University of Minnesota



For more than a decade, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has been monitoring developments in the human rights situation in Colombia, given the rampant violence that has spread throughout that country and the many complaints of human rights violations received by the Commission's Executive Secretariat attributing direct, indirect or shared authorship and responsibility to agents of the Colombian government.

Almost thirteen years ago, in April 1980, the Government of Colombia invited the Commission to make an on-site visit to examine the general situation of human rights, to witness the oral proceedings in the courts martial conducted under the Colombian Constitution and laws and to apprise itself of how those trials were being conducted. Similarly, the Government wanted the Commission to see firsthand the investigations being conducted into alleged human-rights related abuses of authority reported in the document released by Amnesty International on April 1, 1980, and the inquiries instituted because of the complaints lodged by Amnesty International.

That visit took place between April 21 and 28 of that year and, although not originally planned, was followed by a series of visits by IACHR staff. Those visits continued for just over a year, until May 1981. During the April 1980 visit, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was also instrumental in helping resolve the problem created when the Embassy of the Dominican Republic was taken over by an M-19 Commando Group on February 27, 1980. In that take-over, more than 50 people -including diplomats from a number of countries, government officials and Colombian citizens- had been taken hostage.

As a result of that visit and because the Commission had, at the request of the Colombian Government, of the governments of countries whose diplomats had been taken hostage, of the Holy See and the upper echelons of the M-19, been instrumental in securing the release of the hostages, one of the terms agreed upon as part of the negotiation process was that the Commission would provide some kind of international oversight to monitor the trials of the M-19 and FARC guerrillas. Several different teams of attorneys from the Commission's Executive Secretariat went to Colombia, each team replacing the one that preceded it, to be present at, observe and report on the proceedings. A special report on the on-site visit, the observations resulting from that visit, the Commission's role in the events described above, the prosecution of the trials, and the human rights situation in that country was prepared and then approved by the Commission at its 71st meeting on June 29, 1981 and eventually published as document OEA/Ser.L/II.53, doc. 22 (June 30, 1981) titled "Report on the Situation of Human Rights in the Republic of Colombia".


The present report, whose original version was completed in September 1992, covers only the period of the Commission's direct observations from its on-site visits in 1990 and 1992, though some information from 1989 is also included. However, the discussion of certain problems traces them back to their root causes and origins. Though it does not pretend to be exhaustive, the report studies and explains what is happening in Colombia in this regard and analyzes the many different protagonists who cause and perpetuate the chain of violence-on-violence. It examines the effects of that violence and how it is impairing the full exercise of human rights and the rule of law in Colombia.

This report, the result of the Commission's on-going observation of the human rights situation in Colombia, is an objective discussion and presentation of facts that the Commission is called upon to investigate, without sensationalizing the violence that some of the personal testimony contains. On the other hand, some of the testimony is inevitably brutally graphic but had to be included since to do otherwise would be to conceal facts and in so doing misrepresent the truth.

The report ends with the Commission's conclusions and recommendations on the facts under consideration.


In its 1981 report on the situation of human rights in Colombia, the Commission explained that the jurisdictional frame of reference within which it exercises its functions was determined by the structure and functions that the member States of the Organization of American States gave to the Commission. Those member States opted not to give the Commission any type of jurisdiction to investigate cases of terrorism and subversion. Since the Commission is not authorized to establish its own statutes according to its members' preferences, its entire basic structure was determined by rules that the member States of the OAS established.

As with almost all intergovernmental human rights organizations, the Commission's function is to investigate actions attributable to governments. Its rules and regulations notwithstanding, the Commission also considered what it would mean, in practice, were the Commission to investigate complaints of terrorist or subversive activities. It pointed out that this would be a violation of its mandate and would be tantamount to affording a terrorist group the same treatment that governments receive as a "party" to a complaint; in other words, the pertinent parts of a complaint would be transmitted to the terrorist group, requesting its observations on the allegations made by the petitioning government or party. The Commission added that many such organizations would be very pleased to be treated as if they were governments.

The Commission noted that even so, it was often criticized for refusing to process complaints that concerned terrorist acts committed by subversive groups. It again pointed out that those who made such charges were not only ignorant of the laws by which the IACHR must operate but were also implicitly requesting that such groups be given some international persona and, ultimately, that their propaganda be assisted.

At the time, the Commission pointed out that it was not competent to replace the State in investigating and punishing acts of violence committed by private parties; it did, however, have a responsibility to protect persons whose rights had been violated by agents or organs of the State. Finally, it pointed out that its contribution to combatting terrorism must be to perform its assigned function faithfully, which was to promote effective observance of human rights, although this did not mean it had to disregard or refrain from denouncing human rights violations committed by terrorist groups.

