(Washington, DC) – The Colombian government has appointed at least nine officers credibly implicated in extrajudicial executions and other abuses to key positions of the army, Human Rights Watch said today. At least three of the officers are under investigation, and prosecutors are investigating killings by forces under the command of the other six.
On December 10, 2018, the government of President Iván Duque appointed General Nicacio de Jesús Martínez Espinel as the new head of the country’s army. On December 21, Gen. Martínez Espinel and Defense Minister Guillermo Botero appointed other new commanders to key army positions. Human Rights Watch has identified evidence linking eight of these officers, as well as General Martínez Espinel, to “false positive” killings and other abuses. From 2002 through 2008, in the cases that have come to be known as false positives, army personnel carried out systematic killings of innocent civilians to boost body counts in the country’s long-running armed conflict.
“The Colombian government should be investigating officers credibly linked to extrajudicial executions, not appointing them to the army’s top command positions,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “By appointing these officers, the government conveys the troubling message to the troops that engaging in abuses may not be an obstacle for career success.”
Human Rights Watch reasearch has shown that 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 knew or had reason to know about them. Under international law, commanders are not only responsible for war crimes or crimes against humanity that they directly order and carry out. They must also be held criminally responsible if they knew or had reason to know that subordinates under their effective control were committing such crimes and failed to take all necessary and reasonable steps in their power to prevent or punish the act.
The newly appointed officers credibly linked to abuses are Martínez Espinel, head of the army; Jorge Enrique Navarrete Jadeth, Head of General Staff for Human Resources and Logistics; Raúl Antonio Rodríguez Arévalo, Head of General Staff for Planning and Policies; Adolfo León Hernández Martínez, head of the Army Transformation Command; Diego Luis Villegas Muñoz, head of the Vulcano Task Force; Edgar Alberto Rodríguez Sánchez, commander of the Aquiles Task Force; Raúl Hernando Flórez Cuervo, commander of the National Training Center; Miguel Eduardo David Bastidas, commander of the 10th brigade; and Marcos Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo, commander of the 13th brigade. All of them are army generals.
Gen. Martínez Espinel was second-in-command of the 10th brigade from October 2004 to January 2006. Prosecutors have opened investigations into 23 killings by 10th brigade troops in 2005.
Human Rights Watch had access to a document signed by then-colonel Martínez Espinel certifying a payment of COP 1,000,000 (US$400) to an informant who provided information leading to “excellent results” in two military operations. In one of them, troops reported the “kill of a female ‘no name’ subject and a male ‘no name’ subject, apparently belonging to the Front 59 of the FARC.” Yet courts have concluded that the people killed were Hermes Enrique Carrillo Arias, an indigenous civilian, and 13-year-old Nohemí Esther Pacheco Zabata.
In 2011, a court convicted two soldiers and a former paramilitary member for murdering the pair. It found that troops abducted the victims from their home at dawn, murdered them, placed weapons on their bodies, and reported them as FARC guerrillas killed in combat. In 2013, an appeals court asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate “possible [criminal] conduct due to [possible] lack of control by the superiors.”
Gen. Navarrete Jadeth, the new General Staff for Human Resources and Logistics, was the second-in-command of the 8th brigade between July 2007 and August 2008. The Attorney General’s Office has opened investigations into at least 19 killings by the 8th brigade in 2008.
Human Rights Watch reviewed a document signed by Gen. Navarrete Jadeth in March 2008, certifying a 2,000,000 Colombian pesos (US$1,000) payment to an informant for information that led to the “death in combat of two terrorists.” In April 2012, a court concluded that the “terrorists” were unarmed civilians who had been recruited from a nearby city and extrajudicially executed.
Colombian courts have convicted hundreds of soldiers for their role in extrajudicial killings, the vast majority of them low-ranking. But the authorities have failed to prosecute senior army officers allegedly responsible for illegal killings. Instead, the authorities have promoted many of these officers through the ranks, allowing several to hold top positions in the armed forces.
The administration of former President Juan Manuel Santos also appointed officers linked by credible evidence to false positives to key army positions. Gen. Juan Pablo Rodríguez Barragán, under criminal investigation for such killings, headed the Colombian armed forces from 2014 through 2017.
