His Testimony Tarnishes the Former Army Commandant, Mario Montoya: “MONTOYA WAS THE WORST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO THE ARMY”: Former Chief of the Casanare Anti-Kidnapping Unit

El Espectador, June 13, 2019

translated by Eunice Gibson (CSN volunteer translator)

Retired Major Gustavo Soto Bracamonte revealed to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace the chronology of the extrajudicial executions that he knew about and approved in order to demonstrate results to the top military commander. The defense counsel for the retired Commandant says that this version is “not plausible”.

His testimony, obtained by JEP justices Óscar Parra and Catalina Díaz last December 7, lasted more than six hours and constitutes a logbook of confessions of nearly 80 extrajudicial executions perpetrated by his men while he commanded the Casanare Anti-Kidnapping Unit between June of 2006 and October of 2007. The retired officer, 47 years old, had spent 11 years and 28 days in prison for those crimes, until he was set free in November of 2018 after submitting to the JEP. Soto Bracamonte, one of the highest-ranking officers who is revealing previously unknown details about these crimes, entered the School for Military Cadets in January 1991 and graduated as a 2d Lieutenant in 1993. He served in different engineering battalions in Caquetá, Urabá, Bogotá and Bucaramanga. Finally, in June of 2006, he was named Commander of the Anti-Kidnapping Unit in Casanare. Until then he had never had any legal problems.

From the Plains

In practice, his boss at that time was Colonel Henry William Torres Escalante, who was serving as Commander of the 16th Brigade, based in Yopal, although he was not actually responsible to him. Years later, Torres Escalante became the first general to be arrested and charged by the Attorney General with the murders of two civilians in his jurisdiction, in events that took place in 2007. Actually, Torres Escalante welcomed Soto Bracamonte when he was transferred there. There, he maintained, commenced his ordeal.

“At that moment I congratulated myself for arriving at an élite unit because it was, if I’m not wrong, among the eight or ten best units in the country for killings. That was how you counted at that time. But the music was about to change. Managing the Anti-Kidnapping Force was one thing: kidnapping and extortion. And when I arrived at the Brigade, now that wasn’t the thing; what they wanted was killing, presenting bodies ( . . .) And that was where I felt the pressure,” stated the retired officer.

Soto Bracamonte made clear that he wanted to be promoted to general. Then he explained that the Commandant of the Colombian Army, General Mario Montoya Uribe, had imposed a system of pressures for “results” and numbers of killings that soon trended to a competition between the 4th Brigade, based in Medellín, and the 16th, based in Casanare. Just at that time, recounted Major Soto Bracamonte, in the 16th Brigade operations center, Montoya Uribe ordered an acrylic board to be put up to post the statistics and show a record of the last date on which that unit had reported a killing. That was how he created a kind of rivalry for operational successes between the Ramón Nonato Infantry Battalion, based in Tauramena, and the Casanare Anti-Kidnapping Unit. The board stimulated the contest. “After I started my first, second day, third day as Commander, they were already asking me when we planned to take off ( . . . ) I understood perfectly that what they expected there was dead bodies.”

His account made clear how this military unit, first created to combat extortion, ended up twisted by a maelstrom of murders and illegal schemes to distort the numbers in the conflict. “I didn’t have any time to look for kidnap victims. Practically all of my resources, instead of spending them on rescues or paying ransoms, I had to spend them on other things, because the pressure was ferocious,” insisted Soto Bracamonte and he added: “in 2007 I signed a document of commitment where I had to give, if I remember correctly, either 20 or 25 killings. And I signed it right away. Why did I sign it? Because the Commander of the Division at that time, (General) Guillermo Quiñones Quiroz, gave the Brigade a quota and the quota was 100 killings. They didn’t tell us: ‘You have to give me so many captives’. No, it was 100 dead bodies. So with that, it was clear that what they were demanding from me was dead bodies.”

But, he said, when he was just about to accomplish those goals, once again, General Guillermo Quiñones changed the numbers and the requirements demanded of Colonel Henry William Torres Escalante: “After the Brigade reached 98, 99 bodies, the Commander of the Division said: ‘Colonel Torres, the quota now is not 100. It’s 130. You hear me?’”. At that moment in time, the retired superior officer insisted that those criminal practices did not begin in 2006, but rather had begun much earlier, but neither did he want to make accusations that he could not fully support. Then Justice Parra asked the witness how the illegalities started when he assumed the command of the Anti-Kidnapping Unit. Major Soto added that Colonel Torres Escalante “pressured” him for positives; that he came to his office in the 16th Brigade and on that day he gave him two connections he could use to carry out the crimes: Wilson Rodríguez Mimisica, demobilized from the paramilitary group headed by alias Martín Llanos, and José Ovidio Díaz.

