Roxanna Altholz

Human Rights Atrocities Still go Unpunished in Colombia

The recent acquittal by a Bogotá court of General Jaime Humberto Uscátegui, the highest ranking military official ever prosecuted for human rights violations, shows that Colombia's justice system continues to let the worst perpetrators go free.

Mired in a 50-year civil war and plagued by drug trafficking, Colombia boasts some of the world's most ruthless criminals. Many of them are what one would expect: drug runners, paramilitary thugs, guerilla warlords. But many others appear to be model citizens -- senators, generals, judges -- who, by turning a blind eye, lifting a checkpoint, or providing a list of names, facilitate unspeakable atrocities. General Uscategui is such a man. In 1997, over 50 residents of Mapiripán, a small village in southern Colombia, were tortured for days, hacked to death and thrown into a nearby river. Uscategui could have stopped the massacre -- but chose not to.

I represented the families of victims of the Mapiripán massacre before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which found extensive evidence of General Uscátegui's complicity. The paramilitaries reached the massacre site via an airport under Uscátegui's command. The General's troops helped the paramilitaries pass through several security checkpoints on the road to Mapiripán.

General Uscategui knew about the massacre even as it took place. One of his subordinates, Major Hernán Orozco, informed General Uscátegui that paramilitaries had entered the village and had begun to detain and torture its residents. Uscátegui ignored the warning and allowed the massacre to continue for five more days.

He then attempted to cover up his role. He ordered Orozco to falsify the documents showing he had received word of the massacre.

The Bogotá court gave Orozco, the whistleblower, a 40-year sentence. The general threatened to reveal everything he knew about the collaboration between military and paramilitary forces and walked free.

The Uscátegui decision leads to painful conclusions regarding human rights and the rule of law in Colombia. Mapiripán has come to symbolize army collusion with paramilitary death squads. An international tribunal found Colombia responsible for the massacre, while the U.S. State Department mentions the case each year in its human rights report. The Colombian Public Prosecutor's office, strengthened by millions of dollars in U.S. assistance, put one of its best men on the case. The evidence appeared irrefutable.

If ever a military general were to be held accountable for colluding with paramilitaries, this was the moment. Nevertheless, Uscátegui walked. If justice can be denied to the widows and orphans of Mapiripán, there would appear to be little hope for the multitude of victims whose cases will never arrive onto the pages of an international newspaper or the desk of a foreign ambassador.

At the start of this decade, a series of crusading human rights prosecutors combated impunity, only to be undercut by their superiors and forced, one by one, into exile. Today, courageous Colombian Supreme Court investigators are unraveling links between politicians and paramilitary groups, but they have been criticized and intimidated by none other than President Alvaro Uribe himself. Meanwhile, press reports indicate that, upon hearing of General Uscátegui's acquittal, the Commander of the Colombian Army rushed to offer him the military's facilities for a celebratory press conference.

Colombian government officials and the Bush Administration argue that Colombia is making strides in protecting unionists and prosecuting human rights violators. But despite the work of a courageous few, Colombia has failed to prosecute those responsible for murder, torture, and other abuses during the country's ongoing civil war. The country remains the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists, with 98 percent of unionist murders going unpunished. Colombia's atrocious human rights record has led members of Congress to block a proposed U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement.

The justice system still has a chance to overturn Uscategui's acquittal. Washington should watch these proceedings closely and remain skeptical about grand claims of progress on human rights in Colombia.