a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Center for Research and Education of the Populace (CINEP), from January 1 through August 26, there were 10 cases of “intentional deaths of civilians committed by state agents.”
For example, in April the attorney general opened an investigation into the killing of Dimar Torres, a demobilized member of the FARC who was allegedly shot four times by an army soldier while leaving his village to buy tools. According to the Attorney General’s Office, Colonel Jorge Armando Perez Amezquita planned and ordered the killing. The colonel’s involvement was discovered later in the investigation; the case against him was initially delayed as authorities deliberated whether to proceed in the military or ordinary justice system. In November a military judge decided the investigation into the killing of Torres, including the case against Colonel Perez, would proceed in the ordinary justice system. On November 27, the army soldier who carried out the killing was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The investigation into the alleged role of the colonel and four other soldiers continued as of the end of November.
Illegal armed groups, including the ELN, committed numerous unlawful or politically motivated killings, often in areas without a strong government presence (see section 1.g.).
Investigations of past killings proceeded, albeit slowly. From January 1 through September, the Attorney General’s Office registered seven new cases of alleged aggravated homicide by state agents. During the same period, authorities formally charged eight members of the security forces with aggravated homicide or homicide of a civilian, with six of those crimes occurring in previous years. The Attorney General’s Office reported that through August, it obtained two new convictions of security force members in cases involving homicide of a “protected person” (i.e., civilians and others accorded such status under international humanitarian law).
Efforts continued to hold officials accountable in “false positive” extrajudicial killings, in which thousands of civilians were killed and falsely presented as guerrilla combatants in the late 1990s to early 2000s. As of June the Attorney General’s Office reported the government had convicted 1,709 members of the security forces in cases related to false positive cases since 2008.
Some human rights organizations alleged that officials recently promoted within the senior ranks of the military could be linked to past extrajudicial killings.
The Attorney General’s Office reported there were open investigations of 20 retired and active-duty generals related to false positive killings as of June. The Attorney General’s Office also reported there were 2,504 open investigations related to false positive killings or other extrajudicial killings as of May 20.
In addition, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the justice component of the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Nonrepetition provided for in the 2016 peace accord with the FARC, reviewed some investigations related to false positive or extrajudicial killings. This included activities to advance Case 003, focused on extrajudicial killings committed by the First, Second, Fourth, and Seventh Army Divisions. For example, on April 25, the JEP began to review the case against retired general Mario Montoya Uribe for his involvement in false positive killings. The JEP also continued to review the case against retired general William Henry Torres Escalante. On March 5, retired colonel Gabriel Rincon Amado, sentenced in 2017 to 46 years in prison for his involvement in the false positive killings of five men from Soacha, apologized before the relatives of the victims and the JEP magistrates and admitted he had a responsibility in the killings.
During the year there were allegations that military orders instructing army commanders to double the results of their missions against guerillas, criminal organizations, and illegal armed groups could heighten the risk of civilian casualties. In a July preliminary report, an independent commission established by President Duque to review the facts regarding these alleged military orders concluded that the orders did not permit, suggest, or result in abuses or criminal conduct, and that the armed forces’ operational rules and doctrine were aligned with human rights and international humanitarian law principles. As of November a final report had not been issued.
Human rights organizations, victims, and government investigators accused some members of government security forces of collaborating with or tolerating the activities of organized-crime gangs, which included some former paramilitary members. According to the Attorney General’s Office, between January and September, no members of government security forces were arrested for ties with illegal armed groups.
According to a March 14 UN report, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported 115 verified killings of social leaders and human rights defenders in 2018. According to the Attorney General’s Office, in the cases of 308 killings of human rights defenders from January 2016 to August 2019, the government had obtained 42 convictions, 55 alleged perpetrators had ongoing trials, 41 had been charged, and 40 were under investigation. According to the OHCHR, 37 percent of the killings occurred in the departments of Antioquia, Cauca, and Norte de Santander; 27 percent of the killings were of members of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. The motives of the killings varied, and it was often difficult to determine the primary or precise motive in individual cases. For example, on June 21, in Tierralta, Cordoba, prominent social leader and land rights activist Maria del Pilar Hurtado was shot and killed by two men riding a motorcycle. As of September authorities had not identified the killers, but the Inspector General’s Office opened a disciplinary investigation into local public officials for alleged irregularities related to the handling of alleged threats against the victim.
The Commission of the Timely Action Plan for Prevention and Protection for Human Rights Defenders, Social and Communal Leaders, and Journalists, created in November 2018, strengthened efforts to investigate and prevent attacks against social leaders and human rights defenders. The Inspector General’s Office and the human rights ombudsman continued to raise awareness on the situation of human rights defenders through the public “Lead Life” campaign, in partnership with civil society, media, and international organizations. Additionally, there is an elite corps of the National Police, a specialized subdirectorate of the National Protection Unit (NPU), a special investigation unit of the Attorney General’s Office responsible for dismantling criminal organizations and enterprises, and a unified command post, which shared responsibility for protecting human rights defenders from attacks and investigating and prosecuting these cases. The Attorney General’s Office reported that the combined effort identified or arrested a suspect in 47 percent of the cases of killings of social leaders and that 255 persons had been arrested and charged for their involvement in such cases.
By law the Attorney General’s Office is the primary entity responsible for investigating allegations of human rights abuses committed by security forces, with the exception of conflict-related crimes, which are within the jurisdiction of the JEP. The JEP continued investigations of cases opened in 2018 and accepted new cases during the year.
Some NGOs complained that military investigators, not members of the Attorney General’s Office, were sometimes the first responders in cases of deaths resulting from actions of security forces and might make decisions about possible illegal actions. The government made improvements in investigating and trying cases of abuses, but claims of impunity for security force members continued. This was due in some cases to obstruction of justice and opacity in the process by which cases were investigated and prosecuted in the military justice system. Inadequate protection of witnesses and investigators, delay tactics by defense attorneys, the judiciary’s failure to exert appropriate controls over dockets and case progress, and inadequate coordination among government entities that sometimes allowed statutes of limitations to expire–resulting in a defendant’s release from jail before trial–were also significant obstacles.
The military justice system functioned under both the old inquisitorial and a newer accusatory justice system, which was not scheduled to be fully implemented until 2020. Transition to the new system continued slowly, and the military had not yet developed an interinstitutional strategy for recruiting, hiring, or training investigators, crime scene technicians, or forensic specialists, which is required under the accusatory system. As such, the military justice system did not exercise criminal investigative authority; all new criminal investigation duties were conducted by judicial police investigators from the CNP and the attorney general’s Corps of Technical Investigators.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities during the year. According to the National Institute of Forensic and Legal Medicine, from January 1 through July 31, a total of 3,788 cases of disappearances were registered. The government did not provide information on the number of victims of disappearances who were located.
According to the Attorney General’s Office, on April 29, retired police general Mauricio Santoyo was arrested for his alleged participation in the forced disappearance of two persons in Medellin in 2000.
In the context of implementation of the 2016 peace accord, the government launched the Special Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons in November 2018 to investigate disappearances that occurred during the conflict. The unit visited 10 cities throughout the year, where teams of forensic scientists began gathering information (see section 1.g.).
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the law prohibits such practices, there were reports that government officials employed them. CINEP reported that through October security forces were allegedly involved in nine cases of torture. Members of the military and police accused of torture generally were tried in civilian rather than military courts.
Between January and September, the Attorney General’s Office did not charge any members of the military or police force with torture.
CINEP reported organized-crime gangs and illegal armed groups were responsible for four documented cases of torture through October.
According to NGOs monitoring prison conditions, there were numerous allegations of sexual and physical violence committed by guards and other inmates.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
With the exception of some new facilities, prisons and detention centers were harsh and life threatening due to overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, poor health care, and lack of other basic services. Poor training of officials remained a problem throughout the prison system.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding existed in men’s and in women’s prisons. The National Prison Institute (INPEC), which operated the national prisons and oversaw the jails, estimated there were 124,574 persons incarcerated in 133 prisons at a rate of approximately 50 percent over capacity.
The law prohibits holding pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners, although this frequently occurred. Juvenile detainees were held in separate juvenile detention centers. The Superior Judiciary Council stated the maximum time that a person may remain in judicial detention facilities is three days. The same rules apply to jails located inside police stations. These regulations were often violated.