“He told me (Colonel Torres): ‘Look, he knows some gangsters that are down there in Villavicencio, he’ll produce them’. So when the Commander of the Brigade talks like that, you get it right away, what the policy is that the Brigade Commander is operating.” Right then, he said he knew that those guys were informants for Colonel Torres and, what’s more, recruiters of civilians. And, following orders, he starting working with them. He used money from budget lines reserved for paying for those illegal operations to pay Rodríguez and Díaz and to buy the weapons that they planted on the victims to simulate a combat. Sometimes, when money was scarce , we even had to ask for a loan; but, he insisted we had to show results and report them and put those numbers on the acrylic board.” A lot of times there was no money and I couldn’t tell the recruiter: ‘Listen, wait until I get the money.’ No, you had to get it and straighten it out later.”

“The Experts in Murder”

Continuing, Soto Bracamonte said that in his meeting with Colonel Torres Escalante he was told: “I’m going to upgrade the football team” and, to do that, and also to manage the connection with the recruiters, he transferred several soldiers “who aren’t killing enough”. According to his version, which the JEP is verifying today, Colonel Torres Escalante sent him several noncommissioned officers who took care of reporting on these criminal operations. What kind of people were they, the Justices wanted to know. “They were experts in murder”. The retired Major insisted that they knew the area, they knew their way around, they had key contacts and there was almost a protocol established to pick out the victims. In a lot of cases it was men demobilized from guerrilla or paramilitary groups. Soto insisted that Colonel Torres Escalante knew all about the strategy. More than that, he claimed, Torres was the first to be informed when these irregular killings took place.

The retired officer described how Wilson Rodríguez Mimisica turned over between 12 and 15 victims and that the recruiters even “went so far as to extort money from us because they knew that we had to present results”. Since the Casanare Anti-Kidnapping Unit had more resources for its anti-extortion work, they “paid” better for “dead bodies”. The civilians who were victimized were from Villavicencio (Meta Province) and Villanueva and Monterrey (Casanare Province). Nevertheless, Rodríguez Mimisica, a demobilized paramilitary, told a different story. In the report that the Attorney General’s Office presented to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) last year on extrajudicial executions, it stated that, according to the ex-paramilitary, Soto Bracamonte “pressured and threatened him for information and made him sign, under pressure, papers about alleged members of illegal armed groups that he knew nothing about.”

Next, the witness related several anecdotes to paint a picture of retired General Mario Montoya Uribe—today also before the JEP for these events–. He spoke specifically of a meeting at the capital of Meta Province, ordered by Montoya, some time in August of 2006. All of the military commanders in the area were there. At that meeting, he says, the officers had to make a presentation in the auditorium to show how they got results. “General Montoya came in and started to talk about killing, dead bodies. Nothing happened to me because the other Major (his predecessor in the Casanare Anti-Kidnapping Unit) had left me some ten bodies, and I had about 14 killings. So I got through it without attracting any attention.”

Some of his other comrades suffered a different fate. Montoya berated the colonel who was leading the Joaquín París Battalion in San José del Guaviare (Guaviare Province). “He told him: ‘Colonel, what are you thinking? Zero killings, look here, and tell me if there is nothing to do out there. All it takes is lining up the battalion, they shoot, and go out and pick up the bodies’. That got my attention. And he said: ‘Six months is a long time for a bad commander and very little time for a good one. Brother, I’ll give you one more month, if you can’t do it, you’re gone’. And as a matter of fact, he relieved him ( . . . ) What he was interested in was the liters of blood.”

That expression, added Soto Bracamonte, is what I heard that day, “and there were at least 150 people at that meeting, so it wasn’t any kind of a secret.” Then he went back to the personality of the former Commander of the Colombian Army: “He was always a person who instigated things, he was arbitrary, and he fired you by screaming at you
( . . . ) Everybody was afraid of him because of his threats and he had the power to transfer you, to get rid of you.” The witness described how Montoya always promoted those who had Public Order Medals, that is to say, those who had shown the best results in the number of killings. “Montoya was always talking about liters of blood and that, in the Army, meant killings.” At that moment he furnished another example of the context of pressures: this happened in 2007 during another visit of the Commandant of the Colombian Army to the 16th Brigade. “General Montoya came in and he said: ‘Colonel Torres (Escalante), this Brigade has gone 15 days with one killing, Brother.’ This was a subliminal message that he would be relieved of his duties.”

