Government must Protect Civilians, Prosecute Groups’ Members and Accomplices
Colombia needs to respond effectively to the violent groups committing human rights abuses that have emerged around the country in the aftermath of the flawed demobilization of paramilitary groups, Human Rights Watch says in a report released on Feb. 3.
The 122-page report, “Paramilitaries’ Heirs: The New Face of Violence in Colombia,” documents widespread and serious abuses by successor groups to the paramilitary coalition known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC). The successor groups regularly commit massacres, killings, forced displacement, rape, and extortion, and create a threatening atmosphere in the communities they control. Often, they target human rights defenders, trade unionists, victims of the paramilitaries who are seeking justice, and community members who do not follow their orders. The report is accompanied by a multimedia presentation that includes photos and audio of some of the Colombians targeted by the successor groups.
“Whatever you call these groups – whether paramilitaries, gangs, or some other name – their impact on human rights in Colombia today should not be minimized,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Like the paramilitaries, these successor groups are committing horrific atrocities, and they need to be stopped.” Based on nearly two years of field research, the report describes the successor groups’ brutal impact on human rights in Colombia, highlighting four regions where the groups have a substantial presence: the city of Medellín, the Urabá region of Chocó state, and the states of Meta and Nariño.
The successor groups pose a growing threat to the enjoyment of human rights in Colombian society. The most conservative estimates, by the Colombian National Police, put the groups’ membership at over 4,000, and assert that they have a presence in 24 of Colombia’s 32 departments. The groups are actively recruiting new members and despite arrests of some of their leaders, they are moving quickly to replace their leadership and expand their areas of operation.
The rise of the groups has coincided with a significant increase in the national rates of internal displacement from 2004 at least through 2007. Much of the displacement is occurring in regions where successor groups are active. In some areas, like Medellín, where the homicide rate has nearly doubled in the past year, the groups’ operations have resulted in a dramatic increase in violence.
The report documents multiple examples of successor group abuses, including the following:
- While a human rights defender was providing assistance to a victim of the paramilitaries at the victim’s home in Antioquia, members of a successor group calling themselves the Black Eagles broke into the house, raped both women, and warned the rights defender to stop doing human rights work. She eventually had to flee town due to continued threats from the group.
More than 40 people from the Pablo Escobar neighborhood of Medellín were forced to flee their homes between late 2008 and early 2009 as a result of killings and threats by the local armed group, which is partly made up of demobilized paramilitaries.
- In the southern border state of Nariño, most residents in three communities in the coastal municipality of Satinga were displaced after one of the successor groups (then using the name Autodefensas Campesinas de Nariño, or Peasant Self Defense Forces of Nariño) went into one of the towns, killed two young men, and reportedly caused the forced disappearance of a third.
The emergence of the successor groups was predictable, Human Rights Watch said, largely due to the Colombian government’s failure to dismantle the paramilitary coalition’s criminal networks during the demobilization process, between 2003 and 2006. The government’s inadequate implementation of the demobilizations also allowed paramilitaries to recruit civilians to pose as paramilitaries for the demobilization, while keeping portions of their membership active. The report describes, for example, the North Block demobilization, where there is substantial evidence of fraud ordered by AUC leader Rodrigo Tovar (known as “Jorge 40”).
The report also expresses concern over alleged toleration of successor groups’ activities by some state officials and government security forces. Both prosecutors and senior members of the police said that such toleration was a real obstacle to their work. And in each of the cities and regions Human Rights Watch visited it heard repeated allegations of toleration of successor groups by security forces.
In Nariño, for example, one man complained that “the Black Eagles interrogate us, with the police 20 meters away… [Y]ou can’t trust the army or police because they’re practically with the guys.” In Urabá, a former official said the police in one town appeared to work with the successor groups: “It’s all very evident… The police control the entry and exit [of town] and … they share intelligence.” In Meta, an official said he received “constant complaints that the army threatens people, talking about how ‘the Cuchillos’ [the main successor group in the region] are coming… In some cases, the army leaves and the Cuchillos come in.”
Human Rights Watch said that the Colombian government has legal obligations to protect civilians from harm, prevent abuses, and ensure accountability for abuses when they occur.
But the government has failed to ensure that the police units charged with combating the groups, or the prosecutors charged with investigating them, have adequate resources. It has dragged its feet on funding for the Early Warning System of the Ombudsman’s Office, which plays a key role in protecting the civilian population. State agencies have at times denied assistance to civilians who reported being displaced by successor groups. And the government has failed to take effective measures to identify, investigate, and punish state officials who allegedly tolerate the successor groups.
“The Uribe administration has failed to treat the rise of the successor groups with the seriousness the problem requires,” Vivanco said. “The government has taken some steps to confront them, but it has failed to make a sustained and meaningful effort to protect civilians, investigate these groups’ criminal networks, and go after their assets and accomplices.”