Paramilitary fighter working with Colombian army troops in Operation Orion, 2002

An international court's condemnation of the Colombian state's role in an infamous military operation in the city of Medellín speaks to the failings of militarizing the fight against illegal armed groups, particularly in heavily populated urban areas.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has condemned the Colombian government for its role in murder and other crimes against five female social leaders in the context of the armed conflict, a January 10 press release states. The case is connected to a series of military operations, including the particularly infamous "Operation Orion," carried out in 2002 in the notorious Comuna 13 neighborhood within Colombia's second biggest city, Medellín.

"Colombia is responsible for not preventing the assassination of the human rights defender Ana Teresa Yarce, and also for her illegal and arbitrary arrest alongside other defenders of the Comuna 13." (See the full sentence from November 2016 here - pdf).

Yarce was murdered in 2004, after having accused state security forces of collusion with local paramilitary groups. The international court ruled that the Colombian state failed to guarantee her security despite numerous warnings that her life was at risk.

The court furthermore ruled that three victims were arbitrarily detained in 2002 after being accused of collaborating with guerrillas, and found that the state did not do enough to protect the defenders from being forcibly displaced from their homes. It also condemned the official impunity surrounding the crimes against the five victims.

According to the ruling, the illegal arrests ocurred "during the state of internal commotion following Operation Orion."

Operation Orion was launched in October 2002 by then-President Álvaro Uribe with the aim of expelling urban guerrillas from the area. A strategically located neighborhood that straddles the main highway leading from Medellín to the Caribbean coast, Comuna 13 at the time was home to units of the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), National Liberation Army (Ejercito Nacional de Liberacion - ELN) and the People's Armed Command (Comandos Armados del Pueblo - CAP). These were battling factions of the right-wing paramilitary organization United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC).

It is believed that hundreds of civilians were injured, displaced, disappeared, or killed during the 2002 military deployments.

InSight Crime Analysis

The October 2002 military incursion into an urban area has received widespread condemnation due to alleged abuses by the Colombian armed forces, as well as evidence of military collaboration with paramilitary groups. Comuna 13 is illustrative of how adopting strong-armed military tactics in internal conflict scenarios can be a Pandora's Box for citizen security.

The urban context of Operation Orion exposed the local population to extreme violence, while essentially replacing one problem -- the guerrillas -- with another. As the Inter-American Court's records state: "Operation Orion weakened the presence of guerrilla groups in Comuna 13, however, this did not put an end to the presence and activity of all the illegal armed groups." Indeed, in subsequent years, paramilitary groups continued to carry out violent acts against the local population, and today criminal gangs remain present.

SEE ALSO:  AUC News and Profiles

At the crux of the problem is that, in the absence of viable alternatives to combat illegal armed groups, Latin American governments all too often brush aside evidence of human rights violations or criminal collusion in the military. Mexico has also come under international criticism for keeping the military at the forefront of the war on organized crime despite countless cases of violent excesses and criminal ties. Similarly, El Salvador's hard-line security strategy has been tied to extrajudicial killings by police, but continues to be endorsed in the fight against street gangs.

Still, there is hope that international pressure from judicial rulings such as these could encourage governments to be less dependent on military-heavy security strategies and seek more effective long-term solutions.

Investigations

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