By Alejandra Bonilla Mora, EL ESPECTADOR, April 14, 2020
Translated by Eunice Gibson (CSN volunteer tramslator)
After analyzing 40 voluntary testimonies from that military unit, the victims’ representatives presented their observations to the JEP: the patterns in the planning, in the execution, and in the cover-ups of the crimes between 2002 and 2005. The testimonies reveal that high-ranking officers knew about and actually ordered the executions. The former Commander of the Battalion at that time, Retired Colonel Hernán Mejía, has denied that ad nauseam.
This appalling military practice, known as “false positives”, of murdering people and presenting them as members of illegal groups in Colombia, is an undeniable reality for thousands of victims all over the country. In the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) there is now a macrocase No. 003, in which members of the Army who have admitted their participation in those crimes are putting forth their testimony. Among them, former members of the La Popa Battalion, located in Valledupar, have told about how high-ranking officers incited the soldiers to commit the crimes, and about the existence of incentives, such as days off, commendations, and even hamburgers or Chinese fried rice.
After hearing 40 statements given by 32 former members of the La Popa Battalion, reporting 146 victims who had been executed extrajudically between 2002 and 2005, the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective and the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (representing the families) prepared a report of their observations, now furnished to the JEP. What they found, they believe, was a series of patterns in three phases of the crime: planning, execution, and cover-up. And there were 16 elements that would indicate that, far from being isolated events, the “false positives” were a practice that was tolerated and carried out from the highest ranks, both in that Battalion and among the Army commanders in general.
Authorities like the prosecutors of the International Criminal Court (CPI in Spanish) have been insisting for years that the national investigations ought also to reach the highest ranking military officers: “There hasn’t been any progress in reaching the top of the command chain,” they warned as long ago as 2013. For that reason, since 2017, 29 high-ranking Colombian officers that were in charge of ten Brigades between 2002 and 2009 are considered persons of interest by the CPI prosecutors. Also, the NGO Human Rights Watch published a report in 2015 that collected evidence that it considered sufficient to say that the “false positives” were not the work of “rotten apples”.
This whole scenario speaks of 80 confessed events involving 146 victims: of 73, no name is known, and 13 were Kankuamo indigenous people. The report identifies ten elements that the soldiers could use to select the victims of “false positives”: being an indigenous person; being accused of being a guerrilla or a member of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), or being demobilized from either group; being undocumented; having a criminal record; being a minor or being poor (a recycler, or homeless); having a disability; or being part of the LGTB community. In the last case, a person who gave testimony said that on December 7, 2007 in Valledupar they killed a young man who had only approached them to talk “because he looked like he was gay”.
The first part: the planning
The lawyers say that, from the testimonies, several patterns came to light. According to Sebastián Escobar of the Lawyers Collective, the testimonies support the fact that there was a “government policy” that prioritized killings rather than captures. The policy provided incentives for killing, and they didn’t just put on pressure for it, but they drove the soldiers “to the limit”. With regard to that aspect, the prosecutors from the CPI, in their report on Colombia, stated that there “exists a sufficient basis to believe that the acts described (the “false positives”) were committed in accordance with a policy that had been adopted, at least in certain brigades of the Armed Forces, a policy of the government or of an organization to commit those crimes”.
The discussion of this has not been without controversy. In his report of 2010, for example, Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the extrajudicial executions, stated that there was no proof that the killings were based on an “official policy” or that the crimes had been “ordered by high officials”, even though he did speak of the existence of patterns in carrying them out. The Council of State mentioned those patterns again later in several decisions. For example, in 2017 this high tribunal said that the quantity of cases “exposes a systematic and structural commission of serious violations of human rights or of international humanitarian rights by the Colombian Armed Forces.”
The report on the La Popa Battalion states that there was a division of assignments “habitual, systematic, and generalized”. It speaks of coordination with paramilitaries, detention of victims in places different from the places where they were killed, and of obtaining weapons or using informants. One soldier said that some Army commanders had connections with the AUC for turning over people to kill and pass off as guerrillas. David Hernández, alias 39, a former member of the Army, is mentioned as one who was involved; also a colonel who commanded that military unit. Another witness said that he had to go to where the bodies were left in order to “legalize them” as killed in combat.
The testimonies relate multiple events, like the execution of five people who were later presented falsely as guerrillas in exchange for weapons. The soldiers told the JEP that their superiors gave the orders. They even ordered the soldiers in the La Popa Battalion who were from the region to go and get victims (determined to be vulnerable) in nearby municipalities and to bring them, by deceptions, to be murdered. A corporal said that. He told how in Valledupar they found two people sleeping on the sidewalk and took them away in a taxi. Another told how a lieutenant ordered him to set up a checkpoint at a place known as “La Y” in San José de Oriente, in order to collect some victims who would be travelling by taxi.
