SEMANA/Cover Story | 11/4/2008 12:00:00 AM
The story behind the military shake up
SEMANA reveals details of the military operations that lead to terrifying extrajudicial executions in different regions of Colombia and resulted in the firing of several generals and the resignation of the Army commander. In the picture Flor Ilda Hernandez, mother of Helkin Verano Hernandez, during the exhumation of her son’s body in Ocaña.
That day near the end of January, the authorities only wrote down his personal details. Months later, an official from the coroner’s office called Robert on August 22 and told him that in the town of Ocaña, in the Department of Norte de Santander, they had identified a body that could be his brother.
This was possible thanks to the new national system of victim identification, that cross checks multiple databases to reported disappeared persons.
That same night Robert left for Ocaña. The refrigerators of the morgue with “NN’s”- no-name bodies- were full. But he didn’t see his brother. They told him to look in a mass grave on a farm where they had sent dozens of bodies. He went there and, without officials of the prosecutor general’s office and the coroner’s office, who were on strike at the time, convinced the gravedigger to help him with the exhumation.
On the first of September, after five unbearable days of paperwork, the most difficult thing for Robert was when the gravedigger told him that his brother was the last one he found in the grave in which six bodies were piled up. He had to separate them one by one. They were naked and without body bags. That is how he recognized the faces of other young men who disappeared from Soacha. When they saw the last body, they identified José by his initials that were tattooed on his fingers.
How was it possible that his brother, who disappeared from Soacha on January 26th, turned up dead on the very next day at 10 p.m. more than 400 kilometers from home? Worse still, how could it be that his brother who was working as a construction worker in Soacha, would appear as a guerilla killed in combat with the Army?
Robert returned to Bogotá and told other family members of the other disappeared young men he had seen in the mass grave, about his discovery. The news spread like lightning. Almost immediately, it reached the media who penned the deaths of 11 young men as the scandal of the “falsos positivos”, or false combatant deaths. It took longer for those young men to leave Soacha than it did for them to be killed in Ocaña.
Accusations of extrajudicial executions are not new. But the evidence collected by Robert and by the authorities was so serious that Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos did not hesitate to act. First he said: “I am told that there are renegades in the public forces that are demanding dead bodies as military results,” he said. He later named a special commission to investigate what had occurred, as well as in the case of another six dead who could be extrajudicial executions from the 14th Brigade of the Magdalena Medio region. Curiously, this is a different region than Ocaña.
The commission was lead by an active general, Carlos Arturo Suárez, who gave confidence to those in uniform. He was accompanied by other three military officials who had specific duties and the only civilian invited to participate was Carlos Franco, who because of his experience and work in the Vice Presidency, has gained the respect of human rights organizations.
Their task was not to investigate whether or not the 11 young men had been killed in combat or not, but rather look at which procedure was followed by military officials implicated in the operations. That is, what type of intelligence analysis they undertook, how they designed the operational plans, and what type of controls their superiors applied afterwards. In other words, their purpose was not to find crimes committed, but rather administrative failures.
The commission had privileged access to all the secret archives of the units, to reports of confidential expenses and they visited each of the sites where every young man from Soacha died and made a replica of the operation. The work was so detailed and extensive that the mission, which was to last for 15 days, had to be extended for one additional week.
They were stunned at what they found: a disorder that bordered on criminal action. “An undisciplined worker in any enterprise is a burden, but in the military one it is a risk for the lives of others”, explained a source close to the investigation. Although they have kept the results well guarded, SEMANA has had access to some of the findings.
In the majority of the cases, a modus operandi was repeated that did not comply with basic military doctrine. First, there was no type of previous intelligence before leaving for the operation, or, if there was, it was a vague report, without analysis. Secondly, they did not have an operation plan either, that is, who directed the group, what was the strategy, etc. In some cases they did not notify their commanders. Lastly, they made the operations at night. In one report they found one or two suspicious shadows that moved. They yelled “stop,” the “shadow” fired a pistol and they responded with a burst of gunfire.
There was no subsequent follow up by the superior officers. For example, in the case of Ocaña there are 111 combat deaths during the last year, many of them were buried as “NN” or “no-names”.
