Action Alert from the US/Colombia Coordinating Office

For more information, contact
Alison Giffen
1630 Connecticut Ave. NW,
Suite 200, Washington DC 20009
tel: 202-232-8090
fax: 202-232-8092



C O L O M B I A, MAY 1999


An unprecedented peace movement has been growing in Colombia, a country upheld as Latin America's oldest democracy but plagued by the longest running civil conflict in the hemisphere. Colombia's new president is navigating preliminary peace talks with two separate entrenched guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Colombia is in the midst of the most serious human rights crisis in the Western Hemisphere. Violence in the country's civil war has increased dramatically in recent months as leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and Colombia's security forces struggle for the upper-hand. Thousands of civilians have been caught in the cross-fire. An estimated 308,000 people were internally displaced in 1998, up from 250,000 in 1997, bringing to more than one million the number who have fled their homes in the past decade. THOSE WORKING FOR PEACE, HUMAN RIGHTS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE, IN PARTICULAR, HAVE BEEN TARGETS OF VIOLENCE.

At the same time U.S. policy seesaws between increased militarization of the conflict and support for peace and human rights. Some U.S. policy makers are responding to the violence by increasing military assistance at unprecedented levels that could undermine moves toward a negotiated settlement, while other key U.S. officials are beginning to pay greater attention to human rights in Colombia. U.S. policy toward Colombia is contradictory and susceptible to positive pressure. YOU CAN HELP TIP THE BALANCE OF U.S. POLICY TO SUPPORT PEACE AND HUMAN RIGHTS, PARTICULARLY THOSE UNDER THREAT BY RESPONDING TO THE ACTION BELOW.




(TIME OUT DATE 5/21/99)



Rep. Sam Farr and Rep. Joe Moakley invite their congressional colleagues to sign on to the following letter to Colombian President Andres Pastrana.

Contact your representative to encourage them to sign on.


May 4, 1999

Dear Colleague:

We invite you to join us in urging Colombian President Andres Pastrana to promote human rights in Colombia and protect threatened human rights activists and organizations. These attacks make it much more difficult to have access to information in significant areas of the country and further expose the civilian population to indiscriminate attacks.

Civil war has raged in Colombia for fifty years, and the dramatic expansion of drug production has exacerbated violence and fueled the conflict even more. Guerrilla forces, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Colombian security forces and paramilitary groups are battling for territorial control, particularly in rural areas. The majority of the casualties in this conflict are civilians, however, as all sides target alleged sympathizers. In this context, political violence is getting worse, not better. Colombia suffers from the worst human rights situation in the hemisphere today. More than 30,000 Colombians have lost their lives to date and more than one million have had to flee their communities, joining the ranks of the internally displaced. On average, ten Colombians a day are killed in politically related violence. Paramilitary groups are presently responsible for about 70 percent of all human rights violations.

There are no easy formulas for ending the armed conflict, and its resolution will be a long and arduous process. A negotiated settlement is the only long-term prospect for resolving both the roots of the Colombian conflict, and protecting U.S. interests in the region. However, the goal of bringing peace to Colombia one day should not overshadow other pressing, immediate concerns - namely, the defense and protection of brave Colombian and international human rights workers who have come under increasing threat.

More than 30 human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia since May 1997, and this year has witnessed grave, unprecedented attacks and threats against human rights workers by members of all parties in the internal conflict. In late January, four prominent human rights workers from the Popular Training Institute were kidnapped by paramilitary forces under Carlos Castano's direction; two days later, two other human rights workers were assassinated by alleged paramilitaries. Castano issued a letter linking all human rights activists and organizations, including government human rights investigators such as the Human Rights Unit of the Attorney General's Office, to the guerrillas, effectively issuing a collective death threat to all. On March 8, three indigenous rights activists from the United States - Terence Freitas, Ingrid Washinawatok, Lahe'ena'e Gay - were killed by members of the FARC. Most recently, paramilitary groups operating in the Uraba region issued a threat against international human rights and humanitarian agencies working there, including Oxfam UK, Christian Aid, the Norwegin Council for Refugees, Peace Brigades International, and the U.S. based Colombia Support Network.

