7. Forced Displacement and Recruitment of Minors

233. State agents are responsible for a portion of the massive forced displacement of persons which occurs in Colombia each year as a result of violence. In addition, the Colombian public security forces have continued to recruit and permit the enrollment of children to serve in the Military Forces. The Commission will discuss these problems in Chapters VI and XIII, which specifically deal with issues relating to forced displacement and children.


1. Applicable Legal Norms

234. It is understood in Colombia that, because of their increasingly direct and sustained participation in the hostilities, certain paramilitary groups, particularly those linked to the Castaño and Carranza families, must be considered parties to the internal armed conflict in Colombia.( 130 ) International humanitarian law thus applies for the purpose of assessing their actions. In addition, to the extent that these groups act as State agents or proxies, or their illicit acts are acquiesced in, condoned, or tolerated by the State, their actions may be attributable to the State and engage the State's international responsibility for violations of the American Convention and other applicable human rights instruments.( 131 )

235. As the Commission has explained, the Commission's central role is to address violations of human rights law norms which entail State responsibility. The Commission therefore believes it necessary to analyze the relation between the paramilitaries and the State in order to determine to what extent, and under what circumstances, there exists State responsibility for violations of human rights in connection with actions undertaken by the paramilitaries.

2. Relation between the State and the Paramilitary Organizations

236. The Commission must conclude that the State has played an important role in the development of the paramilitary groups and has not adequately combated those groups. The State is thus responsible, in a global sense, for the existence of the paramilitaries and therefore faces responsibility for the actions carried out by those groups.

237. As was noted in Chapter I of this report, the State allowed the paramilitaries to act with legal protection and legitimacy in the 1970s and 1980s. State officials supported the growth of the paramilitaries as a means of fighting the armed dissident groups. The State eventually was forced to prohibit the creation of paramilitary groups, because these groups had become powerful and violent allies of those engaged in the drug trade. However, even when the paramilitary groups became illegal in the late 1980s, the State did little to dismantle the structure which it had created and encouraged, particularly when these groups carried out counter-insurgency activities.

238. In fact, some sectors have suggested that the resurgence of paramilitary activity in the last several years took place with the approval or even assistance of the State's security forces. It has been suggested that the Military Forces recognized that they could avoid the political costs of engaging in war without limits by leaving to the paramilitary groups the tasks which violated human rights and international humanitarian law and which would attract the attention of the public and the international community. Thus, the paramilitary groups began perpetrating prohibited acts on behalf of or as auxiliaries to the Military Forces and increasingly became independent forces which, in some sense, have replaced the State's security forces and carry out their own war against the armed dissident groups. This view of the development of the paramilitaries is supported by the statistics which show that, over the last several years, the number of violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed by the paramilitaries have increased significantly while the number of violations directly attributable to the Military Forces have decreased at a similar rate.

239. Until recently, the State's public security forces had entered into combat only on extremely rare occasions with paramilitary groups and had carried out almost no detentions of members of paramilitary groups. Even when the Office of the Prosecutor General began to issue arrest warrants, these warrants were not executed. The identity and whereabouts of many paramilitary leaders were public, yet no arrests took place. In this connection, even the Prosecutor General of the Nation, Alfonso Gómez, has denounced the complacency of some sectors of the population towards the paramilitaries and has stated that some low and mid-level military officials "tolerate" these groups.( 132 )

240. Offers of award money for the arrest of paramilitaries were announced at the end of 199, including for the capture of well-known paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño. However, no follow-up of the announcement ever occurred. Numerous representatives of the media and governmental authorities knew where to find Carlos Castaño to carry out interviews and meetings with him, yet the bodies responsible for carrying out the arrest warrant against him were unable or unwilling to do so. During the Commission's on-site visit to Colombia in December of 1997, the Prosecutor General of the Nation announced that his office had issued 180 arrest warrants against paramilitary leaders. Yet, no arrests had taken place. Similarly, the Human Rights Unit of the Office of the Prosecutor General of the Nation provided the Commission with a list of outstanding arrest warrants against members of paramilitary organizations during the Commission's on-site visit. According to that information, the Human Rights Unit alone had issued 115 arrest warrants, yet none of the individuals named in those warrants had been arrested. Those paramilitary members named by the Human Rights Unit included individuals who had already been convicted, as well as suspects and individuals officially accused.

