CALI – Last week I posted an overview of Colombia’s heinous “False Positives” scandal, a scheme through which the Colombian military executed upwards of 5,000 innocent civilians from 2002 to 2008 in an effort to boost body counts in their ongoing fight against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebels.
It now appears that the extrajudicial killings were not only a systemic effort on the part of the U.S.-backed military, but that those responsible are escaping responsibility with the impunity that has been a consistent hallmark of the Colombian military during its 50-year civil war. In fact, many of those implicated in the murders have risen through the ranks and into the highest positions in the armed forces.
That’s according to a 95-page report, “On Their Watch: Evidence of Senior Army Officers’ Responsibility for False Positive Killings in Colombia,” released by Human Rights watch on Tuesday (23 June) which presents previously unpublished evidence strongly suggesting that numerous generals and colonels knew or should have known about the so-called “false positive” killings, and may have even ordered or otherwise actively furthered them.
Among them are the current head of Colombia’s armed forces General Juan Pablo Rodriguez, and army chief General Jaime Lasprilla, who led brigades involved in at least 76 killings.
“One of the worst episodes of mass atrocity in the Western Hemisphere in recent years”
To summarize the scandal, which broke with the disappearance of several young men in Bogota in 2008, from the report:
Between 2002 and 2008, army brigades across Colombia routinely executed civilians. Under pressure from superiors to show “positive” results and boost body counts in their war against guerrillas, soldiers and officers abducted victims or lured them to remote locations under false pretenses—such as with promises of work—killed them, placed weapons on their lifeless bodies, and then reported them as enemy combatants killed in action.
The victims primarily came from the margins of society, consisting largely of the urban poor, the homeless and people with mental disabilities but also farmers, union activists, and in some cases even children.
According to testimony, soldiers received bonuses – payments, vacation days, food and cigarettes— while the military boasted of continued successes on the battlefield.
From the outset Colombia has acknowledged that the killings did occur, but has consistently denied that the murders were systemic in nature, blaming instead rogue elements acting on their own. Evidence is strongly suggesting otherwise.
Federal prosecutors are investigating some 3,700 cases, although victims’ groups and other organizations claim the number of killed tops 5,000. Since the investigations began, about 800 lower-ranking soldiers have been convicted, but only a handful of colonels and to date no generals.
“False positive killings amount to one of the worst episodes of mass atrocity in the Western Hemisphere in recent years, and there is mounting evidence that many senior army officers bear responsibility,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive Americas director at Human Rights Watch in a statement.
“Yet the army officials in charge at the time of the killings have escaped justice and even ascended to the top of the military command, including the current heads of the army and armed forces.”
HRW based its findings on extensive material, previously unpublished, provided by the Attorney General’s office; criminal case files; recordings and transcripts of witness testimony; and interviews with prosecutors, witnesses, victims’ families, and their lawyers, among others.
I’ll break this down further over the next week as I digest it, but in summary:
An HRW analysis of Attorney General’s Office data shows that investigators have identified more than 180 battalions and other tactical units, attached to virtually all brigades and in every army division at the time, that allegedly committed extrajudicial killings between 2002 and 2008, the period in which the scheme was in operation. HRW says that information “detailed in the report shows that commanders of the brigades and tactical units responsible for a significant number of killings – as well as top army leaders – at least knew or should have known about the crimes, and therefore may be criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility.”
Even if commanders didn’t directly order the executions, many signed off on payments to soldiers and fake informants involved in the killings. Additionally, the report points out, “cases across the country had similar types of victims and a common modus operandi, which required a high degree of coordination and planning.”
HRW also obtained and reviewed recordings and transcripts of testimony from military personnel implicated in the scandal who confirmed that their superiors, including generals and colonels, “allegedly knew of, or planned, ordered, or otherwise facilitated the crimes.”
