This article is the fourth in a series by Human Rights Watch to mark the 10 years since the Soacha cases.
General Mario Montoya Uribe, who commanded the Colombian army between 2006 and 2008, seems to have memory issues.
In what came to be known as “false positives,” the army brigades under Montoya’s command murdered thousands of civilians across Colombia so they could report them as enemies killed in combat. But when prosecutors questioned Montoya in 2015, he said that, until the scandal surfaced in late 2008, he didn’t know “anything” about the false positives.
He told prosecutors that “questioning only… by Human Rights Watch” and “rumors” from “the press” had brought the cases to his attention, prosecutors’ documents show. But the questioning and rumors had amounted to nothing, Montoya told prosecutors. “There was nothing concrete, nothing, nothing, nothing,” he said.
Montoya’s story doesn’t add up. Evidence that Human Rights Watch has now uncovered shows that Colombian authorities, including Montoya, received multiple reports several years before the full-blown scandal erupted in 2008. As the scrutiny grew, the evidence shows, military authorities even took steps to address the pervasive crimes.
The UN high commissioner for human rights reported alleged false positives in annual reports on Colombia every year from 2004 to 2007. In 2006, for example, the high commissioner reported an “increase in allegations” of extrajudicial killings by the army. The report noted that “most of [them] have been portrayed by the authorities as guerrilla casualties in the course of combat.”
Montoya read that report. In March 2007, he sent a letter to then-Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos sharing his own “analysis, observations, and recommendations” about it. The high commissioner’s report, Montoya wrote, was having a “negative effect on the prestige of the army.”
The army also received complaints from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In testimony we uncovered in 2016, Freddy Padilla de Leon, then-head of the armed forces, spoke of “increasing” complaints against the army during the era of the false positives. He said that in 2007 Montoya met with ICRC officials roughly every month to receive reports of extrajudicial killings.
When prosecutors asked Montoya about the ICRC reports, he said he “didn’t know of them [and] didn’t remember.”
Yet top commanders, including Montoya, expressed their concerns about such reports to the troops, log books that we reviewed revealed.
In April 2008, Montoya warned his troops about the inquiries. “Human rights: these days, that issue is fashionable, and it’s an issue with national repercussions. Every day we receive human rights documents.” He was apparently refuting false positives: “We don’t need to employ obscure operations to report results”(see document). The message appears in a 30th brigade log book called “Programs of the Commander of the Army.”
Similarly, in May 2007, Montoya told the troops: “Be careful of the ‘legal’ war.” That was an expression that many Colombian officers used to imply that proceedings against them were politically or ideologically motivated. “We can’t get caught up in extrajudicial executions,” Montoya continued (see document). These exhortations, which we found in a log book of the 30th brigade called “Orders of the Army Commander,” appear to link early investigations of the false positives to the notion of politically motivated attacks on the army. Montoya was circling the wagons.
According to the same log book, on July 10, 2007, Padilla de León told the troops: the “issue of the extrajudicial killings is worrying the government, we need to improve our defense in these cases and be alert in the legal proceedings” (see document).
In November of that year, Padilla de León approved a directive easing some of the perverse incentives behind false positives. The directive required “prioritizing individual and collective surrenders over arrests and [arrests] over kills” (see document). The intent of the directive, he noted, was to “keep combat kills from being questioned or reported [to authorities] as homicides ” (see document).
But when prosecutors in 2015 asked Montoya about the purpose of the directive, he seemed to deny that it had anything to do with allegations of false positives. The officers merely felt the new priorities would be “more effective at that time to reach our strategic goals,” he said.
Also in November 2017, then-Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos created a “committee to follow up on reports of alleged homicides.” The committee, which consisted of high-level authorities within the armed forces–including Montoya–was designed to “meet regularly with international bodies to receive and assess information” about false positives (see document).
Yet when prosecutors asked Montoya about the committee, he said, “I don’t remember.”
“A committee?” he asked, “I’m sure I must have known about it…because a document that important [creating a committee], that doesn’t stay at the level of the General Command, it is sent to the Army Command.”
“I don’t have it in my mind,” he said.
Maybe this article will help Montoya refresh his memory. Maybe he won’t have so much trouble remembering his own past the next time prosecutors question him.