The following letter to President Pastrana urges the Colombian government to rapidly and effectively implement a protection program for threatened human rights monitors in Colombia, a program that was jointly designed and agreed upon by the government and representatives of human rights organizations. The government has allocated - but not yet delivered - approximately $5.6 million for this protection program. The letter also urges further investigations into military officers suspected of ties to illegal paramilitary groups, advocating their suspension, trial in civilian courts, and dismissal.

The letter requests immediate steps be taken to stop the threats and attacks of armed groups against the displace communities in the Uraba region and the national and international human rights organizations that accompany and support them. International pressure has proven effective in protecting certain targeted human rights defenders in Colombia. In February, for example, strong statements by Congress and the Administration were instrumental in securing the release of the four human rights workers kidnapped by paramilitaries. We hope that continued pressure by Congress will lead to heightened awareness of - and protection for - threatened human rights workers in Colombia today. To sign, please contact Sandy Hentges (Farr, 52861).




Member of Congress


Member of Congress




Dear President Pastrana:

We write to you out of growing concern for Colombia's deteriorating human rights crisis, particularly the recent wave of attacks against human rights defenders. We commend your efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement to the armed conflict. We understand that the process will be long and arduous, and that during this time there will be both promising advances and demoralizing setbacks.

Several horrific events have occurred in recent months, as attacks by all parties in the conflict have intensified. In January, paramilitary forces rampaged throughout Colombia, killing over 140 rural villagers in a show of military strength. In March, Terence Freitas, Ingrid Washinawatok, and Lahe'ena'e Gay, American indigenous rights activists, were assassinated by FARC guerrillas. And in April, members of the ELN hijacked a commercial flight and kidnaped almost fifty passengers.

Particularly troubling is the escalation of threats against individuals and organizations working to promote human rights. These attacks make it much more difficult to have access to information in significant areas of the country and further expose the civilian population to indiscriminate attacks. In late January, four prominent Colombian human rights monitors were kidnapped by paramilitary forces. The paramilitaries subsequently issued a letter linking human rights activists and organizations with the guerrillas, placing all who do human rights work in grave danger. Included in this threat are Colombian governmental human rights investigators, particularly the members of the Human Rights Unit of the Attorney General's Office (Fiscalia). Members of this unit have carried out the most comprehensive investigations in Colombia of abuses by both paramilitary groups and guerrillas, as well as investigating drug trafficking cases; several investigators have been killed or fled the country because of paramilitary threats in the past. Two days later, two other human rights workers were assassinated by alleged paramilitaries. Threats and attacks are not limited to Colombian nationals: most recently, paramilitary groups issued a threat against international human rights and humanitarian agencies working in Uraba, including Oxfam UK, Christian Aid, the Norwegian Council for Refugees, Peace Brigades International, and the U.S. based Colombia Support Network.

Lamentably, we understand that increase in violence accompanies nascent peace processes, as each party fights for an upper hand in possible negotiations. That is why we consider it even more pressing for the Government of Colombia to implement concrete, immediate measures to protect human rights and human rights defenders. Human rights advocates are the last line of defense for the most basic right to life in an extraordinarily brutal war. If they cannot carry out their work, there will be no limits to this violence. We strongly believe, as Assistant Secretary of State Harold Koh remarked during his recent visit to Colombia, that "we cannot wait for the peace process to succeed before the human rights process can begin in earnest. We must promote a human rights process as a means to promote the peace process."

