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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Corruption, Human Rights Scandal Rocks the Colombian Armed Forces

This post first appeared on Just Americas: A Blog by LAWG. It was written by Lisa Haugaard, Director of the Latin America Working Group .

Colombia’s Semana magazine revealed in February a massive corruption scandal involving the top ranks of Colombia’s armed forces. Officials were skimming up to 50 percent off of lucrative military contracts. “Give us 5 billion [pesos] and give the other companies 3. If we are all eating, no one will pick a fight,” said one colonel.

Top military commanders, as well as personally benefitting from this corruption, were steering contracts to officers and soldiers under investigation and detained in military garrisons for involvement in extrajudicial executions. According to Semana , “this was a system to buy their silence and ensure that they did not implicate higher-level officials in the sadly famous practice of false positives.”

Colombia’s Attorney General's office is investigating cases, known as the “false positives,” in which over 4,200 people were allegedly extrajudicially executed by members of Colombia's armed forces. Many additional cases are, inappropriately according to Colombian law, still in the military justice system. In the vast majority, these are not cases of civilians who were killed in crossfire but rather of people, usually young men from poor urban and rural neighborhoods, who were detained or lured with promises of jobs, executed and dressed in guerrilla clothing to look like enemy dead, to increase the army's body count. The majority of these killings occurred from 2004 to 2008. In 2009, reforms introduced by then-Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, including insisting that these cases be transferred to civilian courts rather than the military courts that never punished them, helped to reduce this horrific practice.

While there has been progress in some cases, the majority of extrajudicial executions remain in impunity. The vast scope of these crimes and the similar pattern throughout geographic regions suggest high-level involvement, yet investigations to date have focused on soldiers and lower-level officials, with not a single case against a general, brigade or division commander advanced beyond preliminary stages. In late 2013, a law promoted by President Juan Manuel Santos which would have resulted in more such crimes being assigned to military rather than civilian courts was struck down on procedural grounds by the Constitutional Court. President Santos has pledged to reintroduce this regressive law.

Military officials detained and jailed for extrajudicial executions continue to be held in military garrisons where they retain special privileges, can run businesses and can leave freely. Indeed, according to Semana, one “detained” colonel appeared to spend so much time in his apartment, shopping centers, and the Jockey Club that anyone wanting to see him in jail had to make an appointment. In 2011, when Semana exposed the “prison resort” of Tolemeida, the Defense Ministry promised to put an end to these privileges—but two years later, they are still endemic.

In one of the most disturbing revelations, Semana reported that armed forces chief Leonardo Barrero told an officer who was under investigation for extrajudicial executions to “get together and work up a mafia” to denounce the Attorney General’s human rights prosecutors.

The Santos Administration Responds. President Santos dismissed armed forces chief Leonardo Barrero on February 18, replacing him with General Juan Pablo Rodriguez. While Barrero’s dismissal is positive, it is concerning that General Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar has been promoted to command the army. Lasprilla oversaw a unit with a pattern of extrajudicial killings when he was commander of the Army’s 9th Brigade in Huila in 2006-07. According to an analysis compiled by Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Attorney General’s office is investigating 38 extrajudicial executions by 9th Brigade soldiers under his command, and the Jesuit research center CINEP and other human rights groups have documented an additional 37 alleged extrajudicial executions.

Spying on the Government—and the President. But this is hardly the only military scandal in the news. A Colombian military intelligence unit was revealed in January to have been spying on the government’s own peace negotiators out of “Bugglyhacker,” a Bogotá internet café. Newspaper reports indicated that army intelligence was also spying on the Attorney General’s office, police, human rights groups and journalists, in a disturbing echo of the Uribe Administration’s intelligence scandal, which resulted in the disbanding of the presidential intelligence agency, the DAS. Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón subsequently sacked two top military intelligence leaders. President Santos initially condemned the spying as illegal, and then backpedaled.

