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Colombia: Top Brass Linked to Extrajudicial Executions

Generals, Colonels Implicated in ‘False Positive’ Killings

(Bogotá) – Extensive previously unpublished evidence implicates many Colombian army generals and colonels in widespread and systematic extrajudicial killings of civilians between 2002 and 2008, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 95-page report, “On Their Watch: Evidence of Senior Army Officers’ Responsibility for False Positive Killings in Colombia,” presents evidence strongly suggesting that numerous generals and colonels knew or should have known about “false positive” killings, and may have ordered or otherwise actively furthered them. Prosecutors are investigating at least 3,000 of these cases, in which army troops under pressure to boost body counts in their war against armed guerrilla groups killed civilians and reported them as combat fatalities. Hundreds of lower-ranking soldiers have been convicted, but just a handful of colonels and no generals.

“False positive killings amount to one of the worst episodes of mass atrocity in the Western Hemisphere in recent years, and there is mounting evidence that many senior army officers bear responsibility,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “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, including the current heads of the army and armed forces.”

A Human Rights Watch analysis of Attorney General’s Office data shows that prosecutors have identified more than 180 battalions and other tactical units – attached to virtually all brigades and in every army division at the time – that allegedly committed extrajudicial killings between 2002 and 2008. Evidence detailed in the report shows that commanders of the brigades and tactical units responsible for a significant number of killings – as well as top army leaders – at least knew or should have known about the crimes, and therefore may be criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility.

Human Rights Watch also obtained recordings and transcriptions of testimony to prosecutors from military personnel implicated in false positives who reported that their superiors, including generals and colonels, allegedly knew of, or planned, ordered, or otherwise facilitated the crimes. 

Some of the army officers who commanded the 11 brigades more closely analyzed in the report later became top military leaders. For example, prosecutors’ data show they are investigating:

  • At least 44 alleged extrajudicial killings by 4th Brigade troops during the period retired Gen. Mario Montoya commanded it. He became the army’s top commander in 2006-2008;

  • At least 113 alleged extrajudicial killings by 4th Brigade troops when retired Gen. Óscar González Peña commanded it. He became the army’s top commander in 2008-2010;

  • At least 28 alleged extrajudicial killings by 4th Brigade troops when Gen. Juan Pablo Rodríguez Barragán commanded it. As the current commander of the armed forces, he is the country’s top military official, and oversees all three military branches, including the army; and

  • At least 48 alleged extrajudicial killings by 9th Brigade troops during the period Gen. Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar commanded it. He is now the army’s top commander.

The report is based on a Human Rights Watch review of extensive, hereto unpublished, prosecutor’s office data; criminal case files; witness testimony, much of it previously unpublished; judicially ordered recordings of retired Lt. Col. Robinson González del Río’s phone conversations made by justice authorities after his arrest for false positives; and interviews with prosecutors, witnesses, victims’ families, and their lawyers, among other sources.

“Prosecutors confront serious obstacles to advancing their cases, ranging from reprisals against key witnesses to a lack of cooperation by military authorities,” Vivanco said. “And many – possibly hundreds – of false positive cases remain in the military justice system, which for all practical purposes guarantees impunity.”

Human Rights Watch documented threats, attacks, and harassment against soldiers who have testified against superiors in false positive cases. On October 27, 2014, Nixón de Jesús Cárcamo, who had confessed and had been providing information to prosecutors about his superiors’ alleged role in false positive cases, was murdered in the 11th Brigade’s military detention center.

Prosecutors told Human Rights Watch that military personnel often resist handing over army documents that are crucial to their investigations, such as those that ordered the supposed operations in which the executions occurred and certified payments to informants in the cases.

Moreover, despite repeated rulings of Colombia’s Constitutional Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights calling for human rights violations to be exclusively investigated and tried by civilian justice authorities, prosecutors say that scores – possibly hundreds – of false positive cases remain in the military justice system. This poses a major impediment to accountability, especially given the evidence documented in the report that the military justice system failed to take basic steps to investigate false positives when most cases were under its jurisdiction, and that at least some military judges actively helped troops cover up the crimes.

Human Rights Watch reviewed judicially ordered audio recordings of González del Río’s phone calls with a military judge and a man who appears to be a colonel linked to a senior office in the military justice system, both of whom offered to help him after he was arrested for false positives, further highlighting the system’s lack of independence and credibility. The colonel appears to offer support for getting González del Río’s case transferred from civilian to military courts, and expresses hope that he will soon be released from detention.

