The newest building in Bogota’s central Plaza Bolivar is the Palace of Justice, a light brown marble structure that dominates the 350-year-old square to the north. It was constructed in 1989 to replace the structure that was destroyed four years earlier in the aftermath of an infamous siege by members of the M-19 guerrilla group. The battle to retake the building left 120 dead on both sides including 11 of the 24 Supreme Court Justices who were taken hostage.
I slowly turned my attention from the building towards the early 19th century cathedral 45 degrees to its right, trying to imagine the chaos than must have enveloped the square on that November day three decades ago. My reconstruction was interrupted by a gentle tug on my camera strap from behind.
I turned quickly to find a slight man, dressed in a dirty loosely fitting suit jacket, sporting a friendly smile.
“Hey! Want to take a picture of me?” He said. “A perfect souvenir of Colombia!”
The man was as dirty as his clothes, his thick dark hair greasy. His beard and mustache were gray as the day surrounding the scene except for the patch that covered his upper lip, stained by years of tobacco abuse but given shape by his round genuine smile.
“I’m a beautiful man,” he said this time in English. “Take a photo.”
I had a pocket full of change and some small bills.
“I’d be happy to,” I said.
He took a step back, and smiled again. This time it reached his eyes. He raised his soiled right thumb and I snapped three quick shots.
His spiel was standard fare; he was hungry, he hadn’t eaten all day, he needed money, he wouldn’t spend it on drink. He then asked for a thousand pesos.
I emptied my pocket of change and handed it to him along with a thousand peso note. Combined, a little over two thousand, less than a dollar.
“That’s what I pay my models,” I tried to tell him. I began to walk towards a vendor who was selling grilled sausage and asked him to join me. But he had already begun walking in a different direction, toward another stand where two young women were selling bootleg CDs.
“I’m beautiful man,” he said to one of them. He then turned towards a couple. Each held a camera in their hand.
According to government figures, nearly 10,000 people live on the streets in the Colombian capital, a city of about seven million. (Given that just about every day I’ve seen several dozen people lying in alleys, parks, and parking lots in just a few small areas of the city, that figure seems suspiciously low.) And like the marginalized elsewhere, Bogota’s homeless have been easy targets, whether on the receiving end of harsh “cleansing” ordinances by local governments, or the victims of straight up violence at the hands of other residents.
Or, in the case of the Escándalo de los falsos positivos, or False Positives scandal, one of the more sinister war crimes in Colombia’s recent horrific history, they’ve been targets of extrajudicial execution by US-funded and trained armed forces.
The scandal broke in 2008 when it was learned that poor young men were being recruited from the slums of Bogota, lured by promises of well paying jobs in other cities, only to be taken to combat zones where they were murdered and later presented publicly as killed rebel fighters.
The theater sometimes bordered on the absurd. Bodies were presented clothed in freshly pressed uniforms. Or wearing clean boots four sizes too big. Some were found with copies of the Communist Manifest or writings by Che Guevara stuffed into their pockets.
In a 2009 report on his investigation into extrajudicial executions in the country, UN special rapporteur Philip Alston explained:
The victim is lured under false pretenses by a “recruiter” to a remote location. There, the individual is killed soon after arrival by members of the military. The scene is then manipulated to make it appear as if the individual was legitimately killed in combat. The victim is commonly photographed wearing a guerrilla uniform, and holding a gun or grenade. Victims are often buried anonymously in communal graves, and the killers are rewarded for the results they have achieved in the fight against the guerillas. […]
I interviewed witnesses and survivors who described very similar killings in the departments of Antioquia, Arauca, Valle del Cauca, Casanare, Cesar, Cordoba, Huila, Meta, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Santander, Sucre, and Vichada. A significant number of military units were thus involved.
To inflate the body count and number of combat kills to lend the impression that the government’s anti-guerilla campaigns, and the billions in US aid that was footing the bill, were more successful than they actually were.
Investigations in several cities and towns found that soldiers routinely rounded up homeless during nighttime sweeps who met with the same fate. Others targeted included farmers, people with mental disabilities, union activists, even children.
Most of the murders occurred between 2002 and 2008, peaking in 2006-2008 under the hard-line right wing administration of Álvaro Uribe, whose tenure was synonymous with human rights abuses. Currently more than 3,300 cases are being investigated.