Those supposed quotas for killings, according to the witness, were imposed from the highest level of the Colombian Arm pyramid and they went down to the individual soldiers. But, did General Montoya know what was going on?, the Justices asked the witnesses directly, and he answered: It’s not that he (Montoya) didn’t know, he knew everything that was going on, all of the Colombian Army Command Staff knew.” Nevertheless, the former Commander of the Colombian Army, who has also submitted to the JEP, and is being investigated for at least a hundred of the crimes perpetrated during his command, has always insisted on his innocence. Going back to his testimony, Soto Bracamonte pointed out that at that time there were a lot of illegal operations by the DAS in Casanare, and that officials of that intelligence agency appeared to have been trained in simulated combats. They actually taught that you always carry a weapon to those places where you do the murders so you can plant the weapons on the victims.

“The DAS, you might say, knew the most. They would arrive, here’s your dead body, make intelligence notations, and there’s the criminal record and you’re done,” he related. He insisted that in many of those operations that later ended up in investigations by the military criminal justice agency, they were never completed because it was considered that the DAS detectives had collaborated and, besides, they had some judicial police responsibilities, and the legality of those activities was not to be discussed. After reviewing this chapter, the witness described what had happened with a guerrilla from the FARC’s 28th Front, who was once captured by the Anti-Kidnapping Unit and ended up as an informant. His name: José Zacarías Valencia. And even though at the beginning they had ordered him killed, Soto Bracamonte opposed it, he insisted.

The Justices asked him what had happened to the recruiters and informants and the retired Major answered: “They are all alive. They told me to kill them, but I refused because they did tell me that we were leaving loose cannons behind ( . . . ) the informants, actually, those that were with me or with the recruiters are in prison, but they aren’t dead.” Later he described how they carried out those illegal operations: “They would grab the victim and take him to a place and kill him. And in the written report, they would make it look as if there had been a combat ( . . . ) A person follows the operation orders, carrying it out to give it a veneer of legality.” The JEP indicated that it had documents for at least 63 illegal killings during his tour with the Anti-Kidnapping Unit. The witness admitted that the number could be as high as 80.

During his long testimony, more than six hours, Major Soto Bracamonte named names of a number of officers involved in these murders and who have not yet been touched by the justice system and whose identities we are keeping confidential so as not to affect the investigation. He also stated that he used to tell his men that they should decide whether or not to kill the victim and he offered an example: “In many opportunities, a number of noncommissioned officers and commanders would say: ‘No, Major, that won’t work’. (Wilson Rodríguez) Mimisica once led the Anti-Kidnapping Unit to a person with a mental disability. Then the person who was the commander said: ‘No, Major, this person that they brought us is a man who is not all there.’ They understood the situation. But ultimately, it was their decision. Obviously, I knew where they (the soldiers) were coming from.” Because of that, finally, Soto said that he did not want to have those congratulations on his resume, the ones that he got for committing those crimes.’’

One of the officers most discredited by his revelations is the now-General Henry William Torres Escalante, who has been arrested and charged by the Attorney General’s Office with the murders of Daniel Torres and his son Roque, executed in 2007 by men from the 16th Brigade who made them look like guerrillas of the ELN. In reality, what Roque Torres was doing was filing a complaint about the false positives committed by that Brigade. And he demonstrated that in a legal statement that he filed seven months before he was killed. Today Torres Escalante is also in the JEP. But the testimony of Major Soto Bracamonte creates new legal problems for him; not only did he connect him to other illegal activities, but he also furnished details, documents and the phony operation orders that were supposed to justify the murders. His story constitutes fundamental support for solving dozens of murders committed in Casanare between 2006 and 2007.

Montoya’s defense counsel speaks

“Retired Major Soto Bracamonte’s version is not plausible.” For retired General Mario Montoya’s defense counsel, Attorney Andrés Garzón, there is no other way to describe the statements of the retired officer to the JEP. Garzón clarified that he is not familiar with the testimony, although he pointed out something that, in his view, is very much worthy of attention: “There is a peculiarity in the versions that try to smear retired General Montoya. There are always retired officers and all of them, in spite of having been commanders of a lower unit, such as the Anti-Kidnapping Unit in a province, claim that they have attended a meeting or have heard the Commandant of the Colombian Army giving those orders. For anyone who has studied the military structure a little bit, that is impossible. The Commandant of the Colombian Army does not travel all over the country talking with lower units.”

According to Garzón’s explanation, “the Commandant communicates with the divisions, they communicate with their brigades, and the brigades with lower units (battalions, squadrons and companies). Now all of them are saying that they heard and were with retired General Montoya. That is not true. It is the case that when they are asked to provide evidentiary materials, they don’t have them, or they have to make them up. We, on the other hand, have the support of all of the directives that he issued. The Attorney General’s Office has had them for more than three years. The people that are talking were retired by the Army. Retired General Mario Montoya is the one whose job it was to sign those discharge papers. We can’t be confused by public opinion. We are going to bring the evidence to refute all of them and later to demand that they be expelled from the JEP. They are not telling the truth.”

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