The practice of preventive detention, in combination with inefficiencies in the judicial system, continued to exacerbate overcrowding. The government continued to implement procedures introduced in 2017 that provide for the immediate release of some pretrial detainees, including many accused of serious crimes such as aggravated robbery and sexual assault.
Physical abuse by prison guards, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and authorities’ failure to maintain control were problems. The Inspector General’s Office continued to investigate allegations that some prison guards routinely used excessive force and treated inmates brutally. As of July the Inspector General’s Office reported disciplinary investigations against 20 prison guards for such actions as physical abuse and inhuman treatment. In the first six months of the year, INPEC carried out 114 disciplinary investigations, related principally to physical abuse but also to two cases of sexual abuse.
INPEC reported 103 deaths in prisons, jails, pretrial detention, or other detention centers through July 31, including five attributed to internal fights.
Many prisoners continued to face difficulties receiving adequate medical care. Nutrition and water quality were deficient and contributed to the overall poor health of many inmates. Inmates stated authorities routinely rationed water in many facilities, which officials attributed to city water shortages.
INPEC’s physical structures were generally in poor repair. The Inspector General’s Office noted some facilities had poor ventilation and overtaxed sanitary systems. Prisoners in some high-altitude facilities complained of inadequate blankets and clothing, while prisoners in tropical facilities complained that overcrowding and insufficient ventilation contributed to high temperatures in prison cells. Some prisoners slept on floors without mattresses, while others shared cots in overcrowded cells.
Administration: Authorities investigated credible prisoner complaints of mistreatment and inhuman conditions, including complaints of prison guards soliciting bribes from inmates, but some prisoners asserted the investigations were slow.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by local and international human rights groups. INPEC required a three-day notice before granting consular access. Some NGOs complained that authorities, without adequate explanation, denied them access to visit prisoners.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. There were allegations, however, that authorities detained citizens arbitrarily. CINEP reported 23 cases of arbitrary detention committed by state security forces through June 30.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Authorities must bring detained persons before a judge within 36 hours to determine the validity of the detention, bring formal charges within 30 days, and start a trial within 90 days of the initial detention. Public defenders contracted by the Office of the Ombudsman assisted indigent defendants but were overloaded with cases. Detainees received prompt access to legal counsel and family members as provided for by law. Bail was generally available except for serious crimes such as murder, rebellion, or narcotics trafficking. Authorities generally respected these rights.
Arbitrary Arrest: The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, this requirement was not always respected. NGOs characterized some arrests as arbitrary detention, including arrests allegedly based on tips from informants about persons linked to guerrilla activities, detentions by members of the security forces without a judicial order, detentions based on administrative authority, detentions during military operations or at roadblocks, large-scale detentions, and detentions of persons while they were “exercising their fundamental rights.” For example, NGOs alleged that in July government forces illegally arrested nine farmers in Bolivar Department. The army claimed the farmers were members of the ELN, but protesters alleged there was no evidence of an affiliation with armed groups and the arrests were based on a stigmatization of rural workers in the region.
Pretrial Detention: The judicial process moved slowly, and the civilian judicial system suffered from a significant backlog of cases, which led to large numbers of pretrial detainees. Of the 124,574 prison detainees, 41,802 were in pretrial detention. The failure of many local military commanders and jail supervisors to keep mandatory detention records or follow notification procedures made accounting for all detainees difficult. In some cases detainees were released without a trial because they had already served more than one-third of the maximum sentence for their charges.
Civil society groups complained that authorities subjected some community leaders to extended pretrial detention.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. Much of the judicial system was overburdened and inefficient, however, and subornation, corruption, and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses hindered judicial functioning.
