and “Stingray” equipment against Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, and U.S. and Colombian reporters, including its own journalists. In March 2020, a Twitter list compiled by the Colombian army identified the accounts of journalists, human rights advocates, and Colombia’s Truth Commission and Special Jurisdiction for Peace as “opposition” accounts.
The surveillance is far worse than a massive invasion of privacy. The targeting of political opposition, judicial personnel, human rights defenders, and journalists leads to threats, attacks, and killings. For example, during the 2019 surveillance operation, Semana reporters and their family members received funeral wreaths, prayer cards, and a tombstone. This surveillance and targeting has a chilling effect on the very people and institutions needed to maintain a vibrant democracy. It means that no amount of government protection programs can stop the targeted killing of human rights defenders and social leaders. The persistence of this kind of surveillance suggests that an important segment of Colombia’s military and intelligence services – and of the political class – fail to appreciate the fundamental role of a free press, human rights and other civil society organizations, and peaceful dissent in any vibrant democracy.
We are also deeply concerned to hear that some U.S. intelligence equipment may have been used for these illegal efforts. Semana “confirmed with U.S. embassy sources that the Americans recovered from several military units the tactical monitoring and location equipment that it had lent them.”
As we review this latest manifestation of Colombia’s deeply rooted problem of identifying as enemies and persecuting those who wish to defend human rights, uphold justice, and report the truth, we ask ourselves: What can ensure that this never happens again?
At a minimum, we recommend that the U.S. government:
- Support the creation of an independent group of experts under the auspices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate and recommend steps to achieve justice and non-repetition.
- Press for a thorough review of military doctrine and training to ensure that it promotes a proper understanding of the role of the military in a democratic society, including the role of human rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians, and an independent judiciary. While the written doctrine was revised during the Santos Administration, clearly improvements to doctrine are not being followed. The review should seek an accounting for the too-frequent episodes of senior military behavior that contradicts this revised doctrine. Such a review must have input from Colombian human rights defenders and judicial experts, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
- Urge the Colombian government to provide all necessary protection measures, agreed upon with the targeted individuals and organizations, to ensure their physical and psychological integrity, as well as that of those around them.
- Urge the Colombian government to purge all intelligence files, whether of state security forces or other organizations, collected on human rights organizations, finally addressing the long-standing demand by human rights organizations, unfulfilled for nearly a quarter century.
- Urge the Colombian government to reveal publicly the full extent of illegal intelligence operations targeting civil society activists, politicians, judges, and journalists, clarifying who was in charge, to whom they reported, what kind of intelligence was carried out, and with what objectives.
- The administration should direct DNI, CIA, NSA and DIA to inform congressional intelligence, armed services and foreign relations and foreign affairs committees of their conclusions on the full extent of illegal Colombian intelligence operations, clarifying who was in charge, to whom they reported, what kind of intelligence was carried out, and with what objectives. The administration should direct the same agencies to inform these congressional committees whether and when the U.S. government learned of these actions by the Colombian military and intelligence services and whether U.S. intelligence agencies cooperated with their counterparts even after learning of those actions.
- Investigate whether recipients of U.S. training and/or equipment participated in ordering or implementing these illegal activities and immediately suspend individuals and units involved from receiving U.S. training and equipment, per the Leahy Law.
- Suspend all U.S. support for Colombia’s military and intelligence services if the Colombian government does not immediately suspend and promptly investigate and prosecute officials who ordered and executed these illegal activities and conduct the thorough review and rewriting of military doctrine and training mentioned above.
If the nation is to realize the vision of so many Colombians to create a truly “post-conflict” society with shared prosperity under the rule of law, then intelligence targeting and surveillance of democratic actors must finally end. Thank you for your efforts to ensure Colombia turns the page for once and for all on these deadly, illegal, and anti-democratic activities.
Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)
Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America
Colombia Grassroots Support, New Jersey
Colombia Human Rights Committee, Washington DC
Colombian Studies Group, Graduate Center – College University of New York
Colombian Studies Group, The New School
International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights
Latin America Working Group (LAWG)
Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA)
Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
School of the Americas Watch
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective
On May 19 WOLA hosted a 2-hour discussion of new revelations that Colombian Army intelligence had been spying on journalists, judges, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, and other military officers. The nine speakers included several victims of the spying and some U.S.-based analysts.
The discussion’s video feed is below. The first is presented in the languages the speakers used, and the second is dubbed with a full English translation.
In English and Spanish:
Full English translation:
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, is a longtime advocate of human rights, worldwide and in Latin America.
