When Our Government Trains Armies in Colombia and Mexico, We Become Responsible

When the United States provides massive aid and training to another country's army, our government becomes responsible for the human rights crimes their soldiers commit.

This was brought home to me as I listened to some visitors to our nation's capital.

"I always ask why they took away my son," said Flor Hilda Hernández, who wore a worn-out T-shirt with the faded photo of her son, Elkin Gustavo Verano Hernández. "It was the army who took him with false promises of a job." They killed him in order to cash in on vacation and bonuses for bodies. He had nothing to do with the war.

Doña Hernandez represents the "mamitas," the mothers of 17 young men killed by Colombian soldiers in the Soacha scandal that exploded in 2008.

Back in 2007, I had traveled to Colombia and listened to witnesses, family members and lawyers for 130 cases of people from all over the country who were seen, dressed in civilian clothes, being detained by groups of Colombian soldiers and later found in an army morgue dressed in guerrilla uniforms and claimed by the army as killed in battle.

Now we know that the problem is even more massive than we believed. Some 3,000 cases of extrajudicial executions by Colombia's armed forces are registered in the civilian justice system. And that's just the ones that have seen the light of day.

"We just want to live in peace, we are farmers displaced by violence, we reject all those bearing arms," said Jesús Emilio Tuberquia from San José de Apartadó. Yet over 180 members of this community have been killed by paramilitary, army and guerrilla forces. In 2005, in the aftermath of a massacre in which eight people were killed, including three small children, I visited the bare-bones village this community had established, and listened to their determination to live in peace, despite all odds.

To its credit, the U.S. State Department -- under the Bush Administration -- called on the Colombian government to address the extrajudicial executions scandal. Colombia's then-defense minister, now President, Juan Manuel Santos, who had put in place many of the policies and incentives that led to these murders, then took steps to stop new crimes from being committed.

But in Colombia, justice in the vast majority of the 3,000 extrajudicial executions remains a distant dream. Even the most notorious examples, Soacha and the San José de Apartadó massacre, remain largely without justice. Recently, a Colombian judge acquitted ten soldiers in the San Jose de Apartado case despite extensive evidence of joint army-paramilitary involvement. Fewer cases are being transferred to civilian courts from the military courts, where they languish in impunity. Meanwhile, human rights activists and victims' relatives continue to suffer death threats -- and murder.

I am thinking about the mothers, wives, and children of these victims as I read, despairingly, yet another certification memo by my government, asserting despite abundant evidence to the contrary--evidence that our organizations and Colombian human rights groups have literally stacked on their desks and presented to every level of the foreign policy bureaucracy--that Colombia is meeting the human rights conditions attached to military assistance.

The U.S. government also provided aid to some of the very army units that committed crimes, according to a recent Fellowship of Reconciliation and U.S. Office on Colombia report. It failed to adequately follow the Leahy law, which prohibits our government from giving military aid to abusive units if justice is not effectively sought.

In Mexico, not a single soldier responsible for human rights crimes has been held accountable in civilian courts since the United States started delivering hundreds of millions of Merida Initiative dollars, although over 4,000 complaints of rape, torture, killings, and disappearances committed by members of the military were registered by Mexico's own National Human Rights Commission since 2007. Although Mexican and U.S. rights groups had stacked State Department desks with documents showing this failure of justice, last month, the State Department claimed that Mexico had met human rights requirements that Congress tied to this aid.

Congress included human rights for a reason: abuses by security forces are not only abhorrent in their own right, but undermine Mexico's ability to gain citizens' trust and improve security. The State Department signaled that it would withhold some funding until the Mexican government introduces legislation to ensure human rights crimes committed by soldiers are tried in civilian courts. But the test will be to see if such legislation leads to real justice.

Our government should prioritize drug treatment programs in our own country and curb the flow of assault weapons into Mexico to lessen the violent impact of the illegal drug trade on our Latin American neighbors. The United States should invest in well-targeted efforts to strengthen justice systems and expanded humanitarian relief for Colombia's refugees and the over four million internally displaced people, rather than in military assistance. But if the decision to provide military aid and training is made, it comes with the responsibility to implement the laws that Congress provided to ensure that aid does not increase abuses.

"Why did they take my son? He was my right hand. Now I will never hear him say again, 'How are you doing, viejita?'"