World News

No U.S.-Colombia pact if violence goes on-rights group

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia must act to halt rising violence, including against trade unionists, if it is to secure U.S. congressional approval for a long-delayed trade agreement with Washington, a U.S. human rights group said on Wednesday.

A coroner examines the body of a man killed by gunmen in Medellin September 26, 2009. REUTERS/Albeiro Lopera

Murder rates have climbed in Colombia over the last year as authorities say thousands of criminals, led by former right-wing militia chiefs, reorganize their cocaine-smuggling and extortion organizations.

Human Rights Watch said in a report that the emergence of these successor groups was predictable due to Colombia’s failure to dismantle paramilitary networks when the groups were demobilized between 2003 and 2006.

Colombia is lobbying hard for a U.S. trade deal, but Tom Malinowski, head of Human Rights Watch’s Washington office, said Democratic lawmakers would block it until President Alvaro Uribe did more to stop violence.

“There is a potential majority in the House (of Representatives) to approve a trade deal with Colombia. But for that majority to materialize the government has to try to solve these problems rather than trying to spin its way out of them,” Malinowski said.

“The House has approved trade pacts with countries, such as Jordan, that don’t have a pristine human rights record but that have addressed core U.S. concerns,” he said.

The Republican administration of former President George W. Bush negotiated the Colombia deal, but he was unable to get approval from the Democratic-controlled Congress. Opponents want more action from the Colombian government to protect trade unionists and worker rights.

President Barack Obama said in last month’s State of the Union speech he wanted to improve commercial ties with other countries, including Colombia. Uribe, who says he has improved human rights in part by ordering more police deployment, said he received Obama’s comments “with joy.”

Rights groups say Uribe has not focused on stopping former militia fighters from organizing new gangs that murder those who challenge their control over local communities.

The Colombian government has mounted a public relations campaign in support of the trade bill, including TV ads promoting Colombia as a safe tourist destination, promising that “the only risk in visiting Colombia is wanting to stay.”

Human Rights Watch said increasing crime in poor areas in cities like Medellin, where the murder rate has doubled over the last year, tells a different story as some security forces have permitted and even worked with new generation gangs.

“The official collusion that we have seen has been mostly on the local level,” Malinowski said. “At higher political levels there is disinterest in confronting the problem, because to confront it would be to admit that the paramilitary demobilization was largely a fraud.”

Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by David Storey