The Office of the Attorney General is strongly committed to the defense of human rights from a judicial standpoint. It is in light of this duty that, as of 2016, the institution has been developing and implementing a strategy for the investigation and prosecution of crimes committed against human rights defenders in Colombia. Accordingly, during 2020, our Office has placed emphasis upon three main aspects: first, the strengthening of the Special Investigation Unit; second, the appointment of regional prosecutors in places where human rights defenders are affected the most; and third, the strengthening of investigative projects that prioritize crimes perpetrated against this population by criminal organizations.

The commitment of the Office of the Attorney General is to strengthen the prosecution of criminal actors that affect Human Rights Defenders. From the Attorney General’s Office, we recognize their fundamental role in favor of the validity of the social state based on the rule of law.

This is why we shall continue working, from all the territories, with an efficient and timely justice to dismantle the criminal organizations responsible for these offenses and to prosecute those individuals that attempt against this population anywhere in the country.

Francisco Barbosa Delgado – Attorney General of the Republic of Colombia

The aforementioned strategy is currently developed under eight lines of action, guided by the internationally recognized standards of due diligence. Among these, we highlight the following: i) the development of investigation methodologies specially designed for human rights defenders’ homicide cases; ii) having as a first hypothesis that the motive behind the crime is the exercise of a labor of human rights defense; and, iii) implementing a case association methodology that consists of linking common criteria with patterns in the commission of the offense.

Following these parameters, the course of any said investigation has not only enabled the analysis of crimes from a whole new perspective, but the achievement of unprecedented results in the clarification of killings committed against human rights defenders. As a matter of fact, the Office of the Attorney General has clarified 58.33% of the crimes prosecuted under the ordinary jurisdiction.

Additionally, under the administration of the current Attorney General, Mr. Francisco R. Barbosa, and seeking to strengthen the aforementioned strategy, both differential and territorial approaches were adopted in the investigations. These will facilitate the advancement of criminal investigation, in light of each victim’s unique attributes and characteristics like, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, among others, related to the context where the facts took place.

Basic concepts

Access to justice

The right to access justice is the ability of an individual to seek and eventually obtain remedy through institutions belonging to the administration of justice, whenever he person considers his/her rights have been violated. It is deemed to be both a basic human right and an essential component of the rule of law.

Specifically referring to criminal justice administration, the Office of the Attorney General provides complaint-receipt mechanisms and, where applicable, procedures to open investigations if the nature of the crime so deserves it. Such is the case of homicides committed against human rights defenders.

The right to access justice must be guaranteed pursuant to the internationally recognized standard of due diligence. Accordingly, judicial officers must ensure procedural rules applicable throughout all the phases of a criminal process are duly followed. Guarantees for defendants, such as the right to be heard before the competent court and to appeal decisions, must be secured in the context of this right. Furthermore, the victims’ participation is quintessential.

One of the main challenges faced today by States all around the globe is guaranteeing the right to access justice. To fulfill such duty, efforts must be undertaken to ensure that people can access the available judicial remedies and that judgments are delivered in full compliance of said guarantees. This increases citizens’ trust in the administration of justice.

Human rights defender

A person is considered a human rights defender when he/she directly or indirectly exercises activities for the promotion and protection of said rights. These are usually recognized at the national or international level. Human rights defenders have special privileges due to their activities. State authorities must take appropriate measures to ensure they freely exercise their rights and are reasonably expected to prevent crimes in this context.

The concept of “human rights defender” involves multiple expressions of leadership, including the following: leaders belonging to community action boards, community leaders, indigenous leaders, peasant leaders, union leaders, leaders of African descents, black, and ethnic communities, leaders of human rights programs, processes or organizations in favor of women’s rights, or of any other right or group, LGBT leaders, education leaders, leaders concerning children and teenagers leaders, leaders of victims, land restitution leaders, leaders who promote the implementation of the peace agreement, public officers who exercise the defense of human rights (prosecutors, judges, among others according to the duties they carry out on the defense of Human Rights), journalists and cultural leaders, among others.

Differential Approach

This approach takes into consideration the unique characteristics of individuals such as their age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious convictions, race, ethnicity or disability situation, to ensure effective access to justice of these populations.

Decree Law 898 of 29 May 2017

Territorial approach

This approach duly acknowledges the wide heterogeneity existent throughout the Colombian territory. Stark differences are noticeable as several factors significantly vary from region to region. For instance, geography, demographics, development, risks, the special features of crime, cultural and social conditions, as well as the need for justice are some of the elements specially taken into account in the criminal investigation.

Decree Law 898 of 29 May 2017

Due diligence in the performing a criminal investigation

“(…) Each act of the State that constitutes a part of the investigative process, as well as the investigation in its entirety, must be oriented towards a specific purpose: to establish the truth, investigate, arrest, prosecute and, if appropriate, to punish those responsible for the commission of the offenses.”

Inter-American Court of Human Rights

The Office of the Attorney General incorporated the principles of due diligence, as defined by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, through Directive 002 of 2017. Likewise, based on this entity’s experience in this regard, two elements were added, also applicable to the investigation of crimes committed against human rights defenders: (i) the implementation of the first investigation hypothesis and (ii) the case association methodology.

First investigation hypothesis: In the methodological plan, the prosecutor must begin by assessing whether the event occurred due to the victim’s role as a human rights defender, the role that the defender played in the community or his/her surroundings, the agenda that he/she developed, and the area in which the human rights defender carried out its endeavors.

Procedural impulse: This duty rests entirely upon the institution; it does not depend on the victim or on his/her relatives. Actions are needed to clarify facts, not mere formalities.

Opportunity and reasonable due date: the investigation must start immediately, without unjustified delays.

Competence: Those authorities vested with competence must take charge of the investigation, in accordance with legally established procedures and in compliance with international standards.

Independence and impartiality: Each of the stages must be carried out with respect for the objectivity of the competent authorities in the matter.

Exhaustiveness: In carrying out investigations, all available legal means must be implemented to establish the truth, to investigate, prosecute, arrest and punish the perpetrators and masterminds behind the crimes. The investigation must take into account the distinctive features of the victim, the determination of the cause, mode, place and time of death, pattern or practice related to the fact, and the identification of new forms of crime that affect human rights defenders, among others.

Case Association: This methodological tool provides for the development of investigation lines that will facilitate connecting cases, by identifying patterns that will explain the commission of the crime or through the victims’ condition in relation to a context of social unrest, geographic specifications, or controversial political matters.

Participation of victims and their relatives: Conditions must ensure their participation as they are considered of the utmost value for the investigation.

Lines of action of the strategy

In order to move forward towards a greater crime clarification rate, eight action lines were established and implemented in a coordinated manner. These lines are based upon the work carried out by members of the Attorney General’s Office, the main authors of the paradigm shift in the investigation of crimes committed against human rights defenders. Their experience, their understanding of the concept of “human rights defender” and their responsibility in the incorporation of each of the lines of action into the criminal investigation have allowed this entity to achieve unprecedented results on the matter.

Promoting an institutional culture among all the public officials working at the Office of the Attorney General

It is expected that all the public officials of the institution are able to recognize the importance of the work of the human rights defenders. It is also intended for them to know and assume that, in certain circumstances, public officials working at the Office of the Attorney General can also be deemed human rights defenders, since they are the ones who ensure the victims can access justice.

First investigative hypothesis: there must be a connection between the fact under investigation and the labor of the human rights defender.

Accurate guidelines have been established so that the prosecutors, when defining the methodological program for investigations, can consider as a first hypothesis that the victim’s condition as a human rights defender influenced the commission of the crime.

