WASHINGTON – Citing improvements in Colombia's human rights record, the Obama administration on Wednesday freed up more than $30 million in assistance to the country's military to help it fight leftist insurgents and other drug-funded illegal armed groups.
The administration said Colombia's government had curbed what had been a growing number of extrajudicial killings and taken other steps to prove it is serious about protecting human rights. The finding allows the administration to send $30.3 million to the Colombian armed forces that had been withheld over human rights concerns.
U.S. officials said the money would go to support military aviation, ground and maritime programs as well as training for peacekeepers and equipment. Some human rights groups had urged the administration not to release the funds, arguing that Colombia has yet to rein in abuses by its security forces.
But the State Department said that despite some shortcomings, particularly involving impunity for rights violators, continuing threats against human rights activists and the use of illegal wiretapping, there had been demonstrable progress.
"Though there continues to be a need for improvement, the Colombian government has taken positive steps to improve respect for human rights in the country," it said in a statement. "Firm direction by the government that extrajudicial killings will not be tolerated has led to a rapid reversal in this disturbing trend."
A State Department official added that new Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had also engaged with labor and civil society groups to improve the situation as well as proposing "monumental legislation" to return to displaced peasants millions of stolen acres of farmland. The official was not authorized to speak on the record.
Colombian prosecutors are investigating some 1,100 soldiers in the alleged extrajudicial killing of more than 2,400 civilians, the vast majority during the 2002-2010 government of former President Alvaro Uribe.
U.S. law specifies that military aid is not to be given to any Colombian unit that is even under investigation for rights abuses. Yet the cases span 30 of Colombia's 32 provinces.
When the scandal broke in late 2008, Santos, who was then defense minister, fired 27 military officers for negligence and the commander of the army later resigned. Santos was elected president in June and took office last month.
To date, 191 members of Colombian security forces have been convicted of extra-judicial killings and nearly 300 are on trial.
Prosecutors on Wednesday charged 29 soldiers with murder in the 2005 case of two men slain and presented to authorities as leftist rebels killed in combat.
Also Wednesday, Colombia's acting chief prosecutor and defense minister announced the creation of a commission to strengthen investigations of homicides by soldiers. The country's top human rights prosecutor, Hernando Castaneda, told The Associated Press that he has 39 prosecutors dealing with such cases but needs 27 more.
Continuing killings in Colombia of peasant activists seeking to reclaim stolen land and of union organizers also remains a concern of rights groups.
Although killings of labor activists have diminished in recent years, at least 35 have been murdered so far this year, according to the National School of Labor.
Colombia has received more than $6 billion in U.S. military and other aid since 2000 under Plan Colombia, an initiative intended to help the country deal with leftist rebels and far-right militias and the illicit drug trade.
However, many Colombian military units have over the years been accused of colluding with the far-right paramilitaries, which emerged in the 1980s in response to rebel kidnapping and extortion of ranchers.
A number of senior army officers have been prosecuted for such ties.
Associated Press writers Libardo Cardona and Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia contributed to this report.