Semana magazine’s coverage also highlighted a wiretapping room known as the “Grey Room,” for which, according to the article, the CIA had provided equipment and training. While the room was supposedly intended for the army to carry out legal wiretaps with the presence of representatives from the Attorney General’s office, Semana asserted that Colombian military intelligence during 2013 used it for unauthorized wiretaps, leading to it being shut down.

In February, President Santos denounced the interception of his own personal emails. It is not yet known who was behind that spying; the President himself speculated that it was an attempt to weaken his reelection bid.

A military source told El Espectador that sectors of the military were concerned that the peace talks could result in reducing their size, limiting their mission to external defense, and limiting their social and economic power; and particularly, that they are concerned they will face justice for crimes while the guerrillas will negotiate judicial benefits.

Defense Minister Pinzón at a Center for American Progress briefing on February 27 asserted that President Santos has stated that the role and size of the military will not be negotiated in the peace talks, in contrast to peace accords in Central America and Africa. Mr. Pinzón laid out an extremely expansive vision of the role of the armed forces post-peace accord, ranging from border security to confronting drug trafficking, transnational crime and continued armed violence in an accord’s aftermath; and from addressing climate change to expanding the military’s role in development. He strongly emphasized increasing Colombia’s role in security training globally, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean. These kinds of words are intended to reassure members of the military that they will keep their substantial role and privileges if a peace accord is reached. But they are hardly reassuring to Colombian victims of violence by the armed forces and communities that have endured the brunt of the war from all sides.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Yes to Peace in Colombia

By: Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group Education Fund

This blog appeared in the Huffington Post

As Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met this week with President Barack Obama, it’s time to say, Yes to peace.

In November 2013, the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group signed an agreement, the second of five agreements which together will make up a final peace accord. With this second agreement, two of the most difficult topics, land and political participation, have been negotiated, showing that this peace process has a real chance to end a fifty-year war in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, kidnapped and disappeared, and some 6 million people have been forcibly displaced.

It’s positive that the U.S. government is supporting this peace process, Colombia’s best hope for a sustainable peace in decades. The United States should support it decisively. U.S. policymakers must also consider how best to support a peace accord financially once negotiations are finalized, including by reorienting aid away from military assistance and towards demobilization and reintegration programs, support for victims of violence, and mechanisms for truth, justice and reparations.

The Colombian government should facilitate greater participation for victims of violence—including Afro-Colombian and indigenous people and women—in the peace process and its implementation. Strong measures of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition are essential if this agreement is to produce a just and lasting peace, as this letter by a wide range of U.S. faith-based organizations emphasizes.

And the Colombian government would be wise to open peace negotiations with the remaining, smaller guerrilla groups, to use this momentum to put an end to war.

But Colombia cannot achieve a sustainable peace without addressing its core human rights problems. Colombia’s human rights crisis is far from over. As noted in a statement by the Latin America Working Group, Washington Office on Latin America, US Office on Colombia, and Center for International Policy:

The Colombian government must make greater progress in dismantling paramilitary successor groups. In November 2013 alone, more than 2700 people, largely Afro-Colombian, were displaced in Buenaventura, allegedly by paramilitary successor groups. These brutal groups are also responsible for many of the threats and attacks against human rights defenders and are an obstacle to implementing the government’s land restitution program. Dismantling paramilitary successor groups—including by investigating and prosecuting the members of the military and police, local politicians, government officials, large landowners and companies that continue to finance and collude with them—is essential for human rights progress in Colombia.

Colombia must bring to justice the cases of the more than 3,000 alleged extrajudicial executions, most attributed to the armed forces, committed in the past decade. The Colombian Constitutional Court's decision to overturn the new, controversial law that would have expanded military jurisdiction affords the Santos Administration an opportunity to move forward, not backward, and ensure that human rights crimes allegedly committed by soldiers are effectively tried in civilian courts. Progress in bringing to justice cases of sexual violence committed by all armed actors is also essential.

