EL TIEMPO, April 26, 2022


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

A milestone for transitional justice took place this Tuesday, April 26, in Ocaña, Norte de Santander Department. For the first time in the peace processes of the world, those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity admitted personally and publicly—in front of society, of the victims, and of the law—their participation in these crimes.

It was a group of ten retired Colombian soldiers (including one General) and a civilian who had been charged by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) with having participated in the murders of innocent civilians in order to present them as criminals killed in combat, those so-called “false positives”.

“At no time have we moved so close to the truth and to the possibility of doing justice as in this hearing of admissions,” stated Justice Eduardo Cifuentes, President of the JEP, at the beginning of the hearing.

Face to face, a handful of victims and this group of those responsible for some of the “false positives” were all in the same place, with five Justices of the JEP in the middle, in an auditorium with more than 50 people—the majority of them victims—who had the opportunity to meet each other, one to one.

Justice Catalina Díaz Gómez, in charge of Macrocase 03, investigation of these extrajudicial executions, described the way in which the charges against the 11 people taking part in the admission hearing were brought, and she made clear what was expected in the testimonies.

Before this gathering there were 22 individual meetings among those who had submitted to the Court’s jurisdiction and the victims in Ocaña and Soacha, as well as another seven collective preparatory meetings and some other steps taken to guarantee that the admissions would satisfy one of the central objectives: reparation for the victims.

The interventions by the retired members of the military

“We murdered innocent people.”

The first to speak was the retired NonCommissioned Officer Néstor Guillermo Gutiérrez, who was a lance corporal during the period of the events.

“I admit my responsibility for the crimes and homicides that I committed. It’s not easy to be here in front of the victims. I’m not going to justify what I did. We murdered innocent people, campesinos. That was not the only time; that was already a policy being carried out in the ranks. Not all of the soldiers, not the whole Army, because there are good people, but at the same time, as we have seen, there were bad people,” said the ex-soldier.

Gutiérrez detailed how he went to a brothel, identified a person as a drug dealer, and made a list of people, with “the pressure of having to show results, any way we could get results.” He said that there were alliances with paramilitary groups that got weapons.

The former Corporal described how, together with the manager of a bar, they made a list of 14 people: “We started killing those innocent people, the campesinos of the region. At that moment I didn’t think of the consequences, the harm that I was doing.”

And he added: “We staged a theatrical to show a supposed combat, because of the pressure from the higher-ups. I killed, I murdered families of people that were there, bringing them together with lies, I deceived them. I shot them, killing them cruelly and putting a weapon on them to make it look as if there had been combat, like they were guerrillas, and I dirtied the names of their families, destroyed that. I left children without a father, left parents without children.”

The soldier identified the murders of several campesinos from the Catatumbo region with their names and surnames, and repeated that they were not , but innocent civilians.

“I want the world to know that they were campesinos that I, as a member of the Armed Forces, murdered in a cowardly manner. I stole away their children’s hopes; I broke their mothers’ hearts because of the pressure for faked results, to please the government. It was not right and I pray every day, asking God to forgive me for the harm I caused to those people.”

Captain Daladier Rivera begs pardon.

The second soldier to speak who was present when these things happened was Colombian Army Captain Daladier Rivera Jácome.

The former officer asked Villamir Rodríguez, a surviving victim who furnished testimony, to stand up, and he asked his pardon for having arrested and, subsequently, fabricated faked evidence as a reason for capturing him. Rivera stated that “some demobilized men who got some payoffs gave the testimonies that justified his arrest.”

The former soldier stated that several of the weapons that they put on the victims to make them appear to be guerrillas, actually came from a guerrilla weapons stash that he himself had found.

He also indicated that even though he prepared intelligence reports, he had never had any training in intelligence work.

Identifying current members of the Colombian Army.

Rafael Antonio Urbano, who was a Sergeant in the Army when they were committing the executions in Catatumbo, said that a Major named Velandia, who is currently serving in the Colombian Army participated in some of those murders. “The man who will be a General in the Armed Forces soon, and is not taking part in the JEP proceedings, has always been able to sneak out of it.”

“I blackened the names of the victims.”

Juan Carlos Chaparro Chaparro, a Captain and later a Retired Major was the Chief of Operations of “General Francisco de Paula Santander” (BISAN) Infantry Battalion No. 15 during the extrajudicial killing. He admitted his responsibility during the hearing. “I blackened the names of the victims,” said Chaparro Chaparro. He claimed that he even went so far as to tell families that came to reclaim bodies that their relative had been part of a guerrilla organization; he also admitted that in the Battalion they falsified and modified reports—not verified—in order to justify what they had done.

“The people that came to the Battalion were decent people, campesinos,” he said, and he added that “the meetings I have had with the victims have permitted me to reflect on what I did, what I allowed.” In addition, he said that the Army never prepared him to cover up what happened.

“A gang of criminals existed inside the Brigade.”