Creation of itinerant units to promptly reach the crime scenes

Geographical barriers, which often times hinder the arrival of immediate assistance at crime scenes located in remote areas, have been overcome. This methodology has allowed the securing of the scene where events take place. It has also enabled the implementation of urgent acts of investigation, facilitating the identification of the perpetrators and minds behind the killings of human rights defenders.

Work plan that coordinates the offices of the institution in order to strengthen investigations

Aiming to strengthen the investigative capabilities of the Sectional Offices, the strategy provides a methodology to support the investigation carried out by the prosecutors who belong to the National Directorates (Special Unit and Delegate Office for Public Safety) and provides for their coordination. Thus, even though prosecutors of the Sectional Offices withhold the leadership of the investigations, they nevertheless receive technical, investigative and technological support from the headquarters. Likewise, the work plan stipulates that National Directorates must act in coordination with the Delegate Office for Public Safety, Delegate Office for Criminal Organizations, Delegate Office on Criminal Finances, the Directorate for the Support of Investigations and Analysis on Public Safety, the Directorate for the Support of Investigations and Analysis on Organized Crime, among others. All these efforts are conducted under the leadership of the Deputy Attorney General.

Implementation of a case association methodology

This methodology aims to connect cases with common criteria that can explain the occurrence of offenses against human rights defenders, either by establishing patterns that can explain the commission of the offense, or by the victims’ condition in relation to a certain context of social or political unrest, geographic specifications, or territorial disputes.

Guidelines to standardize investigations of crimes against human rights defenders

Directive 002 de 2017– “Thereby, the general guidelines on the investigation of crimes committed against human rights defenders in Colombia are established” -These guidelines direct the duties of prosecutors and investigators in three aspects: the concept of a human rights defender, the internationally recognized standard on due diligence, and the first activities to promote the procedural impulse of cases dealing with killings of human rights defenders.

Strengthening the investigation of threats against human rights defenders

The Office of the Attorney General has strengthened the investigation of threats against human rights defenders based on a series of measures that are listed below:

a. Creation of a working group to support, promote and coordinate the analysis, investigation, and prosecution of cases dealing with threats against human rights defenders. This working group pursues the following objectives, among others:

  • Promoting investigation and prosecution processes on threats against human rights defenders.
  • Coordinating the efforts of the relevant divisions within the Attorney General’s Office.
  • Investigating, in an analytical and strategic way, the cases on threats, so that a connection between the different cases can be identified and the contexts in which they are enclosed, can be understood.
  • Strengthening institutional capacity by supporting the investigations carried out by the Sectional Offices on threats, in order to answer in an appropriate, effective, and timely manner to certain cases that might arise from this kind of offense.

b. The Office of the Attorney General promoted the creation of a specific criminal offense regarding threats against human rights defenders, article 188E of the Criminal Code.

c. Mechanisms which operate 24 hours a day were created to file reports into threats against human rights defenders: line 3506011181, contact center 122 and e-mail

Development and implementation of intervention protocols to ensure greater effectiveness in investigations

These intervention protocols, which have been carefully developed, have improved the preservation of the crime scene, along with elements that can contribute to identifying the author. They have also enabled the definition of essential activities that must be taken into consideration by the prosecutor in each of the procedural stages.

Closer to people and territories 2020 (“2020 En la Calle y en los territorios”)

As of the beginning of 2020, all of the institution’s human, logistic, and scientific capacity has traveled to the territories. The Investigation Strategy for Offenses Committed Against Human Rights Defenders has been strengthened with three specific actions that have consolidated and improved the Office of the Attorney General’s results.

Strengthening the Special Investigation Unit (Unidad Especial de Investigación UEI in Spanish) to investigate killings committed against human rights defenders in coordination with the Delegate Office on Public safety and Delegate Office against Organized Crime.