241. After paramilitary groups perpetrated numerous horrifying massacres in the latter part of 1997, which received widespread publicity and several of which coincided with the Commission's on-site visit, the Colombian State was prompted to take more aggressive action against the paramilitaries. On December 1, 1997, the Government announced a plan to combat the paramilitaries. The plan included new announcements of award money for the capture of paramilitary leaders and the creation of a specialized search force ("bloque de búsqueda") to facilitate captures.( 133 )

242. Since that time, the State has begun to offer some tangible results in the fight against the paramilitaries. On December 2, 1997, the day after President Samper announced new measures to fight paramilitaries, a judge in Bogotá convicted Arnulfo Castillo Agudelo, a known paramilitary leader in the Meta Department. On December 10, 1997, the National Tribunal issued a decision sentencing Iván Roberto Duque to 13 years of prison. The press called the decision the first conviction of a paramilitary ideologue.

243. On February 24, 1998, agents of the Technical Corps for Investigations (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación - "CTI") of the Office of the Prosecutor General of the Nation captured Victor Carranza Niño. Victor Carranza is a well-known emerald mine owner who has been accused for years by many sectors of being the primary patron of the paramilitary groups which act in the eastern plains and in the Department of Boyacá. Despite the numerous accusations against him, Victor Carranza had never been prosecuted previously. He had been arrested on one prior occasion in September of 1990. He was released the following day, because there was no arrest warrant pending against him.

244. In addition, according to the XVII Brigade, its Army units killed five alleged members of paramilitary groups in combat in Urabá in January of 1998. On February 12, 1998, police forces in Antioquia exchanged fire with a paramilitary leader from the Dabeiba region of Antioquia. The paramilitary leader, Edwin Alvarez Cano, was killed in the incident. According to persons from the area, Alvarez had served in an important position in the ACCU. Subsequently, on March 1, 1998, the Army captured 12 alleged paramilitary members in the Magdalena Medio region in an operation carried out in Cimitarra, Department of Santander.

245. According to recent statistics provided to the Commission by the Colombian Government, the Military Forces, the National Police and DAS, between January and May of 1998, captured a total of 139 paramilitary group members and killed in combat 22 members of those groups.( 134 ) These statistics provide some reassurance regarding the determination of the Colombian State to eliminate violent paramilitary groups. However, the Commission notes that the statistical report also shows that, during the same time period, the State's security forces killed 254 members of armed dissident groups and captured 436 members of those groups. In addition, the same packet of materials provided to the Commission by the Colombian State includes a letter from the Human Rights Unit of the Office of the Prosecutor General of the Nation. The letter, dated May 11, 1998, indicates that the specialized search force created by President Samper had not yet carried out any of the arrest warrants issued by that Unit against members of paramilitary groups.

246. In January of 1999 the State announced yet another plan with a new strategy for combating paramilitary groups. This announcement roughly coincided with published reports attributing responsibility to paramilitary groups for multiple horrific massacres that resulted in the death of nearly 140 people. The proposed strategy provides for a coordinated effort to gather intelligence information useful in the task of disarming the command and financial structure of paramilitary groups, together with the intensification of military and police operations. The plan aims at achieving concrete results within pre-established time limits. The Commission hopes that this announcement signals the serious determination of the State to take all necessary measures, concertedly and at all levels, to confront and terminate the illegal activities of these irregular groups. The Commission must express its disappointment with the attitude adopted by the State in the fight against paramilitary groups, particularly during the process of their emergence and strengthening. After an initial period during which it failed to take any action whatsoever to suffocate the emerging irregular groups, the State started progressively to make some late efforts. Such efforts, however, have not translated into a proportional response to the growth of the phenomena and, as confirmed by recent events, they have not been adequate in the least.

247. The Commission nonetheless considers recent measures to combat the paramilitaries to be of utmost importance and will continue to observe with great interest the steps taken by the Colombian State in this regard. The Commission recognizes that dismantling the paramilitaries in Colombia is not an easy or a quick task. These groups have, in many cases, become very independent from the State which originally promoted them and have become extremely strong and powerful in their own right. Some of the groups have developed into well-armed and well-trained military style units. These groups will not easily cede to the wishes of the State even if the State has finally taken a firm decision to abolish them.

248. The Commission also acknowledges that the State's international obligations generally are ones of means rather than results. In other words, the State must take all appropriate measures to dismantle the paramilitaries and halt their abuses. Where a State takes all such measures and does not obtain the desired result of eliminating the paramilitary groups, in principle that State does not face international responsibility. Nonetheless, the Commission is of the view that the Colombian State bears a very high burden of showing that it has adopted all necessary measures and that it acts with full conviction in combating the paramilitaries, given the State's role in allowing these groups to achieve the strength that they possess today. In the Commission's opinion, the State has not yet met that burden.

