d. Military Roadblocks Resulting in Civilian Loss of Life

190. The Commission has received information indicating that the State's public security forces have sometimes fired upon and killed civilians in the course of installing and maintaining military roadblocks. The road blocks are generally installed because of information suggesting that there is a guerrilla presence in the area. However, the members of the security forces who man the roadblocks have fired upon and killed civilians. There usually does not exist information to suggest that the security forces had sufficient reason to believe that they were actually firing upon members of armed dissident groups.

191. In August of 1994, an Army battalion installed a military roadblock on the road exiting Villavicencio. Two youths, ages 12 and 19, were killed at or near this roadblock. The State's contentious-administrative jurisdiction ordered the payment of damages to the victims' relatives, based on the actions of its agents.

192. Such an incident occurred again in early 1998. On January 24, 1998, an Army battalion received information regarding the alleged presence of armed dissidents in the municipality of Villeta, Department of Cundinamarca. The commander of the battalion ordered the unit to install a military roadblock on the road between Villeta and Utica. The Army unit subsequently fired against a group of cars and motorcycles which passed through the area, killing five civilians and injuring five more.

193. According to the original version presented by the Army, its soldiers were attacked as they were setting up the roadblock at approximately 9:45 p.m.. The soldiers then responded with their own fire, and the crossfire resulted in the deaths and injuries. At the same time, the Army suggested that the soldiers might have committed errors resulting in the death of the civilians. The Army further suggested that the deaths resulted from "confusion which occurred in the middle of the night."

194. However, eyewitnesses state that the vehicles which were attacked carried only unarmed civilians and that no roadblock was visible. This version of the events suggests that the Army unit simply attacked the passing vehicles without any warning and without verifying that the vehicles contained any members of armed dissident groups. The military justice system subsequently issued preventive detention orders against three Army officials involved in the incident.

195. The Commission considers this type of incident to be extremely serious. The Commission notes that, even when members of the Military Forces set up roadblocks based on information indicating that members of armed dissident groups are in the area, they may not, under any circumstances, attack vehicles carrying only civilians. They must take precautions to verify that their target is indeed a legitimate military objective. By assuming that certain vehicles carry armed dissidents and then attacking them, the Military Forces may become responsible for ensuing civilian casualties and violations of the right to life and physical integrity of these persons under human rights and humanitarian law.


e. Extrajudicial Executions

i. Extrajudicial Executions Occurring in the Context of the Armed Conflict

196. According to information received by the Commission, State agents, particularly members of the Army and the National Police, have committed numerous extrajudicial executions over the last several years in abuse of their authority. These extrajudicial executions often target leaders of social organizations and other persons accused of aiding or supporting armed dissident groups.

197. These extrajudicial executions are frequently selective -- i.e. members of the security forces specifically seek out the victim, even by name, before killing him. The Commission has received specific and credible information and documentation indicating that the Military Forces have carried out intelligence activities to identify persons who allegedly provide support to the guerrillas for this purpose.

198. The Commission has reviewed, for example, intelligence materials provided by the State's security forces to the Regional Prosecutor for Bogotá in Cause 9668. These intelligence reports include specific names of individuals allegedly involved in support networks for armed dissident groups. At least one report specifically recommends that the information contained therein be used to execute military operations, "taking into account the information about the identity of the apparatuses which the [armed dissident] organization counts on for its support." Regarding many of the individuals named, the reports explain that they provide food or medicine to the armed dissident groups. Other individuals are simply described as being related to members of the dissident groups, as serving as local elected authorities or as working with the Communist newspaper. The reports state, in reference to one locale, that "the totality of the population supports the organization."

199. The reports do not make any suggestion that the names gathered through intelligence activity should be turned over to prosecuting officials. It is not therefore unreasonable to assume that the operations to be carried out against the individuals might include attacks on their lives. Yet, according to the information in the reports themselves, these individuals have done nothing to forfeit their protection as civilians against direct attack or other acts of violence.

200. The Commission has found that, after carrying out attacks against civilians who allegedly collaborate with armed dissident groups, the State's security forces sometimes suggest to the press and to the public that the executed individuals were members of armed dissident groups killed in combat. The Commission concluded that the National Police acted in this manner in regards to the execution of six individuals on January 23, 1991, in the community of Las Palmeras, municipality of Mocoa, Departament of Putumayo. The Commission found that the National Police carried out extrajudicial executions of these individuals, who included the local schoolteacher and several carpenters who were working on the schoolhouse. The Commission concluded that, after the extrajudicial executions took place, the Police burned the civilian clothing of the victims and placed poor-fitting military-style uniforms on the bodies. The Commission decided to bring this specific case, processed before the Commission as case 11.237, before the Inter-American Court.

