semana/cover story

Combat deaths or murders?

Concern is growing in the government following news that dozens of young men who have disappeared in several cities, were later considered combat deaths. In the picture Elvira Vásquez holds a photo of her son Joaquín Castro, after he was found dead in Ocaña, north eastern Colombia


The worry and shame was seen on the faces of high officials in the halls of the Ministry of Defense last week. On Tuesday, Minister Juan Manuel Santos requested an exhaustive investigation when he learned that 11 young men had gone missing in southern Bogotá during the last year had been reported as combat deaths and buried in a local cemetery in Ocaña, in the Norte de Santander department.

During the week, the situation got worse. There were now 19 questionable combat deaths in this region- not 11- and two new cases of young men who had been reported as disappeared and who later appeared as members of illegal armed groups killed in combat.

Fear that these strange cases are in reality extrajudicial executions undertaken by members of the armed forces is gripping many institutions. The secretary of Government of Bogotá, Clara López, said that what has happened were “disappearances with the purpose of murder- and not of recruitment.” The Fiscal general (public prosecutor) Mario Iguarán, alarmed by the news, asked his human rights unit to initiate an investigation. Since then, there has been growing fear that these were executions rather than combat deaths.

Perhaps that is why Santos himself said on Friday before a group of sub-officials, “I have been told that there are still rogue officers among our armed forces who require dead bodies. I cannot believe that this is true.” He ordered the commander of the Army, General Mario Montoya, to visit every military garrison to make the message clear that the priority is captures and demobilized ex-combatants.

Such worry is not unwarranted. The subject of extrajudicial executions has become the most grave human rights issue for the government, and it still has not found the cause - nor remedy - for the problem. Although judicial investigations will lead to definite conclusions about the most recent cases, in the case of the disappeared men in Bogotá, the hypothesis that they were murdered hasn’t being discarded.

Disappearances for the purpose of murder

The young men from Bogotá were between 17 and 32 years of age, almost all of them unemployed or had been working in construction or as mechanics and, according to the Defensoría del Pueblo (human rights ombudsman office), some of them had a history of drug use. They were, generally speaking, from lower social classes and were living in on the fringes in poor Bogotá neighborhoods of Ciudad Bolívar, Altos de Cazucá and Bosa. Among the 11, the first to disappear was Faír Leonardo Porras, 26, who was working as a construction apprentice, and was reported missing by his family on January 8. Four days later, the CTI (technical investigation group of the Fiscalía) and the Army were removing his body, a supposed combat death. The next to disappear, on January 13, were Elkin Gustavo Verano, 25, and Joaquín Castro, 27, who were inseparable friends and both had been working in a car repair workshop. According to official reports, they died in combat on January 15, that is, two days after their arrival in Ocaña.

In a third case, Julio César Mesa, 24, and Johnatan Orlando Soto, 17, who had been reported missing on January 26, appeared as combat deaths two days later. The same occurred to Julián Oviedo, 19, who worked in construction. Later on August 25th, Diego Alberto Tamayo, 25; Víctor Gómez, 23; and Andrés Palacio, 22, were found dead. The Army had reported that these were combat deaths and were members of emerging gangs, and had said they were found with two pistols and an automatic rifle. All of the young men share some things in common: they were from poor neighborhoods of southern Bogotá and they were reported as being guerrillas or gang members who were killed by the 15th Brigade whose base is in Ocaña. Two of the men, Daniel Pesca and Eduardo Garzón, died in the town of San Vicente de Chucurí.

Legalizing death

The first explanation offered was that the men were recruited in their neighborhoods with promises of work or simply to join armed groups working for drug traffickers in the Norte de Santander department. In fact, the Defensoría del Pueblo had sent out an alert about the presence of paramilitary and guerrilla groups in Ciudad Bolívar and Altos de Cazuca, who were even recruiting minors. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that some of them had told their families that they had received job offers.

What does not hold water of the theory is that, apparently, the men had practically just gotten off of the bus that brought them from Bogotá when they were killed in combat. Usually armed groups train new recruits for at least several weeks and in this case, that does not seem to have happened.

Military sources say that a gang of delinquents called the “Rolos” operates in Ocaña, and extorts money from the local population, and that those men were part of that group. This is something that, even if it were true, does not explain how they died in combat, neither why they all died and no one, for example, was captured. No civilian authority or police source has confirmed the existence of this gang in the area.

The second theory about what happened is much more delicate. It refers to “social cleansing” in which the men- delinquents, drug addicts or just poor- are killed and they are presented later as combatants of illegal armed groups. In criminal terms this is called “legalizing bodies” and it is a practice which has unfortunately been used by some military personnel to show “false results” and thus improve their operational performance, and receive benefits for their military careers.

Curiously, at the beginning of this year, the sergeant Alexánder Rodríguez belonging to the 15th Mobile Brigade which operated in Ocaña, had denounced this practice before the Fiscalía, the Procuraduría (the prosecutor that investigates wrong-doing by government officials) and before his Army superiors. He said soldiers were given five days of rest if they obtained combat “casualties” that could later be presented as guerrillas. The sergeant was expelled from the armed forces even though his denouncements are still in the process of investigation.