249. Even as the State has expressed increased interest in combating the paramilitaries over the last several years, the Commission has continued to receive information regarding cooperation between paramilitary groups and the State's public security forces. This information calls into question the State's commitment to eliminating the paramilitaries. In addition, the Commission reiterates that, in all cases where paramilitaries act as proxies of State agents or with the cooperation or acquiescence of those agents, the State becomes internationally responsible for the abuses which they commit. The international responsibility of the State for the human rights abuses committed is not diminished by the fact that the State has enunciated a general policy against the paramilitaries. The Commission will thus proceed to analyze the information which it has received regarding the relation which has existed between the State's security forces and paramilitary groups in Colombia.

250. The Commission has received information which indicates that, in certain areas of the country, there exists a high degree of collaboration between the Army and paramilitary groups. The Commission has received testimony and information to the effect that, in some cases, members of the Army and the paramilitaries carry out joint operations. In some cases, members of both armed groups actually patrol together. In others, soldiers enter an area first and warn the population that the paramilitaries are coming behind them. The paramilitaries then commit acts of violence against those who do not follow instructions.

251. During its visit to Urabá, the Commission received testimony regarding such joint operations. Many individuals told the Commission that, at the beginning of 1997, the Army had appeared in the small communities near San José de Apartadó to announce to the residents that they must leave the area. The soldiers warned that, if residents did not follow these instructions, the paramilitaries would follow and would attack those who remained. Within a short period, the paramilitaries began to carry out extrajudicial executions in the area, forcing most of the residents to flee their homes to find refuge in San José de Apartadó, Apartadó and other areas.

252. The Commission received specific information concerning the death of Miguel Angel Graciano, resident of the small community of Salto de Apartadó, in such a joint operation executed in March of 1997. According to several witnesses, Mr. Graciano was captured along with Bernardo Moreno Londoño by a joint patrol of paramilitary members and soldiers. The patrollers told the two captured individuals that their group included 40 paramilitary members and 80 soldiers. The patrol then removed the captives to two different areas. Mr. Moreno was subsequently released by the soldiers who held him. Mr. Graciano was apparently left with the paramilitary members. His dead body, displaying signs of torture, was found a short time later.

253. The Commission must assume that, in these cases of joint activity, the commander of the local military base, battalion or brigade has knowledge of the cooperation between his soldiers and the paramilitaries, although such knowledge is denied. Thus, for example, General Rito Alejo del Río, who at the time of the Commission's visit served as Commander of the XVII Brigade, with jurisdiction over the San José de Apartadó area, denied any connection between the soldiers under his jurisdiction and the paramilitaries in the area. However, the Commission received information which made this denial implausible.

254. For example, the Commission specifically asked General Rito Alejo del Río about the existence of a paramilitary roadblock in the road between Apartadó and San José de Apartadó. Representatives of the Colombian State, diplomatic missions and non-governmental entities alike had provided detailed information to the Commission about this roadblock. However, General Alejo del Río denied the existence of any paramilitary roadblock.

255. During its visit, the Commission received testimony regarding the Army's knowledge about the roadblock. Local authorities informed the Commission that, on March 2, 1997, a delegation of Government authorities, including representatives of the Office of the Prosecutor, the Police and the Army, was halted by the paramilitaries at the usual roadblock. The delegation sought to reach San José de Apartadó to inspect and remove the cadavers of Miguel Angel Layos Castañeda, Rubén Antonio Villa Rivera and Rubén Antonio Villa Alvarez, who were killed there on February 28, 1997. The individuals who had installed the roadblock announced that all was well and that they were members of self-defense groups and that the delegation could carry on. A soldier responded amicably calling out to the paramilitary members as "cousins."