201. A similar incident may have occurred in Segovia, Department of Antioquia, on March 10, 1997. Members of the Army brought several dead bodies to the area military base on that day, including that of Nazareno de Jesús Rivera. Subsequently, the Army also announced that the body of Jaime Ortiz Londoño was included in the group. The Army suggested that the dead individuals belonged to armed dissident groups and had been killed in combat. Yet, the Commission has received credible information indicating that Mr. Rivera and Mr. Londoño were civilians dedicated to human rights and labor law work and did not directly participate in the hostilities.

202. The Commission is extremely concerned by this information indicating that the State security forces carry out extrajudicial executions of individuals believed to support the guerrilla based on their presence in an area or their supposed indirect participation in hostilities. As the Commission has noted above, such individuals have not lost their civilian immunity from attack. Thus, attacks against them resulting in the loss of life are clearly incompatible with international humanitarian law and constitute grave violations of the right to life guaranteed in Article 4 of the Convention.

203. The Commission has also received information indicating that the State's security forces intentionally carry out attacks on civilians who are found at or near areas where the armed dissident groups have recently made a presence. Thus, Army troops sometimes enter and attack towns after armed dissidents have passed through them or attack individuals in schools or homes located in the vicinity of armed confrontations between the Army and armed dissident groups.

204. For example, according to information received by the Commission, the FARC entered into the municipality of Uribe, Department of Meta on September 24, 1997 and attacked the police station. After an exchange of fire concluded at 6:00 a.m., the town remained peaceful for approximately one hour. Then, at 7:00 a.m., a Military Forces airplane arrived and began to machine gun the outskirts of the town. At 7:40 a.m., an explosive fell one block away from the Municipal Government Office, killing one nine-year old child and injuring 13 persons.

205. The Commission emphasizes that even the presence of enemy combatants within civilian-populated areas, such as the municipality of Uribe, cannot deprive the population, or objects not used for hostile purposes, of their civilian character and immunity from attack. In addition, even if the Military Forces have reason to believe that some armed dissidents remain in an area that they had ostensibly left, they must take appropriate precautions to avoid or minimize damage to civilians in launching any attack against those dissidents. It appears that, at least in some cases, the Military Forces have not followed these rules designed to implement the principle of distinction. Where their failure to do so results in civilian casualties and deaths, these State agents engage in violations of international humanitarian law and violations of the right to life and physical integrity of the victims affected by such attacks.

206. The Commission has also received complaints suggesting that after carrying out military operations against armed dissident groups, State agents have killed individuals who are injured, who are held under the control of the Military Forces or who have otherwise fallen hors de combat. Direct attacks against those who have fallen hors de combat are absolutely prohibited under international humanitarian law. Thus, the execution of individuals under these circumstances by the State's security forces constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of life, even where the original military operation or attack may have been legitimate. Such executions violate international humanitarian law and the right to life protected in the American Convention.

ii. Extrajudicial Executions Occurring Outside of the Context of the Armed Conflict

207. The Commission has also received reliable information indicating that the State's public security forces, particularly the National Police, are involved in individual killings which occur outside of the context of the armed conflict. Other killings by State agents outside of the context of the hostilities are attributed to the Department of Administrative Security (Departmento Administrativo de Seguridad - "DAS") and to combined forces working together in anti-kidnapping units known as the "GAULA" or "UNASE" units.( 116 )

208. The Commission has received complaints alleging that the National Police commit extrajudicial executions of individuals who belong to "marginal groups," such as indigents, street children and prostitutes,( 117 ) or who are believed to be involved in criminal activities. The Police sometimes engage in this type of violence in the course of what initially were legitimate crime-fighting operations and activities. In other cases, the Police simply seek out presumed delinquents or marginal groups for execution.

209. For example, on September 30, 1993, in the San Antonio de Prado neighborhood in the municipality of Medellín, Department of Antioquia, National Police agents killed Juan Fernando Vásquez Montes. National Police agents approached on a motorcycle and began to shoot at Mr. Vásquez and his three companions. In addition to killing Mr. Vásquez, these shots also left one of his companions with serious injuries. The Police agents were on duty and utilized an official vehicle when they committed these violent acts. The reputation of the youths as delinquents apparently served as the motivation for the attack. On December 15, 1994, the Fifteenth Criminal Court for the Medellín Circuit convicted the two Police agents who committed the attack and sentenced them to 33 years of prison.

