Published on Saturday, September 9, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Ruling in Colombian Child Slayings Dismays Activists
by Ruth Morris
BOGOTA, Colombia - International human rights activists Friday lamented a ruling that will allow Colombian military courts to decide the fate of soldiers who witnesses say shot at a group of schoolchildren last month, killing six.

Civilian prosecutors determined late Thursday that, contrary to preliminary reports from the army commander, "there was no proof that combat" was in progress when the children, ages 6 to 12, were fired upon while out for a nature walk.

Prosecutors said the youngsters were not caught in cross-fire with rebels, much less being used as human shields by the guerrillas, as army commander Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora first claimed.

After witnesses in the northern village of Pueblorrico told reporters that no insurgents were in sight at the time, Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez acknowledged that the shootings might have been caused by human error.

Turning the case over to military courts to determine whether the 22 soldiers and one noncommissioned officer should be punished "is regrettable, lamentable," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

"We have no confidence in the military justice system," Vivanco said. "Their record is extremely poor."

The case is expected to test the Colombian armed forces' commitment to protecting the rights of civilians. It comes at a time when many activists are questioning whether the United States should be providing more than $600 million in military support to an army with a record of abusing its own people and with documented ties to right-wing private armies.

The armed forces have given human rights training to soldiers and have fired high-ranking officers accused of collaborating with vigilantes.

Human Rights Watch has investigated links between the armed forces and right-wing private armies. It has concluded that the army has so consistently turned a blind eye to massacres of civilians suspected of supporting Marxist guerrillas that its collaboration with the militias can be considered institutional.

Prosecutor General Alfonso Gomez Mendez said Thursday that the shooting in Pueblorrico has become a military matter because the soldiers had no intention of killing the children.

The soldiers were tense and on high alert after fighting with guerrillas earlier that day, army officials have said. They were pursuing the insurgents when they saw silhouettes moving across the landscape, armed forces commander Gen. Fernando Tapias said three days after the slayings.

Witnesses said the soldiers were devastated when, after firing, they realized that those silhouettes had been children.

But Vivanco of Human Rights Watch said: "The fact of the matter is that six kids were killed by the armed forces of Colombia and there was no evidence of combat and this constitutes a gross violation."

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times