The Special Investigation Unit was appointed to coordinate investigations on killings against human rights defenders, with the collaboration of the Delegate Office on Public Safety and the 35 Sectional Offices, under the leadership of the Office of the Deputy Attorney General. In order to have a greater coverage, as of 2020, this Unit has hired new public officials, including prosecutors, analysts, and judicial police. This strengthening of the Unit represents approximately 25% of its investigative capacity.

Appointment of territorial prosecutors in areas where human rights defenders were affected the most to find answers about the situation.

Six (6) regional prosecutors were appointed to the Special Investigation Unit in (i) Antioquia and Córdoba; (ii) Caquetá and Putumayo; (iii) Cauca; (iv) Norte de Santander; (v) Valle De Cauca; and (vi) Chocó, Tolima, and Huila. These public officials were designated to gather cases at those regions with the highest rates of victimization and processes concerning crimes against human rights defenders and individuals amidst reincorporation, whose liability is attributed to criminal organizations. This measure is aimed at: (i) associating cases and solving previous facts attributable to the same criminal organization; (ii) significantly impacting these organizations in their multiple dimensions: military, social, and economic; (iii)  advancing in the clarification of other offenses against civil society, which fall under the responsibility of organizations under investigation.

The consolidation of investigative projects that prioritize affectations of human rights defenders attributable to criminal organizations.

In order to carry out comprehensive investigations against criminal organizations, the Special Unit established investigative projects in municipalities or small regions where criminal structures are responsible for impacts against human rights defenders. Each prioritized case pursues the organizations, based on the crimes identified in said municipalities.

Coordinating the Special Investigation Unit (Unidad Especial de Investigación UEI) with the sectional prosecutors of the Delegate Office on Public Safety

The Delegate Office on Public Safety provides prominent prosecutors in all Sectional Offices to deal with investigations on the killings of human rights defenders. In the regions where the Special Investigation Unit is present, the prominent prosecutors of the Sectional Offices work in coordination with the teams of the Special Unit. In regions where the Special Investigation Unit is not present, the sectional prosecutors carry out all the investigative acts that allow making progress in clarifying the killings committed against human rights defenders.

The Special Investigation Unit was structured under the implementation of the Final Peace Agreement signed between the National Government of Colombia and the former armed group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, Ejército del Pueblo- Farc-EP). The creation of this Unit at the Office of the Attorney General, through Decree 898 of 2017, mainly seeks to contribute in dismantling organizations and punishing criminal behaviors related to killings and massacres that affect human rights defenders, social movements or political movements, or that threaten or injure those who participate in the implementation of the agreements and peace-building. These include criminal organizations that have been named as successors of paramilitarism and their support networks.

Thus, since its implementation in 2017, the Unit has been strengthening its work team, which is made up of prosecutors, analysts and judicial police who investigate damages against former Farc -EP members in the process of reincorporation and their families. It also supports the strategy for the investigation and prosecution of crimes committed against human rights defenders by addressing investigations on killings against such population.

In this sense, the Unit developed its own investigative methodology that is composed of three stages:

  1. Investigative advances that refer to the clarification of facts by the Special Unit.
  1. Sustainability in which an investigative and analytical process is developed for the evidentiary characterization of a criminal organization in its three dimensions (military, political and financial) based on the clarification of killings and the association of facts (threats, forced displacement and disappearances, extortion, among other criminal actions).
  1. Consolidation that starts with the identification of strategic objectives beyond the military dimension (support networks) to attribute criminal responsibility to the members of a criminal organization according to their participation, position and role within the criminal organization aiming at its dismantling.

By implementing this methodology and by allocating teams at those areas where human rights defenders and former FARC-EP members could potentially face risks, we comply with Decree Law 898 of 2017.

In order to strengthen the investigation and prosecution capacities of the Attorney General’s Office, three Delegate Offices were created in 2017 and were assigned to the Office of the Deputy Attorney General.

As part of the Strategy for the investigation and prosecution of crimes committed against human rights defenders, in 2020, joint efforts were promoted between the Special Unit and the Delegate Office. Progress is sought in those investigations in which the human rights defenders’ lives have been affected.