Those procedures are at the center of a war. In a conflict such as the Colombian one, the military are trained to follow military doctrine stringently. “It is not about going to the street to see if there is someone on the margins of society and turn him into a casualty. The casualty has to be a product of a military operation that is fully justified and planned,” says another military source.
In addition to the serious procedural failures, they also discovered an expense report of excessive ammunition. For example, in a “combat” in which one of the Soacha men died, in his body there were three bullet impacts while the soldiers’ report registered the use of more than 1,000 bullets.
The commission ended its work on Friday, October 24th and on the following Monday, they presented the results to President Álvaro Uribe. The president, who weeks before had expressed his skepticism that there were extrajudicial executions, began to understand the macabre modus operandi. From the first moment Uribe showed himself ready to make all the necessary decisions and with a certain voice of indignation said, “I put on thee pressure, but I do not pressure anyone to undertake criminal acts.”
The minister of defense and the commander of the military forces, General Freddy Padilla de León were present at the meeting, although the absence of the commander of the Army, General Mario Montoya was noticeable (Note: Montoya resigned Tuesday November 4). Later in the evening, Uribe met privately with Santos and Padilla. The legitimacy of the Army was at great risk: on the one hand, if it ignored what was happening, it would set back its institutional image for years, or if it gave a sharp turn in its course, it would become the Army that not only humbled the FARC, but also as an institution that gave a definitive push of the security forces in the area of human rights.
They did not waiver in making drastic decisions. On Wednesday October 29 at 7:15 a.m., they announced their decision at an unusual press conference: the retirement of 27 military officials, among them three generals, four colonels and seven lieutenant colonels. In addition to these were the three colonels who General Montoya had decided to retire for the same reasons four days before on his own accord.
Without a doubt it was an exemplary measure to include two division commanders and one brigade commander. This sent a more forceful message than any human rights manual or course to the nearly 250,000 soldiers in the country: the government would not tolerate or turn a blind eye to non-combat deaths.
The three retired generals- José Joaquín Cortés, Paulino Colorado and Roberto Pico- were not discharged necessarily for being directly implicated, but rather for not having avoided, nor detected, nor corrected such evident failures of their men. In the case of General Pico, commander of the seventh division and a general trained under the tutelage of General Montoya, it is noteworthy that the five brigades under his charge (4, 11, 14, 17 and the mobile 11) have been actors in the scandals of the supposed extrajudicial executions.
Uribe went further than the administrative failures that the military incurred. “These findings show that in some instances in the Army there has been negligence, a lack of care with the procedures that must be observed. This is the result of complicity between criminals and Army members. In some regions these crimes are for the purpose of assassinating innocent people to give the impression that they are facing criminals, when the real criminals are those associated with Army members to commit those crimes, to disorientate and to preserve intact the realm of action of their criminal activity”.
Those declarations meant a change of 180 degrees in what Uribe had sustained a year before at the inauguration of extraordinary sessions of the Inter- American Court of Human Rights, which for the first time took place in Colombia. Then he said, “In Colombia there are no extrajudicial executions, as certain government critics have said, because, since 1910 the country has eliminated the death penalty”. He attributed the accusations to a strategy against the Army. “When anti-guerrilla efforts advance, any combat death is labeled as an extrajudicial execution”.
All over the country
What is the true dimension of the phenomenon of extrajudicial executions? The Soacha case has become the symbol of the scandal, but it is not the only one. The prosecutor general’s office is investigating 657 cases that involve 688 members of the military and of these 43 have been punished and 12 others are on trial. In addition, the solicitor general’s office, is investigating 2,742 Army members for alleged extrajudicial executions, a third of whom are being investigated for acts committed in 2007.
