SEMANA/Human Rights | 12/17/2008 12:00:00 AM
The Colombian Army’s deadly sins
This year the “false positives” scandal was uncovered. Colombia was shaken to see by how far the war could degrade. The Army must now show that it can also win the battle for legitimacy.
For four years, international organizations have warned about the staggering increase in accusations of peasants and poor families in large cities who claimed that their sons, who were neither guerrillas nor gang members, appeared dead and were presented as guerrilla combat deaths by the military. The government, however, chose to wait for the judicial authorities to act, treating each case as an isolated one, while the Ministry of Defense produced directives about the obligation of respecting human rights. But patience wore out in October and the government gave a clear message by stunningly dismissing 27 military officials, three of whom were generals considered up until that time to be true field marshals.
The trigger for the shake-up was the shocking case of 11 young men who disappeared from the outskirts of Bogotá and ended up, from one day to the next, in a mass grave in the town of Ocaña (Norte de Santander, in the East of the country) after the Army reported them as combat deaths. An internal investigation by the Ministry of Defense produced evidence that these were planned crimes by low-level military officials with the objective of presenting false operational results in exchange for vacation time and promotions. They were crimes that went undetected by superiors out of negligence. The crisis even brought down the Commander of the Army, Mario Montoya, who resigned after being implicated by many as someone who had pressured his men to increase the number of combat deaths.
The news stunned the country. The idea that soldiers whose mission was to defend the country and democracy were using young men who had nothing to do with the armed conflict in order to gain credit showed a disturbing level of degradation. That is why the message of the historic shake-up is singular and clear: there is only one way to win the war and that is through legitimacy.
If it is true that the armed forces improved their ability to fight against the FARC, these extrajudicial executions have become a true Achilles’ heel as the government tries to shore up its war effort. Especially because there have been so many deaths, which seem like a systematic phenomenon, requiring a detailed analysis about just how deeply rooted these crimes are at military garrisons.
The Fiscalía, the prosecutor general’s office, is investigating 657 cases that involve 688 military personnel, of which 43 have been prosecuted and there are another 12 cases in trial. The Procuraduría, the solicitor general’s office, is investigating 2,742 members of the Army for presumed extrajudicial executions, a third of those cases coming from acts that took place in 2007.
The stain of human rights violations is neither small nor new. Episodes such as that of San José de Apartadó, in which military officials participated in the massacre of two families, including their babies, or the Jamundí massacre, where several soldiers attacked a police patrol in order to benefit a drug trafficker, have exposed the depth of the problem.
The government’s message of punishing criminals with public scorn adds to what the justice branch has achieved this year. It has brought to light some of the worst human rights violations committed in the past, like the disappearances in the 1985 Palace of Justice tragedy, for which two generals and a coronel have been arrested, and the suspected links of military officials with paramilitary groups, such as in the case of retired general Rito Alejo del Río.
Despite the forcefulness of these messages, there is still a long road ahead with regards to human rights. In war, even as worthy causes are defended, the risk of degradation happens everyday. Although it may be painful for the military to recognize its errors, they will have to go down that path, if they want not only to win the war, but to also strengthen democracy.