Living & Dying in Colombia (edited)

Aaron (
Sat, 2 Nov 1996 04:07:33 -0700

This is a repost, with reformatting and spelling corrections, of a two-part
post by 'esperanto <>' for Freedom Press
<>. The original post was apparently the
result of scanning and interpretation with OCR software, without human
editing. I take responsibility for any new errors.

I consider the second half more useful than the first, but have
nevertheless reposted the whole thing.

--In solidarity with anti-capitalist revolutionaries in Colombia and elsewhere,

Reproduced from Justicia y Paz, A Magazine of Human Rights for Colombia,
published by CSN, P.O. Box 1505, Madison, Wl 53701 USA.


Social and Human

Colombia is a country with absolutely staggering indices of criminality and
political violence. The 31,000 murders in Colombia in 1995 translate into a
per capita murder rate of 85 per 100,000, the highest in the world for any
country not at war and almost four times that of second place Brazil.
Political violence claimed almost 3,000 victims which is more than the
total number of cases of disappearances and murders (2,666) denounced to
the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Chile as having taken place
during 17 years of brutal military dictatorship. Sixty five percent of
these (in cases where it was possible to identify an individual or
individuals responsible) were attributable to the government, either
directly (army, police and state security organisms) or indirectly
(paramilitary groups and death squads).

Since 1990, more than 10 people have been killed daily for political
reasons and there are now more than 800,000 people who have been displaced
by political violence in the countryside. Last year there were 65 massacres
(the simultaneous killing of 4 or more individuals), 122 documented cases
of torture, and every three days a person was "disappeared." Not
surprisingly, military spending in Colombia increased 250% between 1990 and
1993 and today as a percentage of the country's GDP is, along with Cuba,
the highest in Latin America. Since 1988, the United States has pro vided
over $691 million for various military and "counter narcotics purposes, 74
percent of which was provided between 1990 and 1993. In spite of, or rather
because of, such "law enforcement" initiatives, the Colombian government's
own figures show that 97% of the country's crimes go unsolved and the
perpetrators unpunished.

In August 1994, during the 46th session of the UN Subcommission on the
Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, Colombia was the
second most criticised county in the world after Iran. Unless they look
beyond the headlines and read between the lines in what they hear about the
country, observers outside Colombia run a distinct risk of not seeing the
forest for the trees. No sector escapes the violence. Between 1990 and
1995, there were more union activists murdered in Colombia than in any
other country in the world. Since 1992, an annual average of 25 judges and
lawyers have been murdered or the victims or murder attempts. According to
Colombia's national statistics bureau, DANE, there were 2,190 children
murdered in 1993, an average of six per day, with the State directly
responsible for a significant percentage of them

Grappling with Colombian Violence

On an average day, 24 bodies are brought to the Bogota morgue - lO murder
victims, 6 accident fatalities and 8 others of undetermined violent causes.
Last year in Bogota, violence claimed more than 8,700 victims.

Ask a foreigner what's behind so much violence and the answer will probably
be ''drugs' Ask Dr. Gloria Suarez the same question, though, and she'll
single out intolerance and impunity. Take the case of 24 year old Bertha
Concha. After finishing Christmas shopping on December 11, Mrs. Concha and
her husband stopped a taxi on a downtown Bogota street in rush hour. As
they loaded their parcels into the cab, another taxi began honking
impatiently. When Mrs. Concha told him to "hold his horses", the driver
responded by getting out of his car and, in front of a dozen or so
witnesses shooting her twice in the head. Mrs. Concha died instantly, the
killer drove off and, after a week or so, public outrage gave way to

Dr. Suarez works at the National Institute of Forensic Medicine, a modern 7
story building just behind the Bogota morgue. She co-ordinates the National
Documentation Centre on Violence, the country's most comprehensive data and
research centre on violence. The Centre receives monthly reports and
statistics of violence from 133 checkpoints around the country. Dr. Suarez
- an epidemiologist who helped the Institute's clinical forensic unit for
two years before joining the Centre - and her staff are involved not only
in documenting cases and analysing trends but in designing strategies to
try and halt the violence. Early last year, she was one of two Colombian
doctors invited to a month-long specialization course in violence
prevention at the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta.

She returned with a renewed sense of purpose, she says, and today is
convinced that only drastic changes in the laws and the behaviour of
Colombians will have any real effect on the levels of violence. Among her
recommendations are that school curricula include classes introducing
mechanisms to resolve conflicts peacefully and on the futility of
violence; that illegal handguns ~ (there are an estimated 3-5 million of
them in circulation) be controlled; that the willy-nilly sale of alcohol
"on almost every street corner in the city" be stopped (Dr. Suarez says
that between 30% and 40% of the bodies admitted to the morgue show elevated
blood alcohol levels) and that campaigns to promote civic solidarity be
initiated in cities throughout the country. The first step, though, she
insists, is an acknowledgement of the real magnitude of the problem. "There
is no question that violence and the scars it leaves on families and in
communities is the country's number one problem. We simply cannot deny it
any longer."

Statistics of the social costs of violence in Colombia bear out Dr.
Suarez's analysis. Health Minister Augusto Galan - whose politician brother
was assassinated in 1989 - calls it the country's "number one public health
problem." Bogota's largest hospital, San Juan de Dios, devotes more than
65% of its already scanty operating budget to treating victims of violence
and trauma. That[?] year, a study by the Health Ministry found that the
total amount Colombian hospitals spend annually on victims of violence is
enough to provide basic health care to 4 million of the estimated 15
million poor Colombians who have no access to health care. But the violence
is only half the story with nation-wide impunity at 97%. For the over 3,600
murders last year in the city for example, Bogota police arrested less than
100 people. Presently, there are over a million criminal cases backlogged
in the judicial system. "So much abuse and so very little punishment," says
Dr. Suarez, "results in a feeling of powerlessness and resignation." "Out
there," she continues, motioning to the streets below her office, "there's
a murder every couple of hours. No one 'sees' or 'hears' anything and the
killer is not apprehended. What's worse, there's simply no deterrent for
him not to kill again." In spite of 'the fact that drug related violence
has never been responsible for more than 2% of the country's overall
violence, recent attempts to reform the Judicial system have focussed
almost exclusively on high-profile drug and terrorist crimes, leaving the
average Colombian as vulnerable as ever in the face of violent street
crime. Street crime, muggings, robberies and the like account for over 80%
of the country's murders each year. Five years ago, the Colombian
government responded to attacks and violence against lawyers and judges
involved in drug cases by setting up a parallel justice system. In
practice, this "faceless" justice system as it is known here has been used
much more to crack down on the country's legal political opposition than to
combat the drug traffickers and terrorists it was originally designed for.
That fact, combined with several of the system's most infamous
characteristics - judges' identities are kept secret, witnesses and
evidence against the accused are reserved and testimony from paid
informants is legally admissible has prompted national and international
legal experts and human rights groups to call for its abolition.

So what is being-done and what can be done to curb the violence?
Nationally, the government has instituted a program of paying for T.V.
commercials showing photos of "criminals" and offering rewards for
information leading to their capture. But the money for information
campaign is not without its critics. One of the most eloquent of them is
Jesuit Father Javier Giraldo who heads the Catholic Church's Justice and
Peace human rights commission. "By replacing ethical motives with economic
and monetary ones, the government has turned justice into a commodity which
is being bought and sold to the highest bidder throughout the country"

Over time, says Father Giraldo, the system "will have devastating
consequences on society's moral conscience." In Bogota, Mayor Antanas
Mockus has prohibited the sale of alcohol after 1 am. and promoted dozens
of barrio security associations. City police have installed a battery of
closed circuit cameras in strategic points throughout the city and
decentralised its 14,000 man police force, dividing it into three urban
"commandos," each responsible for a third of the city. Since September, the
1,000 strong Bloque de Busqueda, the elite police unit which successfully
hunted down some of the Cali cartel kingpins last summer, has been
operating in the city's southern slums.

Results, however, have been slow in coming and so far, as Dr. Suarez is
first to admit, authorities have been more successful in analyzing the
violence than in controlling it. In Bogota, for example, they know what
days of the week, time of day and parts of the city murders are most likely
to occur, that men between 18 and 34 are ten times more likely to be
murdered than anyone else, and that 9 of 10 killers get away. That is
something Dr. Suarez, a doctor who sees more death in one day than most
people see in a lifetime, wants desperately to change. On September 26,
1994, for the first time in the country's history, the Colombian
government agreed to participate in an intemational commission to
investigate human rights violations. The object of the commission's
investigation was the Trujillo massacre. Trujillo, a town of 25,000
nestled in the foothills of the western Andes in the department of Valle
de Cauca, was the scene of one of the bloodiest episodes in Colombian
history. In April, 1990 over 100 people were tortured and murdered by
police, army and hired killers (sicarios) working for locally-based drug

Two days after a skirmish between the Colombian Army and guerrillas from
the Ejercito de Liberation Nacional, a 17 year old youth was fingered by an
informant as one of the guerrillas. Under torture, the youth admitted 'to
belonging to the ELN'. Under more torture, he told the soldiers where the
guerrillas trained and named several locals as having helped them at one
time or an other. Then the nightmare began.

Later that night, 30 men some of them in military uniforms, others in
civilian clothes acting under the orders of army Maj. Alirio Uruena and a
paramilitary leader known as "el Tio," made a sweep through a nearby town
called La Sonora. Eleven people were dragged out of their homes, tied up
and taken to the hacienda of a well-known drug trafficker. What followed
reads like a horror novel.

"Just after 7 a.m., Maj. Uruena and 'el Tio' arrived. First, they had
breakfast. Then, the major and several members of the armed group demanded
each person's identification papers and belongings. Then they were
blindfolded and taken out one-by-one - the first was a 59 year old women -
to another part of the hacienda called 'la peladora.' Coffee sacks were
tied over the heads of the victims who were then thrown to the ground. Maj.
Uruena took a water hose, turned it on full force on the face of each
victim - the mouth and nose - and began to interrogate them. When he
finished, the victims were piled one on top of the other and someone called
for the blow torch and chainsaw. Each victim was decapitated, cut into
pieces with the chainsaw and left to bleed. The heads and torsos were put
into different sacks and, later that night, loaded onto a truck, driven to
the Cauca River, and dumped into the water."

