Contributing columnist | 1/9/2009 12:00:00 AM
"Body count mentalities". Colombia’s "False Positives" Scandal, Declassified
Recently, the Colombian and U.S. media have been fixated on the scandal over “false positives”—the extrajudicial killing by the Colombian Army of civilians who are subsequently presented as guerrilla casualties to inflate the combat “body count.”
Amidst these lingering questions, a new collection of declassified U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence documents published today by the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., describe the “body count syndrome” that has been one of the guiding principles of Colombian military behavior in Colombia for years, leading to human rights abuses—such as false positives—and encouraging collaboration with illegal paramilitary groups. As such, the documents raise important questions about the historical and legal responsibilities the Army has to come clean about what appears to be a longstanding, institutional incentive to commit murder.
The earliest record in the Archive’s collection referring specifically to the phenomenon dates back to 1990. That document, a cable approved by U.S. Ambassador Thomas McNamara, reported a disturbing increase in abuses attributed to the Colombian Army. In one case, McNamara disputed the military’s claim that it had killed nine guerrillas in El Ramal, Santander, on June 7 of that year. "The investigation by Instruccion Criminal and the Procuraduria strongly suggests … that the nine were executed by the Army and then dressed in military fatigues. A military judge who arrived on the scene apparently realized that there were no bullet holes in the military uniforms to match the wounds in the victims’ bodies…”
At the same time, the Embassy was also beginning to see a connection between the Colombian security forces and the country’s burgeoning paramilitary groups. Many of the Army’s recent abuses had “come in the course of operations by armed para-military groups in which Army officers and enlisted men have participated,” according to the declassified cable.
Similar tendencies were highlighted four years later in a cable cleared by U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette. He found that “body count mentalities” persisted among Colombian Army officers seeking promotions. The Embassy’s Defense Attaché Office (DAO) had reported that, “Field officers who cannot show track records of aggressive anti-guerrilla activity (wherein the majority of the military’s human rights abuses occur) disadvantage themselves at promotion time.” Moreover, the claim by Minister of Defense Fernando Botero that there was “a growing awareness that committing human rights abuses will block an officer’s path to promotion” reflected “wishful thinking,” according to the DAO.
A CIA intelligence report, also from 1994, went even further, finding that the Colombian security forces continued to “employ death squad tactics in their counterinsurgency campaign.” The document, a review of President César Gaviria’s anti-guerrilla policy, noted that the Colombian military had “a history of assassinating leftwing civilians in guerrilla areas, cooperating with narcotics-related paramilitary groups in attacks against suspected guerrilla sympathizers, and killing captured combatants.” Traditionally, the Army had “not taken guerrilla prisoners,” according to report, and the military had “treated Gaviria’s new human rights guidelines as pro forma.”
Just over ten years ago, another U.S. intelligence report, previously published by the National Security Archive, and based on a conversation with a Colombian Army colonel, suggested that the steep rise in paramilitarism during that era was related to a “body count syndrome” in the Colombian Army. "This mindset tends to fuel human rights abuses by well-meaning soldiers trying to get their quota to impress superiors. It could also lead to a cavalier, or at least passive, approach when it comes to allowing the paramilitaries to serve as proxies for the COLAR [Colombian Army] in contributing to the guerrilla body count".
The unidentified officer was also “intimately familiar” with General Rito Alejo Del Río Rojas, “about whom he had [few] nice things to say.” Military cooperation with paramilitaries “had been occurring for a number of years,” he said, but “had gotten much worse under Del Río.” Two other commanders, Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora and Gen. Harold Bedoya Pizarro were among those “who looked the other way” with respect to military-paramilitary collusion, the colonel said, referring to “the time frame when Mora was a BG [brigadier general] commanding the large and critical 4th Brigade in Medellín … back in 1994-95.”
The 4th Brigade, a traditional launching point for officers seeking to move up the military chain-of-command, has long been accused of collusion with local paramilitary groups. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2007 on a classified CIA report linking Gen. Montoya to joint military-paramilitary operations in Medellín while he served as brigade commander in 2002. His replacement as Army commander, General Oscar Gonzalez, also commanded the 4th Brigade, as well as other units in the conflictive area around Medellín.
In no case were the 4th Brigade’s paramilitary ties more evident than in a February 2000 false positives operation in which both the ACCU paramilitaries and the Colombian Army almost simultaneously claimed credit for having killed two long-demobilized guerrillas near Medellín. A declassified U.S. Embassy cable on the matter, signed by Ambassador Curtis Kamman, reported the case with shocked disbelief. "The ACCU (which witnesses say kidnapped the two) claims its forces executed them, while the Army’s Fourth Brigade (which released the bodies the next day) presented the dead as ELN guerrillas killed in combat with the Army. After these competing claims sparked localized fear and confusion, armed men stole the cadavers from the morgue… "
Kamman called the killings “a clear case of Army-paramilitary complicity” that would “further increase the already high-level of international NGO interest in the issue of 4th Brigade ties to paramilitaries.” The ambassador added that it was “difficult to conclude anything other than that the paramilitary and Army members simply failed to get their stories straight in advance.”
So while Colombian Army officials scramble to get their “stories straight” in response to the recent scandal, it seems worth noting that “body counts” and “false positives” have an institutional history in the Colombian armed forces going back many years. And while recent steps to cleanse the Army’s ranks of officials associated with the policy are welcome, they are clearly not enough. What are the facts? Who is responsible? How long has this been happening? Who are the victims? And where are the bodies buried?
Declassified U.S. documents can provide some clues, but it seems unlikely that we will learn the answers to these questions unless the Colombian Army declassifies and releases its full report on the “false positives” scandal. Until then, it seems, secrecy and impunity will continue to prevail over transparency and justice in Colombia.
To read the declassified U.S. documents, click here to go to the National Security Archive.