EL ESPECTADOR, July 6, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Criminal units made up of soldiers, with hierarchy, power to govern the region, and management of funds, were behind at least 120 cases of civilians reported as killed in combat between 2007 and 2008. They were “embedded” in two military units in Norte de Santander Province.

Of everything that our country has been able to learn about how the Colombian Army murdered civilians and passed them off as combatants to “inflate” their “results”, the most recent decision by the JEP turns out to be a crucial element in helping to understand what really happened during the years of the war, and how it was that they committed those crimes.

For the first time since those events were discovered and the justice system started to investigate what the soldiers did, a judicial finding has described how what went on in Colombia, at least in the Catatumbo region. It was the creation of “criminal organizations” that were embedded in military units. And they had one objective: that members of the Army could present murdered civilians as “killed in combat” so they could demonstrate “results”.

The Special Jurisdiction affirmed that in a 284-page order, in which it charged ten members of the military with war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Macro Case that is studying the false positives. According to the Justices, the 120 cases identified so far in Norte de Santander are not random, but rather they are part of an organized activity. Even though the criminal organizations described by the JEP “had no names, nor distinguishing characteristics, nor secret camps, nor rites of initiation beyond those of the official military entity in in which they were “embedded”, they did share a common objective: to respond to an entity policy of body count, that means, the primacy of “kills, however they might happen” rather than captures or seizures, as a way to demonstrate military success.

In Catatumbo, two Army units were organized around that goal, states the JEP: Mobile Brigade 15 (BRIM15) and the General Francisco de Paula Santander Infantry Battalion No. 15 (BISAN), based in Ocaña.

The JEP states that in the Mobile Brigade, the criminal organization consisted of  Commander Santiago Herrera Figaro; Chief of Operations Gabriel de Jesus Rincón Amado; Intelligence Chief Daladier Rivera Jácome, several members of the special groups from the Battalions, and from the Ocaña Central Intelligence (CIOCA). Moreover, then-Commander Álvaro Diego Tamayo Hoyos; Chief of the Intelligence Section Sandro Pérez Contreras; Operations Chief Juan Carlos Chaparro Chaparro, and some civilians like Alexánder Carretero Díaz carried out the criminal activity in the Infantry Battalion. All of the military are now retired from the Colombian Army.

These two military units, in a context where combat kills were prioritized, “were in a part of Catatumbo where some guerrillas had withdrawn to the high mountains and were resorting to sharpshooters and land mines. It wasn’t easy to get into combat with them.

( … ) So, because the campesino population in the region was stigmatized as being members, supporters, or furnishing bases for the guerrillas, the members of the Command Staff of the Mobile Brigade and the Battalion responded to the pressure for ‘results’ by forcibly seizing and disappearing civilians in order to kill them and present them as combat kills.”

For its part, the JEP sees a pattern in these killings, because “ they were committed by members of the BRIM15 and the BISAN in the framework of the same criminal plan and with a division of labor, in a specific territory, and in the same period of time. The 120 murdered victims had a similar profile and there was repetition of the same modus operandi”. This last refers to the fact that a large number of the victims were young campesinos from the region and presented as guerrillas when they were already dead, and a second group had been brought to Norte de Santander from other regions of the country, to be killed.

Besides the objective of producing “kills”, the alleged criminal organizations had a distribution of roles, command authority and hierarchy, such as access to funds, as well as their job duties as members of the Colombian Army. The first refers to the fact that “these criminal organizations included members in charge of executing step by step the selection and murder of the civilians that were presented as ‘combat kills’ according to the JEP. For example, the Commanders “worked on the authorization and planning of the crimes and assuring the success of the legalization of the alleged ‘combat kills’.”

At the same time, the Operations Chiefs created the orders they used to give the appearance of legality to the faked operations, while Intelligence officers coordinated all of the links, and in some cases took charge to see that the soldiers on the ground all told the same stories. That’s why the JEP adds this about the power of command: “The criminal acts that the members of these organizations carried out did not occur as part of their private lives, or in a family or social context, or disconnected from their condition as members of the Armed Forces. The troops acted within the framework, and using their positions as members of the Colombian Army.”

The JEP reports, “the legalization (of the false operations) even included the cost of the munitions needed to simulate a combat, the disposition of weapons and fighting equipment over the body of the victim, and the respective reports for the supposed ‘combat kill’ via radio-telephone.” There is where the JEP sees the third factor that leads to the conclusion of a criminal organization: the money. They not only used operational funds, such as the weapons and the vehicles used in killing the civilians, but they also used funds reserved for payment of rewards such as, for example, paying 1 million pesos  for every victim that the civilians involved in the crimes were able to recruit.

According to the investigation by the JEP, the Command Staffs of the Mobile Battalion and the Battalion were in constant contact with now-retired General Paulino Coronado, then the Commander of the 30th Brigade. He was also charged by the JEP, and he was the highest-ranking officer to be charged for the events that took place in Catatumbo. Coronado was retired by the Army during the Álvaro Uribe administration, precisely because of these events. The officers of these alleged criminal organizations, the Special Jurisdiction pointed out,  “kept Coronado informed at all times about the administrative and operational aspects, and he issued orders on how the operations were to be conducted.”

The retired General, the other nine members of the military, and the civilian who was charged now have 30 days to inform the JEP if they will accept their responsibility or if, on the contrary, they decide to go to trial to prove their innocence. With regard to the JEP’s charges, the President of the Colombian Association of Retired Military Officers (Acore), John Marulanda, told Caracol News that: “The JEP cannot say that there was an institutional body count policy. That doctrine never existed in Colombia. It was typified by the United States in its intervention in Vietnam. But we are also astonished and disconcerted when the JEP now says that there was a generalized and systematic attack on the civilian population, which is contradicted repeatedly by consistent statistics from international organizations, which demonstrate that the Armed Forces, the Colombian Army, is the institution most respected by the Colombian people.”

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