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