Corruption, Human Rights Scandal Rocks the Colombian Armed Forces

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Author: Lisa Haugaard

Colombia’s Semana magazine revealed in February a massive corruption scandal involving the top ranks of Colombia’s armed forces.  Officials were skimming up to 50 percent off of lucrative military contracts.  “Give us 5 billion [pesos] and give the other companies 3.  If we are all eating, no one will pick a fight,”   said one colonel. 

Top military commanders, as well as personally benefitting from this corruption, were steering contracts to officers and soldiers under investigation and detained in military garrisons for involvement in extrajudicial executions. According to Semana, “this was a system to buy their silence and ensure that they did not implicate higher-level officials in the sadly famous practice of false positives.”

Colombia’s Attorney General’s office is investigating cases, known as the “false positives,” in which over 4,200 people were allegedly extrajudicially executed by members of Colombia’s armed forces.  Many additional cases are, inappropriately according to Colombian law, still in the military justice system.   In the vast majority, these are not cases of civilians who were killed in crossfire but rather of people, usually young men from poor urban and rural neighborhoods, who were detained or lured with promises of jobs, executed and dressed in guerrilla clothing to look like enemy dead, to increase the army’s body count.  The majority of these killings occurred from 2004 to 2008.  In 2009, reforms introduced by then-Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, including insisting that these cases be transferred to civilian courts rather than the military courts that never punished them, helped to reduce this horrific practice. 

While there has been progress in some cases, the majority of extrajudicial executions remain in impunity. The vast scope of these crimes and the similar pattern throughout geographic regions suggest high-level involvement, yet investigations to date have focused on soldiers and lower-level officials, with not a single case against a general, brigade or division commander advanced beyond preliminary stages.  In late 2013, a law promoted by President Juan Manuel Santos which would have resulted in more such crimes being assigned to military rather than civilian courts was struck down on procedural grounds by the Constitutional Court.  President Santos has pledged to reintroduce this regressive law.

Military officials detained and jailed for extrajudicial executions continue to be held in military garrisons where they retain special privileges, can run businesses and can leave freely. Indeed, according to Semana, one “detained” colonel appeared to spend so much time in his apartment, shopping centers, and the Jockey Club that anyone wanting to see him in jail had to make an appointment.  In 2011, when Semana exposed the “prison resort” of Tolemeida, the Defense Ministry promised to put an end to these privileges—but two years later, they are still endemic. 

In one of the most disturbing revelations, Semana reported that armed forces chief Leonardo Barrero told an officer who was under investigation for extrajudicial executions to “get together and work up a mafia” to denounce the Attorney General’s human rights prosecutors.   

The Santos Administration Responds.
  President Santos dismissed armed forces chief Leonardo Barrero on February 18, replacing him with General Juan Pablo Rodriguez.  While Barrero’s dismissal is positive, it is concerning that General Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar has been promoted to command the army.  Lasprilla oversaw a unit with a pattern of extrajudicial killings when he was commander of the Army’s 9th Brigade in Huila in 2006-07.  According to an analysis compiled by Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Attorney General’s office is investigating 38 extrajudicial executions by 9th Brigade soldiers under his command, and the Jesuit research center CINEP and other human rights groups have documented an additional 37 alleged extrajudicial executions.

Spying on the Government—and the President.   But this is hardly the only military scandal in the news.  A Colombian military intelligence unit was revealed in January to have been spying on the government’s own peace negotiators out of “Bugglyhacker,” a Bogotá internet café.   Newspaper reports indicated that army intelligence was also spying on the Attorney General’s office, police, human rights groups and journalists, in a disturbing echo of the Uribe Administration’s intelligence scandal, which resulted in the disbanding of the presidential intelligence agency, the DAS.  Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón subsequently sacked two top military intelligence leaders. President Santos initially condemned the spying as illegal, and then backpedaled. 

Semana magazine’s coverage also highlighted a wiretapping room known as the “Grey Room,” for which, according to the article, the CIA had provided equipment and training.  While the room was supposedly intended for the army to carry out legal wiretaps with the presence of representatives from the Attorney General’s office, Semana asserted that Colombian military intelligence during 2013 used it for unauthorized wiretaps, leading to it being shut down. 

In February, President Santos denounced the interception of his own personal emails.  It is not yet known who was behind that spying; the President himself speculated that it was an attempt to weaken his reelection bid.

A military source told El Espectador that sectors of the military were concerned that the peace talks could result in reducing their size, limiting their mission to external defense, and limiting their social and economic power; and particularly, that they are concerned they will face justice for crimes while the guerrillas will negotiate judicial benefits.  

Defense Minister Pinzón at a Center for American Progress briefing on February 27 asserted that President Santos has stated that the role and size of the military will not be negotiated in the peace talks, in contrast to peace accords in Central America and Africa.  Mr. Pinzón laid out an extremely expansive vision of the role of the armed forces post-peace accord, ranging from border security to confronting drug trafficking, transnational crime and continued armed violence in an accord’s aftermath; and from addressing climate change to expanding the military’s role in development.  He strongly emphasized increasing Colombia’s role in security training globally, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean.  These kinds of words are intended to reassure members of the military that they will keep their substantial role and privileges if a peace accord is reached.  But they are hardly reassuring to Colombian victims of violence by the armed forces and communities that have endured the brunt of the war from all sides.