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Colombia acts on massacres – punishing whistleblower and promoting officers

Reuters, The Guardian

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 north-east Colombia in 2006.

After a sudden spike in the number of “positive” results, he noticed that the corpses of supposed leftwing guerrillas killed in skirmishes with troops seemed oddly placed, and that weapons found next to the bodies often matched those previously confiscated from common criminals.

Mora reported his suspicions to his superior officers, but was met with insults and harassment, and found himself sent on increasingly dangerous assignments.

When he took what he knew to the high command in Bogotá in 2007, the information eventually led to the dismissal of a score of top officials in the US-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, in practice that has come to be known as “false positives”.

But according to a new report from Human Rights Watch, commanding officers in charge of troops implicated in the scandal have continued 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.

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 and systematic practice. However, 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, Americas director 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,” Vivanco said.

The current armed forces commander, General Juan Pablo Rodríguez, was the 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, one day before the report was published, the prosecutor’s office announced it was calling Montoya and two other generals in for questions with respect to false positive killings.

Colombia’s military has maintained that the cases of false positives were regrettable but has denied that 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 that false positives had caused to the army’s image, but considered it a closed episode. “We are not going to continue to cry over spilt milk,” he said.

Retired general Jaime Ruíz, head of the retired officers association, Acore, said there is no evidence that orders or instigation for false positive killings came from commanders. “It was an organization of subordinates in league with criminals that arranged to pick up people and kill them and present them as combat deaths,” he says.

“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. Ruiz claimed that the allegations were a ploy of the leftist 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 indications that generals and other commanders knew or should have known what was going on with their troops, since allegations of false positives were made public since 2004.

“Commanders should have been on notice to scrutinise the combat kills more closely,” says Max Schoening, Human Rights Watch’s researcher for Colombia and the author of the report. “It’s hard to believe that so many commanders were being tricked by so many subordinates for so long,” he says.

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 – 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 also 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”, the report says.

The Colombian military has received billions of dollars in American aid, training and equipment, making it one of the top 10 recipients of US assistance worldwide. US law, however, prohibits aid to foreign military units that violate human rights with impunity.

Human Rights Watch called on the US government to suspend the part of military aid to Colombia subject to human rights conditions. “The safeguard mechanisms have evidently failed,” said Vivanco.

Senator Patrick Leahy, who sponsored the law conditioning aid, said he was troubled by the report. “As we provided billions of dollars in aid to the Colombian army over many years, its troops systematically executed civilians. Worse yet, the officers who were in charge have escaped justice, and some remain in senior positions of authority,” he said in emailed comments.

“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,” Leahy said.

For Sgt 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?”

Source: The Guardian

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