Colombia: “Soldiers Simply Knew They Could Get Away with Murder”

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As I listened to mothers and sisters and sons describe how they found their loved one in the morgue of a Colombian army base, dressed up in a guerrilla uniform when they knew he was a civilian, I was not only saddened, I was stunned by the striking similarity of the cases. From Casanare, Meta, Cauca, the facts were so similar. Witnesses saw the person being taken prisoner by a group of army soldiers.  They went looking for him, thinking he’d be detained on the army base. Then they were shown a photo or the body of their relative, dead and claimed by the army as killed in combat.

That was in 2007, and I was participating in an International Mission on Extrajudicial Executions arranged by Colombia’s leading human rights groups. Before that time, Colombian human rights groups were valiantly, patiently and at great risk documenting an increase in these killings since 2004. But no one was listening to them.

When in October 2008 the so-called Soacha killings exploded on the scene, the sickening murder-for-profit scheme in which soldiers paid for young men who would not be missed to be delivered to them, lured by the promise of jobs, and then killed them to increase their body counts, no one could ignore it any longer. But Soacha was, as the United Nation’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions subsequently said, “Just the tip of the iceberg.”

Today, Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Philp Alston released his final report on his mission to Colombia to examine this problem. The English version of the report summary can be found here.

Alston asserts that “My investigations found that members of Colombia’s security forces committed a significant number of unlawful killings in a pattern that was repeated around the country. Although these killings were not committed as part of an official policy, I found that many military units engaged in so-called ‘false positives’ or falsos positivos in which victims were murdered by the military, often for soldiers’ personal benefit or profit. Victims were generally lured under false pretenses by a ‘recruiter’ to a remote location and then killed by soldiers who report that there was a ‘death in combat,’ and takes steps to manipulate and cover-up the crime scene. Within the military, success was equated with ‘kill counts’ of guerillas, and promoted by an environment in which there was little or no accountability. Soldiers simply knew that they could get away with murder.”

The report notes that while these cases can be found going back to the 1980s, “they began occurring with a disturbing frequency across Colombia from 2004.” 

The report also documents extrajudicial executions by the FARC and ELN guerrilla groups, and by successor groups to the paramilitaries. Guerrilla activity, it notes, “had an especially negative impact on indigenous communities and Afro-Colombian communities that are caught in the conflict between the Government and guerrilla groups.”

In terms of extrajudicial executions allegedly committed by soldiers, what is particularly compelling in this report is its description of how pressure for “results” was translated into incentives and a body count mentality that fed abuses.

20. Many expert and experienced interlocutors—including those in the military—confirmed to me that there was pressure in military units to show results and demonstrate that the military was continuing to gain ground against guerrillas and criminals. While senior Government officials disputed this and emphasized that killing civilians does not increase security, it is clear that within the military, success was often equated with enemy kill countsthe number of FARC members and others killed in combat.

21. As security in Colombia began to improve from 2002, and as guerrillas retreated from populated areas, some military units found it more difficult to engage in combat. In such areas, some units were motivated to falsify combat kills. In other areas, the guerrillas were perceived by soldiers to be particularly dangerous and soldiers were reluctant to engage them in combat. It was easier to murder civilians. In still other areas, there are links between the military and drug traffickers and other organized criminal groups. Local military units do not want to engage in combat with the illegal groups with which they are cooperating, so killing civilians falsely alleged to be part of these groups make military units appear to be taking action.

22. Within this general culture, it has been very difficult for individual soldiers who wanted to speak out against abuses to do so. Some who spoke out have been forced to relocate for their own safety.

The rapporteur notes that there have been efforts to eliminate incentives, but that there are still ways in which incentives could drive abuses.

However, other sources of payment in the form of confidential expenses (gastos reservados) and commanders’ discretionary funds are of serious concern. In fact, in its written comments to me, the Government conceded that there is more discretion for officers in distributing confidential expenses and that there could be problems there. One military commander told me that he has a US$ 2,000 monthly fund, a discretionary fund which he could use to, for example, pay small rewards to informers. Such funds, along with informal funds gained through criminal activity, are the more likely source of payments to recruiters (who are generally paid small amounts of a few hundred dollars or less).

The report outlines the many steps that the Colombian government has taken to eliminate these abuses, and notes that while it is too early to state this definitively, extrajudicial executions appear to have been very significantly reduced, with few cases reported in 2009-2010.

However, the special rapporteur sharply criticizes the Colombian government for failure to effectively investigate and prosecute these cases, with estimates of impunity for such cases ranging up to 98.5 percent.

29. Lack of sufficient accountability has been a key factor in the continuation of falsos positivos. Estimates of the current rate of impunity for alleged killings by the security forces are as high as 98.5 per cent. Soldiers simply knew that they could get away with murder. Recently, delays caused in part by defence counsel in the Soacha cases threaten to result in impunity. More generally, other problems, discussed below, occur at each stage of the investigation and disciplinary or criminal justice process…

38. The Fiscalía has and should have primary responsibility for prosecution of military personnel accused of human rights violations. The Constitution provides (art. 221) that crimes committed by members of the National Security Forces on active service, and related to that same service are within the jurisdiction of the military criminal justice system. However, the Constitutional Court and the Superior Council of the Judicature have clarified that the military courts do not have jurisdiction when force members engage in conduct contrary to the constitutional functions of the forces (such as unlawful killings) and that where there is doubt, civilian jurisdiction should apply.

39. Despite these clear judicial rulings, directives to the same effect from the Minister of Defence and a memorandum of agreement (2006) between the Ministry of Defence and the Fiscalía, it remains the case that jurisdiction over far too many cases is contested. There have been some improvements in recent yearsa total of 526 cases have now been voluntarily sent by the military criminal courts to civilian courts. Another 75 cases have been transferred following orders from the Superior Judicial Council. However, as of May 2009, there were still 221 cases of conflict between the military and civilian jurisdictions. One cause of delay can be the Supreme Judicial Council’s failure to decide jurisdictional challenges on a timely basis. These decisions should be made more expeditiously.

40. In some of the areas visited, including Medellín and Villavicencio, there appears to be a conscious attempt by military judges to frustrate the efforts of the civilian justice system. This also creates incredible delays—often of months or years—in the investigation and prosecution of alleged extrajudicial executions, during which time alleged perpetrators are often at large and the value of testimony and evidence can be lost. Military judges who do assist the civilian justice system may be subject to harassment, threats or transfer to other jurisdictions.

Starting in 2007, the U.S. government gradually began to acknowledge the depth of the problem and to push the Colombian government to carry out reforms to reduce these abuses. But the U.S. government must go farther, insisting that the Colombian government ensure justice in these cases, and at an absolute minimum, holding up certification on the human rights conditions in law until significant gains are achieved. Given the enormous levels of U.S. support for the Colombian military, these horrific abuses occurred under its watch and with its funding.

In short, there are many steps ahead to ensure that Colombian soldiers never again “get away with murder.”

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