256. Given this level of interaction between paramilitary forces and Army troops within his jurisdiction, the Commission considers that, barring extreme ineffectiveness and lack of control over his troops, General Rito Alejo del Río must have had knowledge not only of the roadblock but also generally of the presence of paramilitaries in the area and the cooperation between those groups and his troops. This conclusion is corroborated by the findings of several special commissions, composed of governmental and non-governmental organizations, which operated in the region during 1995 and 1996. One of these commissions found that military and paramilitary units had developed lists of persons in the area which showed a high level of collaboration between the regular and irregular forces. The commission's report found that these lists were utilized as a means of control in roadblocks set up by the groups around the region.( 135 ) Another commission reported that the relationship between State security forces and paramilitary groups in the area was open and notorious. That commission found that members of the Army often went to paramilitary bases and even carried out training sessions there, while other local security forces were known to play pool with the paramilitaries.( 136 )

257. Yet, despite numerous complaints about the collaboration between the Army and paramilitaries in the jurisdiction of the XVII Brigade and the manifest seriousness of the situation, the Army never investigated General Rito Alejo del Río's conduct in this regard. In fact, the Ministry of Defense recently transferred him to the important post of Commander of the XIII Brigade, which includes Bogotá in its jurisdiction. In addition, official army propaganda from the Army General Command made favorable reference in 1997 to the "pacification" of the Urabá region. Based on this information, the Commission considers that the Colombian State should investigate the degree to which knowledge regarding joint activities between members of the Army and paramilitaries may also have reached high levels of the Army. In August of 1998, civilian prosecutors finally opened a preliminary investigation into General Rito Alejo del Río's activities in Urabá.

258. The Commission notes that, in these cases of joint activity between the military and paramilitaries, particularly when carried out with knowledge by superiors, the members of the paramilitary groups clearly act as State agents. The Commission must therefore judge their actions by human rights law as well as by humanitarian law norms, and the violations which they commit will be attributable to the State.

259. The information analyzed by the Commission suggests that, in other cases and areas of the country, members of the military and the paramilitary have strong connections which do not involve joint operations. These ties with the paramilitaries may exist at different levels of the Military Forces. These connections often permit the State's security forces to request that the paramilitaries execute certain tasks and the paramilitaries may, in turn, demand from the Military Forces the right to undertake criminal activity with impunity.

260. For many years, organizations and individuals in the Department of Meta have denounced such ties between high-level Army officials at the Seventh Brigade in Villavicencio and the paramilitaries connected with the Carranza family. For example, Josué Giraldo, President of the Human Rights Committee for Meta, denounced such links before he was killed. Shortly before his execution, Mr. Giraldo had noticed that he was frequently followed by vehicles belonging to the Seventh Brigade. His death on October 13, 1996 was presumably at the hands of the paramilitaries. Based on this type of information, the Commission has repeatedly asked the State to investigate and remove those officials at the Seventh Brigade who have connections to paramilitary groups. The State has not yet taken any steps in this regard.

261. In February of 1998, the State found sufficient information establishing the existence of these types of connections between paramilitaries and members of the State's security forces in Bolívar to arrest four Police and Army officials. The Office of the Prosecutor General of the Nation ordered the arrests which were executed against the second commander of the Army's Junín Battalion and three commanders for the Police of Bolívar. The Office of the Prosecutor General is investigating these officials for allegedly working with known paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño to coordinate paramilitary groups. The Army and the Police, respectively, removed the suspects from their positions and detained them upon petition by the Office of the Prosecutor General.

262. In these cases of cooperation between elements of the military and the paramilitaries, the Commission also finds that the members of the paramilitary groups are, in effect, State agents. These persons act with the cooperation and support of State agents and often receive information about possible targets from members of the State's security forces. They also receive protection from these State agents against investigation and sanction. The persons whom they act against with violence or threats generally understand that the paramilitaries enjoy special strength and authority derived from their collaboration with the State. The members of these paramilitary groups thus effectively act under color of official authority. Their actions must therefore be judged by the standards set forth in human rights law as well as humanitarian law. When they violate human rights and humanitarian law norms, the State will bear international responsibility for those violations.

263. The Commission has also received information indicating that State entities and agents sometimes acquiesce in the actions of paramilitary groups where more active participation does not take place. The case of the massacre of Mapiripán provides an example of a case where, at a minimum, the paramilitaries involved benefited from the acquiescence of State security forces. Over the course of six days between July 14 and 20, 1997, at least 100 heavily armed members of the ACCU paramilitary group seized control of Mapiripán, a small coca-growing town in the Meta Department in southeastern Colombia. The ACCU members tortured, killed or disappeared approximately 30 villagers. Carlos Castaño, the leader of the ACCU, readily admitted responsibility for the massacre. He suggested that the villagers all deserved their fate because of their ties to armed dissident groups and announced that he would coordinate many more such massacres.

264. Many organizations and even State officials have found significant evidence that the State could have but did not stop this massacre. The evidence suggests that the State's failure to act was so blatant that it suggests clear acquiescence in the events, if not more.

