Colombian army generals and colonels were involved in the systemic and widespread extrajudicial killing of civilians between 2002 and 2008, according to a Human Rights Watch report released today.
The 95-page report, "On Their Watch: Evidence of Senior Army Officers’ Responsibility for False Positive Killings in Colombia," presents previously unpublished evidence "strongly suggesting that numerous generals and colonels knew or should have known about 'false positive' killings, and may have ordered or otherwise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."
The "false positive" killings, as they are known in Colombia, refer to as many as 3,700 civilians killed by army troops under pressure to boost body counts in the war against guerrilla groups. Soldiers abducted drug addicts, homeless people and petty criminals, or lured people from low-income backgrounds with promises of jobs. They were then killed, disguised in combat fatigues and planted with weapons in order to be passed off as combat fatalities.
Prosecutors in Colombia are investigating at least 3,000 of these cases, and about 800 lower-ranking soldiers have been convicted, but few colonels and no generals have been accused, according to Human Rights Watch.
"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," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "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."
The practise came to light after the abduction and killing of 19 young men from a Bogota slum, reports the Washington Post. The army's top commander was forced to resign, and three army generals and nearly a dozen officers were fired. President Juan Manuel Santos, then defense secretary, pledged to investigate.
The scandal resulted in the resignation of the commander of the Colombian Army, the firing of a few high-level officers and stained the reputation of the president at the time, Álvaro Uribe, who aggressively escalated the campaign against the guerrillas, reports the New York Times.
But the report suggests the killings were far more systematic and widespread than previouslybelieved. Evidence from the report -- garnered from interviews of Army officials conducted by Human Rights Watch and testimony given to Colombian prosecutors -- shows that the tactics used were largely consistent across units, reports the New York Times. Commanders at the very least should have been suspicious of the killings which occurred in areas where guerrillas did not generally operate and were carried out by troops not typically engaged in combat operations.
Civilians were lured to a place where waiting soldiers would shoot them and plant weapons on their bodies to make them look like guerrilla combatants. Commanders rewarded soldiers with vacation days.
Generals are off the hook, says Human Rights Watch, a charge denied by Colombian authorities. Chief Prosecutor Eduardo Montealegre said more than a dozen generals were under investigation, but so far none have been charged, reports the AP.
Yesterday, Montealegre's office ordered four retired generals, including former army commander Mario Montoya, to provide testimony to prosecutors investigating the killings of civilians. Should the investigations follow due course, they will no doubt ally the army with transitional justice initiatives. That is to say, the investigation will pressure army authorities to recognize if there were institutional incentives for the false positives. But this could also lead to beneficial deals for perpetrators at the peace talks, which would put the army firmly on the side of the peace process, explains Silla Vacía.
This move is unprecedented, not only because it involves so many generals, but because it sends a message that the responsibility of a high officer can be established even without evidence that he ordered a crime. "It is enough to prove that despite the information that they had they did not do what was necessary to punish and avoid the commission of new extrajudicial killings," reports Silla Vacía. Montoya is being cited more for omission than because of something he actively ordered.
The report draws attention to a key issue in the ongoing peace talks between the FARC rebel guerrilla group and the Colombian government: how to punish human rights violations committed by both sides during the conflict.
In 2012, Colombia enacted the Legal Framework for Peace, a constitutional amendment that paves the way for impunity for atrocities by guerrilla groups, paramilitaries, and the military if a peace agreement is reached with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, reports Human Rights Watch. The amendment empowers Congress to limit the scope of prosecutions for atrocities.
Human Rights Watch notes that the ICC is monitoring false positive proceedings in Colombia and could open an investigation if it determines that national authorities are unwilling or unable genuinely to investigate and prosecute them.
The New York Times notes that an important point raised by the original scandal and the report is the matter of U.S. oversight of the human rights track record of the Colombian army, which is the Latin America’s largest recipient of military aid from Washington.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Obama administration to suspend the portion of military aid, around $7 million a year, which is conditioned on Colombia's respect for human rights, reports theAP.
U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), author of the legislation which would permit the suspension of military aide due to human rights violations, told the Washington Post that he was "deeply troubled" by the report and that it should force a new look at U.S. security assistance. "As we provided billions of dollars in aid to the Colombian army over many years, its troops systematically executed civilians," Leahy said.
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