The first half of 1998 saw an escalation not only in overall political violence, but in particular in violence directed against human rights activists. On Friday, February 27, at mid-day in his office in downtown Medellín, Jesús Valle, president of the Comité de Derechos Humanos "Héctor Abad Gómez," and dedicated human rights defender, was gunned down by two men and a woman who entered claiming to seek his legal services. The assassins used a silencer, and so emerged from the office building, with impunity, into the busy streets of downtown Medellín. He was the fourth president of the Comité to be assassinated, the others having been killed in 1987 and 1988. Valle had been particularly vociferous in denouncing paramilitary-military ties in Ituango, his home town in rural Antioquia. The Comité de Derechos Humanos "Héctor Abad Gómez" is among the Colombian human rights organizations that is a petitioner before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, where it has brought cases over the last four years, most notably the Villatina case, in which members of the National Police murdered eight children on November 15, 1992, and December 31, 1992.
Six weeks later two other political activists were assassinated in Bogotá in very similar circumstances, two days apart. On April 16, María Arango was murdered at point-blank range at her home in La Calera, on the outskirts of Bogotá; she had been active in many social organizations in the 1970s, left the Communist party 10 years ago, and had been working as a consultant.
On April 18, life-long human rights attorney Eduardo Umaña Mendoza was murdered in his office, which was in his apartment, by three persons--two man and a woman--who got past the apartment complex's security by saying they were reporters who were going to interview Umaña. Eduardo Umaña Mendoza, at the time of his death, was representing oil workers from the Unión Sindical Obrera who were accused of being members of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). He has also assisted relatives of members of the M-19 guerrilla movement who were "disappeared" by official forces after surviving the inferno at the Palace of Justice in November 1985, subsequent to the M-19 takeover. In addition, the survivors of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán had recently retained Umaña's services in connection with new evidence that persons still alive were responsible for Gaitán's April 9, 1948 murder, which sparked El Bogotazo and ushered in La Violencia of the 1950s.
Some 20 years ago, Umaña had helped found the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP) and the "José Alvear Restrepo" Lawyers' Collective, and more recently the organizations Sembrar and Minga.
In a communique issued the day of his murder, 15 human rights NGOs called on the government "to adopt effective measures to protect human rights defenders, social and trade union leaders, and opposition political activists, which necessarily includes reviewing the files and work of the state intelligence agencies, prosecuting and dismantling the paramilitary groups, and removing from the Armed Forces, Police, and state security agents all officers and agents compromised in grave human rights violations and with ties to paramilitary groups."
Three weeks later, on May 12, retired Army General Fernando Landazábal Reyes, identified with the far right, was murdered on his way to the presidential campaign headquarters of Gen. Harold Bedoya, the former armed forces chief who ran for president in the May elections. The following day, a patrol of 20 heavily armed men went to the offices of the human rights NGO Comisión Intercongregacional de Justicia y Paz, to support a search ordered by the Office of the Public Prosecutor (Fiscalía); it was alleged that the offices had information on an urban support network of the ELN guerrillas. For several hours authorities detained the staff of Justicia y Paz and went through the files, which included the files of a project known as "Nunca Más," which is aimed at publicizing the truth and preserving the memory of the crimes against humanity that have been carried out in Colombia.
Later that week it was reported that the Fiscalía suspected that the crimes against Valle, Arango, Umaña, and Landazábal--all of which involved the point-blank firing of high-power revolvers with silencers, all executed by groups of three people, with persons killed in or near their home or office--may have been committed by the same persons or entity, and it was suspected further that they might have been carried out by the 20th Army Brigade, the operations-oriented military intelligence brigade created in 1990. In early May the brigade was implicated in the high-profile political killings of human rights defenders by both Human Rights Watch/Americas and the Washington Post; it had also been accused of political killings two years earlier, by then-U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette.
On May 19, the Army high command decided to dismantle the brigade. Explaining the reform, Army commander Gen. Mario Hugo Galán stated: "No doubt we have become aware that some instances of the possible participation of members of the 20th Brigade in criminal acts stem from that involvement of intelligence officers in operations." In the same days the Army came under heavy criticism for stigmatizing human rights NGOs, and was urged to review all Army, Police, and other intelligence files. The Procurador, the government official in charge of all disciplinary investigations into official malfeasance, was authorized to participate in reviewing the files (though the scope of access he was afforded is unclear) so as to remove the names of persons known to be engaged in legitimate unarmed activity. One Army officer reacted: "If it's to protect human rights defenders, the measure is welcome, but it can early be used by the subversives to keep us from investigating the connections of many private persons with the narcoguerrillas."
From Colombian and U.S. press reports, and Colombian NGO communiques.