But these are not the only hypotheses. The facts are so confusing that the Fiscalía and the Army are studying them case by case. The government believes it is important to establish why so little time passed between the time when the disappearance was first recorded and their deaths. It also wants to know why all of these men left Bogotá and found death in Ocaña. It is a town where this year alone 45 “N.N.” (unidentified bodies) have been buried and whose deaths were attributed to conflicts between drug trafficking gangs. Nevertheless, because of a sophisticated information system to locate disappeared persons that was launched last year that matches nationwide cases of disappeared persons with information from Medicina legal in each city, these bodies have been found.

Not the only case

Most troubling is that the case of young men in Ciudad Bolívar isn’t the only one. The United Nations had already expressed its concern to the government regarding the disappearance and death of young men from Montería (Córdoba), Medellín and in towns such as Toluviejo (Sucre) and Remedios (Antioquia). The UN says that in each case there is a common pattern: “the victims receive promises of work, apparently legal or illegal, which takes them to different towns and departments away from their homes. In the majority of the cases, one or two days after having last been seen alive by their relatives, they are reported as having falling dead in combat.”

This is exactly what happened in Toluviejo, where since last year young men began to disappear just a few days before being reported as killed in combat by troops of the Fuerza Tarea Conjunta (joint command) of Sucre. Shortly afterwards the Fiscalía proved that a man named Eustaquio Barbosa had offered all of them jobs at a farm in Sampués, Córdoba. But they never arrived at their destination. It is troubling that there is proof that the majority of those young men did not die in combat, and not only was Barbosa detained, but also dozens of military personnel are being investigated for those atrocities.

In Sucre the problem doesn’t end there. This year the CTI of the Fiscalía has exhumed the bodies of 27 men who had been reported missing by their families in Sucre and Córdoba.

As if that weren’t enough, in the Risaralda department there are also similar cases. This year alone there have been 18 cases of young men who died in combat whose families had reported them as missing. In addition there are four other young men from the city of Popayán whose bodies appeared in Córdoba under similar circumstances.

Roots of the problem

The country seems to be confronting two serious problems. One is the recruitment of young men who, fooled or not, leave their homes for other regions only to meet their death. Possibly because they are used as fodder by the guerrillas and criminal gangs who, without given them training, expose them to confrontations with the military.

However, in many of these cases, it has been proven there was no fighting and that the young men could have been murdered by rogue members of the armed forces.

Even though among military circles accusations of extrajudicial executions are usually described as political attacks by the guerrillas against the armed forces, the problem is real and is much more serious than believed. The United States government and several national and international NGOs are watching this closely and have found that these killings continue to occur in many regions of the country. What seems more worrying is that if in the past, many military personnel were accused of having links with the paramilitaries, ever since they have been demobilized, the number of accusations of murders committed by uniformed members has increased. It is noteworthy, for example, that of the 558 cases that the human rights unit is investigating, more than half of them occurred in 2007. The brigades with the worst records are from the department of Antioquia, which has 155 cases under investigation and in Meta which has 107. However, says Sandra Castro, director of this unit of the Fiscalía, this could also be because in those departments investigators have undertaken more exhaustive investigations. According to Castro, at this time there are 244 detention orders against military personnel, of which four are colonels, two lieutenant colonels, seven majors and 23 captains, and the majority of the cases are from the Army.
But if one adds up all the cases that there are in the courts and fiscalías of the country, the number is greater. There are 750 investigations for extrajudicial executions, and already 180 military members have been accused and 50 have been found guilty.

In regards to that, General Freddy Padilla de León, the commander of the Armed Forces, told SEMANA that “Minister Santos and I believe that there must be zero tolerance with inappropriate acts committed by the armed forces. We believe in the constitutional principal of the presumption of innocence of our men and maintain the hope that they are not responsible. But if unjustified conduct is proven, we will be absolutely severe.”

In fact, General Padilla recently sent an order to all military garrisons in which he establishes that the demobilizations and captures of guerrilla members are the first indicators of success for the military forces going forward, and not casualties, in an attempt to put the brakes on the erroneous view in some military sectors that “measures results in liters of blood.” The military understands that this type of “casualties outside of combat”, not only seriously hurts the legitimacy of the military institution, but it is also an obstacle to winning the war. In this same sense, the Minister of Defense designed a human rights policy that places an emphasis on respect for the non-combatant civilian population. However, either the message has not been received at all battalions or brigades, or the sanctions and internal controls are failing, and in addition to the errors, a lack of punishment for them persist. Or because there are contradictory messages found at the heart of the military’s top brass.

The government is correct to be concerned about the cases described above. Recruitment of young men is rapidly increasing and has elements of being a humanitarian emergency. Extrajudicial executions, despite efforts to eliminate them, persist, and on occasion it seems as if nobody can stop them. Both problems simultaneously make for an explosive cocktail.