The Colombian judicial system must make advances in prosecuting threats and attacks against human rights defenders. Those who defend human rights continue to face grave risks for their work, yet attacks against them are almost never investigated, let alone prosecuted. Though the Santos Administration has implemented important protection programs, it is essential to confront the problem at its source by ending impunity in attacks against defenders.

The Colombian government must meet its obligations to respect labor rights. To secure passage of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, which faced significant public and congressional opposition, the U.S. and Colombian governments signed a Labor Action Plan (LAP) that laid out steps that the Colombian government agreed to take in order to protect labor unionists and increase respect for labor rights. It was good to hear the White House mention this, but we need action. The Colombian and U.S. governments must fulfill the pledge they made to the U.S. and Colombian publics by signing this plan.

While the number of deaths of labor union members has declined and Colombia has created institutions and passed laws, respect for labor rights has not improved on the ground. At least 11 trade unionists have been murdered in 2013 and hundreds have received death threats. As highlighted in a congressional report, “The US-Colombia Labor Action Plan: Failing on the Ground,” indirect employment is still pervasive and growing, the inspection system is ineffective, workers’ protections are weak and the right to organize is routinely denied.

Finally, the Colombian government must make progress in safe and sustainable land restitution for victims of forced displacement as well as land titling for Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The Santos’ Administration’s Victims’ Law represents a historic opportunity for land restitution to Colombia’s internally displaced population and reparations for victims of violence. However, land restitution has been extremely slow, and even the vast majority of those who receive restitution are not yet able to return safely to their lands, as the structures that caused displacement remain intact (see Human Rights Watch's The Risk of Returning Home and Latin America Working Group's Far from the Promised Land). Land titling of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities is also proceeding at a snail's pace.

Land restitution cannot take place safely without more decisive action by the Colombian government to address the sources of violence from all armed actors—including paramilitaries, guerrillas and the armed forces—that caused people to flee their homes in the first place. It is especially crucial to dismantle the illegal paramilitary successor groups that still wage violence in the countryside, as well as to investigate and prosecute state and private actors that aid or employ them. The Colombian government should also ramp up legal services and protection for victims, and increase protection for land judges.

Colombia is still experiencing a human rights crisis. But if a peace accord is finalized in the near future, and if the Colombian government increases its attention to these human rights and labor rights issues, there is a real chance that Colombians, including those caught for decades in one of the world’s most brutal conflicts, can live their lives in peace.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Honduran Elections: No Cause for Celebrations

By: Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group Education Fund

The November 24, 2013 elections in Honduras and their aftermath are a critical moment for the direction of the country. In June 2009 a coup overthrew the elected president, Liberal Party member Manuel Zelaya. In this month´s election, Zelaya´s wife Xiomara Castro de Zelaya under the new Libre party banner ran against the National Party´s Juan Orlando Hernandez, the traditional Liberal Party, a new Anti-Corruption Party and several others.

The Supreme Electoral Council declared the National Party’s Juan Orlando Hernandez the winner, followed by Libre, with the Liberals, and the Anti-Corruption Party also receiving a significant share of votes. The newer parties’ significant vote count has altered the traditional two-party (National, Liberal) Honduran political scene.

But it is far from time to celebrate a free and fair election.

The International Human Rights Federation observation team in which Latin America Working Group participated, observing the human rights context as well as electoral mechanics, congratulated the Honduran people for a strong turnout, but observed the following serious problems:

Incentives for voting, provided by one party. The National Party had booths outside voting places where voters could pick up an envelope with their name on it with a card with discounts for telephone, food, medical care and pharmacy products. This was widespread and open, with the party having run ads promoting it.

Live people declared dead. Our small team met at least 20 people who had been declared dead and were unable to vote, as well as others whose voting places had been changed, making it difficult for them to vote. “They have not yet managed to kill me yet,” said one very angry “dead” woman we met at a Libre party booth outside a polling place. Many of these people told us that they had voted at the same voting place in last year´s primary.