There have also been shortcomings within the Attorney General’s Office, including overwhelming caseloads, as well as the distribution of cases from the same military unit among different prosecutors, which hinders contextualized investigations that are material to the prosecution of high-ranking perpetrators.

The Colombian government should order military authorities to cooperate in investigations, assign sufficient prosecutors to the cases, and protect witnesses and their families, Human Rights Watch said. It should also ensure that any transitional justice measures included in a peace agreement with armed guerrilla groups do not hinder accountability for false positives.

In 2012, Colombia enacted the Legal Framework for Peace, a constitutional amendment that paves the way for impunity for atrocities by guerrilla groups, paramilitaries, and the military if a peace agreement is reached with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. The amendment empowers Congress to limit the scope of prosecutions for atrocities to individuals found “most responsible” and provide statutory immunity to everyone else; to exempt war crimes from criminal investigation if they are not determined to have been systematic; and to apply “alternative penalties” to all those convicted, including those deemed most responsible.

The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is monitoring false positive proceedings in Colombia and could open an investigation if it determines that national authorities are unwilling or unable genuinely to investigate and prosecute them. The office has said with regard to the Legal Framework for Peace that a sentence that is grossly or manifestly inadequate would “vitiate the genuineness” of the proceeding. In other words, it could trigger an ICC investigation.

The Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC should continue to closely monitor proceedings in false positive cases, Human Rights Watch said.

The United States government should enforce human rights conditions on military aid to Colombia, including the requirement that human rights cases be “subject only to civilian jurisdiction” and that the military cooperate with prosecutors in such cases. In light of the evidence that these two conditions are not being met, the US should suspend the part of military aid that depends on Colombia’s compliance with them, Human Rights Watch said.

“Colombia needs to ensure that any transitional justice measures enacted as part of a future peace agreement don’t deny victims’ families justice in false positive cases,” Vivanco said. “If Colombia doesn’t bring those most responsible to justice, the International Criminal Court should open a formal investigation.”

Examples of Testimony Implicating Generals

  • A former commander of troops in the 16th Brigade testified to prosecutors and before a judge that his brigade commander, Gen. Henry William Torres Escalante, ordered, planned, and covered up false positives. Prosecutors are investigating at least 66 alleged extrajudicial killings by 16th Brigade troops during the period Torres Escalante commanded it;

  • Several soldiers and officers have provided testimony to prosecutors implicating González Peña in at least having known about false positives as commander of the 4th Brigade and later as the head of the Joint Caribbean Command;

  • González del Río, who has publicly admitted responsibility for at least 27 false positives, told prosecutors that several generals knew of, authorized, and/or covered up such crimes by his troops. His testimony named General Rodríguez Barragán, then-4th Brigade commander and now top commander of the armed forces, and retired General Hernando Pérez Molina, then-3rd Division commander, among others; and

  • According to González del Río’s testimony to prosecutors, retired General Montoya, the army’s top commander between February 2006 and November 2008, pressured subordinate commanders to increase body counts, punished them for failing to do so, and was the principal “motivator” for false positives. In testimony to the prosecutor’s office, another senior army officer who has confessed to false positives blamed the killings on Montoya’s “policy” of demanding combat kills.

Reprisals Against Witnesses

  • On October 27, 2014, Cárcamo was murdered in the 11th Brigade’s military detention center, where he was being held on false positive charges. Eleven days earlier, he told prosecutors that he feared for his life and that if he was killed, the people he was accusing were responsible;

  • There is compelling evidence that the 2013 rape of a soldier’s wife by unidentified men was in retaliation for the soldier’s testimony against an army colonel. The soldier, who has also received death threats, is a key witness in false positive cases against the colonel and other officers and soldiers; and

  • Sergeant Carlos Eduardo Mora’s testimony has contributed to the conviction of a lieutenant colonel and numerous other soldiers for false positives. In retaliation, he has received death threats, and senior army officers have harassed and sought to stigmatize him. He reported that in 2013, army officials attempted to check him into a psychiatric clinic against his will, apparently trying to discredit him, and that in 2014, a general made statements in front of him and a large group of fellow army counterintelligence personnel strongly insinuating that he was a “traitor.” In April 2015, the army opened a disciplinary investigation against him for making statements to the media about false positives – and the abuse he has been subject to as a witness – without the authorization of his superiors. 

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