Sergeant Carlos Mora started to suspect there was something fishy about his brigade’s combat kills when he was posted to an intelligence unit in the region of Norte de Santander in northeast Colombia in 2006.
After a sudden spike in the number of “positive” results, he noticed corpses of alleged left-wing guerrillas killed in skirmishes with troops seemed oddly placed and that weapons found with the bodies often matched those confiscated from common criminals.
Mora reported his suspicions to his superior officers, but was met with insults and found himself sent on increasingly dangerous assignments.
When he took what he knew to the high command in Bogotá in 2007, the information led to the dismissal of a score of top officials in the United States-backed military and helped expose one of the darkest episodes in Colombia’s half-century civil war.
Prosecutors are currently investigating 3 000 cases in which civilians across the country were allegedly murdered by soldiers and presented as combatants to boost body counts – a practice that has come to be known as “false positives”.
But commanding officers in charge of troops implicated in the scandal continue to rise through the military ranks without ever being held responsible, while those who denounced the murders have been left in fear for their lives, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch.
Widespread and systematic The cases under investigation were allegedly committed between 2002 and 2008 by soldiers in more than 180 units attached to every army division, pointing to a widespread, systematic practice. To date only a few senior officers have been held to account for the crimes, according to the report, released on Wednesday.
“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, director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch. “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.”
The current armed forces commander, General Juan Pablo Rodríguez, was head of the army’s 4th brigade when at least 28 alleged extrajudicial killings were committed by troops. And troops under the command of General Jaime Lasprilla – now the top army chief – committed at least 48 alleged extrajudicial killings when he led the 9th brigade.
Retired General Mario Montoya – who led the 4th Brigade when 44 civilians were killed and presented as combat deaths – was made chief of the Caribbean command, and then army commander. During the three years that he was army chief from 2006 to 2008, extrajudicial executions by soldiers peaked, with more than 1?100 alleged false positive killings in 2007 alone, according to prosecution figures cited by Human Rights Watch.
On Tuesday, a day before the report was published, the prosecutor’s office announced it was calling Montoya and two others for questions about false positive killings.
Colombia’s military maintains the cases of false positives were regrettable but has denied they were part of a systematic practice. In a 2009 interview with a small group of foreign journalists, General Freddy Padilla, then commander of the armed forces, lamented the damage false positives had caused to the army’s image, but considered the episode closed. “We are not going to continue to cry over spilt milk,” he said.
‘Legal war against the military’
General Jaime Ruiz, head of Acore, the retired officers association, said there was no evidence that orders or instigation for false positive killings came from commanders. “It was an organisation of subordinates in league with criminals that arranged to pick up people and kill them and present them as combat deaths.
“The idea of trying to blame the generals is a strategy that is being skilfully used by the extreme left and some NGOs in a legal war against the military,” he said.
He said the allegations were a ploy of the Farc guerrillas, who have been negotiating a peace deal with the government of President Juan Manuel Santos since 2012.
Human rights activists are concerned that a constitutional amendment that aimed to clear the path for a post-conflict period of transitional justice for former combatants could end up benefiting military officers responsible for false positive killings. “Colombia needs to ensure that any transitional justice measures enacted as part of a future peace agreement don’t deny victims’ families justice in false positive cases,” Vivanco said.
In reviewing witness testimonies and criminal case files, Human Rights Watch found signs that generals and other commanders knew or should have known what was going on, as allegations of false positives had been made public since 2004.
“Commanders should have been on notice to scrutinise combat kills more closely,” says Max Schoening, Human Rights Watch’s Colombia researcher and the report’s author. “It’s hard to believe that so many commanders were being tricked by so many subordinates for so long.”
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Robinson González del Río, who has publicly admitted responsibility for at least 27 false positive killings, told prosecutors that several generals – including current armed forces chief, Juan Pablo Rodríguez Barragán– knew of and covered up such crimes by his troops, according to Human Rights Watch. Barragán is now the subject of an investigation by prosecutors but has not been charged.
González del Río and another senior officer told prosecutors that as army chief Montoya “pressured subordinate commanders to increase body counts, punished them for failing to do so and was the principal ‘motivator’ for false positives”.
Billions of dollars in US aid
The Colombian military received billions of dollars in US aid, training and equipment, making it one of the top 10 recipients of this assistance worldwide. But US law prohibits aid to foreign military units that violate human rights.
Human Rights Watch asked the US government to suspend such aid to Colombia. “Safeguard mechanisms have evidently failed,” said Vivanco.
Senator Patrick Leahy, who sponsored the law conditioning aid, said the report troubled him. “As we provided billions of dollars in aid to the Colombian army over many years, its troops systematically executed civilians. Worse yet, the officers in charge have escaped justice and some remain in senior positions of authority. 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.”
For Sergeant Mora, integrity meant not agreeing to kill innocent civilians and not covering it up. After denouncing the murders, Mora – an intelligence specialist – was relegated to managing the paintball field at an army social club.
A month ago he was informed that he faces disciplinary sanctions for not upholding international human rights agreements. He believes the punishment was retaliation for speaking to the media.
“I’m the one defending human rights and trying to clear the reputation of the army and they accuse me,” Mora says. “Who can understand that?” – © Guardian News & Media