The Commission's guidelines remain unchanged, as its legal framework has not been amended. Without deviating from its rules and regulations, however, the Commission has consistently condemned violations of human dignity, personal security and the right to life committed by armed bands of all types amid violence; for the Commission, all such acts are reprehensible, regardless of their author, and no reason nor motive can justify them. The Commission has always held that its function is to observe and protect the essential human rights of the individual and that to condemn human rights violations no distinction need be made as to origin or motive.

Even though the governments of the American countries have not given the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights an express mandate to investigate violations of such rights by subversive, terrorist and other such groups and have established guidelines for investigating and processing only those cases wherein a State is accused of some violation, the members of the Commission, as individuals who represent the inter-American system for protecting and defending human rights, have nevertheless repeatedly done their duty and exercised their right to condemn such violations in the spirit of simple human solidarity. Clearly the Commission, although not processing and investigating cases involving terrorist groups wherein the authors of these atrocities are regarded as "parties", is energetically condemning terrorism against a defenseless civilian population, regardless of its form. As an example of the position the Commission has taken, the following is the text of an official communique released by the Commission in February 1993:


No. 2/93

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is disturbed by the most recent wave of brutal terrorist acts in various places throughout Colombia. These acts leave the Colombian people in a state of constant anxiety and directly violate their rights to life, security and personal integrity. The combination of attacks by organized crime and political violence has made the Colombian people the victim of one of the cruelest and most unjust onslaughts of aggression. The Commission reaffirms the principle that no person, group or State may infringe the rights recognized in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the American Convention on Human Rights.

Yesterday, car-bombs were parked in various places in downtown Bogota, precisely at that time of the day when vehicular and pedestrian traffic are heaviest. Each was loaded with 50 kilos of explosives. As the authors had intended, when the car-bombs were detonated tremendous material damage was done; more importantly, however, hundreds of defenseless people who live or work in the area of the explosions or were simply passing by, suffered irreparable injury. This development has left the Colombian people in mourning once again, especially the families of the victims, as people have been injured, mutilated or permanently disabled. Moreover, one of car-bombs was placed near a court building for the obvious purpose of intimidating this institution and its members.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights vigorously condemns this and any other criminal acts that add to the Colombian people's suffering and trigger understandable indignation and protest among the Colombian public and the international community. It is the Commission's view that acts such as these, which are the work of individuals or irregular armed groups working for the drug cartels, must not go unpunished. It also condemns actions targeted at those public institutions that are the guardians of Colombian justice.

In addition to strenuously repudiating the acts in question, the Commission urges the Government of Colombia to afford the public with the maximum security and protection to which it is entitled and to prosecute and sanction, with the full force of the law, the authors of these acts.

Washington, D.C., February 17, 1993


To comply with the recommendations received from the General Assembly of the Organization of American States, this report will consider the activities of irregular armed groups in Colombia. To do so, it has consulted reports supplied by the Colombian Government, various nongovernmental human rights organizations that routinely report on the activities of those groups, and the news coverage of acts attributed to these irregular armed groups.


Decade 1980-1990

During the administration of President Julio César Turbay Ayala, when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was invited to visit Colombia and conducted its on-site visit in 1980, the latter observed at the time that the Colombian Army had apparently managed to win the executive power's full support for its anti-guerrilla campaign. As mass-scale torture was tolerated, no measures were taken to prevent and repress such abuses (7th conclusion of the 1981 report). Many people were allowed to be arrested merely on the suspicion that they had collaborated, either directly or indirectly, with the insurgency movement and massive arrests were made of alleged guerrillas or guerrilla sympathizers. Between August 1978 and July 1979, Colombian authorities arrested more than 60,000 people.[1] Apart from the violations of the right to life, the main problem the Commission observed and denounced at the time was the massive unlawful arrests, mistreatment and torture that had become widespread, accepted practice.

During the administration of President Belisario Betancur, between 1982 and 1986, relations between the Army and the Government changed: from the time the new administration took office, there was no longer that sense that the Army's military activities in the anti-subversive campaign enjoyed the executive power's virtually unqualified support. Under President Betancur, while peace efforts got underway through negotiations with the guerrilla forces, the paramilitary movement escalated, at least partly because of the sense of frustration that the peace negotiations caused in some sectors of the military, the curb on anti-guerrilla activities, the restrictions that the Government imposed as to the type of activity that could be used to combat the guerrilla movement and the increased effort to prevent lawlessness on the part of the military. At the same time, in many places paramilitary groups supported by rural property owners with ties to drug trafficking represented one way of settling the score with militant leftists who continued to engage in kidnapping and other criminal activities but whom the amnesty laws and the policy favoring negotiations with the guerrilla movement had made it difficult to punish.

Also during this period, the Asociación Campesina de Agricultores y Ganaderos del Magdalena Medio (ACDEGAM) was created on July 24, 1984. This group and other regional associations of farmers, businessmen and entrepreneurs took advantage of Law 48, from 1968, to play a major role in promoting and consolidating paramilitary groups, aided by the armed forces. In May 1984, a truce known as the Uribe Agreements was declared with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Out of that came a new political force in Colombia, the Unión Patriótica (UP), the first leftist political group, consisting of former members of the guerrilla movement and of other leftist political groups.

During the Betancur administration, a terrible event happened in November 1985 that was one of the climactic moments in Colombia's problem with violence: the take-over of the Palace of Justice by an M-19 Commando. In the take-over and the Government's retaking of the building, more than 100 people perished, among them half of the justices on the Supreme Court. Another 15 citizens were never found; some may have died in the operation and their bodies were never identified or claimed; others may have been detained and disappeared by agents of law and order. Around that same time, members of the newly-created Unión Patriótica started to be assassinated. The extermination campaign may have been motivated by the fact that former FARC members who had become members of the Unión Patriótica seemed to be benefitting by their re-incorporation into the legal political system, even though some either maintained or seemed to maintain ties with the guerrilla movement that continued to engage in military activities. Another possible motive for the extermination campaign may have been a fear that the UP would win control of local government with the armed support of the guerrilla movement.

During the administration of President Barco (1986-1990), the extermination campaign against the UP continued and the paramilitary movement grew even more. Some paramilitary groups were taken over and run by drug cartels, which had markedly increased their investments in the private sector, in legal businesses and in farmland sold off by former owners harassed by guerrillas in the countryside. During this same period, the state of emergency was used to create new criminal courts such as the public order courts, to try crimes of terrorism and drug trafficking; fundamental legal guarantees such as habeas corpus were restricted as they could only be filed with judges in certain cities; the military forces were given liberal means to suppress drug trafficking and the guerrilla movement.

A report released by the Government of President Virgilio Barco in 1989 stated the following: the general policy in human rights is organized around and based upon an analysis of the Colombian socio-political situation in the last forty years. Colombia's economic, political, social and moral structures are collapsing and the exercise of fundamental human rights is suffering as a result. In spite of the State's efforts to restore a just democracy, obstacles remain that the Government does not have the means to overcome. After four decades of progress and change, social inequalities and a concentration of wealth are still the country's most salient features. Despite its vigorous economy and cultural advancement, Colombia continues to be a country of alarming contrasts: there are those who are prospering in the tremendous economic boom, but they are far outnumbered by the many who still live in dire poverty.

The Government's policy of negotiating with the armed groups culminated in 1989 with the signing of a peace agreement that led to the definitive demobilization of the M-19 and its incorporation into legal politics. In response to the increase and frequency of human rights violations, in November 1987 the Office of the Presidential Advisor for Human Rights was created for the stated purpose of improving the observance of human rights. During the period to which this report refers, the Presidential Advisor for Human Rights was a distinguished intellectual from Antioquia, Dr. Jorge Orlando Melo[2]. In 1989 the administration of President Barco enacted a series of laws calculated to dismantle the paramilitary groups, making it unlawful to form any new, private self-defense groups. During this same administration, measures were also taken to strengthen controls to ensure that the military were operating within the law, such as the appointment of a civilian Prosecutor for the Military and Police Forces and the creation of an Office of the Attorney Delegate for Human Rights with the authority to investigate and punish cases of genocide, disappearances and torture. These measures, however, did not seem to have much of an effect, as the violence continued to escalate, especially with the frontal attack on drug trafficking.

There was an explosion of violence during this period, one of the worst in Colombia's history. Three presidential candidates were assassinated: Luis Carlos Galán of the Partido Liberal on August 16, 1989; Bernardo Jaramillo of the Unión Patriótica on March 22, 1990, and Carlos Pizarro of the Alianza Democrática M-19, on April 26, 1990. Also assassinated was the Attorney General, Carlos Mauro Hoyos, on February 25, 1988. The drug cartels started to practice their own brand of terrorism to force the government to change its policy of suppressing drug trafficking and in the process created an unprecedented climate of fear and intimidation. This new brand of almost uncontrollable aggression, called "narcoterrorism", raged on in Colombia from 1988 and 1990 virtually unchecked. In many rural areas, members of the UP continued to be exterminated, partly as a result of differences between the FARC and the drug traffickers. The situation reached such an extreme that Colombians were in the habit of saying that in Colombia no one's life or safety was assured.

On May 27, 1990, Mr. César Gaviria Trujillo was elected President of Colombia winning 47% of the votes cast. President Gaviria Trujillo had been a leader of the Liberal Party and Minister of the Treasury and of Government during the administration of President Virgilio Barco. An economist by profession, this 43 year-old former Congressman was the heir of the political movement of former Senator Luis Carlos Galán, whose presidential campaign Gaviria Trujillo had been orchestrating at the time Galán was assassinated. Gaviria replaced Galán as his party's candidate and was ultimately elected. President Gaviria continued and furthered the country's pacification process and achieved the following results, among others: a successful demobilization agreement with the PRT (Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores), an armed group that had been operating for some 12 years; agreements with the indigenous guerrilla organization Quintín Lame; and on July 27, 1990, an agreement with a third guerrilla group still operating at the time, the EPL (Ejército Popular de Liberación).

December 1990 - February 1992

Between December 1990, the date of the Preparatory Commission's visit, and February 1992, when the IACHR's Special Commission made its visit, several important events occurred that deserve mention. First, the executive power called a national plebiscite to give the people an opportunity to vote on whether to draft a new constitution for the Republic. The result of the plebiscite was that the people voted in favor of convoking a constitutional assembly to draft a new constitution.

Next, elections were held to elect the members of the National Constitutional Assembly. The Constitutional Assemblymen elected were given a specific time frame in which to submit to the country the text of the proposed new constitution. There was citizen participation as well, with professional, academic, union, and other institutions proposing new provisions, which the Constitutional Assemblymen would then discuss. The Government submitted its own draft of the new constitution, which added some new provisions on human rights, most of which were already contemplated in existing international norms.

When it completed its business, the National Constitutional Assembly submitted the text for the new constitution. It consisted of 13 chapters, 380 permanent articles and 59 transitory articles. The National Constitutional Assembly was dissolved once its work was completed and then, on July 6, 1991, the text of the new Constitution entered into force for the Republic of Colombia. That new Constitution is examined in Chapter II.

Before it adjourned, however, the Constitutional Assembly decided to dissolve Congress and to call elections for a new legislative body, charged with implementing the provisions of Colombia's new Constitution. Despite protests from those who argued that the new Constitution did not give the Constitutional Assembly the authority to dissolve Congress and call new elections, President Gaviria, acting upon the Constitutional Assembly's decision and exercising the authorities he has during a state of siege, called elections for a new Congress. The Assembly also appointed a transitional legislative body, known as "El Congresito", to perform congressional functions until the new parliament was installed in accordance with the recently approved Constitution.

"El Congresito" managed to enact into law some of the temporary, exceptional provisions that the Colombian Government had created especially for the state of siege. In this way, the temporary, exceptional rules that took effect in the event of a national disturbance became permanent law. A number of the provisions just recently added to the new Constitution were affected by the laws "El Congresito" enacted; some were even superseded by the new laws it passed. Later, when called upon to rule on the constitutionality of the special norms that were enacted into permanent law, the Constitutional Court nullified some but not all of those that were patently contrary to the new Constitution.


The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights would like to thank the Government of the Republic of Colombia and its officials for the invitation to conduct on-site visits to that country and for the courtesies that the members of the Commission received during those visits.[3]

It would also like to thank the nongovernmental human rights organizations of Colombia and, in particular, the Andean Commission of Jurists, for the cooperation and information they supplied to the Commission to enable it to accomplish the purpose of its visits.

[1] "Los Paramilitares y su Impacto sobre la Política". Al Filo del Caos, Francisco Leal Buitrago and León Zamose, Editors. Tercer Mundo, Publishers. Bogota 1990, pp. 486 to 493.

[2] The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights would like to extend a special word of thanks to Dr. Jorge Orlando Melo for the support and cooperation that he unfailingly gave to the IACHR during the period in which he served, with dedication and integrity, as the Colombian Government's Presidential Advisor for Human Rights.

[3] Colombia became party to the American Convention on Human Rights on July 31, 1973, approved through Law 16 of 1969.


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