A portion of United States military aid to Colombia is subject to human rights conditions. In 2018, the conditions included that “military personnel responsible for ordering, committing, or covering up cases of false positives are being prosecuted and appropriately punished, including removal from positions of command.”
For an analysis of the evidence against the nine military officers, please see below.
Evidence Against New Commanders
Human Rights Watch reviewed dozens of judicial rulings, testimonies, Attorney General’s Office reports, and other files relating to the army officers who were appointed in December. At least three of the nine are under investigation by the Attorney General’s Office. Prosecutors are investigating numerous killings by soldiers in units under the command of the others. The following is a summary of the evidence implicating the nine officers (the information is presented following the officers’ hierarchy in the army).
Nicacio de Jesús Martínez Espinel (Head of the Army)
Gen. Martínez Espinel was second-in-command of the 10th brigade, which operates in the northeastern provinces of La Guajira and Cesar, between October 2004 and January 2006. A 2016 report by the Attorney General’s Office indicates that prosecutors have opened investigations into 23 killings by 10th brigade troops in 2005.
For example, in a ruling in June 2011, a court found that in February 2005 soldiers from the Popa battalion of the 10th brigade abducted Carrillo Arias, an indigenous civilian, and 13-year-old Pacheco Zabata from their home at dawn, murdered them, placed weapons on their bodies, and reported them as FARC guerrillas killed in combat. The court that convicted the soldiers concluded that the victims were shot in the back and that their alleged weapons had never been fired. It also found that the battalion lacked the legally required documents on the operation, including those that should have recorded the amount of ammunition used in the alleged firefight.
Human Rights Watch reviewed a document signed by then-colonel Martínez Espinel certifying a payment of COP 1,000,000 (US$400) to an informant who provided information that led to the “excellent results” in this and another operation.
Human Rights Watch identified other serious inconsistencies in several documents signed by Martínez Espinel allegedly certifying payments to informants who supposedly led 10th brigade troops to engage and kill enemies. These include the following:
- In four separate instances, based on documents in an Attorney General’s Office file, prosecutors found that the names and ID numbers of alleged informants did not match.
- In two documents certifying payments to informants, the dates of the alleged operations do not make sense. In one case, on May 17, 2005, Martínez Espinel authorized payment of 1,000,000 Colombian pesos (US$400) as a reward for information that, according to the same document signed by Martínez Espinel, led to an operation conducted on May 20 – three days later. In this supposed operation, a “no name” person “apparently belonging to the FARC 41st front” was reported killed.
Past Human Rights Watch research had shown that between 2002 and 2008 military officers fabricated documents to obtain economic perks for reported kills on multiple occasions, including in false-positive cases. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm whether any of the kills for which Gen. Martínez Espinel authorized payment, aside from the murder of Carrillo Arias and Pacheco Zabata, were false positives because, in the relevant military documents reviewed, the people killed were not named. Most of the dead were reported as “no name.”
Jorge Enrique Navarrete Jadeth (Head of General Staff for Human Resources and Logistics)
As the head of General Staff for Human Resources and Logistics, Gen. Navarrete Jadeth oversees several army commands, including those in charge of personnel, logistics, and recruitment.
Gen. Navarrete Jadeth was the second-in-command of the 8th brigade from July 2007 through August 2008. The Attorney General’s Office has opened investigations into at least 19 killings by the 8th brigade in 2008, the Attorney General’s Office files show.
A document signed by Gen. Navarrete Jadeth in March 2008 certified a 2,000,000 Colombian pesos (US$1,000) payment to an informant for information that led to the “death in combat of two terrorists.” In April 2012, a court concluded that the “terrorists” were unarmed civilians who had been recruited from a nearby city and extrajudicially executed.
A 2015 file indicates that prosecutors were investigating Gen. Navarrate Jadeth’s role in alleged cooperation with paramilitary groups. The investigation was triggered, the file says, by the testimony of a former paramilitary fighter, Adolfo Enrique Guevara Cantillo, who said that Gen. Navarrete Jadeth cooperated with paramilitaries. The Attorney General’s Office has not publicly indicated whether it has closed the investigation or whether it intends to charge the general.
