Colombia: Prosecution Problems Persist

Colombia: Prosecution Problems Persist
Failure to File Charges Against General

(New York, March 11, 2004) - The failure to prosecute a top Colombian
army general accused of working with illegal paramilitary groups shows
continuing flaws in the Attorney General's office, Human Rights Watch
said today.

This week, Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio announced that he would
not file charges against General Rito Alejo del Rio. A cashiered army
officer, Del Rio had been under investigation for alleged links to
paramilitaries while he commanded the 17th Brigade, located in northern
Colombia, between 1995 and 1997.

"The first thing that Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio did upon
assuming office in 2001 was to fire the prosecutors who had gathered
enough evidence to arrest Del Rio for these serious crimes," said Jose
Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human
Rights Watch. "That purge of prosecutors was only the beginning of a
marked trend in the attorney general's office of hampering or derailing
cases that implicate top military and paramilitary leaders."

Within 72 hours of taking office, Osorio had demanded the resignations
of two high-ranking, veteran officials who had handled some of the
institution's most important and complex human rights cases, including
this one. A third official felt compelled to resign in response to the
attorney general's actions. Subsequently, the prosecutor who had ordered
General Del Rio's July 2001 arrest was forced to flee Colombia because
of threats on her life.

Prosecutors had gathered evidence linking Del Rio to support for
paramilitaries who had attacked villages, executed local civic leaders,
and provoked mass displacement and severe hardship for thousands of
residents in the Urab region. According to one soldier interviewed by
government prosecutors, General Del Rio had ordered his troops to patrol
with paramilitaries and take measures to disguise paramilitary killings
as casualties of combat between the army and guerrillas.

The evidence was compelling enough to prompt then-President Andres
Pastrana to cashier Del Rio in 1998. The U.S. government also canceled
his visa to the United States in July 1999, on the grounds that there
was credible evidence that implicated him in "international terrorism,"
drug trafficking and arms trafficking.

"The Del Rio case is one of the most important in Colombia, since it
alleges widespread collusion between the Colombian army and paramilitary
groups," said Vivanco.

Human Rights Watch said the paramilitary coalition known as the United
Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) is currently on the U.S. State
Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Three of its leaders
have been indicted in the United States for drug trafficking.

The attorney general has publicly questioned the testimonies of two
former security force officers who claimed to have intimate knowledge of
illegal activities by Del Rio. In both cases, there is ample evidence
that corroborates the testimonies, but this evidence has been discounted
by Osorio.

"The Internal Affairs agency should immediately name a special
investigator to examine the attorney general's actions, which we believe
may be in violation of Colombian law," said Vivanco.

Vivanco noted that under Osorio's leadership, the attorney general's
office has been rocked by corruption scandals, including reports of
infiltration by paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug traffickers. Over
the past six weeks, three top officials - the national director, the
replacement national director, and the head of the Witness Protection
Program - have been forced to resign or have been transferred because
serious questions were raised about their integrity.

Under international law, Colombia has an obligation to investigate and
prosecute human rights abuses. Progress on human rights cases is also
critical in determining whether Colombia is meeting the conditions that
currently regulate U.S. military aid. Since 2000 the United States has
invested over $25 million in the attorney general's office.

For more information on human rights in Colombia: