A Mother's Fight for Justice

"I can't bring my son back; he is below the ground now. But I stood at his grave and promised him that I wouldn't stop, even if it cost me my life, until his name was cleared and those that killed him were brought to justice," Flor Hilda Hérnandez said this week while in Washington, D.C. to ask for the U.S. Government's help to bring the members of the Colombian armed forces who killed her son to justice.

Like thousands of other family members of alleged extrajudicial execution victims across Colombia, Flor Hilda has seen no justice for her son's murder, and those responsible are still free. Despite the significant amount of money that the U.S. Government has given the Colombian judicial and oversight sector -- over $50 million in the last three years alone -- there has been very little progress in investigations and prosecutions for human rights cases. Indeed, as the U.S. Office on Colombia (USOC) highlights in its new report Still Waiting for Justice, in some aspects cases of extrajudicial executions have undergone a marked backsliding in the past year.

When I met Flor Hilda, she showed photos of her son, Elkin Gustavo Verano Hérnandez, who was 25 years-old when he went missing from the family home in the poor municipality of Soacha, on the outskirts of the Colombian capital of Bogotá on January 13, 2008. According to Flor Hilda, Elkin was her "right hand man." Since he was a child he was always trying to earn money in order to help support his mother and his four siblings as they struggled to get by. Sadly, it was this desire to help his family that ultimately led to his death. When men came to Soacha, preying on poor young men and offering them work in another state; Elkin took the opportunity to earn some extra money to help his mother. She would never see him again.

Elkin and the 21 other young men from Soacha and surrounding areas were taken to the municipalities of Ocaña (Norte de Santander) and Cimitarra (Santander), about 500 miles away from their homes, where they were sold to the armed forces. The soldiers orchestrated mock battles against illegal armed groups, during which they proceeded to kill the young men. Later, the soldiers presented them as guerrillas killed in combat, expecting to cash in on incentives that the Colombian military offers for battlefield results. It was not until September 2008 that Elkin and the other men's bodies were found in mass graves.

Flor Hilda said that she passed seven months of unbelievable suffering and uncertainty, not knowing what had happened to her son. Only to finally discover in September that his body had been dumped in a mass grave and that the army was accusing him of being a guerrilla killed in combat. This has launched Flor Hilda and the other mothers on a crusade to ensure that their sons' names are cleared and that the members of the armed forces responsible for their murder are brought to justice. But two years later there is no sign of justice.

As the report Still Waiting for Justice details, there has been a marked decrease in the transfer of cases from the military justice system, where the chances of these cases being subject to an impartial investigation and prosecution is slim, to the civilian justice system. Elkin's case was delayed one year in the military justice system during which time there was no advancement in the investigation. Many of the officers allegedly involved in the Soacha cases have been released from jail pending trial due to lengthy delays in beginning trials, as has happened in extrajudicial execution cases across the country. Of the approximately 30 high-level military officials who were dismissed from their posts in October 2008, in response to the extrajudicial execution scandal, not a single one has been charged for those crimes, and some reportedly continue their service. Despite this severe backsliding in investigating and punishing extrajudicial executions -- which clearly runs counter to one of the key conditions in the certification language in U.S. law -- the Obama administration just decided to certify that Colombia is meeting these conditions.

Colombia's new president, Juan Manuel Santos, has shown some promising initial signs, meeting with the presidents of the high courts and expressing his willingness to engage in dialogue with and to respect the judicial branch. Nevertheless, while running for office President Santos made several concerning remarks that signal that he may continue his predecessor's legacy of protecting the military from the civilian justice system, which would only lead to even greater impunity.

In order to help mothers such as Flor Hilda, who seek truth and justice for their sons' murders, the USG should press for serious progress on investigating, prosecuting and securing convictions in the civilian justice system for cases of extrajudicial executions. The USG must also demand greater results and transparency for its current support for the Colombian justice and oversight agencies, operated through the Department of Justice and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Detailed recommendations of how the USG can help overcome the current levels of impunity in Colombia for these cases are included in the report Still Waiting for Justice.