Increases in U.S. military funding have been accompanied by an increase in the number of extrajudicial killings by the Colombian military, according to a report released on July 29 by the Fellowship on Reconciliation (FOR) and the U.S. Office on Colombia (USOC). The report, “Military Assistance and Human Rights: Colombia, U.S. Accountability, and Global Implications,” documents the Colombian armed forces’ use of extrajudicial executions from 2002 (three years after the United States significantly increased its military aid to the country through Plan Colombia) to the present. The report reviewed over 3000 cases of extrajudicial executions and 500 military units receiving U.S. aid.
Since passing Plan Colombia in 1999, the United States has given Colombia more than $5 billion in military assistance, according to Amnesty International. The majority of the aid goes to the military and police for counternarcotics and counterterrorism efforts. One example of this is the $98 million of U.S. funding directed to the Infrastructure Security Strategy program, meant to protect Colombia’s Caño Limon‐Covejas oil pipeline.
The extrajudicial executions reviewed by the FOR/USOC report are mostly cases in which military units have killed civilians in order to inflate the body count of guerrillas they have supposedly killed in action. “The majority of cases we are analyzing are not misidentifications,” said John Lindsay-Poland of the FOR, but rather the deliberate targeting of civilians. “Success” in the anti-guerrilla fight is measured by kills, says Lindsay-Poland. “It is not about whether there is greater security for civilians or whether there is justice in the country.”
Colombian military units receive financial rewards for the number of guerrillas they kill, which often motivates them to execute individuals who have no connection whatsoever to the country’s armed conflicts. In one case described in the FOR/USOC report, poor community members from Bogotá were baited by a so-called “recruiter” to a faraway community with the promise of jobs and were then killed by the Colombian military. The 17 responsible soldiers were released without being tried.
“Although these killings were not committed as part of an official policy,” said Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, in his Colombia report to the United Nations, “I found that many military units engaged in so-called ‘false positives’ . . . in which victims were murdered by the military, often for soldiers’ personal benefit or profit.”
The FOR/USOC report found a spike in military extrajudicial killings that directly correlated with increased U.S. aid. Similarly, it found a decrease in the number of executions among units that received the largest decreases in aid.
Further, units that showed increased executions after receiving assistance usually had a history of such killings before receiving aid, contradicting theories that increased U.S. funding leads to improved behavior by foreign militaries who temper their behavior in response to feeling watched.
The Leahy Law
The direct correlation between increased U.S. funding and increased military killing calls into question the U.S. government’s compliance with the Leahy Law, named for U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The Leahy Law forbids the United States from providing funding to military units that are treated with impunity after committing human rights abuses.
According to this law, U.S. funding may continue if “effective measures” are taken to prosecute responsible military units. The State Department documents analyzed by the report, however, reveal that only 1.5% of reported extrajudicial killings since 2002 resulted in a conviction. Additionally, official investigations by the Colombian Attorney General were opened only for half of the 3,014 cases analyzed.
Based on these findings, the report states, “Our analysis strongly suggests that implementation of Leahy Law in Colombia requires suspension of assistance to nearly all Army fixed brigades and many mobile brigades.”
Although State Department officials have said that the Leahy Law is implemented more effectively in Colombia than almost anywhere else in the world, the report argues that the law is not high on Washington’s priority list. Not only has the State Department failed to promote the investigation of military units receiving funding, there is only one person on the U.S. Embassy staff in Colombia (a staff of 1,400 employees) responsible for investigating or vetting the tens of thousands of individuals eligible for military aid. Also, human rights abuses perpetrated by the Colombian armed forces tend to receive minimal news coverage. If the responsible military unit is not identified for a killing in question, the State Department may dismiss the case, greatly decreasing the number of reported extrajudicial executions. Many times, says Lindsay-Poland, enforcement of the Leahy Law is a matter of political will. “Often,” he says, “the State Department knows about these violations but that gets overwritten by a larger policy concern.”
Alternative Theories for Increased Executions Debunked
The FOR/USOC report debunks alternative explanations, often promoted by supporters of military assistance to Colombia, for the correlation established between increased military assistance and increases in executions.
One argument is that military aid is directed to zones with preexisting high levels of violence. However, this theory fails to explain why there is an increase in violence after the aid is received. “Such an increase in violence would also raise serious questions about the efficacy of assistance, since it would indicate that U.S. assistance was contributing to greater violence overall,” reads the report.
Another theory is that additional funding increases the number of soldiers in Colombia and not necessarily the number of extrajudicial killings per solider. While funding increased the number of units, the number of soldiers within each unit remained fairly unchanged. The report measured changes in the number of extrajudicial killings within the same army unit.
Similarly, there was not an overall increase in Colombia’s population, which could explain the increase in extrajudicial deaths.
Finally, the report considered reporting bias. Yet this explanation was discounted given that analyzed data comes from human rights organizations that are blind to whether a given unit receives U.S. funding.
“While we could not fix the causes of increased reports of killings after increases in U.S. assistance, our findings highlight the need for a thorough investigation into the reasons for this apparent correlation,” reads the FOR/USOC report. Indeed, the Leahy Law stipulates that all previous killings need to be tried legally before the Colombian military can continue to receive U.S. military funding.
Since November 2008, there has been a noted decrease in the number of extrajudicial killings by military units, which the report attributes to the work of human rights groups in Colombia. Yet these killings continue to occur, albeit in smaller numbers, and the Colombia Commission of Jurists has processed 16 such cases that took place between November 2008 and March 2010. In addition, there has been a disconcerting rise in reported killings by paramilitary forces in proportion to the decrease in executions attributed to the Colombian military itself.
The Colombia report makes several recommendations on the basis of its findings. It recommends that the State Department document human rights abuses perpetrated by U.S. aided-military units; that Washington fully implement the Leahy Law; and that judicial justice for existing cases of extrajudicial killings be vigorously pursued.
The published report has implications for other countries receiving U.S. military assistance, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Mexico. Pakistan, for example, was recently accused of 236 extrajudicial killings at the hands of its military since 2008. “Our findings regarding the human rights impacts of U.S. military assistance in Colombia suggest the importance of examining the same questions in other nations receiving large amounts of such aid,” states the report.
The FOR/USOC report has been sent to several State Department officials, although there has not yet been any official response to its findings. The Fellowship Of Reconciliation and the U.S. Office on Colombia, says Lindsay-Poland, hope that the publication of the report will help make the United States more accountable to its own laws, gain political support for the suspension of military aid to Colombia, and identify the implications of military aid to other countries. He says he is “optimistic that it can open up debate.”
Paola Reyes is a NACLA Research Associate.