Several of those who commanded the 11 brigades more closely analyzed later rose to some of the highest positions in the Colombian military. A few examples:
- At least 44 alleged extrajudicial killings by 4th Brigade troops during the period retired Gen. Mario Montoya commanded it. He became the army’s top commander in 2006-2008;
- At least 113 alleged extrajudicial killings by 4th Brigade troops when retired Gen. Óscar González Peña commanded it. He became the army’s top commander in 2008-2010;
- At least 28 alleged extrajudicial killings by 4th Brigade troops when Gen. Juan Pablo Rodríguez Barragán commanded it. As the current commander of the armed forces, he is the country’s top military official, and oversees all three military branches, including the army; and
- At least 48 alleged extrajudicial killings by 9th Brigade troops during the period Gen. Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar commanded it. He is now the army’s top commander.
President Confirms Unwavering Support for Implicated Commanders
According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, neither Rodriguez nor Lasprilla are currently under investigation. Montoya, who was forced to step down when the story broke in 2008, is among the generals under investigation.
On Wednesday President Juan Manuel Santos, who served as Defense Minister in the administration of former President Alvaro Uribe during the height of the scandal, came out in full support of Rodriguez and Lasprilla, underscoring that neither are under investigation and that the implications in there report are unwarranted. “This is not the way to monitor respect for human rights,” El Tiempo reported.
Predictably, prosecutors are facing numerous roadblocks as their investigation into elements of the military lumbers on.
“Prosecutors confront serious obstacles to advancing their cases, ranging from reprisals against key witnesses to a lack of cooperation by military authorities,” Vivanco said.
“And many – possibly hundreds – of false positive cases remain in the military justice system, which for all practical purposes guarantees impunity.”
Impunity that may even stretch to efforts to cover its own tracks.
Human Rights Watch documented threats, attacks, and harassment against soldiers who have testified against their superiors. The report highlighted the case of Nixón de Jesús Cárcamo, a soldier who had confessed to killings and had been providing information to prosecutors about his superiors’ alleged role in false positive cases. He was murdered in the 11th Brigade’s military detention center on October 27, 2014. Eleven days earlier he told prosecutors that he feared for his life and “that if he was killed, the people he was accusing were responsible”.
Ramifications for US Policy
The outcomes of the investigations could also have significant ramifications for Colombia’s relationships with the U.S., it’s strongest military ally and far the leading recipient of U.S. military assistance in Latin America. Over the past two decades the U.S. has provided billions of dollars in aid, arms and training to the Colombian military.
But the U.S. is barred by law from providing assistance to any foreign military units that are known to violate human rights. Vermont Senator Pat Leahy, who sponsored the law in the late 1990s, said he was “deeply troubled” by the report.
“It shows that as we provided billions of dollars in aid to the Colombian army over many years, its troops systematically executed civilians,” Leahy said in a statement.
“Worse yet, the officers who were in charge have escaped justice, and some remain in senior positions of authority, without the United States or the Colombian government addressing the problem.”
Leahy said he was confident that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos would take the report seriously and “do what is necessary to deliver justice and restore credibility to the Colombian military.”
But he also suggested that the spigot of funding could be turned off.
“We also need to see a more vigorous response from our own government. We have supported the Colombian military because the country has been threatened by an insurgency. But unless Colombia’s military leaders are people of integrity, it will be difficult to continue to support an institution that engaged with impunity in a pattern of gross violations of human rights.”
In its report, HRW was a bit more direct.
“The United States government should enforce human rights conditions on military aid to Colombia, including the requirement that human rights cases be “subject only to civilian jurisdiction” and that the military cooperate with prosecutors in such cases.
“In light of the evidence that these two conditions are not being met, the US should suspend the part of military aid that depends on Colombia’s compliance with them.”
There were no official statements on Wednesday from either the State or Defense departments in reaction to the report.
It’s worth noting that at various points in their careers, all four generals mentioned above took courses at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, rebranded in 2000 as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), an institution which lists several Latin American dictators among its graduates and in the past included torture in its curriculum.