This article is the first of a series by Human Rights Watch to mark the 10 years since the Soacha cases.
Retired General Mario Montoya Uribe, who commanded Colombia’s army between 2006 and 2008, stepped into the media spotlight again this month when he appeared before a court investigating serious human rights abuses.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace, created as part of a peace accord with the FARC, had summoned General Montoya to a preliminary hearing. There, General Montoya promised to cooperate with the court’s investigation, including into his own alleged role in the horrifying murders that have come to be known as “false positive” killings.
Between 2002 and 2008, army brigades across Colombia systematically murdered more than 3,000 civilians and recorded them as enemies killed in combat. The army rewarded officers for running up the body count.
Human Rights Watch has, over the last several years, reviewed scores of documents associated with the murders. We have now found evidence that General Montoya sought to cover up conversations with and among his soldiers—and to burn evidence of the incentives for the murders.
False positive murders peaked between 2006 and 2008, when General Montoya was commanding the army. Prosecutors have opened investigations into 36 percent of the army kills reported under General Montoya’s command, documents from the Attorney General’s Office show, and many, if not most, were about false positive murders.
In addition to the preliminary process by the Special Jurisdiction, prosecutors in Colombia’s ordinary criminal justice system are investigating Montoya’s role in false positives. He has always denied any responsibility. As early as 2006 and even before that, General Montoya was already denying reports by international organizations of gruesome false-positive policies.
But we have uncovered documents suggesting that while General Montoya presented an innocent face to the public, he was instructing his troops to hush up their activities.
In June 2007, we have learned, General Montoya told his troops: “Be careful about your cellphones, the Attorney General’s Office is investigating” (see radiogram). Six months later—in December—he insisted: “[You] must be careful about what [you] say over your cellphone, those means are not safe… and we enable [authorities] to distort our language and use it in a twisted way in law courts” (see document). He also appears to have worried that his own conversations with his troops might be used in court.
In November 2007, as investigations of false positive murders were starting, General Montoya warned his troops through a radio broadcast that from now on “recording [him] will be a disciplinary infraction.” (see document). He repeated the warning on several occasions in later radio broadcasts.
As international and domestic scrutiny intensified, Montoya dismantled some of the perverse incentives that were encouraging the killings. He ended directives that granted days off to soldiers who reported kills, for example, and directives that established a “body count” that determined an “award of distinguished service.”
We have found files showing that at the same time, General Montoya ordered all copies of documents revealing such incentives burned. On April 16, 2008, he ordered troops to “dismantle the policy on [grating] days off for kills in combat, incinerate, without a report.” That order appears in a military book with minutes of Montoya’s instructions to the 30th brigade (see document).
Likewise, in another military book, we uncovered an order that “the directive… that granted an award of distinguished services must be incinerated” (see document). In testimony that Human Rights Watch revealed in 2016, two army generals said that burning directives was not the legal or normal way to cancel them. One said that the order came from General Montoya.
When the false positive scandals surfaced in 2008, with the “Soacha cases,” the government dismissed 27 army officers and soldiers. Soacha is the Bogota suburb that was home to more than a dozen young men and teenage boys whose bodies had turned up more than 600 kilometers away, in the Norte de Santander province.
General Montoya’s reaction to the dismissals reveals his foreboding about scrutiny of his troops’ practices. First, he expressed his “pain as commander” to those dismissed, vowed he “trusted them” and felt “absolute certainty that none of them had committed any crimes.” If anything, the officers had engaged in “administrative failures,” he said, such as botched reporting of the amount of ammunition used in combat (see document). Yet as he concluded his daily broadcast to the troops, he urged commanders to “take all necessary time to document kills.”
“We are going to have a big problem,” he said (see document).
The more documents we uncover, the bigger General Montoya’s problem appears.
Jose Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch