Colombia: Fighting Human Rights Abuses and Violence in Ciudad Bolívar

(IPS) – Human rights violations are still a major problem in Ciudad Bolívar, a poor suburb in the hills on the southwestern edge of the Colombian capital, despite some improvements.

Many of the nearly one million inhabitants of Ciudad Bolívar are people displaced by the civil war, who live alongside "demobilised" members of illegal armed groups.

That means that people who have fled the violence in their home regions and sought refuge in the sprawling suburb often come face to face with the same dangers that they thought they had left behind.

Forty-six percent of the displaced persons who flee to the capital from around the country end up in Ciudad Bolívar, which began to grow in the 1980s as a consequence of the armed conflict that has plagued Colombia for nearly half a century.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some three million people have been driven from their homes by the fighting between government forces and ultra-right paramilitaries on one hand and leftwing guerrillas on the other.

Colombia’s is one of the largest populations of internally displaced people in the world.

In Ciudad Bolívar, where 70 percent of the inhabitants are under 26, young people are frequently the targets of forced recruitment or violence by the paramilitary or insurgent groups that hold power in different parts of the district.

"The violence in the area came to a head in 1998 and 1999, then eased off, until it began to climb again in 2004 before peaking in 2005, with a total of 386 murders," Jairo Vargas, a Bogotá city government human rights official, told IPS.

"In late 2005, 128,000 people expressed their support for the ‘Mandate for Life’. Since then, the number of murders has gone down, with 142 fewer killings in 2007 than in 2006 — a major achievement," said Vargas.

The Mandate for Life, organised by civil society organisations, brought thousands of people — mainly youngsters — out on the streets in demonstrations in which they protested the widespread killings, forced disappearances and forced recruitment.

The members of the Mesa Local de Jóvenes de Ciudad Bolívar, made up of young people from the district, acknowledge that the levels of violence have gone down.

"But it isn’t sufficient," a 17-year-old high school student commented to IPS.

The student, who said he has been accepted by the National University of Colombia, the country’s most prestigious public university, as a result of "good luck and good grades," said "it is not sufficient because the commitments made are not always followed up on."

"Unfortunately, many police officers abuse their power," he added. "What we do is inform other young people of their rights, because if they are familiar with them, they will not be so afraid of pressing for respect for their rights."

For example, high school and college students cannot be detained in the street; young people completing their compulsory military service are not authorised to search or arrest people without the presence of a member of the Metropolitan Police; and only female police officers can search women — "essential questions that many people are unaware of," said the young man, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

"They used to stop us on the streets, throw us into trucks and haul us off to the police Comando de Atención Inmediata (CAI), where they would hit us, and if anyone so much as mentioned human rights, he was hit with a board that read ‘human rights’," he said.

Vargas said 10 workshops were held with representatives of the police and army, along with lectures and conferences — a process that gave rise to agreements aimed at improving relations between young people and the security forces.

"The district government, along with local authorities and around 30 non-governmental organisations, follow up on these questions every two months and we have confirmed that the situation has improved," said Vargas.

"Whereas up to 300 young people a week used to be rounded up and thrown into preventive detention, only around 20 are now arrested, and in a respectful manner. The agreements reached include avoiding any act that could be considered public humiliation, like trying the detainees to the flagpoles in the CAI, or handcuffing them."

"We have spoken about the issue of human rights with 250 local police officers and soldiers from the Arabia and Sierra Morena military bases," said Vargas. "The police commanders held a meeting with CAI officers, and the reports show that things have been calm for the last two months."

"The process will continue with training in human rights for young people and the police, with the aim of reducing armed and socio-political violence as much as possible," he added.

"I believe in the commitment and efforts made by the police and the army, like in the Inter-Institutional Early Alert Committee (CIAT) and the Humanitarian Panel for Ciudad Bolívar and Soacha," a neighbouring slum, he said.

The Humanitarian Panel, which was established last week, will help create and strengthen links between national and local institutions with a view to addressing the complaints of local residents about threats or the presence of members of irregular armed groups, for example.

According to the Defensoría (Office of the Ombudsman), at least "six paramilitary-type structures" were detected in the area in May, despite the controversial demobilisation negotiated in 2006 by the right-wing government of Álvaro Uribe and the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

But Vargas says there have been arrests of heads of paramilitary groups in the area, a clampdown on forced recruitment, and efforts to work with groups to prevent voluntary recruitment as well.

He also said, however, that relations with groups of demobilised paramilitaries in the area have been tense, because both victims (displaced persons) and victimisers are living in close proximity to each other.

He added, nonetheless, that local residents can now move about freely in the area, without danger.

In addition, he stressed that access to education, health care, jobs and public services like piped water, electricity and paved streets have greatly improved, and said "it is the presence of the state that prevents the activities of armed actors and curbs violence."

"But if every year the educational system spits 5,000 youngsters out on the streets, leaving them without possibilities of finding a job or entering the university, the situation becomes much more complex," said Vargas.