265. In June of 1997, paramilitary organizations announced, in their third conference, that they would plan incursions into southern Colombia. Yet, the State took no action to show that it took these announcements seriously. Nor did the State's public security forces take any action to prevent the movement of paramilitary troops to the site of the massacre. Days before the massacre, Carlos Castaño transported his men to the area by plane. There exists a record of a private plane with capacity for 60 persons departing from Los Cedros, Urabá for San José del Guaviare three days before the massacre. Yet, there is no record of their arrival at the airfield in San José del Guaviare, which is heavily guarded by the Colombian Army. Upon arrival by plane in southern Colombia, the paramilitary members then proceeded through an area of the country with heavy Army presence to the site of the massacre without any difficulty. The municipal judge for Mapiripán, Iván Cortés Novoa, began calling to the Joaquín París Battalion, the nearest military base, for immediate assistance on the first day of the paramilitary occupation. He called for assistance a total of eight times. Yet, the Army battalion did not arrive until July 20, the last day of the killing spree. Several Army officials from the Joaquín París Battalion have been detained in relation to the investigation of the massacre.

266. In other cases and areas of the country, the information provided to the Commission indicates that State agents are responsible for omissions which permit the paramilitary groups to carry out their acts of violence. The Commission received numerous complaints indicating that Police and Army units stood by as paramilitary groups entered towns to intimidate the population, carry out extrajudicial executions and take cattle and other goods from the population. Many complaints also allege that, in populations with paramilitary presence, the identity of members of the paramilitary groups is well-known. Yet, State authorities do not attempt to carry out arrests against these individuals.

267. Incidents in early 1998 in the Department of Putumayo may provide an example of omissions of State agents in relation to paramilitary violence. On February 12, 1998, local civil and religious authorities began to denounce killings by paramilitaries in the area around Puerto Asís, Department of Putumayo. Representatives of the Catholic church and persons fleeing the area stated that a large group of paramilitaries had entered the region during the last days of January and had begun carrying out selective executions. The mayor of Puerto Asís, Néstor Hernández Iglesias, fled from the area and confirmed the statements regarding the paramilitary incursion. He stated that 45 persons had been killed. Others, including the local Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman and local government liaisons ("personeros") placed the number of victims between 30 and 50.

268. At their third conference, referenced above, the paramilitary organizations had also made known their plan to enter Putumayo. In addition, Carlos Castaño confirmed the existence of plans to carry out activities in Putumayo in interviews that he held with the press.( 137 ) Yet, as with Mapiripán, the State apparently did not take measures to prevent the paramilitary incursion.
269. After information became public regarding the killings in Putumayo, high-level State officials publicly refused to accept the veracity of the information or to take special measures to investigate the incidents with a view to prosecuting those responsible. National Police Director, General Rosso José Serrano, denied knowledge of the killings in Puerto Asís and said that communist agitators were spreading misinformation. The Ministry of Defense issued a press release indicating that it had received information from local Police, military and prosecutors which contradicted the announcements of the killings. They further denied the need to send in the special search force ("bloque de búsqueda"). Defense officials suggested that the deaths might be part of the normal death rate in the area.

270. Because the killings did not occur in a single massacre, officials were able to suggest that a paramilitary incursion had not taken place. Yet, even Police statistics soon showed that the violent death rate in the first two months of 1998 had experienced a dramatic increase in comparison with first two months of the previous two years. Also, the testimony of numerous civil authorities and displaced persons indicate that the killings were carried out in a highly selective manner, not characteristic of common crime, by armed men with lists of alleged guerrilla sympathizers. These men sometimes identified themselves as members of paramilitary groups and painted walls with paramilitary slogans. Also, when judicial authorities began to carry out some investigations into the crimes, they received written threats from self-identified paramilitary groups who accused the authorities of bias in investigations against the paramilitaries and in favor of armed dissident groups. Several of those officials had to be transferred out of the area. The Commission considers that State agents thus incurred in grave omissions in response to information made known in the first months of 1988 regarding serious violations by paramilitary groups. When local government officials denounced new paramilitary killings in Putumayo in August and September 1998, the Army finally arrested ten persons alleged to be members of a paramilitary organization.( 138 ) At the same time, the Army criticized the local authorities for denouncing the killings.