Raúl Antonio Rodríguez Arévalo (Head of General Staff for Planning and Policies)
As the new Head of General Staff for Planning and Policies, Gen. Rodríguez Arévalo oversees several army departments, including those in charge of intelligence, counterintelligence, and military education.
Gen. Rodríguez Arévalo was commander of the Popa battalion of the 10th brigade during parts of 2005 and 2006. The Attorney General’s Office has opened investigations into 21 killings in 2005 and 13 in 2006 by Popa soldiers, an Attorney General’s Office report shows. These include at least four cases in which Colombian courts have convicted a total of nine soldiers for their role in 10 killings.
In one case, on November 20, 2005, Popa soldiers murdered three civilians in San Diego, in Cesar province, reporting them as enemies killed in action. The night before, lured by bogus job offers from two men, the victims had traveled the more than 300 kilometers to San Diego from the Soledad municipality in Atlántico province. In 2014, a court convicted a lieutenant and a sergeant of the murders. A radiogram signed by then-lieutenant colonel Rodríguez Arévalo described the alleged operation, indicating that “four ‘no name’ male bandits” were killed in action as they tried to “extort a coffee producer of the region.”
In February 2017, a soldier told prosecutors that Gen. Rodríguez Arévalo was directly involved in false positives. The following testimony regards one of many cases the soldier described (italics added):
[W]e took two people from their houses. The first one was a black man whom we took from a house that was like a store. The other house was at a diagonal to this one, to the left… then a guide took us to [another area], and there, [a] lieutenant ordered me to kill the man from the store. I executed him.
The lieutenant gave [another] soldier the order to kill the other man. We asked the lieutenant how we were going to [report these kills] since we didn’t have any weapons. He said, “don’t worry, my uncle [will help],” referring to Colonel Rodríguez Arévalo.
When we arrived at battalion headquarters, in Loma Seca, we waited [until] a helicopter arrived. Colonel Rodríguez Arévalo and [another officer] were there. They took down some black bags, I didn’t know what they contained. Then, they started organizing landmines with detonating cords, a rifle, a pistol and explosives. They put these by the [dead] people and took photos to say that there had been combat; but there was none… due to these kills, the colonel [Rodríguez Arévalo] sent his nephew to do a pilot course [apparently as a reward].
Adolfo León Hernández Martínez (Head of the Colombian Army Transformation Command)
Gen. Hernández Martínez was named head of the Colombian Army Transformation Command, a unit that advises the head of the army on policies to modernize the force.
From December 2007 through June 2009, Gen. Hernández Martínez commanded the Popa battalion of the 10th brigade. Prosecutors have opened investigations into seven killings by the Popa battalion in 2008, an Attorney General’s Office report shows.
In one case, on January 23, 2008, Popa troops killed a 16-year-old civilian, Aldemar García Coronado, and reported him as an enemy killed in action. In 2013, a soldier and a sergeant were convicted of the crime. A radiogram signed by then-lieutenant colonel Hernández Martínez, indicates that soldiers involved in the operation “entered into combat” with “5 terrorists” of “criminal bands,” resulting in the killing of one enemy.
Diego Luis Villegas Muñoz (Head of the Vulcano Task Force)
Gen. Villegas Muñoz was appointed head of the Vulcano Task Force, a special unit that operates in the northeastern zone of Catatumbo, on the border with Venezuela.
He is currently facing criminal prosecution for the killing of Omer Alcides Villada, a farmer with mental disabilities. Soldiers of the Pedro Nel Ospina battalion allegedly murdered the farmer in March 2008 and reported him as a FARC fighter killed in combat. Villegas Muñoz commanded the battalion at the time.
A document signed by Villegas Muñoz certified a payment of 1,500,000 Colombian pesos (US$800) to an informant who supposedly provided information that led to the operation in which Villada was killed. But in the alleged informant’s testimony to prosecutors, he said that he had never provided information to the army or received a payment.
Villegas Muñoz also signed two reports regarding the operation. The reports reveal several irregularities, a prosecutor said in a hearing on the case, including that the operation was in a different municipality than the military order specifies.
In December 2016, a judge issued an arrest warrant for Gen. Villegas Muñoz. But a 2017 decree linked to the justice component of the peace accord with the FARC prevented execution of the warrant, an Attorney General’s Office letter indicates. The decree allows authorities to suspend arrest warrants in cases linked to the armed conflict.
Edgar Alberto Rodríguez Sánchez (Commander of the Aquiles Task Force)
Gen. Rodríguez Sánchez was appointed commander of the Aquiles Task Force, a special unit that operates in the northern area of Bajo Cauca.
From July 2006 through December 2007, he commanded the Magdalena battalion of the 9th brigade. Prosecutors have opened investigations into at least 22 alleged killings under his command, files from the Attorney General’s Office show.
Raúl Hernando Flórez Cuervo (Commander of the National Training Center)
Gen. Flórez Cuervo was named commander of the National Training Center in Bogotá, where soldiers take specialized courses.
Flórez Cuervo commanded the Domingo Caicedo infantry battalion of the sixth brigade for at least part of 2008. The Attorney General’s Office has opened investigations into at least five killings by the battalion in 2008.
In May 2014, a court in Bogotá convicted five soldiers from Flórez Cuervo’s battalion of the January 2008 killing of Israel González, a trade unionist whom battalion soldiers reported as a guerrilla fighter killed in combat. The court concluded that the combat never took place. Instead, soldiers murdered González and placed unused weapons and a broken radio containing Army batteries on his body. Gen. Flórez Cuervo signed the “operations order” authorizing the operation.
The court asked the Attorney General’s Office to “carry out investigations regarding other people possibly responsible for these crimes who could have been involved in signing orders for the operation in which Israel González was killed.” Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm whether any investigations were pursued due to this request. An official within the Attorney General’s Office told Human Rights Watch, in July 2017, that no record existed of investigations into Flórez Cuervo’s possible role in killings by the Domingo Caicedo battalion.
Miguel Eduardo David Bastidas (Commander of the 10th brigade)
General David Bastidas was named commander of the 10th brigade.
David Bastidas is currently facing prosecution for his role in abuses during parts of 2004 and 2005, when he was second-in-command of the Jorge Eduardo Sánchez artillery battalion of the fourth brigade. In a November 2017 indictment, a prosecutor charged him in connection with his alleged role in 32 cases of murder, 14 enforced disappearances, and 10 cases of torture. The prosecutor contended that Gen. David Bastidas failed to act on these crimes despite the implausible circumstances of the reported kills.
Marcos Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo (Commander of the 13th brigade)
Gen. Pinto Lizarazo was appointed commander of the 13th brigade, which operates in Bogotá.
From October 2006 through April 2007, Gen. Pinto Lizarazo commanded the Anastasio Girardot battalion of the 4th brigade. Prosecutors have opened investigations into 23 alleged killings by the battalion’s troops in 2006 and 22 in 2007, files from the Attorney General's Office show. For example, in 2011, a court convicted four Anastasio Girardot soldiers for the murder, in December 2006, of two civilians who were falsely reported as being FARC militiamen.
Gen. Pinto Lizarazo also commanded the Magdalena battalion of the 9th brigade between December 2007 and September 2009. Prosecutors have opened investigations into 18 killings allegedly committed by the battalion’s troops in 2008, the Attorney General’s Office files show.
On January 18, 2008, Magdalena troops killed Ever Urquina Rojas, a peasant, in the San Agustin municipality and reported him as a “no name” enemy killed in action. Sargent William Andrés Vargas Capera confessed and pleaded guilty. In his plea bargain, he said he intentionally hid the victim’s ID and clothes. A document signed by Pinto Lizarazo certified a payment of 1,500,000 Colombian pesos (US$770) to an informant who supposedly provided information that led to the operation in which Urquina Rojas was killed. But prosecutors concluded that the alleged informant “did not provide any information related to Ever Urquina Rojas,” an Attorney General’s Office document shows.
In a December 11, 2015, hearing, procescutors questioned Gen. Pinto Lizarazo on his role in false positives when he was commander of the Magdalena battalion. Under Colombian criminal procedure, such hearings are one of the first steps in forming a case. The case against Gen. Pinto Lizarazo is still open, but no progress has been made since December 2015, a lawyer representing victims in the case told Human Rights Watch.