McGovern joins WOLA in this episode for a conversation about Colombia, a country to which he has traveled several times, and where he was one of the House of Representatives’ leading advocates for the negotiations that ended with a peace accord in 2016.
We’re talking weeks after new revelations that U.S.-aided Colombian military intelligence units had been spying on human rights defenders, journalists, judges, politicians, and even fellow officers. The Congressman calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Colombia while the U.S. government undertakes a top-to-bottom, “penny by penny” review of the aid program. “If there’s not a consequence, there’s no incentive to change,” he explains.
He calls for the Colombian government and the international community to do far more to protect the country’s beleaguered human rights defenders, to change course on an unsuccessful drug policy, and to fulfill the peace accords’ commitments. Human rights, Rep. McGovern concludes, should be at the center of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship.
Listen to the podcast above, or download the .mp3 file.
Cross-posted from WOLA’s website. RSVP for the online event there.
Join the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective (WFP), the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), the International Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights, the Colombia Human Rights Committee, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), and Amnesty International USA for an online forum.
On May 1, 2020, the Colombian weekly news magazine Semana revealed that Colombian military intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance on more than 130 individuals between February and December 2019. Among those targeted were human rights defenders, Colombian and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and members of the military. Several were targeted for reporting, documenting, or representing families of victims of extrajudicial killings, and for bringing to light other grave abuses.
This illegal espionage is not a new phenomenon. In 2011, Colombia’s former intelligence agency, the Administrative Security Directorate (DAS), was dismantled after revelations in 2009 that it was illegally wiretapping and monitoring the activities of civil society leaders, judges, and politicians. The recent revelations by Semana raise the question: why is this a recurring problem in Colombia, and what needs to happen to secure accountability and at last bring about much-needed reforms to Colombian army intelligence and military doctrine?
Journalists, human rights defenders, and military whistleblowers are carrying out crucial work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices amid a fragile security situation in post-conflict Colombia. When units in the military criminalize this work, it undermines efforts to build a more peaceful, democratic Colombia. What should be done to guarantee the end to illicit surveillance of social leaders? What role can the U.S. government play in achieving accountability, given its status as Colombia’s top military donor and trainer? How can the Organization of American States and the United Nations guarantee protection, justice, and non-repetition of such crimes? What are the implications of these revelations for Colombia’s 2016 peace accord?
To help answer these questions, we invite you to join us for a webinar with individuals targeted by this illegal surveillance and with Colombia human rights experts.
Tuesday, May 19, 2020
1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. GMT-4 (Washington, D.C.)
12:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. GMT-5 (Bogotá, Colombia)
Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace
WOLA Human Rights Award Winner 2015
Land rights leader
José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCA-JAR)
Senator, Senate of the Republic of Colombia
Colombia-based journalist for NPR and WSJ
Photojournalist, VELA Collective
Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Executive Director, Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)
Executive Director, Latin America Working Group (LAWG)
Director for the Andes, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Simultaneous interpretation into English and Spanish will be available.
Instructions for webinar access will be emailed to registered participants.
Semana, a Colombian newsmagazine that often exposes human rights wrongdoing in Colombia’s armed forces, published another scoop on May 1, 2020. Army intelligence units, it found, had been developing detailed dossiers on the personal lives of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, and possible military whistleblowers. The list of targets includes U.S. citizens who work in Colombia as reporters for major media outlets.
This is the latest of a long series of scandals involving illegal wiretapping, hacking, surveillance, or threats from Colombia’s powerful, U.S.-backed security and intelligence forces. Though Colombia has taken modest steps toward accountability over its military, the Semana revelations show us how fragile and reversible this progress is.
The purpose of intelligence should be to foresee and help prevent threats to law-abiding people and their freedoms. In a country where a social leader is murdered every other day, such threats abound. For scarce intelligence resources to be diverted away from those threats, and channeled instead to illegal and politicized ends, is a betrayal of public trust and an attack on Colombian democracy.
Preventing a further repetition of these intelligence abuses will require Colombia’s government to take bold steps. These include holding those responsible, at the highest levels, swiftly and transparently accountable for their crimes. Because U.S. assistance may be implicated in, or at least adjacent to, the military intelligence units’ actions, how Colombia responds must have giant implications for the integrity of the bilateral relationship and the ostensible purposes of U.S. aid. Any indication that these crimes may once again end up in impunity must trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid to the units involved.
What we know about the latest revelations comes mainly from Semana and other Colombian media. We lay it out in the following narrative.
