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Latin America

Colombia’s military top brass involved in extrajudicial killings, says HRW

Generals and colonels “allegedly knew, planned or ordered” executions, according to NGO

Generals Juan Pablo Rodriguez (r) and Jaime Lasprilla (c), who are named in HRW report.
Generals Juan Pablo Rodriguez (r) and Jaime Lasprilla (c), who are named in HRW report. AP

Seven years ago, a scandal broke in Colombia when it was revealed that military officers were carrying out summary executions of innocent civilians and listing them as guerrillas killed in combat.

These so-called “false positives” took place in different regions of the country between 2002 and 2008 and were used as proof of performance by military units and to collect “kill fees” awarded by the then-government of President Álvaro Uribe.

“False positives” took place in different regions of the country between 2002 and 2008

Colombia’s Attorney General has around 3,000 pending investigations open.

While some 27 soldiers and top military officers have been suspended from their duties, convictions have only been handed down to low-ranking officers and soldiers.

In a 95-page report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday, researchers said they have uncovered “evidence strongly suggesting that numerous generals and colonels knew or should have known about ‘false positive’ killings, and may have ordered or otherwise actively furthered them.”

On Tuesday, the Attorney General’s Office in Bogota summoned former army commander Mario Montoya and three other retired officers for questioning about their knowledge of the “false positive” cases.

According to HRW, Montoya commanded troops from the 4th Brigade, which was allegedly involved in 44 extrajudicial killings, before he became the army’s top commander, from 2006 to 2008.

Some 27 soldiers and top military officers have been suspended from their duties

“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. “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,” read a statement from José Miguel Vivanco, executive director for the Americas at HRW.

Among the cases cited by Vivanco is that of Armed Forces Commander General Juan Pablo Rodríguez, who also commanded the 4th Brigade between 2007 and 2009. The unit is also being investigated for 28 false positives under his leadership.

“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,” HRW said.

Another top official named in the report is current army commander General Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar. He led the 9th Brigade, which is being investigated for 48 alleged extrajudicial killings during his tenure from 2006 to 2007.

Officials in charge at the time of the killings have escaped justice and ascended to the top of military command”

In September 2014, a controversial colonel, who is now in jail, publicly accused Rodríguez and other officials of committing false positives. Lasprilla has also been named in other reports. But both men have denied committing human rights abuses.

HRW conducted an analysis of the data collected by the Attorney General’s Office and concluded that “prosecutors 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.”

At the same time, researchers at the NGO obtained recordings and transcriptions of testimonies given to prosecutors by military personnel charged with committing false positives “who reported that their superiors, including generals and colonels, allegedly knew of, or planned, ordered, or otherwise facilitated the crimes.”

Over the past few months, a trial has been in progress against five colonels who made up the leadership of one brigade that is accused of killing 70 innocent people between 2006 and 2007. One of the defendants is Colonel Edgar Ávila, who was the director of the military’s judicial and penal system, and served as a professor at the Military University’s law school.

Until now, 815 soldiers and six colonels have been convicted for committing false positives. Prosecutors said they have 22 other colonels under investigation.

“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.”

The HRW report recommends that the Colombian government do more to push military authorities to cooperate in the investigations as well as assign additional resources to prosecutors so they can work on cases and guarantee protection for witnesses and their families.

HRW recommends the Colombian government do more to push military authorities to cooperate

The Colombian government should also ensure that “any transitional justice measures” included in a final peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or any other guerrilla groups “do not hinder accountability for false positives,” HRW said.

In 2012, Colombia passed a constitutional amendment that could guarantee impunity for any atrocities committed by guerrilla groups, paramilitaries, and the military if a peace agreement is reached with the FARC. According to the amendment, Congress would have the power to determine how prosecutions for atrocities should be carried out; exempt war crimes from criminal investigations if they were not systematic; and apply “alternative penalties” to all those convicted.

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