The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. While the government began implementing an accusatory system of justice in 2005, the use of delay tactics by defense lawyers to slow or impede proceedings, prosecutors’ heavy caseloads, and other factors diminished the anticipated increased efficiencies and other benefits of adopting the adversarial model. Under the criminal procedure code, the prosecutor presents an accusation and evidence before an impartial judge at an oral, public trial. Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and have the right to confront the trial evidence and witnesses against them, present their own evidence, and communicate with an attorney of their choice (or have one provided at public expense). Defendants had adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense. Defendants are not compelled to testify or confess guilt and have the right to appeal their proceedings. Although defendants have the right to an interpreter, the court system lacked interpreters for less commonly encountered languages. Crimes committed before 2005 are processed under the prior written inquisitorial system in which the prosecutor is a magistrate who investigates, determines evidence, and makes a finding of guilt or innocence. In those cases the trial consists of the presentation of evidence and finding of guilt or innocence to a judge for ratification or rejection.
In the military justice system, military judges preside over courts-martial. Counsel may represent the accused and call witnesses, but most fact finding takes place during the investigative stage. Military trial judges are required to issue rulings within eight days of a court-martial hearing. Representatives of the civilian Inspector General’s Office are required to be present at a court-martial.
Criminal procedure within the military justice system includes elements of the inquisitorial and accusatory systems. The law provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty and have the right to timely consultation with counsel.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The government declared that it did not hold political prisoners; nevertheless, authorities held some members of human rights advocacy groups on charges of conspiracy, rebellion, or terrorism, which the groups described as government harassment against human rights advocates. According to INPEC, the government held 670 persons on charges of rebellion or of aiding and promoting insurgency. The government provided the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regular access to these prisoners.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Citizens may sue a government agent or entity in the Administrative Court of Litigation for damages resulting from a human rights violation. Although critics complained of delays in the process, the court generally was considered impartial and effective. Cases involving violations of an individual’s human rights may be submitted through petitions by individuals or organizations to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which in turn may submit the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The court may order civil remedies, including fair compensation to the individual injured.
The 2011 Victims’ and Land Restitution Law (Victims’ Law) continued to provide a legal basis for assistance and reparations to victims of the conflict, including victims of government abuses, but the government acknowledged that the pace of restitution was slow. The Inspector General’s Office, an independent and autonomous public institution, assisted in 277 cases related to land reclamation, i.e., requests for restitution.
The Land Restitution Unit, a semiautonomous entity in the Ministry of Agriculture, is responsible for returning land to displaced victims of conflict. The unit reported that as of the end of 2018, it had reviewed 276 requests for collective restitution of ethnic territories covering an area of 17.1 million acres, including 99,754 families, and 122,463 individual restitution claims, of which 18,478 were awaiting final judicial decision.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions, but there were allegations the government failed to respect these prohibitions. Government authorities generally need a judicial order to intercept mail or email or to monitor telephone conversations, including in prisons. Government intelligence agencies investigating terrorist organizations sometimes monitored telephone conversations without judicial authorization; the law bars evidence obtained in this manner from being used in court.
NGOs continued to accuse domestic intelligence or security entities of spying on lawyers and human rights defenders.
On July 9, the Attorney General’s Office arrested the former intelligence director of the disbanded Administrative Department of Security, Laude Jose Fernandez Arroyo, for illegally wiretapping the communications of several companies and private citizens.
g. Abuses in Internal Conflict
The government and the FARC, formerly the country’s largest guerrilla insurgency group, continued to implement the 2016 peace accord. The FARC completed its disarmament, and former members reincorporated as a political party in 2017. An estimated 800 to 1,500 FARC dissident members did not participate in the peace process from the outset. As of November, FARC dissident numbers had grown to approximately 2,500 due to new recruitment and some former combatants who returned to arms. Members of the FARC who did participate in the peace process alleged the government had not fully complied with its commitments to ensure the security of demobilized former combatants or to facilitate their reintegration, while the government alleged the FARC had not met its full commitments to cooperate on counternarcotics efforts. In August a small group of FARC dissidents called for a return to armed conflict, alleging the government had not lived up to its obligations under the peace agreement. Following the signing of the 2016 peace accord, three transitional justice mechanisms were established and were operational throughout the year: The Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Nonrepetition; the Special Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons; and the JEP.