In February, you met with several representatives of Colombian human rights organizations to jointly design and agree upon a protection program for threatened individuals and organizations. We urge you to effectively and immediately implement the measures outlined in this program so that human rights monitors can continue their work with greater safety and security. First and foremost, we urge you to fully and rapidly deliver the funds your government has authorized to carry out protection measures. Secondly, the Government of Colombia should review the security forces' intelligence archives for any investigations into human rights organizations and activists. And third, we encourage you to meet frequently with human rights monitors, to listen to their recommendations, and to show publicly your support for their ever important, yet increasingly threatened, work.

In addition to the immediate protection measures for threatened human rights advocates, steps must be taken to address the impunity of those responsible, particularly paramilitary groups. We applaud the Colombian government's recent dismissal of Army General Rito Alejo del Rio and Fernando Millan Perez for their involvement with paramilitary groups. This is an impressive first step in addressing the ties between members of the security forces and illegal paramilitaries, and should lead to a series of investigations and reforms throughout the public security forces. Continuing in this vein, the Colombian government should immediately purge the Armed Forces of officers who maintain ties to paramilitary groups or who tolerate their activities. All military personnel charged with participation in human rights abuses and the formation of paramilitary groups should be tried within the civilian court system as required by Colombian law.

We acknowledge the tremendous challenges facing your administration, and we look forward to supporting your efforts in this and other endeavors to promote human rights and bring peace to your country.







A peace movement has been growing in Colombia, a country upheld as Latin America's oldest democracy but plagued by a 50-year internal armed conflict, the longest running civil conflict in the hemisphere. A new Colombian administration is navigating preliminary peace talks with two separate guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). These initiatives by Colombian leaders have been catalyzed and buttressed by a widespread civil society movement for peace.

Since the start of peace talks, violence in Colombia has increased dramatically as armed actors struggle for the upper hand, straining the already-fragile negotiations. Colombia's armed actors -- including leftist guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitary groups -- have increasingly targeted civilians. An estimated 308,000 people were internally displaced in 1998, bringing to 1.3 million the number who have fled their homes in the past decade. In January of this year, over 140 people were killed throughout the country by paramilitaries in an attempt to demonstrate political power and instill fear in the population.

Moreover, violence directed at human rights defenders and those working for peace has intensified. More than 30 human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia since May 1997. On March 8, three U.S. citizens working for indigenous rights with the U'wa people in Northeast Colombia were kidnapped and killed by members of the FARC. Carlos Castaño, the infamous leader of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, Colombia's largest paramilitary organization, has issued a number of public threats to Colombian and international non-governmental organizations, particularly those working for human rights, peace and justice, including the human rights unit of Colombia's Attorney General's Office. In late January, four prominent human rights leaders of an established NGO were kidnapped by paramilitaries and two members of the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners, one of Colombia's oldest human rights organizations, were assassinated by alleged paramilitaries.

As violence escalates, individuals working for human rights and peace in Colombia are increasingly coming under attack. While most of these attacks are perpetrated by the paramilitaries, all armed actors, even civilians, are targeting human rights and peace workers.


FARC commander Jorge Briceno recently commented on the killing of three U.S. citizens by FARC members in March 1999. The three were killed while working for indigenous rights with the U'wa people in Northern Colombia . Briceno was quoted as saying, "In the case of the three U.S. citizens, they were organizing the U'wa indigenous people against the guerrillas in the name of human rights. Commander Gildardo, who committed the killings, began the investigation [of the three activists] for this reason." This is the same logic used by the paramilitaries, and it is fundamentally wrong. Human rights work is a legitimate endeavor based on international human rights principles. Non-governmental human rights organizations and human rights defenders must have the right to speak freely about conditions in a country and denounce abuses by all sides without fear of reprisal.


The Medellin daily newspaper El Colombiano published a March 5 statement threatening international and national NGO's in Uraba, an area in Northeastern Colombia. The statement was signed by businessmen, cattle ranchers, community action groups and other groups in the area.


On March 25, the largest paramilitary group, Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), issued another statement threatening to begin selective kidnappings of NGO members, who they believe to be "paraguerrillas", or persons facilitating guerrilla activity, disregarding the legitimacy of human rights work.