210. The Commission is currently processing several individual petitions alleging that National Police agents committed extrajudicial executions in connection with initially legitimate police actions.( 118 ) One such petition alleges that, on February 16, 1993, National Police agents extrajudicially executed Hernando Osorio Correa in Barranquilla. According to the petition, Mr. Osorio was injured in a crossfire which occurred when the National Police broke up a bank robbery. National Police agents then detained Mr. Osorio as he was about to enter a hospital for treatment, stating that he had been involved in the attempted robbery. Mr. Osorio's dead body appeared the following day with signs of torture.( 119 )

211. Another petition presented before the Commission alleges that National Police agents arbitrarily deprived two students of their right to life on January 30, 1996 in Bogotá. According to the petition, the owner of a brick business called the Police denouncing the presence of the two students and alleging that they sought to obtain money from him. The petition alleges that Police agents arrived and proceeded to extrajudicially execute the two youths, Jairo Colmenares Araque and Fernando Avila Barreto.( 120 )

212. The Commission recently decided and published a case involving the extrajudicial execution of an individual in the course of a Police operation. In that case, the intelligence unit ("SIJIN") of the Metropolitan Police for Bogotá detained Mr. Alvaro Moreno Moreno on January 3, 1991 in an operation in response to an attack against a Police center known as "Los Libertadores" Center for Immediate Attention in southeast Bogotá. Several witnesses learned of Mr. Moreno's detention, and police records also registered the fact. Mr. Moreno's cadaver appeared the following day with numerous gunshot wounds. The Commission concluded that the Colombian State was responsible for violations of Articles 1, 4, 7, 8 and 25 of the American Convention.( 121 )

213. In many cases involving alleged extrajudicial executions by National Police agents, the agents assert that they acted legitimately to stop the commission of a crime or in self-defense. The Commission recognizes that the National Police have the right and responsibility to act, and even to use force, to impede crime or to protect themselves or others. However, the Police are never justified in depriving an individual of his life based on the fact that he belongs to a "marginal group" or has been suspected of involvement in criminal activity. Nor may the Police automatically use lethal force to impede a crime or to act in self-defense. The use of lethal force in such cases would only be permissible if it were proportionate and necessary. Killings carried out by the National Police against members of "marginal groups" and presumed delinquents, as well as those which result from an excessive use of force, constitute arbitrary deprivations of life in violation of Article 4 of the American Convention.

4. Forced Disappearances

214. The information provided to the Commission indicates that State agents continue to carry out forced disappearances of persons although the numbers have diminished in recent years. In 1995 and 1996, the State was allegedly responsible for 21 and 22 disappearances respectively.( 122 )

215. The Commission recently published its decision in the case of the disappearance of Tarcisio Medina Charry. The Commission concluded that Colombian State agents disappeared Tarcisio Medina Charry on February 19, 1988 in the municipality of Neiva, Department of Huila. Mr. Medina, a linguistics student at the Southern Colombia University in Neiva, was detained by agents of the National Police at approximately 9:00 p.m. on that date. At that time, several of the police officers commented on the fact that Mr. Medina was carrying "La Voz" newspaper, which is associated with the Communist party. Several persons witnessed the detention of Mr. Medina and saw the Police place him in a truck with several other persons whom the Police presumably had detained. The Police took the group of detained persons to the local police station. Once inside the station, the other persons who had been detained noticed that Mr. Medina was no longer with them. Mr. Medina has not been seen or heard from since that time and his fate has never been learned. The Commission found that the State of Colombia was responsible for violations of Articles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13 and 25 of the Convention in this case.( 123 )

216. Police agents are also allegedly responsible for the forced disappearance of two students on May 13, 1995. Jorge Iván Alarcón Sánchez and Edgar Augusto Monsalve Pulgarín were detained by police units in an area in which an armed skirmish between the Army and guerrilla groups had taken place the previous week. The students were last seen with several police officers from the police station in Armenia, Department of Antioquia, including the commander of that unit. Some sources have reported that the police subsequently turned the two students over to paramilitary groups. The final fate of the two young people has not been determined.