Prehistory: this keeps happening
Unauthorized wiretapping scandals recur with numbing regularity in Colombia. In 2009, Semana—which tends to reveal most of these misdeeds—uncovered massive surveillance and threats against opposition politicians, judicial personnel, reporters, and human rights defenders. These were carried out by an intelligence body, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), that reported directly to President Álvaro Uribe. The DAS had already run into trouble earlier in Uribe’s government (2002-2010) for collaborating with paramilitary groups on selective killings. As a result of the 2009 scandal, the DAS was abolished in 2011.
In 2013 Colombia passed a landmark intelligence law prohibiting warrantless surveillance or intercepts, and put strong limits on judges issuing warrants against people who were not organized criminals, drug traffickers, or terrorists. The law created a congressional oversight body that has been largely inactive, while a commission to purge intelligence files issued a report that was not acted upon.
By 2014, army intelligence was at it again. Semana revealed the existence of a hacking operation, “Andromeda,” working out of what looked like a restaurant in western Bogotá. Its targets included government negotiators participating at the time in peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. Since then, efforts to hold accountable those responsible for Operation Andromeda have shown “no results to date,” according to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
President Juan Manuel Santos’s second term (2014-2018), marked by the conclusion of a peace accord with the FARC, was a quieter period for military human rights scandals. A moderate, and moderately reformist, high command implemented doctrinal changes and supported the peace process, while human rights groups documented fewer extrajudicial executions committed directly by the armed forces.
2019, a bad year for Colombia’s army
Progress reversed sharply in 2019. The high command that new President Iván Duque put into place, including Army Chief Gen. Nicacio Martínez, fell under criticism from human rights groups for their past proximity to “false positive” extrajudicial killings a decade earlier. Colombian media began gathering reports about increased abuses, and abusive behavior, at the hands of military personnel. Semana revealed that in a January meeting Gen. Diego Luis Villegas, the chief of the military’s “Vulcan Task Force” and now head of the army’s “Transformations Command,” said, “The army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over.… If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.”
In April, troops in Gen. Villegas’s task force killed a former FARC guerrilla in northeast Colombia’s volatile Catatumbo region. Semana reported later in the year that a colonel had told his subordinates that he wanted Dimar Torres dead. (Gen. Villegas apologized publicly for the killing, and the colonel is detained awaiting trial.)
In May 2019, the New York Times ran with a story that Semana had been sitting on: army chief Gen. Martínez and his commanders were reviving “body counts” as a principal measure of commanders’ effectiveness. Rather than measure territorial security or governance, army brass decided to require unit commanders to sign forms committing themselves to a doubling of “afectaciones”—armed-group members killed or captured—in their areas of operations. This raised concerns about creating incentives for “false positives”: killings of innocent civilians in order to pass them off as combatants to pad body counts, as happened thousands of times in the 2000s.
Whistleblowers within the military were the main sources for the Times story. Rather than upholding those whistleblowers and rethinking “body counts,” the high command launched a campaign to root out officers who talked to the media, including New York Times reporter Nicholas Casey. In what Semana revealed in July and called “Operación Silencio,” counterintelligence officers began interrogating and polygraphing army colleagues suspected of snitching. (We would learn in May 2020 what the army was doing at the time about Nicholas Casey.)
The second half of 2019 had more bumps for the army. Semana revealed corruption scandals, including selling permits to carry weapons and misuse of funds meant for fuel and other needs. These led to the firing of five army generals, including Gen. Martínez’s second in command. In November, the civilian defense minister, Guillermo Botero, was forced to resign amid allegations of a cover-up of an August bombing raid on a rearmed FARC dissident encampment, which killed eight children.
The January 2020 hacking revelations
After a stormy year-long tenure, Gen. Nicacio Martínez, the army commander, abruptly resigned on December 26, 2019. (The General told El Tiempo that he discussed his exit with his family on December 8, notified President Iván Duque the next day, and was out 17 days later.) On January 13, 2020, Semana published a bombshell cover story on what it called “the real reasons that caused the government to retire the army commander.”
This is an English translation of a statement signed by the U.S. and European human rights and humanitarian aid organizations whose logos appear above. (PDF en español)
International civil society organizations warn of the serious risk that misuse of state intelligence systems represents for peace and democracy in Colombia
The international civil society organizations that sign this communiqué express their solidarity with the more than 130 people, including journalists, members of political parties, NGOs defending human rights, and trade unionists who, according to Semana magazine investigations, have been victims of a new episode of illegal interceptions, through the implementation of a computer monitoring program, executed by several units of the national Army. These intercepts, which include even high officials of Iván Duque’s government, call into question the guarantees of constitutional and democratic principles in Colombia.
