Colombia+20, EL ESPECTADOR, April 27, 2022


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

After listening to two days of testimony by the ten soldiers and one civilian who appeared at the admissions hearing to admit their responsibilities for the crimes of homicide of a protected person and forced disappearance, the victims demanded more of the truth, truth about the participation of the high-ranking military commanders, officials, and civilian third parties that took part in the crimes.

The first public admissions hearing by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) on responsibility in the case of the “false positives” has concluded. In this proceeding, which lasted two days and took place in Ocaña, Norte de Santander Department, ten soldiers—among them a General–and a civilian, all accepted their responsibility for at least 120 people that were murdered and presented as “combat kills” between 2007 and 2008 in the Catatumbo region of this Department on the border.

The former members of the Armed Forces that admitted their responsibility in this hearing were Noncommissioned Officers Néstor Guillermo Gutiérrez and Sandro Mauricio Pérez Contreras; retired officers Daladier Rivera Jácome, Juan Carlos Chaparro, and Rubén Darío Gómez; Retired Lieutenant Colonel Gabriel Rincón Amado; Retired Brigadier General Paulino Coronado Gámez; Retired Colonel Santiago Herrera Fajardo; Active Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Álvaro Tamayo Hoyos; Retired Sergeant Rafael Antonio Urbano Muñoz, and Alexander Carretero Díaz (a civilian recruiter).

The conclusion of the first public hearing for the admission of responsibility

At around six p.m., Justice Catalina Díaz announced a recess to allow Retired General Paulino Coronado to consult with his attorneys. As the hearing re-opened, she stated that the JEP’s Recognition of Jurisdiction Branch must evaluate each one of the statements and claims that had been made in the hearing. “If the Branch considers it relevant and necessary, it may, among many other options, call for a new schedule of public hearings, or request that the testimony of admission be augmented.”

The Justices allowed a final statement from each of the 11 persons who have submitted to the Court’s jurisdiction, in order to conclude the judicial proceeding. The soldiers and the civilian named, one by one, each victim of an extrajudicial execution for which they have taken responsibility, and repeated their acceptance of the JEP charges attributed to them of war crimes, homicide of a protected person, and forced disappearance.

To close the proceeding, Jairo Acosta Aristizábal, the Inspector General’s delegate, stated that, “We wish to guarantee our commitment to the victims and to the protection of their rights.” In the same way, Justice Catalina Díaz thanked the victims for having attended the hearing and continuing with this struggle after almost two decades. “Mothers, sisters, sons, and daughters, a majority of them strong women, but at the same time, very sensitive. Courageous and hard-working women who have done so much to bring these events to light, to investigate them, to see justice. You went wherever you had to go to signal that they were killing our campesinos (. . .) Your power was so great, men and women of Catatumbo, that the pattern had to change. The members of the military units had to go and search for their victims in another locality, because the campesino organizations of Catatumbo wouldn’t stand for any more of this.”

Justice Catalina Díaz interrogates General Coronado

Before the last one of those who had submitted to the Court’s jurisdiction, Retired General Paulino Coronado, had concluded his testimony, Justice Catalina Díaz reminded the soldier that in the court file in his case, there is a part that contradicts his statement that he knew nothing of the actions committed by his subordinates at the time. “On December 6, 2007, in an auditorium like this one, the campesinos of Catatumbo, accompanied by agencies of control, non-governmental organizations, along with representatives of the Armed Forces, complained that campesinos in the area had been murdered and their bodies presented as operational results. (. . .) You were present at that meeting, and you were present when they complained about the killings.” The Justice even recalled that the General, in that meeting, had ordered the song “El campesino embejucado” (roughly, The Put-Upon Campesino).[1]

Faced with these statements, the General admitted that he did receive an invitation to that public meeting, but he insisted that the campesinos didn’t make those complaints at the meeting. “There was no direct assertion about actions carried out by the Colombian Army against that community.” In answer to that claim, the Justice asked him, “You knew about what was going on, you knew there had been complaints?” to which the General responded, “I didn’t know about it.”

The General’s claim annoyed the victims, who, in an episode that was not contained in the televised transmission of the hearing, all stood up and waved signs that read: “Truth is lacking here.”, “Who gave the order?”, “Where are the ones that are the most responsible?”, and “I want Montoya now.” Justice Catalina Díaz called a recess in the hearing.

High-ranking military officers talk about their responsibility for the false positives.

The expected statement by Retired General Paulino Coronado—the highest-ranking soldier who has admitted the crimes—left a feeling of displeasure among the victims, because the admission was ambiguous. Even though he accepted the JEP’s charge in June of 2021, it was for his omission as Commander of the 30th Brigade at the time of the events; he claimed that he didn’t know what was going on with his subordinates in the region.

“I accept my responsibility for having excessive confidence, for having assumed the truth of the statements made by my subordinates to the effect that military operations were being carried out legally, when they were not. I accept my responsibility for not having investigated and punished those false operations,” he maintained in the courtroom.

He continued, “Even though the prosecutors and the JEP found that I never ordered what they did, that I never gave the order (. . .) I accept the responsibility.” He said that he is responsible for not having foreseen that “the policy of physical inflection”—pressuring for “kills”—that was pushed by the then-Commander of the Army, General Mario Montoya, could lead to the commission of these crimes.

He agreed that he was wrong not to have responded firmly to the pressures that were coming from the Commanders of the Second Division, who at that time were General Carlos Ovidio Saavedra Sáenz and General José Joaquín Cortés. He said that they breached the chain of command when they directly, using Army radio programs, berated the officers and noncoms in the squads, passing over him.

He pointed out that he had taken legal responsibility for not having carried out “the first lesson they gave me when I entered the Military Cadet School: The Commanders must answer for what their subordinates do or fail to do.” Coronado was referring to several testimonies that other former Army officers had given in this hearing, claiming that they only recently learned of several methods used in the extrajudicial executions.

“I recently learned that the intelligence section of the Santander Battalion, a few days before the performance of any military action, was registering the presence of criminal or guerrilla organizations in the daily intelligence, so that they could count any dead bodies as guerrillas or criminals. That was how they started degrading the dignity of the people they killed.”

Álvaro Diego Tamayo was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army at the time of the “false positives”, and he commanded the Santander Battalion in 2008. He called it “a farce that lasted 14 years”, the acts of omission that he confessed before the JEP. During his testimony, he admitted responsibility for the crimes against humanity that were committed, including being a party to the homicides of protected persons and to forced disappearances.

“The people we killed were not members of illegal groups. I didn’t take the necessary steps to prevent or to suppress offenses by my subordinates,” added Tamayo. He admitted that, as a Battalion Commander, I never realized that there was a gang that was recruiting innocent people and bringing them to Norte de Santander in order to kill them. Even though he stated that he was not making excuses for his responsibility for the killings, Tamayo also said, “They told me that the people were bandits that came to extort the local people. And that didn’t just do harm to you (speaking to the victims), but also to the military institution, to my superiors. I betrayed, I lied, and I failed the Colombian Army.”

Colonel Tamayo said that at the time, officers were divided into “good commanders and bad commanders”. The good ones provided “combat kills” and the bad ones didn’t. “We felt constant fear of being removed from the institution; there was competition among the Commanders to see who could have the most “kills”. Now I realize that those murders were no errors, or collateral damage, as we sometimes used to say,” he concluded.

The victims speak before General Coronado

After a recess, the hearing recommenced with a statement by Gloria Martínez, who had worked for 18 years in a soap factory. After the murder of her son, Daniel Alexander Martínez, she had to leave her job because of damage to her health. In her statement, she said that she was just beginning to find out some of the details about her son’s murder. “When I got to that hotel for the first time, I wondered, which one of these houses in Ocaña was the one where my son was taken for the last time after being deceived by you?”

The second victim to speak was Jacqueline Castillo Peña, the legal representative of the Mothers of False Positives collective (Mafapo), and the sister of Jaime Castillo Peña, who was killed on August 10, 2008 in Ocaña after being taken there from Soacha. “Here the Army wasn’t acting alone. The Forensic Medicine Unit was involved, because there were a lot of details seen in the bodies that they did not describe. My brother had a tattoo with my mother’s name, Carmen, and they never mentioned that. That was the key to identifying the bodies. The same with the CTI (Technical Investigation Unit). In the military court, the testimony of the five that took part in Jaime’s murder was contradictory. They said that as soon as the battle was over, they informed the CTI representative who was present, but if they were the ones that processed the bodies, explain to me how, if Jaime was killed on August 12, the processing photos are dated August 14? What happened to Jaime’s body during those two days? (. . .) And neither have we heard anything about the complete connection you soldiers had with the paramilitaries,” she demanded severely.

The victim also asked that the soldiers explain what happened to the munitions they had reported as “expended” in the phony operations. “In my brother’s case, you killed two people. Each of them had four bullet wounds, but you reported 367 rifle cartridges spent. Who did you sell those to? Who got them?” she inquired.