There was a “legalization kit” that included weapons to be planted on the bodies. They got some of them from the AUC and they bought others with collections they took up among the soldiers. “While they were planning to kill Victim 29, Witness No. 2 described how a corporal suggested taking the cash from their food money to buy some weapons from the members of paramilitary groups,” according to the document. Another soldier told how they moved the weapons in a helicopter that a general was traveling in. During this phase, they also mentioned the use of informants to obtain victims and the “division of assignments” to prepare their statements for the military courts. Nobody was against it, said one soldier. Nobody said anything. Nobody gave it away.
Phase two: the execution
At that stage, according to the document, there were at least three patterns that went along with the planning phase: the presentation of bodies as having been killed in operations that they had done with paramilitaries or had been killed by them; the subjugation of victims who were defenseless; and the participation of guides. A major stated to the JEP that a colonel (this last is referred to as Witness No. 13) ordered him to go on the road to Patillal and get a victim that the “paras” had left there with a weapon. In the case of another victim reported as an ELN guerrilla in the District (corregimiento) of Sabana de Crespo (Valledupar Municipality), the major assured him that the victim had been executed by the “paras” and that the colonel himself had ordered him to go there and set up the staging.
The document prepared by the victims’ representatives emphasizes that that officer, whose name is omitted, but who would be Colonel Publio Hernán Mejía (Commander of La Popa at that time), has acted as if he was not connected with any of the events described by his subordinates from that time. “Particularly in the case of the execution of Victim No. 13, he stated that he knew nothing about the paramilitaries turning over a dead body to be used by his troops,” according to the record. With regard to leaving victims defenseless, the testimonies state that the victims were located within the Battalion’s jurisdiction and that they had been identified by informants as guerrillas, but that they were neither captured nor charged.
According to the testimony of the soldiers, in some cases the victims were stopped at checkpoints and didn’t have papers. A lieutenant told the JEP, according to the document, that an indigenous man was beaten up and interrogated until he “confessed” to collaborating with the guerrillas. He was later killed. The soldiers have told of cases in which the victims were guerrillas, but they lied to them, telling them that they would receive benefits if they “reinserted”. They pretended to be letting them go and then they shot them.
As has been mentioned several times, they used guides for joint operations or to turn over victims. One officer told the JEP that the reason might have been resentment for crimes that had been committed by guerrillas and paramilitaries. “The use of guides was a particular feature of the events where victims belonging to the Kankuama indigenous community were killed. That happened at the events in which Victim No. 25 lost his life through violence. They said he had done it recently. There were also guides in the extrajudicial execution of an indigenous man, Victim No. 21. Witness No. 20 (a lieutenant) stated that “he took two informants that knew the area from the town,” according to the document. The lawyer Sebastián Escobar explained that the stigmatization experienced by the communities was because their councils were in areas where the confrontation was very active.
Phase three: the cover-up
According to the testimony, at this stage, they alter the scene of the crime, they prepare documents to provide legal support for the military operation, and they construct, working together, a narrative about the events. For the CCAJAR (lawyers collective) and CSPP (Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners), it’s clear that the cover-up required the participation of a lot of people. “If one link of the cover-up chain is not consistent, the rest aren’t either,” says the report delivered to the JEP. “The false narrative was indispensible,” and it required a number of tasks: removing the victim’s identity, dressing him in clothes worn by combatants, moving the bodies without following legal protocols, making it look as if there had been actual combat, and firing weapons using the victim’s hands, to make sure the ballistics tests turn out positive.
One lieutenant, for example, “admitted that he had destroyed every indication of the identity” of a victim. A corporal admitted that, on one occasion, while Victims No.5 and No.6 were alive, he told them to put on the uniforms and bracelets of the ELN, and another soldier testified that he made Victim No. 12 put on a uniform, then he cut his hair and shaved him. “Witness No. 26, describing the events of the execution of Victim No. 25, described how he obtained a pistol to put in the victim’s hand and fired it, so there would be the sign that he had used it,” according to the report.
One of the most serious facts to come out of this report is those patterns that have to do with creating documents that served as legal support, since officers with command responsibilities were involved with that. “Only superior officers who made up the whole plan had the legal and de facto capacity to issue the kind of documentation that turned out to be altered,” according to the document. They would have altered the intelligence reports that accompanied all of the orders and patrol reports that detail the operation, the circumstances, what happened and where. A lieutenant, referring to two victims, explained that the operation’s patrol report in which the victims were falsely presented as criminals was prepared two days after the events.
