Contributing Columnist | 10/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Trujillo Declassified: Documenting a ‘tragedy without end’
Oct 1 -- With a number of recent arrests connected to the infamous Trujillo massacres of 1988-1994, Colombia reopens one of the most enduring cases of impunity in its modern history.
To truly understand the Trujillo case, it is important to recognize the pervasive climate of impunity that lies at the core of the tragedy. Thirteen years after President Ernesto Samper accepted responsibility for the state’s role in the Trujillo killings, and 18 years after the murders themselves, not a single perpetrator has been sentenced in connection to the case.
Earlier this month, a special report on the Trujillo killings assembled by the Historical Memory Group (GMH) established under the “Justice and Peace” law found that impunity in the Trujillo case was not simply a symptom of state impotence or a lack of resources. “To the contrary,” writes Gonzalo Sánchez, the group’s director,
“it is part of the logic that surrounds and/or causes these crimes. It is precisely this impunity that guarantees that the crimes can continue being committed, that the perpetrators can continue committing them, and that those responsible are not punished.”
As Colombia revisits this “tragedy without end,” the country is faced with the possibility that yet another investigation will end without convictions.
The ongoing political violence and the history of impunity that surrounds this case make it all the more important that groups investigating human rights crimes have access to a broad array of data from international organizations, courts and advocacy groups. One particularly rich source on Colombia’s impunity problem turns out to be one of its closest friends: the United States government. Colombia’s human rights record has been on the radar of American diplomats and intelligence officials for over 30 years, particularly those cases tied to the U.S. through training or other support. Thanks to hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests by the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., many of these formerly secret documents have now been declassified. These records tell us what U.S. officials said behind the scenes about their top Andean ally, and whether they believed that Colombia’s senior military and civilian leaders were serious about pursuing justice in Trujillo and other cases.
By the mid-1990s, increasing international outcry over the human rights situation in Colombia meant that the U.S. had to be much more careful about which units and officers of the Colombian armed forces it could support. Credible reports focused specifically on the abuses of U.S.-supported military units and officers complicated the U.S.-Colombia security relationship, particularly when meaningful prosecutions were practically non-existent.
For the U.S., Trujillo would be an important test of President Samper’s stated commitment to improve Colombia’s human rights record and his pledge to break the military’s ties to paramilitaries. The mere admission of state responsibility would not be enough. Clinton administration officials wanted to see real progress on the case, including the prosecution of military officials connected to the killings.
Chief among these was Maj. Alirio Uruena, a Third Brigade officer who, in addition to his association with the paramilitaries and drug traffickers behind Trujillo, had an uncomfortably close connection to the U.S. One Embassy cable noted that Uruena had “received USG [U.S. Government]-sponsored training on two occasions”: in 1976, at a “cadet orientation at the School of the Americas,” and at a “DIA-sponsored intelligence officer course” in December 1988 and January 1989, just a year or so before the killings in which he was specifically implicated.
The sheer brutality of the killings made Uruena’s connection to the U.S. especially worrisome. Uruena had “personally directed the torture of 11 detainees and their subsequent execution,” according to one cable. The key witness in the case, a civilian army informant who participated in the murders, said that the killings “were carried out by cutting off the limbs and heads of the still living victims with a chain saw.” His testimony, according to the Embassy, was corroborated by “more than a dozen witnesses.” Perhaps even more troubling, the case also tied Maj. Uruena to a narco-paramilitary group led by infamous paramilitary chiefs Diego Montoya and Henry Loaiza (both of whom are now under investigation for the Trujillo killings).
The U.S. connection to Trujillo, and the U.S. desire to continue supporting the strategically-located Third Brigade, made it all the more important that Samper back up his historic acceptance of state responsibility with punitive action against the perpetrators. The State Department’s top human rights official, John Shattuck, told Samper in one 1995 meeting that “rhetorical advances” needed to be followed by “evidence that the Colombian state can and will attack the underlying cause of its high levels of human rights violations and general violence: impunity.” Referring to Trujillo and two other cases, Shattuck said that “until the Colombian military and/or civilian justice systems are capable of investigating, trying, convicting, and sentencing those responsible for the massacres, the institutional reforms would be empty gestures.” What mattered, Shattuck said, was that Colombia begin to “show results … in instances of human rights violations attributed to the state security forces.”
U.S. intelligence was also skeptical that Colombia was serious about its promise to break ties with paramilitary groups. The CIA reported in March 1995 that Samper had “yet to demonstrate resolve in addressing abuses by paramilitary groups that operate with the tacit approval of the military.” Samper had also “failed to arrest and prosecute [notorious paramilitary chief] Fidel Castano” and had “endorsed [Minister of Defense] Botero’s proposal to create rural security cooperatives,” many of which operated alongside illegal paramilitary groups, according to the CIA.
Neither did Samper’s admission of state responsibility in the Trujillo case atone for the Colombian Army’s failure to bring charges against personnel involved in serious abuses. Army commander Gen. Harold Bedoya’s response, in December 1996, to an Embassy request for information on 18 human rights cases tied to the military by Amnesty International was a “de facto admission of institutional culpability,” according to one cable. But rather than embarrass Bedoya by publicly challenging his shameful” response, the cable suggested that it be used “to pressure him into beginning to genuinely clean up the [Colombian Army’s] sordid performance on human rights, particularly the pattern of quasi-impunity posing as military justice.” “We should not shirk at some gentlemanly blackmail,” the Embassy added, “if that is what it takes to get our human rights agenda moving forward.”
One year later, things had only gotten worse. The CIA’s December 1997 “Update on Links Between Military, Paramilitary Forces” grimly predicted that “prospects for a concerted effort by the military high command to crack down on paramilitaries—and the officers that cooperate with them—appear dim.” The new Armed Forces commander, Gen. Manuel Bonett, “like his predecessor Harold Bedoya,” showed “little inclination to combat paramilitary groups.”
Despite overwhelming evidence, Uruena was never convicted for his role in Trujillo, and his eventual dismissal from the Army was openly opposed by senior military officers. Even firing Uruena came at great political cost for Samper, who was subsequently unwilling to push for the actual prosecution of the perpetrators—most especially Uruena, but also those that the Embassy said had “whitewashed” and “perverted” the initial investigations, including Gen. Bonett, who had served as the first instance military judge in the case.
Nevertheless, the reopening of the Trujillo case in the immediate wake of the GMH report is a hopeful sign that the recovery of historical memory in Colombia may finally be helping to lift the veil of impunity. It is perhaps too early to know whether these latest developments are signs of real progress or merely “empty gestures” without tangible legal consequences, but they are clearly part of a trend that has seen a number of high-profile military officers put under investigation in recent months.
Given Colombia’s recent history, it is perhaps not surprising that the U.S. may now hold the evidence that could make or break these cases. Fourteen top Colombian paramilitary commanders await prosecution in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. It is not yet clear whether Colombian investigators will have the opportunity to question these men, who are responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, or if the memories of their crimes, their victims, and their collaborators in the Colombian security forces, will remain locked inside the U.S. prison system.
Either way, as Colombians boldly press forward with these investigations, declassified U.S. documents could prove to be a valuable source of evidence otherwise unavailable to prosecutors on Colombia’s conflict and, above all, the system of unchecked impunity that lies at its core.