By Diego Legrand, EL TIEMPO, May 17, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Beginning on May 4, the JEP is progressing through videoconferences in the clearing up of one of the darkest and most shocking chapters of the armed conflict in our country: the “false positives”. Two officers tell how it was carried out and say that the ones who produced the best results received rewards.
In the midst of a military offensive to pacify the country, the refrigerators in the morgue of a town in northeast Colombia were packed tight. Then, remembers Colonel Gabriel de Jesús Rincón, the unidentified bodies of supposed guerrillas and criminals had to be removed and taken to a common grave. But the reality was something else: the morgue had been filled with murdered civilians.
“I myself never killed anyone, but I did make it possible for the murders to be committed,” confessed Rincón in an interview with news agency France-Presse (AFP). That action marked the fall of this 53-year-old retired officer, and helped him to continue uncovering the worst and bloodiest scandal of the Colombian Armed Forces in an armed conflict that lasted almost six decades.
This man with a steely look had been in the Army for 22 years when he was convicted of disappearance and murder. Between 2006 and 2008 he was the officer in charge of operations for the 15th Mobile Brigade, with jurisdiction in the province of Norte de Santander, bordering on Venezuela. At that time, the military battle with the guerrillas was so bloody that the Ocaña municipal funeral parlor didn’t have enough space.
In September 2008, the Mayor’s Office and Catholic Church leaders, fearing a health crisis, managed the legal transfer of 25 bodies that had been in refrigerated rooms to a common excavation in a place called Las Liscas. In the process, some of the bodies were identified as the remains of civilians who had disappeared weeks ago, and had been the object of searches by families a great distance away.
Rincón stated that with the exhumation, they learned who their victims really were: poor young men who were deceived and taken to Ocaña from the Municipality of Soacha, a place near Bogotá, 740 kilometers from the place where the troops had killed them.
“I helped some of the units by giving them some supplies (…) I’m talking about furnishing weapons (…) to make it look as if they were killed in combat,” Rincón specified.
This high official shared for the first time with a news organization what he had told the Justices of the Special Jurisdiction For Peace (JEP) and the families of the victims, within a truth and justice process in which he seeks to reduce his sentence. “I made no complaint and I permitted the units that were stationed there, in the combat area, to carry out these practices,” admits Rincón.
The soldiers had organized their own “body count”, a count of bodies that was rewarded because it showed results in the war against the guerrillas and the paramilitary drug gangs that had intensified with the arrival of Álvaro Uribe to power in 2002.
The former officer relates that there were rewards for the soldiers, from medals and days off to high praise in their evaluations and promises of promotion.
More than 3,800 cases
Rincón has spent almost ten years in prison. In 2017 he was sentenced to 46 years for the murder of five men from 20 to 25 years old, who had been living in Soacha and who were initially reported as “killed in combat”. According to his account, two civilians acted as recruiters, and he had no direct dealings with them. They brought the young men to Ocaña in a bus, with promises that they would “earn some quick money”.
The two men and a sergeant made up the “criminal organization”. Once in Ocaña, the Espada (Sword) Unit took care of the murders. “I never tried to explain anything to them (…), the only thing I told them was that they were going to get ready and go out and do this operation, they are going to bring you some people and you know what you have to do.”
Victor Gómez was 23 years old when he traveled, tricked, to Ocaña along with Jader Palacio and Diego Tamayo. “They got them drunk and they took them to (…) a fake Army checkpoint and that’s where the recruiters turned them over (…) The next day they woke up dead,” said Carmenza Gómez, Victor’s mother.
The three were presented as part of a criminal gang. “Victor had one shot in the forehead, a shot at point-blank range,” specified the woman, 62 years old. She has received official protection because she has been threatened for seeking the truth.
In the military jargon, they were called “positives”, and thousands of those results were really executions of civilians in cold blood. The Attorney General’s Office knows of 3,876 “false positives”, and according to a report they furnished to the JEP in 2018, 59% of those executions took place between 2006 and 2008 when the now-Senator Uribe was President (2002-2010). He has always denied any connection with or responsibility for the practice.
