Colombian army’s ‘false positives’ scandal: ‘no one listened to us’

One Tuesday morning in March 2008, Eduardo Garzon did not show up for his job in a workers’ restaurant he co-managed in Bogota, Colombia. His whereabouts remained unknown for the next five months until his mother discovered that Garzon had died 300 kilometers (186 miles) from their home in an alleged confrontation with the military.

Official reports that claimed Garzon was a dangerous rebel with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) ultimately uncovered one of the worst human rights violations in Colombian history known as the scandal of “False positives”, in which military officers falsely executed and portrayed young civilians. men as enemy combatants.

More than a decade later, a transitional peace tribunal concluded that Garzon and over 6,400 other civilians were extrajudicially killed by the Colombian military between 2002 and 2008. These numbers nearly tripled the number previously reported by the government.

“We always said there were more victims than they say, but no one listened to us,” said Ana Paez, Garzon’s mother and vice president of the organization Mother of False Positive Victims. in Soacha and Bogota.

“They say there are more than 6,400 victims, but we believe there is more.”

Ana Paez, mother of Eduardo Garzon, urges retired General Mario Montoya to speak the truth during his testimony before the JEP [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

The Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP), a tribunal set up by the 2016 peace accord, judges atrocities linked to more than 50 years of armed conflict in Colombia. While reports of extrajudicial killings stretch back decades, the JEP found that these cases peaked between 2002 and 2008, under the administration of former President Alvaro Uribe.

The findings contradicted a report released in 2018 by the attorney general’s office that revealed a total of 2,248 cases of extrajudicial killings committed between 1988 and 2014.

‘Prove us right’

Human rights groups have argued for years that the practice of the military killing and falsely representing civilians as enemy combatants was more widespread than the Colombian government recognized.

“We are happy that the JEP has recognized the scale of this situation, but we are also concerned that the attorney general’s office has covered up more than two-thirds of the crimes and their perpetrators,” said Alberto Yepes, a lawyer from Colombia. United States-Europe Coordination (CCEEU), a coalition representing 281 rights groups.

The CCEEU reported at least 5,763 cases between 2002 and 2010 to the JEP last year. A 2018 report, compiled with official sources and independent research, estimated that more than 10,000 civilians were murdered during that same period.

“The JEP proves us right,” said Omar Rojas Bolanos, co-author of the 2018 study.

“If they continue to investigate the country will be shocked [at what they find out]. “

During Mario Montoya’s testimony to the JEP, activists demonstrate in front of signs indicating that 5,673 civilians were killed [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

The attorney general’s office said it was reviewing its latest 2018 figures.

“The figures reported come from the previous administration of Nestor Humberto Martinez, and not from the current administration,” said Paola Tomas, spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office. “We check the numbers and figure out what’s going on.”

The Defense Ministry questioned the source of these new figures, to which the JEP replied that it had compiled information from the Office of the Attorney General, the Office of the Inspector General, the National Center of Memory. history and CCEEU.

The surge in “false positives” in 2002 coincided with an incentive program created by the Uribe administration that encouraged combat casualties with vacations, promotions and military training abroad. Swollen body counts produced by these extrajudicial killings helped Uribe support claims that the military campaign against the FARC would soon be won and justified US $ 1 billion in aid.

“The numbers show that it could not have been the work of ordinary lower and middle ranks,” Yepes said. “The JEP shows that 78% of cases took place under the administration of Alvaro Uribe. This means that they either ordered the crimes committed or they knew they were happening.

Call to responsibility

Human rights groups called on Uribe to appear before the JEP. Former president Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s defense minister from 2006 to 2009, is also invited to testify. Santos received a Nobel Peace Prize for facilitating the 2016 peace agreement.

In a Twitter post last week, Uribe challenged the court’s findings and alleged the court intended to damage his reputation. He also defended himself against accusations which attributed to his harsh security policy the upsurge in killings during his presidency.

“No soldier can say that he has ever received a bad example or inappropriate innuendo from me,” the post read.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch for the Americas, accused Uribe of twisting the truth in his Twitter feed and presented evidence that contradicted Uribe’s claims that he prioritized captures over combat killings during his presidency.

Part of the JEP’s tasks is to investigate the high level in the military ranks and the government’s knowledge or responsibility for these crimes. The JEP is authorized to grant military personnel under investigation by the Attorney General’s office benefits, including parole and lighter sentences, for contributing to the truth.

However, human rights organizations fear that there is a “pact of silence” between the military to cover up who ordered the execution of civilians. In early February, the National Movement for Victims of State Crime criticized lawyers for asking the military to avoid mentioning army commanders.

The top official to appear before the transitional court, retired General Mario Montoya, testified last year that insubordinate soldiers were responsible for the crimes. He has denied any involvement or knowledge of the executions that occurred during his tenure as army commander from 2006 to 2008.

Some victims’ lawyers, such as German Romero, believe that the JEP’s “bottom-up” approach to its investigation, which focuses on middle-ranking military officers before senior officials, is flawed because it follows the same strategy adopted by the government.

Women whose family members were killed by army in ‘false positive’ executions report to JEP [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

“The JEP repeats what the attorney general’s office has already done and listens to those who have already been accused or convicted,” Romero said.

Although the attorney general’s office has convicted hundreds of base soldiers, it has yet to accuse a general of being involved in the “false positive” killings.

“The JEP has a ten-year term, of which three years have already passed,” Yepes said. “At this rate, we think it’s difficult for them to reach the maximum number of military leadership officials.”

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