The results of this journalistic investigation are worrying: the surveillance took place in response to the publications, by the New York Times in early 2019 on the return of extrajudicial executions, and the investigation by La Liga Contra el Silencio and Rutas del Conflicto in July 2019 about agreements between extractive companies and the Ministry of Defense.
Freedom of expression is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, in Colombia it is a constitutional right (article 20) and it is essential, as stated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in its chapter VIII, for the development of democracy and for the full exercise of human rights.
As highlighted by the Office in Colombia of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, state intelligence systems should be used for the protection of human rights, and not to violate them. In this sense, we urge the Colombian State to take concrete measures to regulate these intelligence systems .
It is urgent that the Colombian State, in an exercise of transparency with the Colombian people and with the international community, carry out the pertinent investigations to clarify the origin of these actions and bring to the competent authorities those responsible for this very serious aggression against the work of human rights defense, freedom of the press, and guarantees to the political opposition in Colombia.
The Colombian State must, likewise, provide sufficient guarantees for life and integrity and the right to defense of individuals and organizations defending human rights in general and in particular of those who have been exposed with this illegal practice.
As international civil society organizations, we warn of the high risk of the sustainability of the peace process in Colombia, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with this type of persecution of the political opposition, added to the increase in murders of human rights defenders and ex-combatants from the Farc, which so far in 2020 already number more than 100, according to the records of Indepaz.
Intelligence systems must respect human rights and be subject to strict civil and judicial controls
Bogotá, May 6, 2000
In an investigation published on May 1, Colombian weekly news magazine Semana reported that between February and December 2019, Colombian army intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance of more than 130 individuals, including human rights defenders, national and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and other members of the military.
Among those who were illegally monitored are veteran U.S. journalists, as well as partners of WOLA like rural land reform advocate César Jerez, indigenous leader Senator Feliciano Valencia, and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), a non-governmental organization that has represented families of victims illegally killed by members of the military.
The report adds more detail to a previous Semana investigation that revealed a military intelligence unit was illegally wiretapping journalists, politicians, and others, including members of the Supreme Court. Since the new report’s publication on Friday, 11 military officials have been dismissed or resigned. The Attorney General’s Office said it is investigating Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who headed the army at the time; the Inspector General’s Office is also opening an investigation.
Colombia should be devoting its intelligence resources to investigating organized crime networks and establishing a state presence in territories still essentially controlled by armed groups. Intelligence should also be used when appropriate to support investigations by the Attorney General’s Office into the killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. Instead, what the Semana reports reveal is that military intelligence is targeting reformers and the free press. The perversity of this can’t be understated.
Colombia previously lived through a major illegal wiretapping scandal in 2009, involving the now-dissolved Administrative Security Directorate (DAS). In 2014, an army intelligence unit was discovered, also by Semana, to have been hacking the communications of government peace negotiators taking part in talks with the FARC.
In order to send the message that these types of anti-democratic activities are unacceptable and will not be tolerated, it is essential that both the civilian Attorney General’s Office and Inspector General’s Office conduct thorough and independent investigations, resulting in appropriate sanctions and disciplinary procedures against those who ordered the illegal monitoring. A further purging of state intelligence units may be necessary to guarantee that history will not repeat itself again. Additionally, in order to send a message that the state is taking transparency concerns seriously, authorities should declassify and release all information illegally obtained about human rights defenders.
While important security gains were made under the 2016 peace accord, the Colombian army is currently facing significant challenges, due in part to the Duque administration’s resistance to fully implementing the accord, the lack of a negotiations process with rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), and an ongoing struggle to confront paramilitary successor groups. As many as 15,000 people are in more than 20 rapidly growing armed groups across the country. Colombia’s budget crunch has left the armed forces with only 15 out of 42 Black Hawk helicopters in good operating conditions. The army should not be spending scarce resources on compiling intelligence dossiers on the phone numbers, vehicles, and even the voting sites used by journalists.
Troublingly, the Semana investigation notes that Colombian army cyber-intelligence battalions have received about US$400,000 from “a foreign intelligence agency.” A military source told the magazine, “The Americans aren’t going to be happy that part of their own money, from their taxpayers as they say, has been diverted from legitimate missions like the fight against terrorism and narcotrafficking, and ending up used to dig up dirt on the lives of reporters from important media outlets in their own country.”