“The instigations of the commanders were such that they had to provide results one way or another, and that “one way or another” led them to commit (…) these murders (…) and to give them the aspect of legality,” says Rincón.
José Miguel Vivanco, of the NGO Human Rights Watch, believes that several files are “forgotten in the Military Criminal Justice system,” but that a “credible estimate” by the United Nations suggests that there were as many as 5,000 such murders. This was not just “a few rotten apples, but rather, they were generalized and systematic crimes,” Vivanco insists. The Attorney General’s Office is investigating 29 generals for these crimes.
Before arriving at the 15th Mobile Brigade in 2006, Rincón recalls having been accosted by the man who later became the Commander of the Army, General Mario Montoya. He is retired now and is also appearing before the JEP, a Court created by the Peace Agreement in 2016, leading to the disarming of the FARC.
“ ‘What are you going to do to win the war,’ he said. And I asked him, ‘What did you say, General?’ Then he said, ‘How many kills are you going to produce?’ And I answered, ‘But kills from where? I don’t have any operational assignments.’ Then he, I don’t know if he was joking, but it was very direct, he said to me, ‘So why don’t you grab some of those guys up in the morgue, dress them up in a uniform, and report them as your results?’ ”
When he met Montoya again later, Rincón by that time had been assigned to the Mobile Brigade. “Now you’re going to get to know what a war is like. Now you will be going to win the war,” Rincón states that Montoya said to him, the same Montoya who was the Commander of the Colombian Army between 2006 and 2008.
And even though he never received a direct order to kill, the colonel revealed the existence of a top 10 military units where success was measured exclusively by the number of kills. If anybody “wasn’t turning in results, he would have to get out of the Army.”
Montoya’s defense insists that he “never instigated anything at all”. “There are 2,140 soldiers involved in investigations of extrajudicial executions. That makes 0.9% of the men who fought in the Army in that period. (…) which shows that there never was a directive or guideline to the Army to carry out such atrocities,” maintains General Montoya’s attorney, Andrés Garzón.
The risk of being killed if you talk
Rincón submitted to the JEP, which is investigating the worst crimes committed by guerrillas and Colombian soldiers in the conflict, a war that has eight million victims, among the dead, the disappeared, and the displaced. In 2018, after he asked for pardon, he was released temporarily in return for promising to tell the truth and make reparations to his victims. But in November he had to receive government protection after a failed attempt on his life when he was visiting his brother. His attorney, Tania Parra, has also been threatened. Twenty of the 219 soldiers who are under the special court’s jurisdiction have received security protection for the same reasons.
The Court hearings are temporarily suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic emergency, but they were reactivated virtually on May 4. “Telling the truth after a conflict lasting more than 50 years (…) undoubtedly implies a risk,” states Giovanni Álvarez, Director of the JEP’s Investigation and Accusation Unit.
Rincón now is awaiting the confrontation with the victims. He wants to tell them what the “instigation and pressure” was like that ruined so many lives and turned him into an executioner. “It’s going to be very difficult to look at each other face to face, victim to victimizer,” he says. Tears start to come as the cameras are turned off.
A Major who was rewarded with 15 days in Quito tells his story
Captures aren’t important, “only kills”. When he arrived in 2006 to command an elite force of the Colombian Army fighting against kidnapping, Major Gustavo Soto followed that guideline, “instigated”, according to him, by a high-ranking commander who was demanding results.
He confesses that he rewarded his troops for killing civilians that they passed off as guerrillas or criminals. But he clarifies, “I wasn’t the one that started that (…), the soldiers knew how to present the dead bodies, how to do it.”
Already in the operation, “you grab the person, capture him, but the order is to kill him, make it look like you killed him in combat,” details Soto in his AFP interview.
The retired officer, 48 years old and with a crew cut, maintains that he saw one killing and, for others, provided the weapons that the soldiers placed in the hands of the dead people. “The money that I was supposed to use (…) to search for the people who had been kidnapped, I used it to buy weapons and to pay a lot of recruiters of the civilians who were led to their deaths with deceptions about “a nice job”.