Delegate Office against the Organized Crime

This office deals with prioritized investigations on the following subjects:

  1. Criminal organizations.
  2. Corruption.
  3. Drug trafficking.
  4. Human rights violations
  5. Transitional Justice.

The above, as a response to the current problems of the country in criminal matters, especially related to the post-conflict scenario.

The unit is composed of:

  • Special Office against Criminal Organizations: it is in charge of investigating different types of organized crime, especially those new ways of criminality that emerge to occupy the spaces left in the illegal markets by the Farc-EP group.
  • Special Office against Corruption: it is focused on the exercise of the criminal prosecution in acts of corruption.
  • Special Office against Drug Trafficking: it is in charge of investigating the criminal modalities that emerge from drug trafficking.
  • Special Office against Human Rights Violations: it is in charge of conducts that violate human rights, such as forced disappearance or displacement.
  • Transitional Justice Office: it is in charge of implementing mechanisms that allow a proper closure to the investigations that are currently being carried out about ‘postulados’ and demobilized people. It addresses issues related to people prosecuted under Law 975 of 2005.

Support Office for Investigations and Analysis on Organized Crime: it bears competence over the contextual analysis of the investigative and accusatory function in prioritized cases.

Delegate Office against Criminal Finances

This Office implements and coordinates prioritized activities of criminal investigation and fact-analysis related to crimes in economic and financial matters, whether at the local, regional, national, or transnational level. It also carries out investigations concerning:

  1. Financing of terrorism.
  2. Financial and stock crime.
  3. Tax and customs criminality.
  4. Corruption
  5. Money laundering and underlying crimes
  6. Assets Seizure

It is composed of:

  • Special Office against Money Laundering: it bears competence over the pursuit of illegally-obtained resources, as well as several ways of illegal funding by adopting effective measures to overcome impunity in offenses such as money laundering linked to organized crime.
  • Special Office on Assets Seizure: it undertakes the asset seizure process under Colombian law.

Special Office on Financial Investigations: it is in charge of investigating complex criminal behaviors that are committed through the financial system and the stock market.

Delegate Office on Public Safety

This Delegate Office bears the greatest coverage at the national level. This Office is in charge of dealing with significant tasks, such as user assistance and early intervention services, among others. Likewise, it leads and coordinates the 35 Sectional Offices that cover the entire national territory. All investigations in the country are processed by the Sectional Offices unless, due to priority issues, a crime report is assigned to another Delegate Office or to a specific office.

Concerning the investigation of crimes against human rights defenders, the 35 Sectional Offices have prominent prosecutors to address this issue. They act in a coordinated manner with the Special Investigation Unit in the regions where it has coverage or, individually in the regions not covered yet.

It is composed of:

  • Office of User Assistance, Early Intervention Services and Case Assignment: this Office is in charge of policies, strategies, methodologies and protocols regarding user assistance, among other matters.
  • Sectional Offices: these Offices are in charge of identifying and delimiting situations and cases that may be prioritized. It thereupon informs the Delegate Office on Public Safety about them, among other functions. There are 35 Sectional Offices that are aware of the investigations within their respective territorial scopes.
  • Division of Prosecutor’s Offices and Public Safety: this Division is responsible for coordinating, controlling and evaluating, directly or through its delegate prosecutors, the development of the investigative and accusatory function, as well as the hearings that are carried out in cases and situations assigned to this division, in light of prioritization guidelines and the creation of contexts, when appropriate, among others.
  • Judicial Police Division: this Division is in charge of planning and executing the judicial police functions of the groups that belong to the Sectional Office in order to carry out the investigations under its responsibility. It conducts criminal analysis to support the development of investigations and advises and supports offices in criminal investigation matters.

• Support Office for Investigations and Analysis on Public Safety: this Office is in charge of the analysis in the context of the investigative and accusatory function of cases and situations prioritized.