Colombia’s military carried out at least 6,400 extrajudicial killings and presented them as combat deaths between 2002 and 2008, a number that is at least three times higher than previously estimated, a special court has said as quoted by BBC.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) court is investigating crimes and atrocities committed during half a century of armed conflict between government troops and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Marxist rebels who laid down their weapons following a historic 2016 peace accord. It has a 10-year mandate.
On Thursday, the tribunal, which was set up under the peace deal, described the killings in question as “illegitimate deaths presented as combat fatalities”, also known as “false positives”.
What were the “false positives?
It is the name given to the killings of young men – mainly from poor families – carried out by the Colombian army. The army’s aim was to pass them off as left-wing rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to boost its kill rate and give the impression it was winning the armed conflict against the group.
The “false positives” scandal first erupted in 2008, but the practice is thought to date back as far as the 1980s. More than 1700 people have been sentenced for their role in the false positives. Members of the military have given evidence in a number of court cases over the past decade and told how they were pressured by their superiors to drive up their “kill rate” and how they would be rewarded by being given promotions or extra days off.
In one case, eight soldiers were jailed for taking four farmers from their homes by force, shooting them in the back and dressing them up as rebels. In other instances, young men were lured from poor neighbourhoods of the capital, Bogotá, with promises of work, only to be murdered and dressed in rebel fatigues.
Until last year, the public prosecutor’s office had acknowledged only 2,249 executions of civilians between 1988 and 2014 – the majority of which were carried out between 2006 and 2008, during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe, the political mentor of current President Ivan Duque.
While the military high command has denied there was a systematic policy of inflating the numbers of killed left-wing rebels with so-called “false positives”, soldiers and officials have told the court that they were put under pressure by superiors to do so to boost the appearance of success of the government’s military campaign.
General Mario Montoya, who was the army commander at the time, is the highest-ranking military figure to have testified before the court. Witnesses have blamed him for the killings but Montoya has said he did not take part in ordering the execution of civilians.
Montoya’s lawyer, Andres Garzon, denied to the AFP news agency in 2020 that there was a wider military policy to inflate the numbers with extrajudicial killings, arguing that only 2,140 military personnel were currently under investigation, less than one percent of the total number of troops operating at that time.
“That shows there was never a directive to the army to commit such atrocious acts,” he said.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace formally asked the Prosecutor General’s Office and Inspector General’s Office to investigate witness claims that lawyers provided by the military were telling former soldiers not to incriminate generals “to avoid problems” in 2019 and last year.
The tribunal ordered investigations into the military for allegedly tampering witnesses testifying against former commanders over the mass killing of civilians. One soldier testified that attorneys provided by the Specialized Technical Defense Fund (Fondetec) “told us: what evidence do you have to link [retired] general [Mario] Montoya, the [former] commander of the army. Your situation could be turned upside down.”
Montoya is suspected of being one of the architects of the sinister practice to execute civilians and present them as guerrillas killed in combat that became common under former President Alvaro Uribe. At least one civilian witness against Montoya survived an assassination attack. Multiple soldiers have said they were threatened with death for testifying against the former general and convicted former Colonel Hernan Mejia.
‘Complicity’ by authorities
The JEP is looking into the worst rights abuses committed by both FARC rebels and state actors during the conflict. Those who confess to being responsible and compensate the victims can avoid prison time, but those who do not face up to 20 years in jail. The court, which was set up in 2018, has yet to convict anyone.
The JEP said the IV Brigade of the army, which operated in the region, “could be responsible for 73 percent of the deaths identified in the department between 2000 and 2013”.
The investigation found most of the killings took place in the northwestern Antioquia department where soldiers and right-wing paramilitaries fought with left-wing rebels. Some remains of victims have been found in a cemetery in Antioquia thanks to statements made by members of the security forces but the court said those “haven’t been investigated”.
According to Tania Parra, a lawyer representing soldiers who have confessed, Thursday’s report shows there was “complicity” by authorities “to hide” the murders. But she told AFP that while many investigations are opened, “either there’s no result or … they’re cleared”. At least 20 of the 219 security forces personnel who have testified before the court are receiving protection after facing threats.
‘False Positives’ Fugitive Arrested in Spain
Spanish Authorities announced on Monday the arrest of one of Colombia’s most wanted criminals who was sought for his murderous role in the “false positives” scandal of the 2000s, when soldiers killed innocent people and then dressed them as guerrilla fighters to secure combat medals, promotions and other benefits.
Luis J. Castro, alias “El Zarco,” was detained in Alicante on Saturday, days after Interpol issued a Red Notice against him for multiple homicides and conspiracy to commit aggravated crimes dating back to his actions in 2007. Formerly a member of the leftist guerrilla group, “Ejército de Liberación Nacional” (National Liberation Army – ELN), Castro later turned on his comrades, switching to helping government forces in their brutal war against the ELN.
“We think [Castro] was of mid-ranking importance working for both sides” said Chris Dalby, Managing Editor of Colombia-based media outlet InSight Crime. “He was connected to the ELN, paramilitary groups and the army so his role is muddled but probably not a top commander”.
Castro was certainly a “recruiter,” hiring young men under false pretenses and delivering them to Army troops. Such individuals, many of whom were connected to paramilitary forces, would offer jobs to impoverished and often mentally handicapped young men, transport them to specific locations and sell them to army units for a few hundred dollars per head for summary execution.
Castro has been charged with involvement in the deaths of 14 young people he recruited, delivery of another six who were later executed and of the direct murder of four others, according to El Pais.
FARC accepts charge
Also on Thursday, former FARC commanders accepted a separate JEP charge that they had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the conflict. The former commanders were also accused of other war crimes connected with the treatment of kidnap victims, including murder and torture, among others.
”We recognize that during (the conflict) actions and conduct punishable in the eyes of international humanitarian law took place. Actions and conducts that have been individually and collectively recognized by the JEP, society in general, and in activities with victims,” a statement signed by six of the former rebel commanders and published on Twitter said.
The FARC used kidnappings for ransom to fund their war, while captured military or government personnel were used to pressure authorities into releasing jailed rebels, the JEP, created under the 2016 peace deal between the government and the rebels, said last month.
The January ruling had been the first time the JEP had attributed criminal responsibility for hostage-taking to former leaders. The former commanders were also accused of other war crimes connected with the treatment of kidnap victims, including murder and torture, among others. By accepting the accusations, the former commanders could face restrictions on their freedoms for five to eight years. If they had rejected them, the commanders would have faced up to 20 years in prison, per the terms of the peace deal.