Through it all, Colombia was by far the leading recipient of US military assistance in Latin America. During that period, Colombia had been on the receiving end of more military aid than any other country outside of the Middle East. Through Plan Colombia, launched by the Clinton Administration in 1999 and expanded under the Bush administration two years later, Colombia received $9.3 billion through the end of 2012, about two-thirds of it earmarked for counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics efforts, essentially handing it to the military and police forces. Unconditionally.
Eager for numbers to justify the piles of cash arriving from Washington –and to ensure the supply continued to flow– Uribe pressured the military for results by also offering incentives for a job well done. From a 2010 analysis of Plan Colombia by the Washington Office on Latin America:
While ardently supporting the armed forces, President Uribe pushed them hard for results against guerrillas. The most easily measured result has been “body counts” – the number killed in combat. Colombia’s defense ministry set up a system of informal incentives for soldiers – special recognitions, leave time, promotions – and formal incentives for civilian informants to reward body counts. The army chief in the mid-2000s, Gen. Mario Montoya, visited brigades throughout the country exhorting troops to produce “liters of blood.”
So with billions of dollars and nearly unprecedented levels of military training invested in Colombian security, was the U.S. complicit in the murders of several thousand “false positives”?
The study looked specifically at the units responsible for the killings and their relationship with US training and assistance and found that “there is a correlation between Army brigades that received a medium level of U.S. assistance and the commission of extrajudicial killings. Multiple killings were committed by soldiers in a higher percentage of units commanded by U.S. ‐ trained officers than by a random sample of military officers.”
From the report:
Based on data on 5,763 reported executions in Colombia and extensive documentation of U.S. assistance to the Colombian military, we found a positive correlation between the units and officers that received U.S. assistance and training, and the commission of extrajudicial killings.
A statistical analysis of 1,821 of these executions where responsible units were directly identified showed that Army brigades that received a moderate as compared to low level of US assistance correlated to ten more executions per brigade in the two years following assistance. While the analysis does not show that U.S. aid specifically caused or encouraged executions, it casts strong doubt on claims that U.S. assistance improved human rights performance.
And, notably, during a period when Colombia ranked fifth on the list of US military aid recipients:
From 2002 through 2008, more Colombians are recorded as receiving U.S. military and police training than any other country – one in every seven foreign soldiers or police receiving U.S. training during that period was Colombian.
The report also examined the behavior of graduates of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), the rebranded infamous US Army School of the Americas, and found them to be more serious violators of human rights than commanders who did not attend courses at WHINSEC:
Of the 25 Colombian WHINSEC instructors and graduates of the Command and General Staff course from 2001 to 2003 for which any subsequent information was available, 12 of them — 48% — had either been charged with a serious crime or commanded units whose members had reportedly committed multiple extrajudicial killings. A random sample of 25 Colombian officers from approximately the same period showed a better human rights record than the WHINSEC cohort: we identified four (16%) who subsequently led units with multiple extrajudicial executions under their command.
Notable too is that the US couldn’t really pretend to not know both how deeply rooted the practice was, as well as the PR value that high-ranking members of the Colombian military placed on combat kills.
In fact, US officials were aware of what has been termed a “body count syndrome” on the part of the Colombian military establishment as early as 1994. Documents declassified in early 2009 describe a “mentality” in which soldiers chased body count quotas to impress their superiors and earn promotions and even bonuses. [More from the National Security Archive.]
Aftermath – Slow justice
When the scandal broke in 2008, some heads did immediately roll. To his credit, Uribe’s defense minister and current president Juan Manuel Santos dismissed three generals and 24 other officers immediately implicated in the scheme. General Mario Montoya, commander of the Colombian Army, resigned. To date, about 800 former security officials have been sentenced to prison. In April the Attorney General announced the arrests of five colonels and that 22 generals are also under investigation.
While there hasn’t been a major shift in policy under the Obama administration, aid has been reduced. In 2013, the administration pledged $320 million in aid to Colombia for 2014, as Bloomberg noted, “mostly to combat drug trafficking and violence. Detroit, with an 81 percent higher homicide rate, will get $108.2 million.”
And a “beautiful” homeless man just under a buck.
I’m trying to arrange visits, both here in Bogota and later in Cali, with family members whose sons were among those murdered. I’ll also continue to follow this story which is a crucial element of the ongoing peace process. Willingness on the part of the government to follow through and bring high level elements of the military to justice shows not only good faith, but also a desire to end impunity. There is no doubt that Santos is under considerable pressure from members of the armed forces, some of whom are feeling the noose tightening.