Oppressive presence of the military. Honduran law unfortunately confers upon the armed forces the role of transporting and guarding electoral material and filled ballots. This law needs to be changed. The presence of the military on this election day was oppressive. Soldiers with automatic weapons had a prominent presence at voting centers, and in one case we observed soldiers frisking voters as they entered the polling place. Soldiers surrounded the transmission towers of progressive radio and television stations on election day.

Among the other problems we observed or which were reported to us were a complete lack of transparency in campaign financing, allegations that smaller parties were selling their pollwatcher credentials, immigration agents harassing some international observers, and the fact that the Supreme Electoral Council was formed by four of the nine parties running, rather than being strictly nonpartisan.

However, the allegations of fraudulent acts with the most impact would be in the transmission of votes between the polling places and the Supreme Electoral Council. Our mission noted with concern before the elections that this system appeared vulnerable to fraud. Two parties, Libre and the Anti-Corruption Party, are contesting the results of the elections and demanding to see the results from the individual polling places and a complete recount of ballots.

The Supreme Electoral Council must satisfy the legitimate demands of these parties for complete and transparent scrutiny of contested ballots. International observers should audit the vote transmission system, and the Honduran Attorney General’s office for Electoral Crimes should investigate carefully all claims of fraudulent activity.

In the long term, Honduran election law could be improved by removing the military from a role in administering elections, ensuring that the Supreme Electoral Council is nonpartisan, improving the voter rolls and ensuring transparency in campaign financing.

On the day after the elections, a small, peaceful protest by frustrated Libre voters approached the plaza where the Supreme Electoral Council had set up operations in a hotel. Some 150 heavily-armed police, including the anti-riot police with their tear gas and shields, and the black-clad military police, blocked their entrance. There was no violence, not with international electoral observers in their jackets and the international press in the nearby hotels. But what will happen now that the observers and the press have packed up and left?

The enormous frustration of voters who feel that once again the faith that they have placed in the electoral system has been violated needs to be heard and needs a solution. It must not meet teargas and batons.

The international community should be concerned about these elections and their aftermath.

We must also be concerned about the overall human rights context in Honduras. Yes, there is an extremely high murder rate due to organized crime and street crime. But there are also targeted killings of and threats against human rights defenders, including those who denounce human rights abuses, protect women´s rights and protest environmentally damaging projects such as mining and dams. Journalists and members of the LGBTI community are targeted. Police and other state actors are implicated in many cases, and the vast majority of these crimes remain in total impunity. The human rights unit of the Attorney General’s office that should investigate many of these crimes has been weakened by the recent transfer of dedicated prosecutors.

Nothing to celebrate yet.

Friday, October 5, 2012

"Just the Facts" Conference videos now online

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.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Latin American and Caribbean Public Security Ministers Convene in Mexico City

Public Security Ministers representing 34 Latin American and Caribbean countries are meeting in Mexico City for the First Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Public Security in the Americas, a forum convened by the Organization of American States (OAS) to consider joint strategies to tackle "the scourge of crime and violence worldwide."

Upon opening the two-day meeting, OAS Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, said that insecurity in Latin America "is an epidemic or a plague that kills more people than AIDS."

The goal of the meeting is to develop an international strategy against organized crime called, an "Agreement for Public Security in the Americas," that will focus on narcotrafficking and kidnapping in addition to common crimes and violence.

Below you will find links to various articles about the meeting:

In Mexico, OAS' Insulza calls for regular meeting of security ministers and joint action to tackle transnational crime, OAS Press Release (in English)

OAS: Crime is an "epidemic" worse than AIDS, El Nuevo Diario (in Spanish).

Calderón Convenes a Common Front Against Crime before the OAS, El Universal (in Spanish).

The OAS believes insecurity in Latin America is worse than any economic crisis, Hoy (in Spanish)