That U.S. assistance may be even tangentially related to this military activity is extremely alarming. These revelations, which cap a year of human rights and corruption scandals in the army, demand a thorough reappraisal of U.S. military assistance to Colombia, with full participation of congressional oversight personnel. Congress should move to freeze U.S. military aid to Colombia at the first indication that the Colombian army is pushing to have this behavior tried in the military court system, failing to cooperate with civilian investigators, using delaying tactics, or otherwise stonewalling efforts to hold accountable those responsible.
Journalists, human rights defenders and military whistleblowers should not be treated as “internal enemies.” These advocates are doing important and valid work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices, at a crucial moment for Colombia’s security. The military should recognize this work as legal and legitimate, and as essential for helping the armed forces do its job better, at a time when it risks being hobbled by corruption and poor leadership.
On February 25 the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its annual report on the human rights situation in Colombia. It is a very useful document, full of hard-to-obtain statistics. It also makes some reasoned, high-credibility judgments about controversial topics like implementation of the peace accord and government efforts to protect threatened social leaders.
The Colombian Government didn’t like the report. President Iván Duque criticized “imprecisions” and “not telling the truth” about the government’s performance in implementing the FARC peace accord’s rural provisions, adding that the report’s recommendation that the National Police pass from the Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry was an “infringement of sovereignty.” High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, who is charged with implementing many peace accord commitments, said “I have no problem with being told that things are being done badly, but blunders [chambonadas] like this don’t lead to anything.”
This is not the first time that Colombia’s government and the OHCHR have had public disagreements since the office’s establishment in 1996. This won’t be the last time, either. The Office’s injection of inconvenient facts and perspectives into the high-level debate shows why its continued presence in Colombia, with a strong mandate, is so important.
Here are some highlights from the report:
On attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders
In 2019, OHCHR documented 108 killings of human rights defenders, including 15 women and two LGBTI defenders.
The Timely Action Plan initiated by the Ministry of Interior in December 2018 was developed to improve such coordination. To increase the effectiveness of this Plan, broader and more sustained participation of regional authorities and civil society should be prioritized.
Killings of women human rights defenders increased by almost 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2018.
Of the 108 killings documented by OHCHR, 75 per cent occurred in rural areas; 86 per cent in municipalities with a multidimensional poverty index above the national average; 91 per cent in municipalities where the homicide rate indicates the existence of endemic violence; and 98 per cent in municipalities with the presence of illicit economies and ELN, other violent groups and criminal groups. Fifty-five per cent of these cases occurred in four departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca and Caquetá. The sectors most affected continued to be those defending the rights of communities and ethnic groups, amounting to 65 per cent of all killings and sustaining a trend documented by OHCHR since 2016.
OHCHR continued to document attacks against representatives of Community Action Councils (JACs). 16 Especially in rural areas, JACs serve as the main body for communities’ political participation and the promotion of development and human rights initiatives. While noting a significant reduction from 2018, when it verified 46 cases, OHCHR documented 30 killings of representatives of JACs in 2019.
On the government’s response to these attacks
OHCHR appreciated the efforts of the Office of the Attorney General to investigate the cases it reported and noted some progress in 55 per cent of these cases, all of which occurred between 2016 and 2019. However, challenges persisted in the prosecution of intellectual authors of attacks against human rights defenders. The accused had been convicted in 16 per cent of the cases; 20 per cent were at trial stage; indictments had been issued in 7 per cent of cases; and a valid arrest warrant had been delivered in 11 per cent of cases.
The National Commission on Security Guarantees should be more regularly convened in order to fulfill its full role pursuant to the Peace Agreement, particularly concerning the dismantlement of criminal groups that succeeded the paramilitary organizations and were often responsible for killings of human rights defenders.
The Intersectoral Commission for Rapid Response to Early Warnings (CIPRAT) should sharpen its focus on human rights defenders, especially by defining coordinated and concrete measures to implement actions based on recommendations of the Ombudsman’s early warning system.
The Ministry of Interior’s National Protection Unit (UNP) made significant efforts to respond to the extraordinarily high demand for individual protection measures. Still, measures granted were not always adequate for the rural contexts in which most human rights defenders were killed. In 2019, six human rights defenders were killed in rural areas of Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Risaralda despite protection measures. Prevention and early warning should be prioritized over temporary, individual and reactive protection measures, which do not address the structural causes behind the attacks.