This narrative is part of testimony given to Colombian judicial authorities
by Daniel Arcila, a civilian auxiliary to Uruena and eyewitness to the
tortures. It was taken from a 186 page report known as the Investigative
Commission into the Violent Events of Trujillo.

The slaughter in Trujillo continued throughout April. When the headless
body of the Rev. Tiberio Fernandez, the town's parish priest was fished out
of the water on April 23, he was the 27th victim of a three week killing
spree. It would continue.

In a frightening scenario which continues to be played out in much of the
Colombian countryside today, individuals involved in any kind of grassroots
work - farm cooperatives, small communal enterprises? church groups - are
pegged by the army as guerrilla sympathizers and targeted for elimination.

The Trujillo Commission tallied 107 victims in and around Trujillo in that
year of terror. Decapitated bodies washed up on the banks of the Cauca
River almost weekly.

By the end of the first week Arcila could stand it no longer and fled to
Bogota where he told the Colombian Attorney General's Office of the horrors
he had witnessed.

In spite of his testimony, justice was not served. By December 1992,
investigations into the alleged authors of the massacre had concluded and
all were acquitted. Months later, during a visit back to Trujillo, Arcila
was "disappeared" in the town's central square by a group of armed men.
With the perpetrators of the atrocities unpunished and all national
channels exhausted, the director of Justicia y Paz, Jesuit Father Javier
Giraldo decided to take the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human
Rights in Washington, DC. Continued international cooperation and pressure,
resulted in a September, 1994 meeting in Washington during which the
Colombian government, represented by its Presidential Counselor for Human
Rights, and Justice and Peace, representing 63 victims of the Trujillo
massacre, signed an agreement to set up a joint commission to investigate
the murders.

This 19-member commission included representatives from the Ministries of
Foreign Relations and the Interior, the Senate and House of
Representatives, the Ministry of Defense, the national Police, the Attorney
General's office, the Catholic Church, five of the country's most prominent
Human Rights NGOs, and was chaired by the Colombian Human Rights ombudsman.
Operating under the auspices of the InterAmerican Commission, it had until
December 31, 1995 to conclude its investigation and generate its
conclusions and recommendations

The commission's conclusion - that the macabre series of torture and
murders between 1988 and 1990 was carried out by members of the Colombian
army, police and drug traffickers, and that members of the govemment and
the justice system covered it up - attracted considerable international
attention. On January 31, 1995, after receiving the commission's final
report, Colombian President Ernesto Samper was applauded nationally and
internationally for finally and publicly acknowledging government
responsibility for the atrocities of Trujillo.

The next day, Uruena, (who was "trained' at the U.S. Army School of the
Americas and who was promoted to colonel after Trujillo) was removed from
active service by the defense minister. Predictably, the Colombian Army
rallied around him, characterizing him as an officer with an "exemplary
military career."

Despite President Samper's public acceptance of responsibility for the
massacre and his promise to honor an intemational commission's
recommendations to sanction the guilty and compensate the victims, he has
done almost nothing. In April, 1995, the Colombian Attorney General
overturned the ruling which absolved Uruena and he was officially sacked.
This move, however, did little more than make Uruena ineligible for any
future military benefits or pension. A slap on the wrist considering the
magnitude of his crimes.

Now out of the international spotlight the Colombian government has made no
effort to move on the investigative commission's recommendations. What
has it done? In addition to Uruena, the Trujillo police chief who turned a
blind eye to the atrocities going on around him was removed from active
service. No criminal charges have been laid against them or anyone else
named in the report as having participated in the killings. As for the
social and cultural program promised residents of Trujillo the money to
compensate victims, the resettlement program for families forced out of the
town during the two year reign of terror, and the job creation and training
schemes for the children of victims, all of them remain "under discussion."
Not one penny of the US$8.5 million program of social spending and
compensation promised by the government to the people of Trujillo has
reached the town or the victims. Only the list of victims has lengthened.
Further investigation has turned up over 140 more and the list now holds
250 names.

Rev. Giraldo calls the Government's admission of responsibility "single
drop in an ocean of impunity" and is not optimistic about there ever being
justice for the victims of the Trujillo massacre. "The witnesses have
simply been through too much and are too intimidated and afraid now. You
know, some of the individuals who participated in the massacre are still
there in Trujillo, in broad daylight, armed, and driving around in their
Jeeps just blocks away. I just don't think that Colombian government
measures will change any of that now and bring them to justice."

Tragic, but not really surprising, the atrocities of Trujillo will almost
certainly remain in absolute impunity.

Next Issue:

Colombian Assassins who Trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas
Reproduction of articles:

Permission is hereby granted, provided Justicia y Paz is cited as follows:
Reproduced from Justicia y Paz, A Magazine of Human Rights for Colombia,
published by CSN, P.O. Box 1505, Madison, Wl 53701 USA.

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