Semana (Colombia), February 28, 2019
Translated by Rolf Schoeneborn
SEMANA spoke with journalist José Miguel Vivanco [director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division] following the [organization’s] report…that the Colombian Army might be involved in extrajudicial executions.
SEMANA: Human Rights Watch found evidence that would link the new military leadership to false positives. How much evidence is there against it?
José Miguel Vivanco [JMV]: We have identified ample evidence that could implicate 9 generals the government appointed to key positions in the Army in the false positive scandal. The evidence includes military documents, such as orders for operations and payments of rewards, as well as testimonies of soldiers that connect officers directly to atrocious crimes committed. We have also had access to reports from the Attorney General’s Office and judicial rulings that provide solid proof as to the alleged role of these officers in cases of false positives.
SEMANA: One of those involved is the Army commander, General Nicacio de Jesús Martínez Espinel, what is the charge against him?
JMV: General Nicacio de Jesús Martínez Espinel was the second in command of the Tenth Armored Brigade, which operated in Cesar and La Guajira, between October 2004 and January 2006. According to reports from the Office of the Prosecutor General, during that period the troops under his command committed at least 23 alleged extrajudicial killings. For many of these crimes, non-commissioned officer have been tried and convicted and served their sentences. Among these cases there is a very serious one and the evidence could directly implicate General Martínez Espinel. I’m talking about the murder, in February 2005 of Nohemí Esther Pacheco Zabata, a 13-year-old indigenous girl, who was kidnapped from her home at night, murdered, and reported as a FARC guerrilla killed in combat. General Martínez Espinel signed a document, which we furnish along with the report, in which he certifies a payment of 1 million Colombian Pesos for this and other “casualties”. The document signed by General Martínez Espinel says this operation, which led to the murder of an innocent indigenous girl, brought “excellent results.” Two soldiers and a paramilitary were convicted for this crime, but General Martinez has never testified in court.
Semana: This very same Wednesday the government responded to questions showing the signature of the Army commander thus trying to attest to the truth. One is from the Attorney General’s Office and another one from the Comptroller’s Office. Are those documents shielding them?
JMV: It seems that Minister Botero is trying to confuse the Colombians. We have not said that there are investigations by the Attorney General’s Office or the Comptroller’s Office targeting General Martínez Espinel. What we have said and documented in a convincing manner is that there is very worrisome evidence that require, at a minimum, the general’s public explanations about his possible role in the 23 extrajudicial killings committed when he was deputy commander of the Tenth Armored Brigade. The credibility and legitimacy of the Armed Forces Command is at stake here: namely, to lead an army capable of caring for the population in a professional manner and respecting human rights.
Semana: How do you explain that generals can be promoted with this kind of a background?
JMV: In Colombia there is an absolute double standard. On the one hand, hundreds of non-commissioned officers and, above all, lower-rank soldiers have been convicted for their role in false positives incidents. But, on the other hand, generals enjoy guarantees, practically speaking, not ever to be criminally prosecuted and thus move up on the military career ladder with total impunity.
Semana: Are false positive court proceedings in Colombia especially slow and if so? Why?
JMV: Colombia, as I said, has made enormous progress in investigating and convicting hundreds of non-commissioned officers and soldiers, but criminal proceedings against Army generals who could have played a role in these atrocities have not yet come about: for example, because they commanded brigades responsible for these crimes. There is only one case that was promising: namely that of general Henry William Torres Escalante, who was brought to trial. Unfortunately, however, the criminal proceedings against him were suspended due to rules related to the JEP (special peace courts). There are other cases where delays are absolutely inadmissible. The most notable involves General Mario Montoya. In 2016, the Prosecutor’s Office announced that it would charge him for his role in false positives cases, but none of this has happened, despite the impressive evidence against him that we have made public over the years. This includes the testimony of at least 6 Army generals, as well as hundreds of military documents that show that he knew about these atrocious crimes.
WEEK: Do you think the investigations for extrajudicial killings that the JEP (Jurisdicción para la Paz) is advancing at a good pace? What worries you?
JMV: The cases that come before the JEP are just beginning. As for the false positives, the judges have taken down about 45 statements by soldiers and have begun to investigate two military units in particular: the La Popa battalion and the XV Mobile Brigade. What worries me, however, is the definition of “command responsibility” that, due to the enormous pressure by the military, was approved by Congress in 2017 and could help the Colombian high command not being charged in all those false positive cases.
Semana: When were the last cases of extrajudicial killings reported?
JMV: Every year we receive credible reports about a handful of extrajudicial executions committed by Army troops. However, these are very few cases when compared with the hundreds of killings committed by soldiers between 2002 and 2008, and particularly during the command of General Mario Montoya, between 2006 and 2008. According to the Prosecutor’s Office, the cases came to be to more than 700 in 2007 alone.
Semana: Is the government [sending] the message that committing abuses can [end up being] not an obstacle to advance in the military [profession]?
JMV: Indeed, I believe that putting these generals in key positions sends a very toxic and worrisome message: it implies that troops participating in serious human rights violations would not ruin their military careers. Any soldier will think he can get away with it, as have so many generals implicated in false positive scandals, who enjoyed complete impunity and have even gotten promotions in the army. This greatly undermines the credibility and professionalism of our Armed Forces.