By Carolina Ávila Cortés, EL ESPECTADOR, September 25, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Representatives of the victims have asked the Justices of the JEP to open a proceeding to consider Colonel Hernán Mejía’s and Sergeant Efraín Andrade’s failure to comply with JEP requirements, based on their limited contribution to telling the truth in Case No. 03. In their voluntary testimony, the two soldiers denied the acts for which they have been convicted, and insisted that they were victims of frame-ups.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) is studying an application by the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP) and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective (Cajar) filed last September 8, to have the Court evaluate the possibility of a loss of legal benefits by Colonel Publio Hernán Mejía Gutiérrez and Sergeant Efraín Andrade Perea. The two now enjoy the benefits of conditional liberty or suspension of their arrest warrants because they have submitted to the Special Court. The groups believe that they are not complying with their commitment to furnish the full and exhaustive truth in Case No. 03, on killings illegally presented as deaths in combat, or the wrongly named “false positives”.
Both organizations and representatives of victims have maintained throughout the voluntary testimonies they furnished to the Admission of Truth and Responsibility Branch, that the two soldiers are constantly referring to their innocence and denying any kind of knowledge of or participation in cases of extrajudicial executions committed when both were in the “La Popa” Artillery Number 2 Battalion in César Province.
“There are serious and multiple indications of their participation in-–or minimally, of their knowledge of—the commission of extrajudicial executions by members of the La Popa Battalion during their performance as members of the command staff of that unit. Nevertheless, they have refused to admit any level of participation, knowledge, or responsibility, not even for the acts of which they have been convicted in the ordinary justice system,” states the application, of which Colombia 2020 has seen a copy.
In the document “And again we will sing, with the melodies of peace and with the yearning for justice”, and in the four reports of reviews of the voluntary testimonies of the two parties, the organizations have documented 72 victims in 34 cases of extrajudicial executions committed between 2002 and 2003.
From the lawyers’ point of view, the soldiers did have some level of participation or knowledge of these cases, since Mejía at that time held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was the Commander of La Popa, while Andrade was a Sergeant First Class and was the head of the Intelligence Section. Besides that, the participation of both was mentioned in more than 30 testimonies by other soldiers. Some of them even said that Mejía ordered them to commit those crimes.
“In contrast with the information furnished by other parties who were his subordinates, the conclusion is that the acts were part of a systematic practice, known and endorsed by him (Mejía),” states the application.
One of the cases was the extrajudicial execution of four people in 2002, near the District (corregimiento) of Valencia de Jesús, close to Valledupar, by the Zarpazo Platoon of the La Popa Battalion. One of the soldiers that took part in that action (for his safety, we will not reveal his name) assured the Justices of the JEP in November of 2018 that Colonel Mejía instructed his subordinates to go and carry out or accompany the executions.
“Colonel Mejía, the Commander of the Battalion, calls me into his office and he tells me, we are going out tomorrow morning early to such and such. In the place where they robbed the trucks that were loaded with merchandize for the paramilitaries ( . . . ) some meters farther on, 100, 200 meters ( . . . ) there’s an encampment of paramilitaries and there are or there’s going to be four dead bodies that morning,” related the soldier.
Sergeant Efraín Andrade went along also, according to that same soldier: “Along with Andrade we went out in a vehicle and at that time ( . . . ) just between light and dark we fired some shots in the air. The troops arrived on the other side, in that case in particular, Mr. Justice, was how Zarpazo was used. ( . . .) Indeed, just as the Battalion Commander had indicated, there were four dead bodies and there was some rough construction and you could see that there was a camp there (sic).”
Another case was the extrajudicial execution of 18 unidentified people on October 26, 2002 where, according to a military subordinate, there were paramilitaries dressed in ELN outfits. It happened that the Zarpazo Platoon also had some action near the Hacienda El Socorro. According to the soldier, the paramilitaries were dressed as guerrillas as a strategy to attack the ELN along with the La Popa troops. However, the soldier says that Mejía gave the order to kill all of them. According to the application, in the testimonies in that case in the ordinary justice system, those 18 people were picked out by the paramilitary Davíd Hernández, known as 39, and with the blessing of Rodrigo Tovar Pupo or Jorge 40 to be shot for disciplinary offenses, and they agreed to turn the bodies over to Mejía so he could report them as guerrillas killed in combat.
