Spying Scandal Highlights the Use of Colombia's Women as Weapons of War

The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) recently expressed concern over revelations that Colombia's Administrative Security Department (DAS), the powerful intelligence arm of the president's office, had spied on IACHR Commissioner and Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women Susana Villarán and her delegation during a June 2005 visit to Colombia. The Uribe administration's interest in spying on that mission points to its concern that an international investigation might highlight Colombia's abysmal women's rights record, including the underreported use of sexual violence as a favored weapon of war by the country's many armed groups.

Kristina Aiello

The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) recently expressed concern over revelations that Colombia's Administrative Security Department (DAS), the powerful intelligence arm of the president's office, had spied on IACHR Commissioner and Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women Susana Villarán and her delegation during a June 2005 visit to Colombia. During her stay, Villarán visited the cities of Bogotá, Valledupar and Quibdó to investigate the impact of the armed conflict on women, and to assess state measures implemented to protect women's rights. The Uribe administration's interest in spying on that mission points to its concern that an international investigation might highlight Colombia's abysmal women's rights record, including the underreported use of sexual violence as a favored weapon of war by the country's many armed groups.

The IACHR's assertion of illegal spying is only the most recent event in a scandal that erupted earlier this year over a program initiated in 2004 by former DAS Director Jorge Noguera. Under his leadership, DAS secretly created and financed clandestine groups like the Special Strategic Intelligence Group (G 3), an entity that was charged with developing offensive intelligence operations against opponents of the government for the purpose of restricting or neutralizing their actions.

Noguera served as DAS director from August 2002 until October 2005 when he was forced out under threat of prosecution for alleged cooperation with several powerful Colombian paramilitary bosses. As is well known, Noguera has been accused of using DAS to serve the interests of paramilitary leaders. He allegedly offered to sell them intelligence information and provide them with material support. He also allegedly authorized the erasing of DAS files containing arrest warrants and extradition orders. Rafael Garcia, DAS's former chief of information and a convicted felon, has offered testimony in support of those assertions, many of which have also been corroborated by members of the domestic press.

DAS's intelligence activities concerning the rapporteur's visit raise more questions over ties between paramilitary forces and the intelligence agency. Information from DAS's file on the rapporteur's visit shows that G 3 targeted the regional body in order "to identify the cases being studied by the Special Rapporteur and the testimony presented by nongovernmental organizations, as well as the lobbying these organizations are doing to pressure for condemnation of the State."

The cases that DAS found so interesting highlight a period of appalling levels of violence perpetrated against women as a result of the armed conflict. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a rights group based in Bogotá, one woman a day on average died from political violence between 2002 and 2006. The IACHR's 2006 report on the rapporteur's on-site visit found similar conditions including the extensive employment of sexual violence that turned women's bodies into a battleground.

While all armed actors in Colombia's long-running conflict are believed to have committed acts of sexual violence, a 2004 Amnesty International report that informed the rapporteur's visit concluded that the majority of the attacks were committed by paramilitary forces to punish women for suspected collaboration with guerrillas, foment terror to assert their control, or forcibly displace whole communities from areas deemed to hold military or economic value.

For example, the rapporteur reported that women were raped and threatened with death for being related to a community leader or for having relationships with a member of an opposing group. A particularly horrific manifestation of this practice involved pregnant women believed to be carrying the child of a member of an opposing faction. Demonstrating loyalty to an old Colombian expression to "not leave even the seed behind," paramilitary forces and soldiers reportedly killed women pregnant with the children of opposition militants and tore open their bellies to rip out the fetuses.

Beyond inflicting punishment for supposed collaboration, the rapporteur also reported on the use of sexual violence as a weapon to emasculate men of enemy groups by damaging their honor after failing to protect their women from the attacks. One survivor reported seeing army-backed paramilitaries stripping women naked and forcing them to dance in front of their husbands and then raping several of them.

Paramilitary forces also employed sexual violence as a means of consolidating power over a particular territory either by terrorizing a community into submission or forcing its displacement. For example, sexual violence was often used as punishment for violation of strict social controls or "rules of coexistence," a term favored by paramilitary forces, that sought to regulate all aspects of societal behavior like the imposition of strict dress codes for women, prohibition of sexual relations outside of marriage, or the exercising of female independence by not having a male partner. In this way, armed groups have been able to make visible their control over a particular area even when not facing an opposing faction.

According to testimony submitted to the rapporteur by the Foro Interétnico de Solidaridad del Chocó during her visit to Quibodó, Afro-Colombian women, in particular, have suffered from terrible violence by legal and illegal armed groups "who kidnap us, kill, rape and humiliate us..." The armed groups have been attracted to many Afro-Colombian territories for their enormous biodiversity, coasts on both oceans, and excellent conditions for growing coca and oil palm.

Indigenous women have suffered similar atrocities with reports of rape and sexual mutilation by paramilitary forces designed to terrorize communities into submission or flight. Indigenous women have also been highly targeted by armed groups for sexual slavery and domestic labor.

Around the time of the rapporteur's visit, the Uribe administration appeared to be frantically trying to cover up any ties between government officials and the paramilitary forces responsible for so many of the abuses. During that year, the government pushed through its Justice and Peace Law designed to provide a legal framework for the demobilization of paramilitary groups. Many rights groups criticized the law as providing weak investigatory mechanisms for human rights atrocities, believing it would all but guarantee impunity for the paramilitary forces as well as allow security forces supporting paramilitary activities to remain unidentified. The explosive allegations of collaboration between DAS directors and paramilitary forces in October of that year and the subsequent "parapolítica" scandal that implicated several members of the president's party for suspected collusion with paramilitary forces were other examples of an administration feeling a sense of urgency to take control of the investigations into the human right crisis.

The failure of the state to identify and prosecute sexual war crimes is consistent with the government's efforts to limit human rights investigations stemming from the armed conflict. There appears to be some effort on the part of state actors to hide evidence of sexual human rights violations like failing to include clear signs of sexual mutilation on dead bodies or registering rape as a crime of passion instead of as a crime of war. Beyond government efforts, however, women face additional barriers to obtaining justice including fear of retaliation, social acceptance of violence against women, and possible social stigma for being a victim of a sexual act. Women often report the violence inflicted on their male relatives but continue to endure years of silence about sexual violence perpetrated against their own bodies.

Nevertheless, the wheels of justice are beginning to turn, although slowly. Women's rights groups are actively working to educate women about their rights under domestic and international law, and to push prosecutors to see sexual violence as crimes of war. Their efforts appear to be paying off. In order to combat the wall of silence, the government has formed a team of mostly female prosecutors and criminal investigators that has received special training on how to approach female victims and witnesses. In March 2009, Attorney General Mario Iguaran presented a report to the Constitutional Court about the advancement of cases of sexual violence occurring between 1993 and 2008 that affected at least 500 Colombian women and, at least in some cases, led to the forced displacement of entire communities.

The report also identified 42 men who were either directly or indirectly responsible for employing sexual violence as a weapon. Among those identified were paramilitary bosses Rodrigo Tovar Pupo a.k.a. Jorge 40 of the powerful Northern Bloc, and Salvatore Mancuso, who led the paramilitary bloc operating in the Antioqua and Cordoba Departments. Both men, allegedly connected to DAS leaders, have been linked to the rape, torture, and murder of women during the Chengue and El Salado massacres. Mancuso was also accused of organizing beauty pageants of young girls in which the winners would become his victims. Hernán Giraldo Serna a.k.a. the Lord of the Sierra, who operated the Tayrona Resistance Bloc in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains on Colombia's northern coast, has also been accused of 19 cases of impregnating underage girls, six involving girls who gave birth before the age of 14.

It remains to be seen, however, whether or not Colombian women will receive a full accounting of the atrocities committed against them. Current investigations into the latest DAS spying scandal demonstrate a government bent on controlling any opposition to its power instead of investigating past abuses and holding their perpetrators accountable.

Kristina Aiello is a NACLA research associate.

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