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HARVARD LAW REVIEW: Rise in Colombia extrajudicial killings may be linked to pressures on military

November 19th, 2009

By Rebecca Adule

In March 2006, Martha Giraldo returned to her father’s farm outside of Cali, Colombia, to find the property surrounded by soldiers and her father dead. Based on accusations he was involved with guerillas, the military shot José Orlando Giraldo, and, standing over his stripped and mutilated body, warned Martha and her family members that they could share his fate. 

“It was the gravest humiliation that one can feel, to find your father assassinated. We saw his body completely destroyed,” Giraldo said. “In the middle of the night, the national army comes and murders your father.” 

While horrific in many respects, José’s death is hardly unique, nor are the numerous questions such killings raise under international humanitarian law. 

“This isn’t just the story of my family. The same thing is happening to many Colombians, especially marginalized members of Colombia communities, like Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples,” Giraldo said.  

Through a translator, Giraldo spoke about the impunity enjoyed by the government actors carrying out extrajudicial killings of Colombian civilians, at an event hosted by the Harvard Law School Advocates for Human Rights. According to human rights organizations, the Colombia military killed 535 civilians between January 2007 and June 2008. Extrajudicial killings have increased dramatically over the last few years, a rise many attribute to the implementation of a “democratic security policy” designed to fight guerillas and insurgents. Intimidation and reporting issues hinder the collection of accurate date regarding extrajudicial killings. While 2,981 cases were filed from 2002-2008, many suspect that number underscores the true extent of the issue. 

Now a human rights activist and community organizer, Giraldo traveled to Harvard Law School with Witness for Peace, a “U.S.-based organization that aims to inform the public about connections between US foreign policy and human rights conditions in Latin America.” Giraldo began working with the victims of state crimes program at Witness for Peace in 2007 on behalf of her father’s case. 

“My work in human rights began when members of Colombian army killed my father, a small scale farmer,” Giraldo said. “He was loved by the community here, but the battalion presented him as if he were a narco-terrorist and part of the FARC.”

“The whole world knows that my father was not a guerilla,” Giraldo continued. 
Despite these efforts, three and a half years later, none of the military officials involved in José’s death have been punished. Giraldo believes that the military killed her father, and others like him, to demonstrate success in the war against the guerillas. Increasing Giraldo’s pain has been the frustration of not getting a proper response to inquiries regarding her father’s death.

“Not one person in charge of human rights for the military has answered my letter, or shown any concern. So now it is the same ones who are killing our family members, who do the investigations,” she continued. “How are we supposed to believe those same people are capable of bringing justice for these cases? This is contrary to what we, as victims, are demanding.” 

“The military is supposed to protect,” she said. “But they are just killing innocent civilians.”  A United Nations investigation determined that military officials often receive benefits, such as promotions, time off and cash bonuses, for each successful killing. 

Building a network of informants and establishing a family forest ranger program, the government blurs the lines between civilians and the military, including a network of informants, creating an environment of fear and mistrust. Giraldo described some of the additional tactics used by the government in covering up the killings. 

“They manipulate crime scenes, like dressing up someone after they have been killed,” she said. “For example, sometimes the person will be wearing fatigues. They have a bullet hole in the arm, but it doesn’t go through the fatigues.”

Overhearing Giraldo’s presentation was Colonel Juan Gomez of the Colombian Air Force immediately spoke. In the United States as an attaché to the Organization of American States and as a visiting professor at the National Defense University, and at Harvard Law School on an unrelated engagement, Colonel Gomez first extended his condolences to Giraldo for her loss. He then explained that the Colombian government has not denied that many cases of illegal killings of non-guerillas by the military have occurred. 

A dialogue between Giraldo and Gomez, later recounted in English, quickly developed.

Giraldo reiterated that her claims had been ignored and then dismissed, heightening her sense of disillusionment with the government as a whole and, in particular, with the Ministry of Defense. Currently undergoing a shift from an inquisitorial to an adversarial judicial system and operating with a somewhat restricted scope, the Ministry of Defense lacks the authority to oversee many of the types of cases discussed. Sensing Giraldo’s dissatisfaction with this explanation, Gomez asked her for the details of her father’s case and offered to provide what assistance he could.

Eventually, Gomez had to depart for his next appointment and, having reached an impasse, extended his hand to Giraldo. Taken aback, Giraldo rejected the gesture. 

Already threatened in Colombia, Giraldo’s tour likely puts her at even greater risk at home. To explain her decision to speak, she simply said, “For me it is very important to remind people of who the victims of these killings are.”

To read the article in the Harvard Law Review, click here.  

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