OHCHR highlights the need to increase collective protection measures. Such measures constitute a prevention mechanism, inasmuch as they seek to address risks faced by communities and organizations through the coordination of different authorities to advance human rights guarantees. Whereas the 2019 budget for collective protection measures represented merely 0.22 per cent of the budget of UNP, the implementation of collective protection measures was often hampered by coordination issues between national, departmental and municipal institutions.
On the military and human rights
OHCHR documented 15 cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life in Antioquia, Arauca, Bogotá, Cauca, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Santander and Valle del Cauca. This was the highest number of such cases OHCHR recorded since 2016. In 13 cases, the deaths appeared to have been caused by unnecessary and/or disproportionate use of force. According to information documented by OHCHR, in 11 cases the deaths occurred in military operations related to public security involving anti-narcotics and law enforcement activities. In six cases, the deaths were preceded by law enforcement activities that potentially could have allowed for the arrest of the suspects and thus avoided their killing. In one case, OHCHR observed that weak command and control appeared to result in the killing and attempted enforced disappearance of one person. The military was allegedly responsible in 10 cases and the police in four, while there was alleged joint responsibility for one killing. In all 15 cases, the Office of the Attorney General initiated investigations, but these did not appear to follow the Minnesota Protocol.
OHCHR documented cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life by members of the military and police. In following up on these cases, OHCHR was concerned that the military criminal justice system continued to request jurisdiction over such investigations. In some instances, the Office of the Attorney General even referred cases to the military justice system. In the case of El Tandil, Nariño, the Office of the Attorney General did not take the necessary actions to retain the case within its jurisdiction.
On blurring the lines between military and police
OHCHR observed an increased resort to the military to respond to situations of violence and insecurity. Despite existing protocols, norms and public policies regulating the participation of the military in situations related to public security, these were not fully applied in a range of settings, such as in rural areas in Arauca, Antioquia, Caquetá, Cauca, Córdoba, Cesar, Chocó, Meta, Nariño and Norte de Santander. Nor were they fully applied in urban centres, such as Convención, Medellín, Santa Marta and Valledupar, where the military conducted anti-narcotics operations and other law enforcement activities. Military training, equipment and the nature of military duties are inappropriate in such circumstances. According to police statistics, homicides increased in municipalities in Arauca, Norte de Cauca, Catatumbo and Sur de Córdoba, despite an increased military presence.
On 15 September, the General Command of the Colombian Armed Forces’ announcement establishing anti-riot squads composed of professional soldiers raised questions concerning Colombia’s respect for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ guidance related to the responsibility of the police, rather than the military, to maintain public order.
In line with the need to strengthen the police’s institutional capacity, OHCHR recommends transferring oversight of the police to the Ministry of Interior.
On “stabilization” and establishing state presence in ungoverned territories
Efforts to establish a comprehensive State presence, particularly of civilian authorities, including the Office of the Attorney General and the police have been insufficient, especially in rural areas. The five Strategic Zones for Comprehensive Intervention established by the Government through Decree 2278 of 2019 were created to address this vacuum. However, OHCHR observed that State presence in these areas has remained predominantly military and that the pace of establishing a stronger presence of civilian authorities was slow.
The Office of the Attorney General is present in almost half of Colombia’s municipalities. Nevertheless, it continued to face difficulties to reach rural areas, especially in Antioquia, Arauca, Amazonas, Caquetá, Cauca, Chocó, Guaviare, Huila, Meta, Nariño and Vaupés, greatly affecting its capacity to guarantee access to justice for all.
In 2018, 16 PDETs were formulated with high levels of community participation, including indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities. While this generated significant hope for the effective implementation of PDETs, during the reporting period, OHCHR observed few advances and minimal coordination with other relevant programmes, such as the Collective Reparation Plan contained in the Victims and Land Restitution Law and the Comprehensive National Programme for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS).
[T]he Comprehensive Rural Reform should be supported by an adequate budget to fully implement all of the plans, entities and mechanisms established in the Peace Agreement, rather than a limited focus on PDETs. However, the 2020 budget was reduced for all the institutions responsible for implementing the Comprehensive Rural Reform.
On illicit crop eradication and substitution
Police continued to recruit civilians to eradicate illicit crops. This practice exposes civilians to loss of life or injury due to the presence of anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance among the crops. Between January and November, 24 civilians and 8 antinarcotics police officers were affected by such devices in Tumaco, Nariño, while eradicating illicit crops.
OHCHR highlights the recent determination, in a joint report by the Government and United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), that 95 per cent of families participating in PNIS fulfilled the voluntary eradication requirement, whereas 0.4 per cent returned to the cultivation of illicit crops.