217. The Commission has received information indicating that the members of a Colombian Army patrol disappeared Evelio Elles Aviles, 24 years old, on November 30, 1997. On that date, soldiers apparently entered into the Nueve de Abril neighborhood in Barrancabermeja and forced their way into a home. They inspected the home and used their rifles to hit an 18-year old boy who was present at the scene. They then asked Evelio Elles Aviles for his identification papers and proceeded to carry him away. His fate has not been determined.

218. The Commission notes that the victims of forced disappearances are frequently civilians who are suspected of playing some role in the armed conflict. In any case, State agents are absolutely prohibited from disappearing combatants as well as civilians. As indicated above, the forced disappearance of persons violates numerous rights protected in the American Convention.

5. The Right to Humane Treatment

219. The Commission has also received information indicating that State agents continue to engage in torture. According to that information, in 1995, State agents tortured and then released approximately 105 persons.( 124 ) Another significant number of individuals were allegedly tortured by State agents before being executed. The information provided to the Commission indicates that State agents tortured and then released 17 individuals during 1996.( 125 ) State agents allegedly tortured another 6 persons who were found dead with signs of torture in 1996( 126 ) According to the information received by the Commission, approximately 15% of all acts of torture, where the author was identified, were committed by State agents in 1996.( 127 ) In its most recent report on Colombia, the United Nations Committee Against Torture noted "the persistence of . . . cases of torture and ill-treatment attributed to members of the army and the police, in a manner that would appear to indicate a systematic practice in some regions of the country."( 128 )

220. It is estimated that approximately 9 of the 23 acts of torture allegedly committed by State agents in 1996 occurred within the context of the armed conflict. The Commission has received information indicating that, much as with extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances, State agents torture civilians whom they believe play some role in support of armed dissident groups. Combatants who fall under the control of State agents have also allegedly been tortured.

221. The Commission has received information implicating the Army in the torture and subsequent extrajudicial execution of José María Cárdenas in the village of Bajo Pirza, Department of Caldas, on December 3, 1997. José María Cárdenas was the cousin of María Eugenia Cárdenas, a human rights defender and regional director of ASFADDES (Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos) for Riosucio, Caldas. Ms. Cárdenas received several threats during 1997 as a result of her work with ASFADDES. Her cousin's body displayed clear signs of torture when it was found. Mr. Cárdenas' genitalia had been cut off and placed in his stomach. The Army responded to allegations that its troops might be involved by responding that the record of official activities for the date in question did not contain any record of the incident.

222. According to information received by the Commission, three members of the Army tortured Ilde Alfonso Minda Martínez after detaining him in Cartagena del Chaira at 9:00 p.m. on September 4, 1996. He was kicked, hit, beaten with the officers' rifles, subjected to water torture and forced to endure mock executions. The Army agents accused the victim of belonging to armed dissident groups and threatened him with death. The victim denounced the incident to the local government liaison ("personero") the following day. At that time, signs of the torture were still visible.

223. Torture by State agents is absolutely prohibited under all circumstances by humanitarian law as well as by Article 5 of the American Convention. Any and all acts of torture by State agents occurring in the context of the armed conflict thus constitute grave violations of both humanitarian law and human rights law.

224. According to the information received by the Commission, State agents also perpetrate acts of torture outside of the context of the armed conflict. This information suggests that State agents have tortured members of "marginal groups."

225. Also, the Commission has begun to receive a significant number of complaints alleging that the Military Forces and the National Police, as well as mixed units such as "GAULA" or "UNASE," have employed torture to obtain confessions from individuals whom they detain as suspects. These complaints allege that, after detaining them, State agents employ physical and psychological torture, such as placing plastic bags over the head of the detainee to provoke asphyxiation, beatings, threats against the life of the detainee, etc... The complaints allege that the detainee is often forced to make a confession in order to avoid further torture. These confessions are then frequently used in the criminal proceedings against the individual.

226. Several individuals were allegedly tortured by police in Bogotá when they were detained in relation to the murder of the son of retired General Ricardo Emilio Cifuentes. Police detained four individuals on February 21, 1996 five days after the murder. The torture suffered by the detainees in the first hours after their arrest included near suffocation, beatings and mock executions. Two of the detainees were subsequently released while two were charged with murder.