Another element that the document emphasizes is key to the development of a common narrative about these crimes. The lawyer Sebastian Escobar explained it this way: “The members of the military agreed on how they would have to make the reports to make sure that there would not be internal contradictions about what had happened. And in some cases there were also threats to people who had witnessed the events or persons who had taken part, so that nobody would depart from the common story.” A lieutenant testified to the JEP that he was contacted by the lawyer for a colonel (Witness No. 13 himself) and told to omit from his testimony the name of one of the compromised officers.
The high-ranking officers
For the lawyer Sebastián Escobar, the voluntary testimony of the soldiers made clear that there was a government policy of incentives such as days off or commendations in their file, as an incentive for soldiers to kill rather than capture, and that it was more than pressure—it was instigation for military subordinates. “It’s one thing to exercise pressure and another thing to push subordinates to the limit. We have found people that, when they were asked whether they participated, said that if they didn’t, their superiors damaged their military careers. For Escobar, that also shows how little lives are valued. “We realized that when sometimes the incentive was Chinese fried rice or a hamburger for having presented an operation with results.”
The report given to the Special Justice Jurisdiction mentions 16 elements that, in the judgment of the victims’ representatives, the JEP ought to evaluate when they take on the responsibility of the high-ranking officers. For example, that they did indeed prioritize killings, that there were no effective controls over the military units, that they fomented competition among the units, that there was a relationship between the troops and the paramilitaries, that the superiors gave direct orders, and the broad reach of the practice, among other things. “The then-lieutenant, Witness No. 2, refers to the phenomenon of prioritizing killings, pointing out that the commanders’ orders consisted in that ‘the main thing here, brother, is (. . .) liters of blood, it’s killings, it’s results,’” relates the document.
This matter brings up the controversial Directive 029 of November 17, 2005, signed by then-Minister of Defense, Camilo Ospina Bernal. It fixed a payment of a reward not only “for the capture or killing in combat of heads of illegal organizations” but also fixed payments for information. The directive was criticized by pointing out that it had made crimes of this magnitude possible. A similar controversy arose in 2019, when The New York Times revealed a directive that called for doubling of operational results by military units. It was rescinded after criticism that the measure could be an incentive to bring back the “false positives” by putting pressure on the troops.
One of the soldiers pointed out that, in some cases, it was obvious that they were carrying out an irregular operation because, for example, they sent out a contra-guerrilla group with major firing capacity, and the result was only one killed. A soldier related to the JEP how the orders they received from their superiors were to do killings, and a major explained that they created special groups for immediate reaction, a squad that received special training, directed by the Battalion, and ordered, he said, to conduct the phony operations. The same soldier (Witness No.2) said that nobody could stand aside from what was going on: there were too many dead bodies to pay no attention.
“A number of witnesses admitted that they had heard about this practice, even since they were in the military school, where they were taught the Army’s Doctrine and at the same time they were taught irregular strategies for obtaining easy results. Other witnesses said they had heard of the existence of the practice of executions from other military units, while others knew that in the ‘Bapop’ (La Popa Battalion) it happened frequently,” according to the document. These observations make up part of the proceedings contemplated in the Special Justice Jurisdiction and should be an objective for the Justices, as much for the concrete cases as for the macrocriminal phenomenon of the “false positives”.
The Army’s version
In that same document prepared by the victims, we see the testimony given by Witness No. 13, identified by the other members of the military as the Commander in charge, the one who constantly denies having had any connections with paramilitary groups, or having committed any extrajudicial executions. According to his testimony, he always acted in conformity with the law, and he said that he had imposed the required controls on his troops. Apparently this Witness is Colonel Publio Hernán Mejía, who led the La Popa Battalion between 2002 and 2004, and who in 2013 was sentenced to 19 years in prison. After serving ten years and then submitting to the JEP, he was released, and in 2019 he was ordered to defend his record of military service.
In an interview he gave on W Radio in 2018, Retired Colonel Publio Hernán Mejía insisted on his innocence, and assured that in 40 years he had only served the country, without any blemish or flaw. Even though the Army never explained the decision—discretionary—to order Mejía to defend his record of service, it is true that the Army has insisted that the commission of extrajudicial executions was the product of some “rotten apples” among the troop,s and was never an order by the institution. Álvaro Uribe Vélez and Juan Manuel Santos insisted on the same in their respective presidencies. When the scandal broke in 2008 about the “false positives” of Soacha, 27 officers were retired and the compromised brigades were shut down.
Throughout the last decade, the Army and the governments in office have been emphatic in insisting that the so-called “false positives” were never a government policy. In the beginning of February of this year, the man who had been the Commander of the Army when the controversial issue broke open, Retired General Mario Montoya, told the Special Jurisdiction for Peace that the extrajudicial executions “ought never to have happened and ought never to happen again”. On several occasions, the Army has had to ask pardon when so ordered by a judge and, in front of the JEP, a number of retired military who came forward to talk about the matter have done the same.