At a public forum in the southern Colombian state of Huila this past January, Mothers told the stories of their sons who were murdered by the Colombian Army seven years prior. Amparo Pelaez’s son had recently finished his military service and worked unloading potatoes when he and a friend went to market and did not come back. The next day he was claimed by the army as a “guerrilla killed in combat.”
Transito Sarria spoke of her 28-year-old son Joselo, who worked as a driver and one morning promised to bring her breakfast at her job, but never arrived. A man called, making fun of her, and told her to check the morgue, where indeed she found her son’s body. The army said on the radio that they had killed a criminal.
Andrés Duarte returned to the town of Gigante, Huila with his mother one afternoon in April 2007. He then went out to play pool, never to return. The following day, Lt. Col. Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar claimed Duarte was another “guerrilla killed in combat,” along with four others.
All of these killings were known as “false positives”: homicides by soldiers of civilians claimed to be guerrillas or criminals and touted as operational successes by the military. They are among the 5,763 such homicides between 2000 and 2010 investigated by the Colombian Attorney General’s office or documented by human rights organizations. For the last several years, I have studied the context for this violence, using data on extrajudicial executions and U.S. military assistance compiled by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the Colombian Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos. Although the number of such “false positives” has diminished considerably as a result of local, national, and international outcry, such killings continue to be important for several reasons.
First, that so many killings occurred during a period of massive U.S. assistance begs the question of what impact U.S. military aid had on the Colombian Army’s respect for human rights. The United States spent $5.7 billion on military and police assistance to Colombia from 2000 to 2010. From 2002 through 2008, more Colombians are recorded as receiving U.S. military and police training than any other country—approximately one in every seven foreign soldiers or police receiving U.S. training during that period was Colombian.
Pentagon and State Department officials laud Colombia’s performance, citing it as an “exporter of security” and funding Colombian training for other countries’ police forces. U.S. military and police assistance around the world has grown five-fold since 2001, to $25 billion in 2012, but there is no formal evaluation of the human rights outcomes of that assistance anywhere. The Colombian case is critical to understanding those outcomes.
Second, Army officers who oversaw the “false positive” crimes continue to be promoted. Jaime Lasprilla oversaw a pattern of extrajudicial killings while he was commander of the Army’s Ninth Brigade in Huila between 2006 and 2007, and in February, now a major general, he was appointed to command the Colombian Army.
Third, justice for military abuses is a thorny issue in the negotiations in Havana between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end the 50-year-old armed conflict. FARC leaders demand a settlement in which they do not go to prison, and Army leaders expect parity.
Finally, there has been little justice served for most of these crimes. In 2013, only 13% of over 5,763 civilian killings by the Colombian armed forces had reached a trial or sentencing—an improvement as compared to the mere 2% of cases that reached a trial or sentencing in 2009. Family members often seek vindication that their loved ones were not criminals, as much as formal sentencing of those responsible for the deaths.
Upheaval in the military leadership on February 18 of this year, in which one military commander who oversaw many “false positive” killings was replaced with another, highlights the persistent institutionalization of impunity for human rights abuses in Colombia. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos fired Armed Forces Chief Leonardo Barrero for telling an officer who was detained and under investigation for extrajudicial killings to “get together and work up a mafia” to go after human rights prosecutors in the executions cases. Barrero’s comments to the detained officer were released by the newsweekly Semana, part of hundreds of recorded conversations that revealed extensive corruption among detained and active-duty officers. The officers conspired to obtain Army purchase contracts—such as for helicopter parts—and skim funds to benefit soldiers accused of civilian killings. After the Semana leak, Barrero was relieved of his post along with four other generals.
As a result of the shakeup, General Lasprilla was tapped as Army commander. Previously, Lasprilla had led Joint Task Force Omega, a unit charged with combatting the FARC’s southern front, where many FARC leaders operate. His appointment came directly after he served six months as commander of Colombia’s Joint Special Operations Command. Both units have been strategic foci of U.S. assistance in Colombia.
In particular, the special operations command plays a role in bombing operations against FARC leaders, highlighted in a recent Washington Post investigation. The Post described how U.S. advisors provided Colombia with GPS kits and controlled the targets for bombing operations meant to kill “high-value targets,” which have resulted in 40 guerrilla leaders killed since 2007. U.S. and Colombian special forces officers jointly developed tactics that include high-pressure bombs meant to kill everyone in rural camps, followed by ground operations with the intention of “shooting the wounded trying to go for cover.”
The Army’s Ninth Brigade in Huila Department did not receive the same U.S. focus as Task Force Omega or the special operations command, but it nonetheless received significant U.S. assistance in key periods. During Lasprilla’s command of the Ninth Brigade from July 2006 to November 2007, the brigade’s command staff and three battalions were approved and received U.S. assistance, including the use of U.S. helicopters. Lasprilla had just completed courses at the National Defense University in Washington from August 2005 to June 2006. From 2002 to 2003, then-Lt. Col. Lasprilla was an instructor at the former School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia (now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, WHINSEC), where he had previously been a student as a cadet. In other words, he had extensive U.S. military training, much of it still recent when he assumed command in Huila.
U.S. military training, especially at WHINSEC, is practically a required step for the promotion of Colombian Army officers, and this has been the case for commanders of the Ninth Brigade and its sub-units. Three officers who spent a year at WHINSEC subsequently commanded the Ninth Brigade in between 2002 and 2004.
A 2012 FOR review of Colombian officers who spent a year as instructors or took the command course at WHINSEC from 2001 to 2003 found that 12 out of 25 for whom any subsequent assignments could be identified had either been charged with serious crimes or had commanded units in which soldiers had committed multiple extrajudicial killings (see Figure 1). WHINSEC, however, evaluates its success by how many of its graduates rise to “important positions.”
During Lasprilla’s command, 75 killings have been directly attributed to Ninth Brigade soldiers, making Lasprilla the active-duty officer with the largest number of extrajudicial killings recorded under his watch as a brigade commander (see Figure 2). The National Human Rights Unit of the Colombian Attorney General’s Office is investigating 40 killings by Ninth Brigade soldiers under Lasprilla’s command. The Jesuit-run Center for Popular Education and Investigation and the South Colombian Human Rights Observatory have documented another 35 extrajudicial killings directly attributed to soldiers under Lasprilla’s command.
The Attorney General’s Office is investigating another 22 killings in Huila, reportedly committed by Colombian soldiers during the time of Lasprilla’s command there. Although the responsible unit for these killings has not officially been identified, no other Army brigade operated in Huila during that time.
Very few of these cases have moved beyond the initial investigation phase, as of September 2013. In only one case, the killing of two persons, has a foot soldier been convicted and sentenced. According to data provided by the Colombian Prosecutor General’s office, of 190 executions it recorded in Huila, 77% of the investigations were in preliminary stages. The average time that has passed since the killings and this state of affairs is seven years.
Although Huila illustrates the pattern of “false positives,” there are also cases in which soldiers said that criminals or thieves, rather than guerrillas, were caught in the act, which supposedly led to an exchange of gunfire. I asked investigators, journalists, and attorneys familiar with many cases whether some killings were of guerrilla militia members, killed outside of combat, which would still constitute extrajudicial killings. They said that although there were some cases of this, they represent a small minority of the total.
Huila also experienced mass arrests of hundreds of people by the armed forces, especially between 2002 and 2004. The army justified these arrests by accusing the arrested of having links to terrorist groups, although the large majority was released for lack of evidence. Some people have suggested that the arrests of these people were a prelude to their subsequent murder. The arrests were concentrated in municipalities where there were 11 reported extrajudicial killings between 2004 and 2006.
Military observers have suggested a causal relationship between the amount of combat or war violence and the number of extrajudicial killings reported in Colombia, therefore suggesting that the violence resulted from errors occurring in the “fog of war.” To test this thesis in Huila, I examined combat data and found that more than two out of every three executions reported in Huila—69%—occurred more than 30 days after the most recent combat event reported in the same municipality. And only 13% of these killings occurred within eight days after a combat in the same municipality, suggesting that executions were not occurring in the context of combat.
Before Lasprilla took command, extrajudicial executions attributed to the Ninth Brigade had been problematic, but not as endemic to the unit. In the first half of 2006, before Lasprilla arrived, there were six executions reportedly committed by the Ninth Brigade—one a month. In the second half of 2006, there were 12 executions reportedly committed by the brigade’s soldiers, and in 2007 until Lasprilla left the brigade on November 17, there were 63 executions reportedly committed by members of the brigade: six per month.
Very little national and international attention has been focused on executions in Huila, and the Ninth Brigade appears to be a “Teflon” unit with few investigations moving forward. One of the few convictions of members of the brigade was handled by a prosecutor from another department, for a killing committed in Antioquia, outside the brigade’s jurisdiction.
The number of “false positive” killings by the Army declined dramatically after 2008, as a result of denunciations by families of victims, media coverage, and advocacy by Colombian and international human rights organizations. These actions led to new Colombian military policies that prioritize captures over kills, and were reinforced by more effective judicial prosecution, the existence of fewer areas disputed in the armed conflict, and the suspension of direct U.S. military assistance to some units. This decline speaks to the successful role of public outcry in curbing military injustices in Colombia.
The central figure in the Semana leak that led to Barrero’s dismissal is Col. Róbinson González del Río. González del Río was under the immediate command of Barrero and implicated in 12 killings of civilians between 2007 and 2008 while he commanded a battalion in Colombia’s coffee region. According to data obtained from the Colombian Attorney General’s office and from human rights organizations, soldiers in the 29th brigade committed 51 extrajudicial executions while under Barrero’s command.
The new armed forces chief since the February 18th incident is Gen. Juan Pablo Rodríguez Barragán. The Attorney General’s Office is investigating eight killings by soldiers under Rodríguez’s command between 2006 and 2008, while human rights organizations have documented 11 other killings by soldiers under Rodríguez’s command that never entered the judicial system. Sixteen of these killings occurred in Antioquia in just an eight-month period. Rodríguez Barragán is not known to be judicially implicated in these cases, but the number of killings during this short interval of time indicates at least a permissiveness of command during that period.
The State Department has several options regarding Colombia’s military leadership, all of which comply with the 1997 U.S. Leahy Law, which prohibits U.S. assistance to military or police units whose members have committed serious human rights violations. The U.S. government could use its influence to press for advances in investigations and prosecutions of soldiers responsible for these executions. It could suggest that Lasprilla and Rodríguez be removed, although this will not advance justice for the civilian killings committed under their command. Or it could withhold U.S. assistance to the Colombian Army until effective steps are taken to hold perpetrators responsible for these executions.
Apart from complying with the law, as Colombia prepares to end its armed conflict, it is time for Washington to stop supporting war strategies that have led to so much suffering, and instead follow the dictum: First, do no harm.
John Lindsay-Poland researches and writes about U.S. militarism and human rights in Latin America, and is author of Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. in Panama (Duke). This article is adapted from “The Rise and Fall of ‘False Positive’ Killings in Colombia” published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Colombian Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos.
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