Retired Lt. Colonel Rubén Darío Castro Gómez, who headed the command staff of the 15th Brigade of the Colombian Army, admitted: “A gang of criminals existed inside the Brigade, and I knew about it, I neither investigated it nor filed any complaint about it. It was created for the sole purpose of increasing operational results that we were required to report, simply ‘combat kills’, no matter how they took place.”

He added that they did those things because they were responding to the Commander of the Colombian Army. “The demand was always repeated and on the different levels of command.”

Castro made a sharp accusation of Retired General Mario Montoya, who in those years was the Commander of the Colombian Army. “I kept on stressing General Montoya’s policies to the men under my command, emphasizing that (. . .) we had to show him operational results no matter how they came about. He used different methods to demand that, not just via the radio, but also in meetings with the commanders and comparing the operational results from all of the units—and that contributed to the fact that my subordinates came to commit these crimes.”

The Colonel stated that the “gang of criminals” was maintained because, as the commander, he had been ordered to demand “kills”. And he said he had done no relevant investigations, nor filed any complaints about irregularities.

“I was aware that, because of my demands, and for requiring these results from my subordinates, the result was the murder of people who had nothing to do with the conflict, people who were just laborers and campesinos from the Catatumbo area, or who had been brought in from other areas to this region to be killed and presented as “combat kills”, said the retired officer.

In the same way, Retired Colonel Santiago Herrera Fajardo, who was the Commander of the Army’s 15th Brigade between 2006 and 2007, spoke to the Justices, the victims, and the others who were present at the hearing. “I admit that while I was carrying out this command, inside the institution, a criminal organization was operating, and that it was set up in terms of the policies of the Colombian Army.”

Herrera also stated that “the soldiers committed homicides of innocent and defenseless people (. . .) while I was pressuring my subordinates to report results, no matter how they happened.”

Besides that, he admitted that, in an irresponsible manner, he had instigated his subordinates to commit war crimes, and all of it under mechanisms of pressure and motivation, like “permission for trips for people that reported ‘kills’.” He repeated that his actions made him a joint offender in the crimes.

Finally, he referred to the stigmatization of the Catatumbo region, which had been victimized by all the actors in the armed conflict. And he told the victims’ families that the people they murdered were “campesinos, laborers, decent people and not guerrillas, not terrorists, not gangsters as we unfortunately made them look,” said Retired Colonel Herrera, hoping to dignify the victims, their honor, and their memory.

Statements by the victims

One of the members of the Mothers of Soacha (Mafapo) said that the “false positives” were done “to make the government happy”, and she also said, “those people that today are being called Colombia’s heroes, they are no such thing. What did they do? They massacred us, put an end to our dreams.”

She asked that those who had submitted to the Special Jurisdiction to make the situation clearer and to identify civilian third parties. In the same way, representing Mafapo, she asked the JEP to summon more soldiers who had been involved, to provide their testimony about the “false positives”.

Antonio María Peña Ortega, a campesino from El Tarra, Norte de Santander Department, spoke in representation of his two brothers who had been murdered by the Armed Forces. Here’s what he told the defendants: “You discriminated against us, physically, morally, and spiritually, because we were campesinos and laborers. We had no idea of what a revolutionary outfit was, and the government and the military here could report us as ‘combat kills’ to Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. They are the ones that are gangsters, not us.”

The campesino asked several questions of those who have submitted to JEP jurisdiction, among them, what were the benefits that the government provided to a person that killed a civilian.

Along with their demands for truth and justice, and with his voice faltering, he said, “I am ashamed of this country.”

The attorney, victim, and representative of other victims, Álvaro Marulanda, described the barriers to access to justice he experienced when he brought the case of the murder of his brother. He also mentioned the necessity of “not leaving any family without being able to find the remains of their family members,” referring to the impossibility he has seen up to now of finding his brother’s body.

Finally, Marulanda made a call for others of those responsible to appear voluntarily before the JEP, especially Juan Manuel Santos and Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the Minister of Defense and President of Colombia at that time.

In the same sense, Mayra Alejandra Jaimes asked that there be more additions of the truth. “We want more truth, because they are hiding it or covering up for the ones that are really responsible. You are not the only ones, there are more people, and we want to see their faces also,” she said.

Soraida Navarro, the daughter of Jesús Emilio Navarro, one of the victims—he has been disappeared for 14 years—made a heartfelt statement in which she spoke of the fear that was generated by the extrajudicial executions in the Catatumbo region, and how that led to the rupture of confidence in the Armed Forces.

“My first requisite is that you clear the good name of our family members (. . .) We have no confidence in the government of Colombia, if the Army comes to our region, that scares us,”she said.

And she continued, “I want this never to happen again. That our children and grandchildren won’t have to go through this. There are no tears left in our eyes because we have suffered so much (. . .) I don’t want you to  cover things up anymore.”

Another of the victims complained that some people still are not listed by the Victims’ Unit. She also requested that soldiers still serving and who are, as she fears, connected with the murder of her son, like Luis Francisco Ríos García, be discharged.

“I know of three cases, including mine. I have seen the people that took part in the murder of my son, still wearing the uniform,” she claimed. Finally, she requested that the government pay damages to all of the victims.

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