271. The Commission notes that, in many cases, it might be suggested that acts of acquiescence and omission constitute evidence of more direct State involvement. However, even where State agents do not directly participate in paramilitary acts of violence, the State may become responsible for the violations committed by those groups. The State becomes internationally responsible for harm caused to individual rights by private actors when it acquiesces in the acts of those private actors or when it fails to take reasonable measures to prevent the violation or, subsequently, to investigate and sanction those responsible for the harm caused.

272. Based on the foregoing considerations, the Commission concludes that the Colombian State bears international responsibility under human rights law, as well as international humanitarian law, for a significant number of the acts of violence committed by paramilitary groups in Colombia. The Commission will proceed to describe the violations committed by those paramilitary groups.

3. Statistical Information Regarding Violations of the Right to Life and Forced Disappearances

273. Most sources agree that paramilitary groups have been responsible, over the last several years, for the greatest number of forced disappearances and violations of the right to life in Colombia. According to statistics provided by various organizations, the percentage of responsibility for killings attributable to paramilitary groups have risen steadily over the last several years to approximately 60% of all deaths and disappearances, where the authorship is known, carried out for socio-political reasons, outside of combat-related activities. In 1995, paramilitary groups killed or disappeared approximately 452 individuals outside of combat, while the total number of individuals killed as a result of socio-political violence not directly related to combat, where the author was identified, was 982.( 139 ) In 1996, paramilitary groups killed or disappeared approximately 751 individuals outside of combat while the total number of individuals killed as a result of socio-political violence not directly related to combat, where the author was identified, was 1,198.( 140 ) In 1997, paramilitary groups were responsible for approximately 1,152 socio-political killings outside of combat.( 141 )

274. In the case of the paramilitaries, these statistics probably provide a relatively clear view of the number of violations of international law committed. According to the information provided to the Commission, almost all of the violent actions carried out by the paramilitaries are directed against civilians. The violent actions of the paramilitaries are aimed at obtaining greater socio-economic and political control over territory and populations. The paramilitaries still engage only infrequently in direct armed confrontations. Where they do so, detailed information regarding injuries and deaths occurring in combat is scarce and would not likely be reflected in the statistics. Because paramilitaries generally attack members of the civilian population who are not directly participating in the hostilities, almost all acts of violence attributable to paramilitary groups constitute violations of international humanitarian law and, in those cases involving State responsibility, human rights law.( 142 )

4. Massacres

275. The Commission has received information indicating that paramilitary groups commit numerous massacres of the civilian population each year. According to statistics provided to the Commission, paramilitary groups committed 16 of the 48 massacres carried out in 1995.( 143 ) Paramilitary groups were responsible for a significant increase in the overall number of massacres since 1995. Paramilitary groups were allegedly responsible for 84% of the 185 massacres committed in 1997 with social and political motivation.( 144 )

276. The massacres described above, in Mapiripán and Putumayo, are two examples of the type of mass killings carried out by the paramilitaries. Upon the Commission's arrival in Colombia in December of 1997, the press, non-governmental organizations and civil society were focused on recent massacres in the Departments of Antioquia, Cundinamarca and Cesar.

277. Between October 25 and November 3, 1997, paramilitaries entered El Aro, in the municipality of Ituango, Antioquia. The paramilitaries rounded up the population in the main plaza and announced that they should abandon the area. After carrying out the massacre of approximately 15 persons, members of the paramilitary groups burned down numerous structures in the community, including approximately 40 homes. Army officials allegedly remained on the periphery of the town during the paramilitary operation, even turning back villagers who attempted to flee. Witnesses from the area stated that, during their several-day stay in El Aro, members of the paramilitary group stole cattle. They then passed through the center of the nearby community of Valdivia to take the cattle out. According to these witnesses, when the paramilitaries herded the cattle through the center of Valdivia, representatives of the Army fired shots so that the residents would remain in their homes, allowing the paramilitaries to pass through without difficulty. Residents of El Aro stated that the October, 1997 attack on the town had been preceded by an incident the previous year in which members of paramilitaries entered the community with members of the Colombian Army. According to information provided by the National Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman and the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman for Medellín, only three families remained in the town after the October, 1997 attack.( 145 )

278. The leader of the ACCU, Carlos Castaño, acknowledged the responsibility of his group for the massacre in El Aro, arguing that it was an important strategic gain, because armed dissident groups plan and launch attacks from this area. Carlos Castaño announced that he sought control over the area known as the "Nudo de Paramillo" by December. The Nudo de Paramillo is located in northern Antioquia and borders on areas presumably owned by the Castaño family. This area also serves as an entrance into the combative Urabá region of Antioquia.

