Between 2002 and 2008, army brigades across Colombia systematically murdered civilians to boost body counts in a war against guerrillas. New military policies are providing serious cause for concern that Colombia could see a reappearance of these killings, which came to be known as “false positives.”
In May, the New York Times reported on what it characterized as new military “kill orders” that could put civilians at risk. New policies include pressing troops to step up combat operations and “results,” meaning the number of enemies killed, captured, or demobilized. President Iván Duque has created a commission to review the military policies and other documents in light of international standards and best practices.
Pressure on troops to rack up the number of killings, casualties, or captures in combat—and the potential for rewards for the killings—perversely incentivized the “false positive” murders in the 2000s. The new policies are not identical to those in force at the time, but Human Rights Watch has found additional similarities to past practices. This adds to concerns that new policies are opening the door to abuses.
According to previously unpublished documents we have reviewed, senior officers of the army’s Second Division have created tables that effectively rank the division’s military units based on the results—enemies killed or captured—they have achieved so far this year. The documents are not dated, but based on the results reported in these and other documents we reviewed, they appear to have been written around June.
In one table, officers list the units according to their kills. They rank Ground Operations Battalion No. 9 (known by its acronym BATOT9, for its name in Spanish) first, with 5 kills in 2 confrontations, and Cavalry Group No. 5 “Hermógenes Maza” (GMMAZ) second, with 5 kills in 3 confrontations. Rapid Deployment Battalion No. 7 (BADRA7) and Battalion “General Custodio García Rovira” (BIROV) are both listed third, with 1 enemy killed in a single confrontation. In total, the table indicates that the Second Division was responsible for 12 “MDOM,” the acronym the Colombian armed forces use for “deaths [occurring] during military operations” (muertes durante operaciones militares).
Another table lists the units according to enemies captured. At the top of the table is the Defense Artillery Battalion No. 2 (BAADA2), with 95 people captured, followed by Cavalry Group No. 5 (GMMAZ), with 91.
A third table lists the units according to the number of confrontations.
The utility of the tables is dubious, as they compare units of various sizes, tasks, and jurisdictions. Chillingly, they resemble those that senior officers created during the false positive killings of the 2000s. As Human Rights Watch documented, senior officers at the time created tables in which they periodically ranked divisions, brigades, and battalions according to results. The tables referred to the number of enemy troops who surrendered or were captured or killed.
In the 2000s, the tables gave top rankings to the units with the most kills, even if they reported fewer surrenders or enemies captured. It is unclear how the new tables, with separate rankings for each category, are being used. We did not see rankings that prioritized any specific results. But the tables could signal dangerous pressure on troops to put civilians at risk.
As more is known about these new policies, fear of the reappearance of false positives is growing. The government should repeal them and send a clear message that it has learned the lessons from one of the country’s darkest chapters.