Colombia's then army commander Gen. Mario Montoya speaks as President Alvaro Uribe looks on at Bogota's army school on February 22, 2006.

© Reuters

Between 2002 and 2008, army brigades across Colombia systematically murdered more than 3,000 civilians. These killings were recorded as enemies killed in combat, in what came to be known as “false positive” cases, and officers were rewarded for running up the body count.

As subsequent investigations of these killings moved forward, many soldiers told prosecutors that pressure on troops to report results in combat —and the rewards —were a perverse incentive behind the killings. Human Rights Watch recently found a directive that confirms these rewards.

The directive, which was signed by Gen. Martín Orlando Carreño Sandoval when he commanded the army between 2003 and 2004, established a “body count” policy to determine when soldiers could obtain an “award of distinguished services.” Brigade commanders, for example, were required to report at least 150 enemy combatants killed and another 500 captured over an unspecified period of time. Marco Fabián García Cespedes, a lieutenant currently serving a prison sentence for multiple killings, mentioned in his 2013 confession this reward among the reasons he engaged in murder.

Convincing evidence suggests the army increasingly gave priority to kills, rather than captures. For example, another directive, which Human Rights Watch released last year, states: “kills are not the most important issue, they are the only issue.” The directive says it describes the policies of Gen. Mario Montoya Uribe, who commanded the army between 2006 and 2008, when the killings peaked.

As international and domestic scrutiny over these crimes rose, Gen. Montoya apparently made efforts to hide evidence of these incentives. Last year, Human Rights Watch released the previously unpublished testimony of one army general who said that, in 2008, Gen. Montoya asked troops to burn Gen. Carreño’s directive on the granting the “award of distinguished services”. Another new document we recently found seems to corroborate the order. Signed by the then-second commander of the 11th brigade, the document refers to an “order signed by the Commander of the Army (Gen. Montoya) to burn” Gen. Carreño’s directive.

As prosecutions of mid-level soldiers move forward, new evidence strongly suggests top commanders had a decisive role in the killing spree. Yet, at the moment, only one army general has been charged in connection to these abuses. When will top commanders be held accountable for their role in these atrocities?