279. After Castaño's announcement, his paramilitary groups proceeded to perpetrate additional massacres of civilians to achieve the control sought. In November, the ACCU attacked the small towns in the municipality of Dabeiba, also in the Paramillo. In Dabeiba, the groups killed at least 16 persons, burned homes and forced 600 peasants to flee the area. Residents of Dabeiba later announced that armed men had first arrived on July 20 to threaten the community, stating that its residents were guerrilla collaborators. After Dabeiba, the ACCU advanced to the area known as Peque. In the first community which the paramilitaries entered in Peque, they killed four persons and burned down the local school, provoking the mass displacement of almost 1,500 persons. Despite the public announcements by the ACCU regarding their intent to secure these areas, the State's public security forces took no preventive actions to halt these attacks.

280. Similarly, on November 21, 1997, paramilitary groups killed 14 peasants in La Horqueta, Department of Cundinamarca. On November 27, 1997, seven peasants in Ciénaga, Department of Magdalena were killed by paramilitaries. Also, during the Commission's visit itself, between December 1 and 2, paramilitary groups entered three communities in southern Cesar and killed eight persons.

281. These and other massacres committed shortly before the Commission's visit are but a few of the numerous massacres authored by paramilitary groups. The paramilitaries have also carried out several well-known and horrifying massacres in Segovia, Department of Antioquia.

282. For example, on April 22, 1996, a paramilitary group entered Segovia at approximately 8:30 p.m. The commander of the local Bombona Battalion of the Colombian Army, Captain Rodrigo Cañas, purportedly provided for the transportation of the paramilitaries to Segovia. The group entered a billiard hall and fired automatic weapons at its patrons. This action resulted in seven deaths and injury to eight other persons, one of whom subsequently died while receiving medical attention. The paramilitary group proceeded to enter the El Tigrillo neighborhood. Its members threw two grenades at another billiard hall and shot at those inside. Two persons died at the scene and three more were killed while receiving medical attention. Seven other individuals received injuries. The paramilitary group then left the town by the main highway. During their presence in the town, the paramilitaries passed by the Police station in the main plaza and by military posts. Yet, they had no difficulty in carrying out their acts and then leaving the town without the slightest interference or resistance by these State agents. The Army acquitted local military commander, Captain Cañas, of any wrongdoing. However, the Office of the Prosecutor General of the Nation did bring charges against Captain Cañas for homicide and the formation of paramilitary groups.

283. Significantly, paramilitary groups carried out a similar massacre in Segovia in November of 1988, resulting in the death of 43 individuals, including three children. Residents of the area have always suggested that the Military Forces were involved in that massacre. The Colombian justice system recently convicted five Army officials for their involvement with the paramilitaries in the planning and execution of the massacre.

284. During its on-site visit, the Commission received significant oral and written testimony regarding massacres committed by paramilitary groups in the municipality of San Roque, Department of Antioquia. The municipality of San Roque includes the towns of San Roque, Cristales and San José del Nus and other even smaller communities. Armed dissident groups had a strong presence in this area over the last decade and, through violence and intimidation, had managed to obtain a significant degree of control over the mentioned communities.

285. Residents of this area have informed the Commission that paramilitary groups entered the area on June 17, 1996, making their presence known first in San José del Nus. They then entered the community of Diluvio where they gathered the residents together, identified themselves as a self-defense group and threatened to "finish off" all those who sold supplies or provided transportation in public buses to members of armed dissident groups. With a list in hand, they went to the home of a local merchant, Alfonso Zuleta. They took Mr. Zuleta out of his home, tied his hands and then shot him. The paramilitaries announced that this was just a lesson and that they would return to "clean the area." They took three other merchants with them out of the community. The lifeless bodies of these other three victims were found later that day. The army entered the area the following day and began entering and inspecting homes, suggesting that members of armed dissident groups were allegedly in the area.

286. The same paramilitary group again entered the area again, on September 14, 1996, killing five more persons. One of the victims, Carlos Valencia Osorio, managed the local sugar mill. The paramilitaries tortured Mr. Valencia before killing him, because he gave them sugar. The paramilitaries argued that, if he gave sugar to them, he must also certainly have given sugar to armed dissidents. On this occasion as previously, the members of the paramilitary group wore military-style clothing and moved from community to community without any difficulty, despite the presence of Army and civilian authorities in the area.

