In August of 2008, Carmenza Gomez’s 23-year-old son left home with two friends after they were promised jobs on the coast. Two days later all three were dead. The Colombian army said Victor Fernando Gomez and his companions were guerrilla soldiers who’d been gunned down in combat.
Seven years later, Gomez’s case is one of thousands of suspected “false positives” — civilians murdered by the military and passed off as enemy combatants in order to inflate the body count.
While the government is investigating at least 3,000 cases, and has handed down more than 800 convictions, the military’s top brass has, thus far, evaded responsibility, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Wednesday.
“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, Americas director of 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.”
Relying on attorney general data, Human Rights Watch pinpoints four such cases:
Gen. Mario Montoya, the army’s top commander from 2006-08; Gen. Oscar González Peña, the army’s top commander from 2008-10; and Gen. Juan Pablo Rodríguez Barragán, Colombia’s top military official, were all commanders of the 4th Brigade at a time when it allegedly committed almost 200 false positive killings. In addition, Gen. Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar, the army’s top commander, headed the 9th Brigade during a period where it allegedly committed 48 extrajudicial killings.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who was minister of defense from 2006-09, said Wednesday that current members of the high command were not being investigated and that the report was unjustified.
“Rest assured, generals,” Santos said at a military ceremony, “this president will defend the legitimacy of Colombia’s armed forces until the day they put me in my grave.”
Even so, on Tuesday, just hours before the report’s release, the attorney general’s office reportedly ordered four generals, including Montoya, to testify about false positive cases.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who pushed legislation that attached human rights conditions to U.S. military aid to Colombia, said he was “deeply troubled by the report.”
“It shows that as we provided billions of dollars in aid to the Colombian army over many years, its troops systematically executed civilians,” he said in a statement. “Worse yet, the officers who were in charge have escaped justice, and some remain in senior positions of authority, without the United States or the Colombian government addressing the problem.”
Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas took office this week, and his office said it had no immediate plans to respond to the report.
The false positive phenomenon was most prevalent from 2002 to ’08 when troops were being pressured to show results in the fight against the country’s guerrillas. According to the report, units that reported combat kills were rewarded with bonuses, time off and promotions. Those who didn’t provide enemy corpses were sometimes demoted and punished.
Soldiers who have confessed to the killings have said they were pressured by their commanders and some said they faced expulsion if they failed to meet quotas.
Edgar Iván Flórez Maestre, a former lieutenant in the 14th Brigade, recalled a meeting in 2009 when a colonel ordered each company commander to produce one dead enemy per month and for the “second section” to produce three per month.
“Right now the war is measured in liters of blood,” Flórez told the Inspector-General’s Office, according to the Human Rights Watch report. “The commander who does not have results of deaths each month will be sanctioned.”
In another case, a soldier in the 11th Brigade said his unit murdered his own brother in April 2007 because the soldiers wanted days off to celebrate Mother’s Day.
The system of perverse incentives created a macabre underground economy.
Gomez, who has become an activist after her son’s death, said that court testimony found that the “recruiter” who delivered her son to his executioners was paid 1.2 million pesos per victim, or about $600. More than a dozen young men from her neighborhood — a sprawling Bogotá suburb called Soacha — became victims of the tactic.
“They were sold and killed like they were animals,” she said.
After the media picked up on the scandal in 2008, the practice, for the most part, ceased. Santos, who was defense chief under Alvaro Uribe, often takes credit for ending the false-positive scourge and firing dozens of military officials.
In a statement, Sen. Leahy called on Santos to “do what is necessary to deliver justice and restore credibility to the Colombian military.”
He also suggested that continued U.S. military support could be contingent on reform.
“We have supported the Colombian military because the country has been threatened by an insurgency,” he said. “But unless Colombia’s military leaders are people of integrity, it will be difficult to continue to support an institution that engaged, with impunity, in a pattern of gross violations of human rights.”
The news comes as Colombia is trying to hammer out a peace deal with the nation’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, that might help end the 50-year civil conflict.
Part of those conversations revolve around transitional justice — a system of alternative penalties for guerrilla war crimes. It’s likely, however, that any concessions made to rebel leaders will also extend to the military top command.
In that sense, Wednesday’s report is a reminder of the types of crimes that might go unpunished if transitional justice is too lenient, Vivanco said.
“I think this report is an effort to give a reality check — to paint an accurate picture of the dramatic atrocities that were committed with full impunity, at least until now,” he said.
The false positive phenomenon “is unprecedented in the region and the rest of the world,” Vivanco added. “We are not aware of some similar phenomenon — members of the armed forces killing civilians to inflate the body count.”
While the military has often portrayed the crisis as an isolated issue of rogue units, the data suggests the practice was widespread and systemic, the report finds.
The attorney general’s office is pursuing thousands of these cases, but the office is understaffed and facing uncooperative military officials, Vivanco said. In some cases, military whistle-blowers faced reprisals.
On Oct. 17, 2014, for example, Nixón de Jesús Cárcamo, who had confessed to killings and was providing information to prosecutors about his superiors, was murdered in the 11th Brigade military detention center, the report found.
Gomez blames the military for two deaths in her family. After the army killed Victor Fernando, his older brother, John, began trying to get answers, she said. After receiving death threats and warnings to drop the issue, he was murdered in 2009. His case has never been resolved but she doesn’t think it’s a coincidence.
“All I ask is for the government to help us convict the military officials who were responsible,” she said. “The victims were young and innocent — and with dreams like any other young person.”