Colom­bia mil­i­tary im­pli­cated in deaths

Re­port says top brass knew about ‘ false pos­i­tive’ killings and should be pros­e­cuted.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Chris Kraul Kraul is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

BO­GOTA, Colom­bia — Twenty- f ive- year- old street ven­dor Mauri­cio Duarte Guz­man went out to play bil­liards one night in his ru­ral Colom­bian town of Gi­gante and never came home. His mother found him the next day in an army morgue, tagged by the lo­cal brigade as a rebel killed in com­bat.

Hilda Guz­man said her son was one of sev­eral peo­ple from her town in the south­ern province of Huila who dis­ap­peared in 2007 dur­ing a wave of so- called false pos­i­tive slay­ings. The cases in­volved un­em­ployed, dis­abled and oth­er­wise dis­ad­van­taged youths across the coun­try who were al­legedly kid­napped and killed by mil­i­tary units and then iden­ti­fied as left­ist guer­ril­las to inf late body counts.

“He was a good, healthy boy who had noth­ing to do with the rebels, and he was de­spi­ca­bly mur­dered,” Hilda Guz­man said in an in­ter­view. “Eight years later, I haven’t for­got­ten him, and I am still wait­ing for jus­tice. The gov­ern­ment has yet to pay me repa­ra­tions.”

Cases such as Guz­man’s are not rare, ac­tivists say. A re­port is­sued Wed­nes­day by Hu­man Rights Watch ac­cuses the Colom­bian mil­i­tary of “wide­spread and sys­tem­atic ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings” of hun­dreds of civil­ians be­tween 2002 and 2008, when the armed forces’ progress in the decades­long war was mea­sured largely by the num­ber of rebels killed in ac­tion.

Although the false pos­i­tive atroc­i­ties have been known for years, Hu­man Rights Watch says in its re­port that it has ob­tained pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished pros­e­cu­to­rial ev­i­dence in­di­cat­ing that top Colom­bian army brass “knew or should have known” about the ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings and that they should face crim­i­nal charges. Among those im­pli­cated is armed forces com­man­der Gen. Juan Pablo Ro­driguez Bar­ra­gan, the re­port says.

“False pos­i­tive killings amount to one of the worst mass atroc­i­ties in the Western Hemi­sphere in re­cent years, and there is mount­ing ev­i­dence that many se­nior army of­fi­cers bear re­spon­si­bil­ity,” said Jose Miguel Vi­vanco, the rights group’s Amer­i­cas ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. “Yet the army of­fi­cials in charge at the time of the killings have es­caped jus­tice and even as­cended to the top of the mil­i­tary com­mand.”

Army rep­re­sen­ta­tives have de­nied spe­cial treat­ment for top- level of­fi­cers, say­ing that 900 cases have been brought be­fore var­i­ous courts. The Colom­bian at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice is known to have in­ves­ti­gated at least 3,700 cases.

El Tiempo news­pa­per of Bo­gota re­ported Wed­nes­day that four gen­er­als, in­clud­ing for­mer army com­man­der Gen. Mario Montoya, have been called to tes­tify by a spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor ap­pointed by the Supreme Court in con­nec­tion with re­ported false pos­i­tives.

Cit­ing “over­whelm­ing caseloads,” the Hu­man Rights Watch re­port crit­i­cizes the slow pace of jus­tice, say­ing that “mostly lower rank­ing sol­diers have been con­victed.” Vi­vanco called on the gov­ern­ment to add pros­e­cu­tors to pur­sue charges more ag­gres­sively against unit com­man­ders.

Ramiro Or­juela, a Bo­gota- based hu­man rights at­tor­ney who helped re­search the re­port, said the slow pace of pros­e­cu­tions of army lead­er­ship is be­cause of a “lack of po­lit­i­cal will.... This is a very pre­cise demon­stra­tion of how the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice re­mains fear­ful of the army lead­er­ship, who are ex­tremely pow­er­ful. Po- ten­tial wit­nesses in these cases have been threat­ened and even killed.”

The rights group also called on the U. S. gov­ern­ment to re­view its mil­i­tary and anti- ter­ror­ism aid pro­gram that un­der Plan Colom­bia has to­taled more than $ 9 bil­lion since 2000. U. S. of­fi­cials should en­force the Leahy Law passed by Congress in 1996, which calls on the gov­ern­ment to with­hold mil­i­tary aid to units sus­pected of hu­man rights crimes, the Hu­man Rights Watch re­port says.

The re­port con­firms past stud­ies, in­clud­ing a ground­break­ing 2008 re­port by the In­ter­na­tional Ob­ser­va­tion Mis­sion on Ex­tra­ju­di­cial Ex­e­cu­tions and Im­punity in Colom­bia, an ef­fort by 13 in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights ex­perts that helped bring the false pos­i­tive atroc­i­ties to light.

“This [ Hu­man Rights Watch] re­port con­firms what we all knew: that re­spon­si­bil­ity for the ex­tra­ju­di­cial ex­e­cu­tion scan­dal in Colom­bia reaches top lead­er­ship,” said Lisa Hau­gaard of the Latin Amer­ica Work­ing Group think tank in Washington. To help com­plete the 2008 study, Hau­gaard said, she in­ter­viewed wit­nesses and fam­ily mem­bers linked to 130 deaths.

“What we heard was shock­ingly sim­i­lar: groups of sol­diers de­tain­ing poor young men taken in civil­ian clothes, who were later found dead in army morgues dressed in guer­rilla uni­forms,” Hau­gaard said.

A pre­lim­i­nary ver­sion of the 2008 re­port was re­leased be­fore a mass killing that broke the false pos­i­tives scan­dal wide open. That case in­volved 26 young men from a poor Bo­gota sub­urb who were promised work in North San­tander province, but who in­stead were slain and de­scribed as rebel fight­ers killed in ac­tion.

Last year, an ex­ten­sive re­port by the New York­based peace ad­vo­cacy group Fel­low­ship of Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, or FOR, also linked false pos­i­tive killings to spe­cific Colom­bian army units and com­man­ders who had re­ceived train­ing at the U. S. Army’s Ft. Ben­ning and other in­stal­la­tions.

John Lind­say- Poland, a for­mer FOR of­fi­cial who man­aged the study, said the FOR and Hu­man Rights Watch re­ports are es­pe­cially rel­e­vant be­cause the U. S. gov­ern­ment is us­ing Colom­bian of­fi­cers to train for­eign mil­i­taries in Cen­tral Amer­ica and the Mid­dle East.

Fer­nando Ver­gara As­so­ci­ated Press

GEN. Juan Pablo Ro­driguez Bar­ra­gan, right, com­man­der of Colom­bia’s armed forces, is among those who re­port­edly knew about the ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings.

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