287. The commander of the Fourteenth Brigade at the time of the events, Colonel Carlos Enrique Vargas Forero, stated publicly that the situation in San Roque and Cristales was completely normal and that the presence of armed dissident groups created the only public order problem in the area. Members of the community informed the Commission that it is common knowledge that the paramilitaries have remained present in the area and have set up a post on the road leading out of Cristales. Yet, no authorities have made any effort to arrest them. The Commission mentioned the complaints regarding the area of San Roque and Cristales to then Governor of Antioquia, Alvaro Uribe Vélez. Governor Uribe responded by simply stating that armed dissident groups had been present in the area for years and nobody had complained, apparently implying that the paramilitary attacks were deserved or necessary or somehow not worthy of attention.

288. The paramilitaries have also made good on their promise to commit additional massacres similar to that in Mapiripán. On May 4, 1998, members of the ACCU paramilitary group entered into Puerto Alvira, a village of about 1,200 inhabitants in the municipality of Mapiripán. List in hand, members of the paramilitary group extrajudicially executed approximately 21 persons. The victims included a four-year-old girl. Some of the victims' bodies were drenched with gasoline and burned. The paramilitary group warned the residents of Puerto Alvira that they would suffer further attacks if they did not leave the town in eight days, causing the exodus of most of the villagers. Apparently the Colombian Military Forces and other authorities had again failed to take any steps to prevent this massacre despite Carlos Castaño's warning after Mapiripán that further massacres would take place in the area.

289. As the Commission noted above, the right to life remains protected even in time of armed conflicts. Paramilitary massacres of civilians constitute grave violations of international humanitarian law. In addition, where paramilitary groups carry out massacres with the collaboration, support or acquiescence of State agents, they also constitute grave violations of the right to life, under human rights law, and result in State responsibility for those violations. The Commission expresses its most serious condemnation of the numerous horrible massacres committed by paramilitary groups in Colombia.

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( 131 ) The Commission wishes to emphasize that treating paramilitary groups as parties to the internal armed conflict in Colombia does not give them special status or recognition. This treatment means only that they are bound by the norms of international humanitarian law. Common article 3 to the Geneva Conventions explicitly provides that the application of the laws of war in no way changes the legal status of the parties to the conflict. By referencing international humanitarian law in analyzing the acts of paramilitary groups in Colombia, the Commission does not entail recognition of political or legal status for these groups.

( 132 ) See "Fiscal colombiano denuncia complacencia con paramilitares", El Universal, Caracas, Venezuela, January 22, 1999.

( 133 ) See Presidential Decree No. 2895, December 3, 1997.

( 134 ) See "Operations Results for the Military Forces, National Police and DAS against Organized Crime Groups in 1998."

( 135 ) See Report Regarding the Field Work of the Commission for the Verification of the Agreements Signed on July 5, 1996 between the Government and the Peasants who Peacefully Occupied the "Antonio Roldán Betancur" Coliseum in Apartado, at 5. This commission included representatives from the Ministry of the Interior, the Office of the Presidential Human Rights Adviser and the Office of the Procurator General, among others.

( 136 ) See "Final Report of the Commission for Verifying the Violent Actors in Urabá," at 34-36. This commission included representatives from the Office of the Procurator General of the Nation, the Office of the Prosecutor General of the Nation and others.

( 137 ) See El Tiempo, "Urabá: el fin de la pesadilla", September 28, 1997.

( 138 ) See "Capturan a diez presuntos 'paras,'" El Tiempo, September 9, 1998.

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

( 140 ) See 1996 Comisión Colombiana Report, at 6.

( 141 ) See Balance Sheet, at 4.

( 142 ) To the extent that these groups increasingly engage in armed confrontations with armed dissident groups, further analysis will be required to determine whether their actions are in conformity with international humanitarian law. The Commission notes that, even if certain eventual acts of the paramilitaries were considered to be legitimate pursuant to international humanitarian law, the State would of course still have the right and duty to prosecute members of these illegal groups who commit acts of violence. This duty to prosecute would exist even where members of the paramilitary groups killed members of armed dissident groups. The paramilitary groups are not duly authorized by the State to combat armed dissident groups. For this same reason, in those potential cases where paramilitaries might undertake illegal acts of violence against armed dissidents with State support or protection, the State would be responsible internationally for human rights violations.

( 143 ) See 1995 Comisión Colombiana Report, at 23.

( 144 ) See Balance Sheet, at 6.

( 145 ) See Draft Report: Special Visit to the Community of El Aro, Municipality of Ituango, Antioquia, November 28, 1997