On March 29, persons who identified themselves as members of the AUC detained, for one hour, a group of observers (Mixed Commission of Verification) verifying the return process of the displaced communities temporarily settled in Turbo. The group included government representatives, representatives of the displaced community, members of national NGOs, and international representatives.

On April 4, armed members of paramilitary groups killed three people and injured three others in the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado, a displaced community that has declared itself neutral and unwilling to involve itself with any armed actor. One of the persons murdered was a leader of the peace community.

Paramilitary members killed three people and kidnapped three others from the displaced community of Cano Seco settlement on April 5. Following these incidents, paramilitaries killed, three people in Arenal, among them a 3-year-old boy. Later the armed group abducted ten people including community leaders from Villa Hermosa. Three were killed the other seven were released.


Hernan Henao, the director of the University of Antioquia's Institute of Regional Studies (Instituto de Estudios Regionales, INER), was assassinated at 4:00 p.m. on May 4, 1999. Three young men locked up people in the school of social sciences at the University and then headed for the office of the director where they shot him three times, in front of the secretary. Hernan Henao was known for his research and work with the displaced and his promotion of the University as a territory of peace.

This increasingly oppressive environment illustrates the need to raise awareness of the critical role that respect for human rights and political freedom play in upholding the rule of law and democracy.


Against this backdrop of uncertain preliminary peace negotiations and a deteriorating human rights situation, some U.S. policy makers have persisted in advocating greater militarization of the conflict. Members of Congress narrowly focused on the drug war, including Sen. Dewine (R-OH), Rep. Gilman (R-NY), Rep. Burton (R-IN), Rep. Hastert (R-IL) and others, have pressured the administration to increase aid to the Colombian police and military.

Yet, at the same time, the U.S. State Department met with FARC leaders to encourage negotiations, issued strong condemnations of the deteriorating human rights situation in Colombia, and urged the Colombian government to make progress on human rights. During this uncertain time in Colombia, the United States should promote in words and deeds the only answer to Colombia's long-running internal conflict, a negotiated settlement. Moreover, it is essential that U.S. policy demand respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.



1) Write to your senators and congressional representative urging them to express concern over the direction of U.S. policy.

2) Write to leaders of the House International Relations Committee: Rep. Benjamin Gilman, Chairman and /or Rep. Sam Gejdenson, ranking Democrat: U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515

3) Write to Secretary of State Albright and Acting Asst. Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Ambassador Peter Romero: U.S. Department of State, 2201 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20520

4) Contact local media outlets to advise them of these developments and/or write op-eds and submit them to your local paper



Center for International Policy (CIP)

Contact: Adam Isacson, tel: 202-232-3317

CIP publishes updated information on U.S. security and military assistance to Colombia in "Just the Facts, a civilian's guide to U.S. defense and security assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean"

CIP also posts weekly updates of Colombia media coverage in "New and Noteworthy"


Colombia Human Rights Network

Contact: Cristina Espinel
tel: 202-232-8148


Colombia Support Network

Contact: Jack Laun
tel: 608-257-8753


Latin America Working Group

Contact: Lisa Haugaard
tel: 202-546-7010


Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)

Contact: Winifred Tate or Coletta Youngers
tel: 202-797-2171

WOLA has just published "U.S. International Drug Control Policy: A Guide for Citizen Action." To order copies, contact Laurie Freeman at the number above.


U.S. Committee for Refugees

Tel: 202-347-3507


Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch publishes the 1999 Colombia country report


U.S. Department of State

Publishes the 1998 Human Rights Report for Colombia.


To receive COLOMBIA INFOinBRIEF, a twice-monthly email bulletin that summarizes recent events in Colombia, provides short analysis of the political situation, lists resources, and offers advocacy activities, contact the U.S./Colombia Coordinating Office.







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