227. The Commission is extremely concerned about these allegations of torture. The Commission reiterates that all of these alleged acts of torture would constitute violations of Article 5 of the American Convention, which absolutely prohibits torture employed for any purpose. In addition, the Commission has previously made clear that the use of torture to obtain confessions is a most serious violation of Article 5. The Commission has further noted that human rights law requires that prosecutors and tribunals must not be allowed to consider information against a defendant which has been obtained in a manner which so blatantly violates the accused's due process and other human rights and which calls seriously into question the reliability of the information obtained. This principle is also established under Colombian law, which provides that confessions or other evidence obtained through torture are not valid.( 129 )

6. Threats and Food Blockades

228. Members of the State public security forces have sometimes threatened civilians. Generally, the members of the State security forces threaten those who have presumed ties to armed dissident groups. On other occasions, the threats appear to form part of a strategy to compel the forced displacement of persons.

229. The Commission received information, for example, indicating that soldiers from Battalion No. 48, a sub-unit of the "Special Command" for Putumayo, had threatened local municipal authorities whom they accuse of participating in armed dissident groups in March of 1997.

230. The Commission also received information indicating that soldiers from the XVII Brigade issued threats on May 24, 1998 against Eduar Rancheros, a humanitarian worker from the non-governmental organization "Justice and Peace." Mr. Rancheros has collaborated with the members of the "community of peace" established in San José de Apartadó. The Army has repeatedly suggested that members of that community act in alliance with armed dissident groups in the area. According to the information received by the Commission, the soldiers stole and killed a cow in one of the small hamlets near San José de Apartadó. They subsequently dismembered the cow in the presence members of the community. As they did so, they stated to the villagers that they would similarly kill and dismember Eduar Rancheros. As a result of these threats, the Commission was forced to request that the Colombian State adopt precautionary measures to protect the life and physical integrity of Eduar Rancheros. More than a year prior to those threats, Army soldiers had allegedly arrived in the communities surrounding San José de Apartadó to warn them that they should abandon the area or face violence from paramilitary groups.

231. The Commission notes that all threats of violence issued by State agents incur State responsibility for violations of the right to personal integrity protected in Article 5 of the American Convention. Article 5 establishes the right to respect for mental and moral integrity as well as physical integrity. Threatening behavior infringes on this right and is in no way justified by the existence of an armed conflict. Thus, regardless of whether threats by the State's security forces rise to the level of acts designed primarily to spread terror among the civilian population, prohibited by international humanitarian law pursuant to Article 13 of Protocol II, they necessarily constitute violations of international human rights law.

232. The Commission has also received information from reliable sources indicating that the Colombian Army sometimes places restrictions on the amount of food and supplies that civilians are permitted to purchase and take to their homes. The Commission considers that these limitations may, in certain circumstances, affect the health of persons in those areas where the restrictions apply. As a result, they may constitute violations of the right to physical integrity, and possibly even the right to life, protected in the American Convention. The Commission does not have sufficient information to conclude, at this time, that the Army has acted in a manner which contravenes the prohibition against starvation of civilians set forth pursuant to international humanitarian law in Article 14 of Protocol II. However, the limitations nonetheless violate the spirit of Protocol II which seeks to prevent the parties from using access to food as a means of controlling civilians and involving them in the conflict.

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( 116 ) See id.

( 117 ) According to the 1996 Comisión Colombiana Report, National Police agents were responsible for executing four members of "marginal groups" in 1996.

( 118 ) The Commission notes that the mention of these and other individual petitions in no way constitutes a prejudgment of the admissibility or final decisions that the Commission may take in these matters.

( 119 ) The Commission processes this petition under the number 11.727.

( 120 ) The Commission processes this petition under the number 11.747.

( 121 ) See IACHR, Report No. 5/98, Case 11.019 (Colombia), April 7, 1998.

( 122 ) See 1996 Comisión Colombiana Report, at 6; 1995 Comisión Colombiana Report, at 4.

( 123 ) See IACHR, Report No.3/98, Case 11.221 (Colombia), April 7, 1998.

( 124 ) See 1995 Comisión Colombiana Report, at 4.

( 125 ) See 1996 Comisión Colombiana Report, at 8.

( 126 ) See id. at 10.

( 127 ) See id. at 8.

( 128 ) United Nations Committee Against Torture, A/51/55, September 7, 1996, pars. 66-83.

( 129 ) See Political Constitution of Colombia, Arts. 12, 29; Code of Criminal Procedure, Arts. 3, 250, 290; Fourth Periodic Report of Colombia to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, CCPR/C/103/Add.3, 8 October 1996, par. 106.

( 130 ) The Commission recognizes that there exist many different types of paramilitary organizations in different areas of the country, including small local groups which are, in effect, no more than criminal gangs, involved in theft or drug trafficking. These groups would not be considered parties to the armed conflict.