Colombia's President Santos talks with Colombian armed forces chief General Juan Pablo Rodríguez Barragán during a presentation of new military leaders on July 9, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

(New York, November 10, 2016) – Colombian authorities should ensure that generals and colonels against whom there is credible evidence of involvement in extrajudicial executions and other abuses are not elevated in rank during impending promotions, Human Rights Watch said today.

On October 10, 2016, the Defense Ministry released the resumés of the members of the armed forces it seeks to promote. These include at least five senior officials and commanders about whom Human Rights Watch has identified credible and convincing evidence of involvement in “false positive” killings. These killings were committed in a systematic manner between 2002 and 2008 to boost body counts in the war. A Commission of the Senate will evaluate the promotions.

“The Colombian Senate should review these promotions carefully and ensure that any officer against whom there is credible evidence of abuses is not promoted,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Otherwise, it would reinforce the longstanding message that senior officers in Colombia can get away with murder."

In the June 2015 report, “On their Watch: Evidence of Senior Army Officer’s Responsibility for False Positive Killings in Colombia,” Human Rights Watch presented convincing evidence suggesting that numerous senior officials, including some who have now been put forward for promotion, would bear criminal responsibility for false positive killings. In addition to the commanders mentioned in the report, Human Rights Watch has reviewed the investigations on extrajudicial executions opened by the Attorney General’s Office as of December 2014, and found that brigades commanded by many of the officers set to be promoted in the new round of negotiations engaged in a significant number of killings.

Given the gravity of the ‘false positive’ cases and the evidence against these officers, promoting them before criminal proceedings are completed would only convey that Colombian authorities are not serious about ensuring justice for these atrocity crimes

José Miguel Vivanco

Americas director

Patterns in “false positive” cases – including their systematic nature and the implausible circumstances of many of the reported combat killings – strongly suggest that commanders of units responsible for a significant number of killings at least knew or should have known about the wrongful killings, and therefore may be criminally liable.

Senior officers, set to be promoted but against whom there is strong evidence of their responsibility for “false positives,” are brigadier generals Emiro José Barrios Jimenez and Jorge Enrique Navarrete Jadeth, who would be promoted to major generals, and colonels Marcos Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo, Edgar Alberto Rodríguez Sánchez, and Adolfo León Hernandez Martínez, who would be elevated to brigadier general.

Brigadier General Barrios Jimenez, who faces a criminal investigation, commanded the 8th brigade of the army while it allegedly engaged in at least 19 killings. In October 2015, the Attorney General’s Office summoned him for questioning – the first step of the criminal procedure under Colombian law – on his role in these killings.

Colonel Marcos Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo commanded the Magdalena battalion of the 9th brigade between December 2007 and July 2008. The Attorney General’s Office has open investigations on at least 19 alleged killings committed by soldiers of Magdalena battalion during his command.

Colombian courts have convicted over 800 army members involved in extrajudicial killings, the vast majority of them low-ranking soldiers. However, authorities  have failed to prosecute senior army officers allegedly responsible for killings and instead have promoted many of them through the military ranks, allowing several to hold top positions within the Colombian armed forces. Two of the nine Colombian army divisions are currently commanded by senior officers who are suspected of army killings and set to be elevated in rank in this impending round of promotions. In addition, the country’s current top commander, Juan Pablo Rodríguez Barragán, remains under investigation for his alleged role in false positives. Under his command, the army’s 4th brigade allegedly extrajudicially killed at least 28 people.

“Each of these officers enjoys the presumption of innocence unless and until they are held guilty by a court,” Vivanco said. “But given the gravity of the ‘false positive’ cases and the evidence against these officers, promoting them before criminal proceedings are completed would only convey that Colombian authorities are not serious about ensuring justice for these atrocity crimes.”

Soldiers Possibly Involved in Killings and Set to Be Promoted

Among the 18 soldiers the Defense Ministry seeks to promote, there is convincing evidence against at least five of potential criminal responsibility for “false positive” killings:

  • Brigadier General Emiro José Barrios Jimenez, who currently commands the army’s division of aviation and air assault, would be promoted to major general. The Attorney General’s Office is investigating Barrios Jimenez’s alleged role in “false positive” killings when he commanded the 8th brigade of the army at least for part of 2007, 2008, and 2009. The Attorney General’s Office has opened investigations on at least 19 killings by the 8th brigade in 2008. Barrios Jimenez was summoned for questioning – one of the first steps in the Colombian criminal procedure – in October 2015.
  • Brigadier General Jorge Enrique Navarrete Jadeth, who currently commands the 1st division of the army and would be promoted to major general, was Barrios Jimenez’s second in command of the 8th brigade for at least part of 2008. He is under investigation for killings by the 8th brigade, as well as for his alleged cooperation with paramilitary groups. Human Rights Watch reviewed a document he and Barrios Jimenez signed in March 2008, certifying a US$1,000 payment to an informant for information that led to “the death in combat of two terrorists.” Prosecutors subsequently concluded that the “terrorists” were unarmed civilians who had been recruited from a nearby city and then extrajudicially executed, according to a judicial file reviewed by Human Rights Watch.
  • Colonel Marcos Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo, who could be promoted to brigadier general, commanded the Magdalena battalion of the 9th brigade between December 2007 and July 2008. The Attorney General’s Office has opened investigations on at least 19 alleged killings by the Magdalena battalion under his command.
  • Colonel Edgar Alberto Rodriguez Sanchez preceded Pinto Lizarazo as commander of the Magdalena battalion between July 2006 and December 2007, and could be promoted to brigadier general. The Attorney General’s Office has opened investigations into at least 22 alleged killings under his command. In August 2012, a court in Antioquia convicted one soldier of the Magdalena battalion of killing a farmer in November 2007.
  • Colonel Adolfo León Hernandez Martinez, who could be promoted to brigadier general, commanded the Popa battalion of the 10th brigade at least since January 2008 and in 2009. In July 2011, a court in Valledupar, convicted five Popa battalion soldiers, including a sergeant, of killing a civilian in March 2008, and reporting that he was a guerrilla fighter from the Army of National Liberation (Ejército de Liberación Nacional). In October 2013, the same court convicted five Popa battalion soldiers of killing two civilians in the northeastern municipality of Pueblo Bello in June 2008 and reporting them as “no name” causalities killed in combat.