Published on
Inter Press Service

Colombia: Torture as a 'Side Effect' of Forced Disappearance, Killings

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA - The body of trade unionist Guillermo Rivera, who was missing since April, was finally found after 84 days of desperate searching by his family and friends.

The forensic experts reported that the body showed "clear signs of torture," Jorge Gómez, the widow's lawyer, told IPS.

The 52-year-old Rivera was last seen when he took his daughter to her bus stop on the morning of Apr. 22. A witness said she saw him arguing with the police as they handcuffed him and shoved him into a police car. "Why are you taking me?" she heard him ask the officers.

Security cameras located near Rivera's home on the south side of Bogotá "showed that several police cars were present at the time and place where the gentleman disappeared," a source at the Attorney General's Office told IPS.

IPS was able to confirm that there were four police cars and several motorcycles.

The day after he went missing, Rivera's wife, Sonia Betancur, received a call from the cell-phone of her husband, who worked for the city government, was the president of a Bogotá trade union and was a member of the Communist Party.

"The phone call was very confusing, she didn't understand a thing," said Gómez.

A week later, the Attorney General's Office reported that the call had been made from San Martín, 159 km south of Bogotá, a town that is a centre of operations of the far-right paramilitaries in the province of Meta.

The National Commission for the Search for Disappeared Persons, created by law in 2006, finally located Rivera's body.

His corpse had originally been found on Apr. 24 in a dump along a road near the city of Ibagué, 215 km east of the capital, and was buried in an unidentified grave in that city on Apr. 28.

When it was exhumed by the Commission, forensic exams and fingerprinting showed that the body belonged to Rivera, who was given a funeral on Jul. 17 in Bogotá, amidst protest demonstrations over his death.

"The search was marked by negligence and ineffectiveness on the part of the Attorney General's Office," but in addition, "it can almost be said that there was complicity of all kinds by several state institutions in this disappearance," said Gómez, who served as ombudsman in the conflict-ridden region of Magdalena Medio between 2002 and 2006, "where 100 percent of forced disappearances have gone uninvestigated and unpunished."

"There is a series of elements that make it possible to say that he was 'disappeared' by the police," added another source, who clarified however that it was not the Metropolitan Police but "another state structure."

Rivera was the 28th trade unionist killed this year in Colombia, which has become the most dangerous country in the world for labour activists.

Another serious aspect of the case is that Rivera was tortured before he was killed.

Victims of murder or arbitrary detention are frequently tortured, according to the 2007 report on Torture and Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment in Colombia, presented last week in Bogotá by the Colombian Coalition Against Torture.

But torture in such cases is rarely mentioned, and is relegated to the category of a mere side effect, said lawyer Jahel Quiroga, director of Reiniciar, a group that forms part of the Coalition. "You often hear it said about a victim that 'they killed him,' but not that he was previously tortured," she added.

In fact it took IPS more than 24 hours to confirm that the forensic report on Rivera's death showed that he had been tortured. The sources consulted invariably first mentioned his alleged arbitrary detention and extrajudicial execution.

The Coalition is also made up of the Association of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (ASFADDES), and five other local human rights groups, as well as the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the Italian chapter of Terre des Hommes.

Another member organisation, the Colombian Commission of Jurists, documented 346 cases of torture, in which 234 of the victims died, from July 2004 to June 2007. Last year alone, 93 cases were reported, in which 43 of the victims were killed.

Of the total number of torture victims documented by the human rights group, 18 were women and 11 were children.

The report blames 90 percent of the cases on the state - 70.4 percent for "direct perpetration" by state agents and 19.7 percent as a result of tolerance of, or support for, human rights abuses carried out by paramilitary groups.

Leftwing guerrilla groups were held responsible for 9.8 percent of the cases, the report adds.

The Coalition states that torture in Colombia is systematic, widespread and deliberate, and is used as a means of political persecution with the goal of sowing terror among individuals, communities and social movements.

The victims are frequently peasant farmers living in war zones, where state security forces are stronger than civilian authorities and officials. Other frequent victims are human rights defenders, social activists and trade unionists like Rivera.

An undetermined number of torture cases in rural areas end in extrajudicial executions that are later reported as "deaths in combat", says the Coalition, which provides the figure of 955 victims presumably killed by the security forces in the five years up to June 2007 (including 236 murdered from July 2006 to June 2007 alone).

Torture is also often associated with forced disappearance. ASFADDES says signs of appalling torture have been found on the majority of human remains found in common graves and clandestine cemeteries, whose location has been revealed by members of paramilitary militias who have taken part in a demobilisation process negotiated with the government, in order to gain legal benefits and lenient sentences.

The Coalition also mentions 235 forced disappearances "directly attributable to the public forces" in the five years up to June 2007.

"Torture is a war crime. It is, precisely, one of the crimes contemplated in the system established by the International Criminal Court (ICC)," OMCT director Eric Sottas told IPS.

"It is clear that at some point, the ICC could exercise its jurisdiction over this" in Colombia, he added.

This civil war-torn country ratified the Rome Statute, which created the ICC, in August 2002.

The Coalition reports that no perpetrators have been identified or punished in nearly 90 percent of torture cases, principally because of the state's refusal to acknowledge the persistence of this phenomenon.

Article 8 of the Rome Statute states that "The Court shall have jurisdiction in respect of war crimes in particular when committed as a part of a plan or policy or as part of a large-scale commission of such crimes."

That makes particularly significant the Coalition report's conclusion that "torture in Colombia is a systematic and generalised practice."

The Coalition recommends that the rightwing government of Álvaro Uribe ratify the Facultative Protocol to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which provides for the possibility of truth-finding visits to signatory countries.

It also urges the government to require demobilised paramilitary fighters to provide full confessions of their crimes, including torture, in order to be eligible for legal benefits.

In addition, it calls on the state to adopt a specific public policy aimed at preventing torture and putting an end to the impunity that surrounds such cases.

Copyright © 2008 IPS-Inter Press Service.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Won't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

Share This Article

More in: