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 insurgents and drug traffickers.
The administration said the Colombian 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 army 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, the professionalism of prosecutors 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.”
The department added that new Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had also engaged with labor and civil society groups to improve the situation.
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.
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.
Rights groups complain that prosecutions have been slow, with many cases that should be transfered to civilian courts instead being heard by more lenient military tribunals.
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 left- and right-wing guerrilla groups and the illicit drug trade. Some of that assistance is subject to certifications that Colombia is meeting certain human rights criteria.