Security | 1/28/2009 12:00:00 AM
The secret dossier of the false positives scandal
SEMANA reveals the report that led to the dismissal of 27 Colombian Army officials because of the false positives scandal – a report that had been kept secret since October. The problem is deeper than what is believed., 99591
The first case, one which investigators describe in greater detail, is that of Aycardo Antonio Ortiz, 67, a farmer who lived in a humble wooden house in a neighborhood of Yondó, Antioquia. On July 8th of last year, troops from the Calibío Battalion, of the 14th Brigade, reported him as a guerrilla combat death. According to the Army, he had a 38-calibre revolver, a hand grenade, a radio, two meters of fuse, and camouflage pants. Those are elements that appear in almost all of the false positives cases. Some cynically call those items the “legalization kit.”
The version given by the then commander of the battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Wilson Ramírez Cedeño, is that a demobilized person had given them the information that Ortiz was a member of the FARC, where he used the alias “Murciélago” (bat) and that when they attempted to surround his house they were attacked from inside with gunfire, which is why the soldiers responded. They installed a machine gun and initiated combat in which the suspected guerrilla died. Ramírez additionally said that in the area they had found a guerrilla camp and a minefield.
The commission, after reviewing documents and technical evidence obtained on the ground, was able to prove that the victim was a known farmer from the area, that the demobilized man mentioned by the military never existed, that the operation order was signed the same day in which the murder took place- possibly after its occurrence- and that there never were intelligence reports that spoke about “Murciélago.” Furthermore, there never was machine gun fire on the house, nor minefields, nor guerrilla camps.
Ortiz’ case shows to what point of degradation the military could have sunk because the victim’s son was a soldier who had been a part of the very battalion that killed his father and paradoxically, had information of several “legalizations” of assassinated persons who were presented as combat casualties. The solider told an international human rights organization how the false positives system worked in that unit and became one of the key witnesses for the Fiscalía, the prosecutor general’s office, in the investigation.
In addition to the Ortiz case, there are five other cases, in the same area, attributed to the same battalion. A demobilized man who lives in Yondó and who acted as an informant for the Army also told investigators how Captain Javier Alarcón, who was head of intelligence of this battalion, got a 38 mm revolver in order to “legalize” the deaths of two young men who appeared dead near a lagoon.
Another scandalous episode involves the Bomboná Batallion,that operates in the Magdalena Medio region of the Antioquia department. That is about the chilling testimony of a young informant of that battalion in Puerto Berrio, who says that in January 2008, the soldier Amílkar Hernández requested that they look for a friend and they went on a mission in the municipality of Vegachí. The young man went to the home of his friend Johny Alexander Barbosa, who everyone called the “Tortuga,” (“Tortoise”) because he was slow and somewhat lazy. He really did not want to leave his house but at the end accepted the invitation and everyone went on motorcycles to Vegachi. Hernández and the young informant slept that night in the battalion, but “Tortuga” never returned. According to the informant, who is now also a witness for legal authorities, Hernández brought street people from Medellin to assassinate them and make them appear as combat casualties.
The investigatory commission verified 46 suspicious operations from that battalion that occurred in the last two years. In each of those cases, there were irregularities like the absence of intelligence outlining the operation’s objective. It is not clear who ordered the task. But the most revealing aspect is that there is a pattern of behavior. In six identical episodes, an N.N. (“No-Name”) combat death is reported from whom a revolver or pistol was seized, while the soldiers who made the casualty are said to have spent 650 bullets, eight hand grenades and four mortar grenades. Military investigators question the existence of those combats and believe that there are indications that they were used as a pretext to legalize the ammunition that some soldiers steal and resell on the black market to guerrillas and criminal gangs.
It was not just the heads of those battalions who were dismissed. Colonel Barrera, commander of the XIV Brigade, was also dismissed because the lack of control over the military units of this brigade were such that, although they were repeated cases, an investigation of what happened never occurred. When the soldiers killed Ortiz, the entire town rebelled against the Army in an act that was heard about in the whole region. But Barrera did not investigate the episode.
The carelessness also cost the job of General Roberto Pico Hernández, head of the VII Division, who was Barrera’s immediate superior. In war, administrative errors or lack of supervision become serious risks for human lives.
A similar dismissal happened to General José Joaquín Cortés who commanded the Second Division which included the 30th Brigade under the command of General Paulino Coronado and the 15th Mobile Brigade, under the charge of Colonel Rubén Darío Castro, which operated in the area of Ocaña. That is precisely where 11 young men who had disappeared from the city of Soacha on the outskirts of Bogotá appeared as combat casualties, sparking the investigation. Most seriously is that the division did not inspect even once the brigades during the last two years, despite the fact that there were insistent accusations about murders outside of combat in each of them.
The commission examined the documents that supported the operations in which the 11 young men died. Despite the fact that almost all of them were reported as members of criminal gangs, the investigators were surprised to find that the intelligence sections of these brigades did not have information about these gangs, nor their structures- only generic facts. The officials could not give the name nor alias of any member of those gangs, nor their location, nor modus operandi. It is inexplicable that operations were planned without having a clear objective. The soldiers left without knowing where they were going, against whom they would fight, when the operation would be nor for what purpose, and nevertheless, they returned with N.N. deaths that swelled operational results that would later be praised by their superiors.