After Soacha, all types of cases are beginning to appear. From the shoe shiner that was taken from the Parque Centenario in Bucaramanga in August and two days later died “in combat” in Catatumbo, to the two candy sellers from the Parque de Berrío in Medellín, who left with someone who offered them work at a farm and appeared 12 days later as combatant deaths in San Roque (Antioquia). Something similar had occurred two years before to another three young men who were in the Parque de Bolívar de Medellín. A man who they called “El Gato” invited them to get into a taxi to look for work, and the next day they appeared dead in combat in Montebello, also in the department of Antioquia. They applied the same procedure to three men who worked in the market of Sincelejo in 2005. At 2 p.m. on December 16th a taxi arrived with two persons seeking workers which they would pay well. They got in the taxi and the next day they became three more casualties of the Army in El Roble, in the department of Sucre.
Not all of the supposed extrajudicial executions are the same. There are four different types of cases. The first are the cases that happen when they try to conceal the crime. That is, there wasn’t the intention to assassinate an innocent person, but when it occurred, the military wouldn’t admit the error, but rather present them as a combatant guerillas. That is the case of Cajamarca.
The second is that of social cleansing. In order to increase the number of casualties, they decide to kill people who are highly vulnerable and about whom, they suppose, nobody will ever ask about. They won’t be missed. The prosecutor general’s office has many examples, including so called mentally ill individuals who wander urban centers, drug addicts, and young men with criminal records.
The third is a paramilitary tactic. The victims are people who are suspected of having guerrilla links, but because of lack of proof, they cannot be captured. So they decide to kill them simulating combat.
The fourth case is that of Soacha. It is the most recent and the most worrying because it implies a macabre mafia connection. The prosecutor general’s office has identified another eight cases with a similar modus operandi, such as the 11 young men of Toluviejo in the Sucre department who appeared dead in Chinú (Córdoba), the three from Barranquilla who appeared in Sahagún (Córdoba) and the three from Chinchiná (Caldas).
In those cases there is a recruiter who is familiar with the areas where the young men live, but who has links with illegal criminal gangs in other parts of the country. In Bogotá, they have identified 19 recruiters, according to an investigator of the Soacha case, to whom they pay an average of $300,000 COP (US $140) for every young man. These recruiters are known to young men in poorer neighborhoods and they offer them work, not always legal but relatively lucrative, which ends up being a lie. They take them to the site and a few days later they appear as combat deaths.
The hypothesis is that the illegal criminal gangs pay the expenses of these operations and their purpose is to help the military. After a fictitious combat, the young man ends up being a casualty that adds points to the resume of the military garrison. As payment, the military leave the criminals alone. Other types of business occur on the side: the ammunition that is registered as used up in combat may end up in the hands of the mafia and the expenses reserved for intelligence use could end up in the hands of a civilian front-man of a corrupt military official.
Why are these extrajudicial executions taking place? Does it have any relation with the demobilization of the paramilitaries? That theory cannot be discarded. Since 2003 there has been a noteworthy increase in the number of cases investigated by the prosecutor general’s office as well as the solicitor general’s office. The number of accusations was so worrying that in 2004 Michael Frühling, the then representative of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the UN in Colombia, met with Uribe at the Casa de Nariño palace and informed him. In 2006 nearly 30 cases of extrajudicial killings were revealed in Antioquia. But everything seemed to be an affair involving misguided mid or low level officers.
It is important to remember that this is an army that in less than four years grew from 181,000 men to 241,000 and there was not enough time to train all the officers needed. Also the body count philosophy, which can be so harmful, has still not been eradicated from the Army. In some garrisons they maintain perverse incentives such as giving days off for casualties. Other incentives such as rewards, though given to civilians, also encourage corruption of the military.
Without a doubt, the ever weakening of the guerrillas, has left a lot of men with their arms crossed who have not been given precise instructions on what to do to secure the zones in which they have defeated the enemy. The war that the 13th brigade is pursuing in Cundinamarca, where a few years ago in Operation Libertad 1 it dislodged the FARC, is not the same as the role that the Omega Task Forces conducting in fighting the strongest guerrilla group along the Duda river.
For now, the military continues trying to digest what has happened. The commander of the military forces says that now they will strengthen inspections in each of their garrisons. The prosecutor general’s office and the solicitor general’s office continue at full steam with the investigation of the case of the young men of Soacha to determine criminal responsibility.
Robert Jairo, undoubtedly, had no idea that he was uncovering a real Pandora’s box at the heart of the military.