From January 25 to February 7, 1995, seven members of Witness for Peace visited Colombia to investigate the human rights situation there. This delegation met with numerous government and non-government human right organizations.
US media perpetuates the myth that Colombia’s violence is due only to narcotic traffic. In fact the root causes of the violence are very complex. Removing the cartels would only marginally impact the violence. There are killings due to conflicting political ideologies, "social cleansing" of undesirables, conflicts over land, vigilante action and general street crime. According to Amnesty International, about 11% of the killings are by the government or paramilitaries against political rivals. For example, in 1989 the state of Meta elected eleven mayors from the leftist UP party. Nine of these mayors have been killed along with thousands of UP members. An estimated 600,000 people have been displaced by political violence. To cover up these killings, the government condones a general impunity to murder that creates widespread violence.
The single greatest obstacle to the systematic enforcement of individual rights in Colombia is the justice system. Only 3% of murders in Colombia are brought to trial. Judges at all levels are assassinated, poorly paid and poorly respected. The military has jurisdiction over its members in all situations and has a very poor record of prosecuting for human rights violations. There is a separate "public order’ justice system for political offenses which is often used to prosecute opponents for political gain (94% of the cases in the "public order" system are not related to drugs or terrorism).
Colombia also has a "faceless" justice system. This system was set up with the support of the US to prosecute narcotics traffickers. In these trials, the identity of the judge and witnesses is hidden. In practice, most of the blind justice trials are against political rivals, such as trade union officials, as a way of preventing the accused from a timely trial and access to evidence.
The judicial system is overwhelmed with 1.3 million cases pending. The Procuradoria, which does not have a counterpart in the US, is tasked with overseeing the entire government and has the authority to fire people from the government and military but can not impose criminal sanctions. We meet with Hernando Valencia Villa, the Procuradoria director for human rights. With the judicial system in shambles, his office was overwhelmed.. With a staff of 15 lawyers he investigated 3000 cases last year of human rights violations and fired 2500 people. He said that what his country needed was less military aid from the US and more aid for the judicial system (he opposed the "blind justice" system). He said that since the judicial system is unreliable at determining the truth, the media and international investigations have become critically important.
Much of Colombia is rugged mountains with poor transportation. Many peasants have become dependent of the drug trade for survival since it is the only crop they can get to market from their small remote farms. Recently the government, under pressure from the US "War on Drugs", tried spraying these remote fields from the air with defoliant but the protest was so great that this was stopped. Cartels traffic the drugs using methods very similar to those used by organized crime in the US. Military and civilian officials are bribed, intimidated and killed. Young men join the cartels for quick easy money. US attempts to train Colombian military forces to fight narcotics traffic have been ineffective. These trained forces instead are often being used to repress political rivals.
Colombians are frustrated by American attitudes that cocaine is a Colombian problem when the principle market for cocaine is the US.
Conflicting political ideologies often show up as violent conflicts over land. Land has historically been the source of power for Colombia’s very wealthy upper class. In Bogota, we visited a site where ownership of the land was in dispute. The day before, the government had demolished sixty brick houses using a specially designed armored bulldozer.. Witnesses said three people were killed. The families living in the houses were given six days to move. With no place else to go, some of the families were still standing in the ruble of their houses crying.
Small farmers who form cooperatives are especially threatening to this upper class. These farmers are harassed and killed by private armies hired by large landowners. We visited the small town of El Castillo where a paramilitary group had killed eight people since Christmas. The paramilitary group called itself the "Black Serpent" and prided itself on being employed by Victor Carranza, Colombia’s largest landowner. For protection and to protest the government’s lack of prosecution of the killers, 1500 people from the countryside moved into the central square in El Castillo. When we arrived, they had been there for eleven days living in tents made of plastic sheeting. We were traveling with a Catholic nun who got us through the military check points and introduced us to the town’s leaders. The mayor of the town had negotiated with the government in Bogota and gotten a promise to investigate the murders. The people, who were sick and had livestock dying on their abandoned farms, accepted the governments promise and went home. Since then the Catholic nun has fled the country due to death threats and the "Black Snake" has issued a bounty of 5 million pesos (about $6200) for the murder of the town's mayor. The human rights council in the province has also received recent death threats
Land reform, which allows poor people to freely own small plots of land they live and work on, is critical to forming democracy in Colombia.
Role of the Church:
The Catholic church is very powerful in Colombia and has recently been taking an active role in negotiating between the government and militant groups for a peaceful solutions to the violence. Medellin was the most violent city a few years ago but has made tremendous progress. Vigilante groups have disarmed and been reinserted into the political process. Treaties have been worked out between street gangs. This process is very dangerous and many leaders of the disarmed groups have been killed. Monsignor Hector Fabio Henao has led the way in these peace and development efforts. He has developed sophisticated techniques for dealing with gangs that could greatly help here in the US. Since our visit, increased death treats forced Monsignor Henao to flee Colombia.
Colombia has a rich and diverse economy that is rapidly expanding. With this expansion, a large middle class is forming. The country is full of energetic entrepreneurs with small businesses. In even the poorest neighborhoods, people generally have water, sewer, paved streets, electricity, and public transportation. There are still major problems with public education, health care and job opportunities but these problems are being addressed.
President Ernesto Samper took office in August and has made many statements promising reform in human rights. Colombian governments have a long history of breaking promises so most people are very cautious about these promises. Nevertheless, some small progress has been made in the last six months including the government’s first ever statement accepting responsibility for a massacre at El Trujillo and the firing of the military officers involved. In this massacre 107 people were killed including a priest.
Several people, including Father Gabriel Izquierdo Maldonado of the Jesuit think tank CNEP, thought this was a promising time for a negotiated settlement between the government and the guerrillas. Father Maldonado thought that both sides felt they would be unable to achieve a decisive military victory and that neither side had anything to gain from continuing the war.
The people here have a strong sense of community. At the same time, they struggle intensely for their independence. Families are very important and communities of families spontaneously generate social programs to help their neighborhoods. We saw countless examples of brave people who were putting their lives on the line to stop oppression.