In fact, the Fiscalía has two military officials as protected witnesses who have told in detail how things worked in Ocaña (Eastern Colombia). One of them explains that a group of special soldiers who always had money. They were never sent to patrol the most difficult jungle areas and they were trusted by some officers of the XV Mobile Brigade. According to those witnesses, that group was charged with planning the false positives, something that became common in that garrison. After the dismissal of the military officials, there were many types of attempts to cover up irregularities in Ocaña.
In the Santander Battalion, assigned to the 30th Brigade, the Contraloría, a state investigative body that looks into government accounts, found that the books where reserved expenses were registered, used in order to pay informants and rewards had been altered. Next week a complete report where new concrete finds on irregularities of this type will be released, which will further complicate the situation of the dismissed military officers. So serious would the situation be for the 15th Mobile Brigade of this unit, that the high military command decided to dissolve it, send the soldiers to other regions and set up a new mobile brigade, the 23rd, that will be charged with regaining the confidence of the population in the armed forces in that battered area.
It should be clarified that the commission of the Ministry of Defense did not undertake a criminal investigation. This was done by an ad-hoc group, led by General Carlos Arturo Suárez, in order to find out what really occurred. What they found is that the carelessness and the negligence of many commanders facilitated the task for the criminals. Although many retired and active officials have tried to convince Uribe that he was hasty in dismissing the 27 military officers, and they have made him doubt that perhaps he committed an injustice with many of the so-called heroes of the homeland, the report shows deeper problems than just the simple omission of a handful of officers.
In addition to the crimes against humanity that eventually were able to be committed, there is evident corruption that could have been committed at many levels. For example, in the report it is clear that there is an internal open faucet explaining the loss of ammunition. It is obvious that through this channel the black market is being fed that ironically benefits armed groups that the Army is fighting.
Also the report shows that the rush for results has made high officers uninterested in finding out how the casualties were obtained. There was little control and the accusations about execution were always rejected with the argument that these accusations were “legal” tactics of the guerillas against the armed forces. A good example of this negligence is the treatment that Sergeant Alexánder Rodríguez received, who a year ago made an accusation before justice on murders that were being committed in the XV Mobile Brigade, of which he was a part. Three days after he made his accusation, the then commander of the Army, General Mario Montoya, dismissed the soldier while the commander of that brigade Colonel Santiago Herrera was named Montoya’s personal assistant. In less than a year, Montoya himself had to dismiss his trusted man because of the case of the young men from Soacha. Perhaps if at that time he had listened to Sgt. Rodríguez, many lives could have been saved.
What is serious is that although the report centers on the cases previously described, the problem exists in many more brigades. Last week ten officials were dismissed from the La Popa Battalion of Valledupar (Northern Colombia), where a new mission of General Suarez showed a similar outlook. The decision of Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and of General Freddy Padilla de León is to get to the bottom of the problem and put an end to this loathsome practice. They are now putting into place corrective measures. In 2008 there were 40 false positive accusations. That is a figure that is much smaller than from previous years, but too high for a country that values being a democracy and state of law.
Many military officers do not approve of this trend to dismiss those implicated before the Fiscalía proves their criminal responsibility and even more so doing it in public. Last December, retiring officers warned the president that the Army was demoralized and even that its members were not fighting out of fear of ending up in prison. That is not so true. According to Army sources, operations and casualties have decreased, but this is because the FARC is becoming weaker and also due to changes of command in almost all the units.
But in addition to the administrative problems and the lack of control, there are other issues that deserve a review by the armed forces. Many dismissed military officers were considered to be some of the best in the Army. That poses moral questions. Many of those men have blurred the borders between good and evil. Something that appears to occur in irregular and prolonged conflicts, where the risk of degrading oneself as a human being is constant.
In addition, there is a big question about the consolidation of the policy of democratic security. It is telling that almost all of the false positives cases have been in areas where there practically is no guerrilla presence. Six years ago armed groups were all over the country. Today a big portion of the territory is free from them. The very military officials say that 19 FARC fronts have disappeared and that the end of the end is near. Neither is there clarity about the magnitude of the criminal groups. But for the battalions who are in areas practically liberated, they continue to measure success by combat. Perhaps that is why many have had the macabre idea of creating those false positives. It is worth asking, like the academic José Fernando Isaza did in his column in the El Espectador newspaper, if it is time, in many areas, to strengthen the Police rather than the Army.
From the report two dilemmas that the armed forces must immediately resolve have also emerged. Those are: (1) how to combine a conflict strategy with that a post-conflict strategy in zones of the country already mostly freed from the guerrillas and paramilitaries and (2) how to build a human rights ethic without immobilizing the war initiative.
In any case, the document makes it clear that the government by its dismissal of military officers made a decision in keeping with the seriousness of the facts. Until now, in the military ranks, they had thought that the administrative failures were just errors of formality, but the evidence shows that it could become an Achilles heel in order to win the war because it strikes against the spirit of the state’s legitimacy. This fact is irrespective of the determination of the Fiscalía who in the next few days will decide which of those officials acted as criminals.