The Nightmare Is Not Yet Over: Killings of Civilians by the Colombian Army

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Since 2007, the Latin America Working Group has been demanding action to end the killings of civilians by the Colombian Army. While the Colombian government has taken some steps to address these systematic abuses, the nightmare is not yet over. Two important resources have just come out that show that much more needs to be done.

Miami Herald Series on False Positives

A new Miami Herald series by Gerardo Reyes and Gonzalo Guillen claims that a directive establishing incentives that helped to encourage these killings is still in force and that the army chief who was dismissed following the most visible example of these killings, the Soacha scandal, was nominated to be ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

The articles also document the extent and the impact of these killings:

      “‘It never crossed my mind that my son had been killed by the army,’ [the slain man’s] mother, Blanca Nubia Monroy, said in a recent interview with El Nuevo Herald.

      Oviedo, 19, was one of several young men who disappeared last year in Soacha, a populous city south of Bogotá. Weeks after their disappearance, they were found by their families in unmarked graves, about 190 miles from the capital. They had been buried there as guerrillas of the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, killed in combat.

      The death of the young men of Soacha marked the beginning of the scandal of the ‘false positives’ in Colombia, a journalistic term that describes the systematic execution of innocent civilians by servicemen who later collect rewards in money, promotion or vacations. In military jargon, a ‘positive’ is an enemy kill.

      After the denunciations of mothers such as Monroy, a flood of similar cases from different parts of the country inundated the nation's attorney general’s office. The prosecutor is investigating the murder, under circumstances similar to Oviedo's, of more than 1,800 people, a situation that has triggered an international scandal.”

See the articles from the Miami Herald series:

Visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions

The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Professor Philip Alston, issued a statement after his mission to Colombia June 8-18th, 2009. Among his most important findings, Alston asserts that:

     “Some officials continue to assert that many of the cases were in fact legitimate killings of guerrillas or others. But the evidence… strongly suggests this was not the case… Evidence showing victims dressed in camouflage outfits which are neatly pressed, or wearing clean jungle boots which are four sizes too big for them, or lefthanders holding guns in their right hand, or men with a signal shot through the back of their necks, further undermines the suggestion that these were guerrillas killed in combat.”

      “There are two problems with the narrative focused on falsos positivos and Soacha. The first is that the term provides a sort of technical aura to describe a practice which is better characterized as cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit. The second is that the focus on Soacha encourages the perception that the phenomenon was limited both geographically and temporally. But while the Soacha killings were undeniably blatant and obscene, my investigations show that they were but the tip of the iceberg. I interviewed witnesses and survivors who described very similar killings in the departments of Antioquia, Arauca, Cali, Casanare, Cesar, Cordoba, Huila, Meta, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Santander, Sucre, and Vichada. A significant number of military units were thus involved.”

      “I have found no evidence to suggest that these killings were carried out as a matter of official Government policy… On the other hand, the explanation favored by many in Government—that the killings were carried out on a small scale by a few bad apples—is equally unsustainable. The sheer number of cases, their geographic spread, and the diversity of military units implicated, indicate that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military.”

      “The number of successful prosecutions remains very low, although improved results are hoped for in the coming year… In some areas military judges ignore the rulings of the Constitutional Court and do all in their power to thwart the transfer of clear human rights cases to the ordinary justice system.”

      “The good news is that there has been a significant reduction in recorded allegations of extrajudicial executions by the military over the last 6-9 months. If this trend is confirmed, it will represent a welcome reversal of course, but the problem of impunity for past killings must still be addressed.”

See the press statement by the UN Special Rapporteur in English (PDF) and en español (PDF).