The soldiers were rewarded. “You could get five days off (…) They gave me 15 days in Quito in 2007 for being among the ten best units.”
Soto was arrested that year. In 2018 he was released temporarily as part of a deal with the Special Jurisdiction For Peace (JEP). Soto promised to tell the truth and to provide reparations to his victims, in order to obtain an alternative penalty instead of the 32 years in prison that he expected to receive for murder and kidnapping. This is the first time that he has talked to the press about what he had told the Justices of the JEP.
Between May of 2006 and October of 2007, Soto commanded an elite corps fighting against kidnapping and extortion (Gaula) in the province of Casanare. He assumed the command with an operational result of 10 to 14 kills (deaths) and left the Unit with a record of 83 kills. “Around that time some four or five operations were totally legal; the others were illegitimate deaths,” he says. Of the victims, 48% were young people, between 18 and 30 years of age.
According to Soto, as a commander he carried out several operations with the now-defunct secret police, the DAS, dissolved in 2011 because of their conspiracy to spy on journalists, judges, and politicians.
“What the DAS did, was they showed me how to do it (…) No prosecutor ever told me, ‘Well, Major, brother, what’s going on here?’ Nothing like that. It was as if everybody kept their mouth shut, nobody said anything, they knew all of it was illegal.”
For a while, the soldiers were able to cover up their crimes by getting rid of the victims’ identity documents. “Nobody said anything about that either; they saw it as normal, and I allowed it to happen. At that time I didn’t feel any regret at all, because I could see that it was an operational success for the Brigade.” Soto says he felt “bullet-proof”.
He testifies and fears for his life
And he points to the then-Commander of the Army, General Mario Montoya. As he says, the General measured operational results “ ‘in kills’. He wasn’t interested in capturing prisoners (…), I was a witness (once) when a Major named Rodríguez didn’t have any kills. The Commander of the Army came and told him, ‘Major, is it that in (the municipality of) Barrancominas there aren’t any guerrillas?’ And then he yelled at him, ‘what you have to do is get a battalion in line and give the order: fire. And then go and pick up the bodies, like you’re saying to the ones who fired (…) that’s a winner, it’s a kill.’”
Montoya’s defense, which is providing his version to the JEP, also denies those allegations. Now Soto fears for his life. “It’s true that what I’m saying probably does have a price,” says the officer resignedly. It won’t be long before he will have to look at the faces of the families that are in mourning because of him.
The valiant struggle of a mother who lost her son
It took nine years to reconstruct the extrajudicial execution of her son. In her search for justice, Carmenza Gómez uncovered a “rotten stew” like very few others and now she is demanding the complete truth about the crime.
Victor Gómez worked as a doorman in Bogotá. On August 23, 2008 he disappeared, along with Diego Tamayo and Jader Palacio. In the next month their bodies were found in Ocaña , in Norte de Santander, far away from Soacha, the municipality where they lived. It’s located south of Bogotá. Ocaña is where they were lured with false promises of better jobs. Victor had one shot in his forehead, at point blank range, and the authorities reported that he was part of a paramilitary organization and died in combat with the Army.
He was the sixth of the eight children that Carmenza raised by herself. The woman tells how she found out about what had happened to Victor because an apprentice at the Forensic Institute, a cousin of one of his friends who had disappeared, found his photo.
His body was at a morgue 740 kilometers from Soacha. In the mortuary album, Victor was included.
“You want the earth to open and swallow you. I fainted,” she remembers. “If you’re a mother or a father you are never prepared to see your child dead.”
As soon as she could, she got some money together and went to get her son’s body, which, along with some other bodies was being transferred from the morgue to a common grave. With time they found the bodies of 19 young men from Soacha in several common graves.
“I was the one that uncovered this rotten pot that the Army had,” specifies the woman, who has received government protection because of the security risks.
And later they killed another one of her children.
Since then Carmenza lives in a legal marathon to discover the truth, together with 13 other women who formed the Mothers of False Positives Collective.