The ELN, a smaller leftist guerilla force of approximately 3,000 armed combatants, continued to commit crimes and acts of terror throughout the country, including bombings, violence against civilian populations, and violent attacks against military and police facilities. Illegal armed groups and drug gangs, such as the Gulf Clan, also continued to operate. The Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination Group (CCEEU) and other NGOs considered some of these illegal armed groups to be composed of former paramilitary groups. The government acknowledged that some former paramilitary members were active in illegal armed groups but noted these groups lacked the national, unified command structure and explicit ideological agenda that defined past paramilitary groups, including the disbanded United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
Killings: The military was accused of some killings, some of which military officials stated were “military mistakes” (see section 1.a.). In other cases, military officials stated they believed an individual was fighting on behalf of an illegal armed group, while community members stated the victim was not a combatant. For example, media reported that Jose Albeiro Chaparro and Eliecer Gonzalez Chaparro were allegedly killed by members of Army Task Force Quiron during confrontations between the army and FARC dissidents in May. According to the army, both men were identified as FARC dissidents who were armed and had attacked the implicated soldiers. Community leaders disputed the army’s account, saying the victims were day laborers on their way to work at a neighboring farm. They further alleged that the army manipulated the crime scene.
In addition, in November opposition legislators accused then minister of defense Guillermo Botero of withholding information regarding the military’s August 29 aerial attack on an alleged FARC dissident camp that killed 14 persons, including eight minors. Botero subsequently resigned under congressional pressure on November 6.
Guerrillas, notably the ELN, committed unlawful killings. On January 17, a total of 22 persons were killed and 68 injured in a car bomb attack on the General Santander National Police Academy. The Attorney General’s Office identified the attacker as Jose Aldemar Rojas, an ELN operative, who died in the attack.
Illegal armed groups committed numerous political and unlawful killings, primarily in areas under dispute with guerrillas or without a strong government presence.
Organized-crime gangs and guerrilla groups killed, threatened, and displaced educators and their families for political and financial reasons, often because teachers represented the only government presence in the remote areas where the killings occurred.
Independent observers raised concerns that inadequate security guarantees were facilitating the killing of former FARC militants. According to the October 1 Report of the Secretary-General on the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, 147 former FARC combatants had been killed since the signing of the 2016 peace accord. According to the report, of those 147 cases, the Attorney General’s Office reported 13 cases with convictions, 13 in the trial stage, 27 under investigation, and 30 with pending arrest warrants. The United Nations also reported the government began to implement additional steps to strengthen security guarantees for former FARC combatants, including deploying additional judicial police officers and attorneys to prioritized departments, promoting initiatives for prevention of stigmatization against former combatants, and establishing a roadmap for the protection of political candidates, including the FARC party.
Abductions: Organized-crime gangs, the ELN, and common criminals continued to kidnap persons, both for ransom and for political reasons. According to the Ministry of Defense, from January 1 to June 30, there were 31 kidnappings attributed to common criminals, seven cases to the ELN, and three to organized armed groups. On July 18, in Riosucio, Choco, ELN rebels kidnapped local businessman Edwin Octavio Sanchez Correa. As of November the victim remained in captivity and no arrests had been made.
Between January and June, the Ministry of Defense reported 19 hostages had been freed, two hostages died in captivity, and seven were released after pressure from the government.
The Special Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons provided for in the peace accord is mandated to account for those who disappeared in the context of the armed conflict and, when possible, locate and return remains to families. According to the Observatory of Memory and Conflict, more than 80,000 persons were reported missing as a result of the armed conflict, including 1,214 military and police personnel who were kidnapped by the FARC and ELN.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: CINEP reported FARC dissidents and organized-crime gangs were responsible for six documented cases of torture in the first six months of 2018, the most recent data available.
The ELN, FARC dissidents, and other groups continued to lay land mines. According to the NGO Group of Integral Action against Land Mines, there were 72 victims of improvised explosive devices and land mines between January 1 and June 30.
Child Soldiers: There were reports the ELN and other illegal armed groups recruited persons younger than 18. The government continued a program to counter recruitment of child soldiers. By year’s end it had reached 500 at-risk villages, an estimated 28,250 minors, and 15,000 families.
Other Conflict-related Abuses: During the year reports of other human rights abuses occurred in the context of the conflict and narcotics trafficking. Drug traffickers, guerrilla fighters, and other illegal armed groups continued to displace predominantly poor and rural populations (see section 2.e., Internally Displaced Persons).