With respect to Andrade, he told the Justices that among his responsibilities was accompanying the prosecutors to carry out the legal procedures for the bodies. But in that particular case he denied any knowledge or participation in the activities, in spite of having been convicted of them.
The attorneys are wondering how it is that Andrade was present at the legal proceedings for the 18 dead bodies, but he never warned that there were no signs of any combat between guerrillas and the Colombian Army at that place, and there had been no injury to any Army soldier. “Both circumstances ought necessarily to have generated not just suspicion, but certainty, that the soldiers were committing a crime. Because of that we can presume that there is an omission of information or that the party is avoiding admitting some level of responsibility for what happened,” the document argues.
The attorneys add that a number of voluntary testimonies have pointed to Andrade as the link between the members of the Battalion and the paramilitary groups; they even identify him as the one striking up direct dialog with the paramilitary Hugo, who was constantly coming into the Battalion installations.
The former Commander Publio Hernán Mejía was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison for being allied with the paramilitaries. The murder of the 18 men was described by the prosecutors in 2018 as an “act of homicide”, but in the JEP, Mejía kept on maintaining that, according to military criteria, the action was a good one because the victims were a risk to the people living at La Hacienda.
The prosecutors were able to establish that Mejía carried out constant meetings in the La Popa Battalion with Jorge 40, the commander of the Northern Bloc, also with the commander of the Tayrona Resistance Bloc, Hernán Giraldo Serna, and with the chief of the Martyrs of the Chief of the Upar Valley front, the former Colombian Army soldier, David Hernández, or 39.
In June of 2017, Mejía sought out the JEP and, in exchange for his promise of truth about these events, he received the benefit of conditional liberty on November 2, 2017. He has provided three voluntary testimonies, on July 17, 2019, July 22, 2019, and January 19, 2020.
Contrary to providing more information about what has already been established in the ordinary justice system, Cajar and CSPP warn that both of the soldiers are disputing those conclusions. They are denying their responsibility for the events, insisting that the testimony by the lower level soldiers was the product of retaliation. They are identifying themselves as the victims of a political and judicial frame-up, particularly in the case of Mejía. The retired Colonel has stated publicly that he aspires to be the President of Colombia in 2022.
“One of the commitments that you take on when you submit to the JEP is not exclusively procedural and telling the truth, but there is also an obligation in terms of the guarantee of no repetition. When Mejía states publicly that if there may have been reactions by the Armed Forces in connection with the protests, even going so far as attacking the lives of the demonstrators, that is something that also concerns us, even though it doesn’t have a direct relation to the case,” maintained Sebastián Escobar, attorney for Cajar.
In the application, on which the Justices have not yet ruled, Cajar and CSPP request that the Special Court take evidence to determine whether there has been noncompliance; that the Court review the record made in the Military Criminal Court, that the Attorney General’s Office and the Board of Judges verify whether the two soldiers have told the truth before the Truth Commission and before the Unit for the Search for Persons that have Disappeared.
It’s worth remembering that the voluntary testimonies are the first appearances the former combatants have made before the JEP to compare the information in the reports with their testimonies. In that process, it is expected that the soldiers or the former guerrillas admit their crimes, especially when they have been convicted in the ordinary justice system. However, that doesn’t mean that they are required to admit responsibility.
Once the Recognition Branch compares the information it has found in the voluntary testimonies, it must issue a decision with its conclusions. In broad terms, this document explains the patterns of the crimes and the allegedly responsible parties. At this point every former guerrilla or soldier must admit or deny whether they committed the crimes they are accused of.
In case they admit responsibility, there is a proceeding in the Cases of Recognition Branch, where they have to commit to give more details of the events and create a program of reparation for the victims in return for the benefits such as the “own sanction”, which does not include prison.
Now, in a case where they deny responsibility, the accused must attend an adversarial trial in which he has to defend himself from the information collected by the Justices and the investigations carried out by the Investigation and Accusation Unit (UIA), known as the JEP’s prosecution unit. If he cannot prove his innocence, he will have to face a sentence of between 8 and 20 years in prison.