While she was seeking justice, on February 4, 2009, unidentified killers shot and killed another of her sons, John. Carmenza believes they killed him because he was investigating the conspiracy that led to the death of his brother. The woman remembers with regret the admiration she had had for the Colombian Army, where three of her five sons had performed obligatory military service.
In spite of the latest loss and the fear she felt, Carmenza never stopped, and she attended practically every one of the hearings related to Victor’s death.
In 2017, nine years after the crime, the ordinary justice system convicted 17 soldiers and commanders. All of that time she “was looking at their faces, being in the same room where there were hearings, where the only thing they did was make fun of us and whisper to each other,” she laments.
Several of the soldiers that were convicted were released temporarily after they submitted to the special justice system that came out of the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC. That “was a very heavy blow,” says Carmenza. Nevertheless, she hopes that this concession will lead to learning the whole truth and that there will be reparations for the victims.
For her, the government is mostly responsible for those crimes because it established the policy of “rewards so that they could say they were winning the war, killing civilians.” And she insists that she will only consider pardoning them when the whole truth is established.
In times of pandemic, the mothers of Soacha are selling face masks with a slogan that sums up the battle: “Who gave the order?”
There are 1,740 convictions for “false positives”
The extrajudicial executions or “false positives”, a scandal that began to be revealed during the administration of former President and now Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, have led the legal system to open more than 2,260 criminal investigations of these crimes.
According to the statistics that the Colombian Attorney General’s Office furnished to the International Criminal Court for its annul evaluation of the country’s situation, as of October 2019, the prosecutors had 2,268 open cases in which there were 3,876 victims of “false positives”. Those legal proceedings, the Attorney General’s Office indicated, involved members of 25 Brigades in seven Divisions of the Colombian Army.
More than 10,000 individuals under investigation
For the murders of civilians who were later passed off as killed in combat, as of this date there have been 10,742 individuals investigated, and 1,740 convicted. In addition, just in the last year, according to the Attorney General’s report to the CPI, 31 soldiers were convicted.
Another portion of the government’s response to these events took place in 2008 with the greatest military purge in connection with human rights. Twenty-seven soldiers—3 generals—17 officers—and 7 noncommissioned officers were discharged from the Army by the order of then-President Álvaro Uribe. This was after an internal investigation of the disappearance of several young men from Soacha, in Cundinamarca, whose bodies were found in Ocaña, raising doubts about the activities of the military.
In a debate in the Congress about what went on, in June of last year, the now-Senator Álvaro Uribe talked about that purge in the military and he said that it was the first forceful response to well-grounded suspicions about irregular activities by some soldiers. He added, “Never, never, were rewards offered to members of the Armed Forces, least of all for killing.”
After that initial purge and through the years, more soldiers have left the Army because of their involvement in extrajudicial executions.
The efforts by the Colombian government to investigate this subject have been recognized by the United Nations Commission Against Forced Disappearance which, after evaluating this country in 2016, congratulated the government for the measures adopted to solve those crimes. Government officials have maintained that this was not a government policy and that, in fact, from the beginning, decisions were made that included discharge of soldiers and turning information over to the authorities.
Moreover, the cases regarding crimes of extrajudicial execution have also made progress in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). In July of 2018, after receiving several reports, the Court decided to open Case No. 03, called “Deaths illegally presented by members of the Armed Forces as deaths in combat.”
The JEP has already listened to more than 200 soldiers
As of this past May 6, the JEP had received the versions of 219 soldiers in this case in all parts of the country. Besides that, 2,680 members of the Armed Forces have been admitted to the transitional justice system, and there are another 1,840 petitions to be considered.
Up to now, the Special Justice for Peace has focused its investigation on the high numbers of extrajudicial executions in six provinces: Antioquia, Cesar, Norte de Santander, Casanare, Meta, and Huila. And, among the soldiers involved in the extrajudicial executions there are now at least four Army generals, including retired General Mario Montoya Uribe, the highest-ranking officer admitted to the JEP. He commanded the Army between February 2006 and November 2008.