Jacqueline said the story that the soldiers insisted on, that they had found the weapons they had placed with some of the victims in a cache belonging to an illegal group, was false, and she asked that they explain the truth about the connections between the Army and the paramilitary groups. “The testimony by the paramilitaries is that they turned bodies over to you to present as ‘results’, and you gave them money so that they could have a day off in the Catatumbo region.”

The soldiers admit their participation in the false positives.

When it was his turn, Retired Colonel Gabriel de Jesús Rincón Amado admitted his responsibility for the “false positives” and, in line with what had been admitted by other Colonels at the hearing, he confirmed the existence of a “criminal enterprise that was created, developed, trained, and organized in the interior of the now-defunct 15th Mobile Brigade, for the sole purpose of presenting false ‘combat kills’ and thus giving themselves a good position in ratings by their commanders.”

The Colonel referred to those commanders by giving their names. The Second Division was commanded by General Carlos Ovidio Saavedra Sáenz and General José Joaquín Cortés in 2007 and 2008; The Commander of the Colombia Army at that time was General Mario Montoya. Of them, he said, “They wanted and demanded combat kills,” and those demands came to him because he was the head of operations to set up the machinery they had to put together to commit the crimes.

During those years, the 15th Mobile Brigade was commanded by Colonel Santiago Herrera and Colonel Rubén Darío Castro, who both were present at the hearing and also admitted their responsibility.

Colonel Rincón Amado, in answer to the repeated petition of the victims, who wanted to know the names of others that were responsible, said that another person who was also part of the organization and had the same responsibility was Major Carlos Rodríguez Mora, Chief of Intelligence in La Cioca; Major José Simón Baquero Ramos, who commanded the 96th Counterguerrilla Battalion; or Major José Reinel Herrán, who commanded the 95th Counterguerrilla Battalion, among others.

According to the Colonel’s explanation, in the interior of this criminal enterprise, functions were divided, and he went on to detail his own role. “My job was to fabricate the documents that would provide a semblance of legality to these faked operations, and that would demonstrate to the agencies of control, such as the Attorney General’s Office, that there had been a real operation, even though there really wasn’t one.” Such documents included reports on the position of the troops, the tactical missions for the operations, or the “operational radio message where we reported every one of the Machiavellian events we carried out, so we could demonstrate that the combat had been legal.”

“I admit, before you, the victims, that your loved ones who lost their lives in these faked combats were never combatants, nor were they criminals, nor did they belong to any criminal organization. They were decent people, campesinos, laborers, who were stalked, kidnapped, and taken to sites where the troops murdered them while they were defenseless, and then placed weapons on them, with the sole purpose of showing our operational results,” emphasized the Colonel.

The victims speak again

Zoraida Muñoz is the mother of Yonny Duvián Soto, a victim of extrajudicial execution in Norte de Santander.  Of all of the victims that have spoken in this admissions hearing this Wednesday, she might be the most skeptical of the regret and the true stories told by those responsible for Yonny’s murder.

At the very beginning, she addressed Alexander Carretero, saying this, “You recruited those boys at the corner of 106th and Seventh, in Bogotá. Somebody was supporting you, and you took away my son’s military draft card,” she said. Zoraida didn’t want her son to be a professional soldier, which he had wanted to be since he was a teenager. She said that she always rejected that possibility, because she didn’t want her son to be mutilated or killed. Then, she added, “You brainwashed them; the soldiers, with their bad influence, and he loved that damned institution.”

With pain in her words, Doña Zoraida said that she had not found the whole truth in the JEP, because the soldiers who had submitted to its jurisdiction did not want to involve the higher-ups. For her, no ceremony will be enough if there is not complete truth and complete admission. “I would like to see a giant pardon ceremony in the Plaza de Bolívar, but with all of the truth being told,” she concluded.

For her part, Flor Hernández, the mother of Elkin Gustavo Verano, joined her petition, and demanded that the soldiers give the names of the high-ranking officers that were responsible. “I would like it if in the same way that they were capable of taking away my son, and all of our boys, they would have the same capability of facing reality. Turn over the head men. Don’t go down by yourselves,” she demanded.

In moving testimony, Hernández described what her time of searching for justice and truth had been like. “Those wretches snatched away my boy and they took away loved ones from all of these people here. We cried tears of sorrow, anguish, loneliness, and emptiness. Their proud military uniforms, Colonels, Commanders, and big-time chiefs, what they did was to spill rivers of the blood of these innocent kids,” she passed judgment.

Hernández also praised the fortitude of the victims. “How have we endured? By being strong, magnificent, and warriors, because we are from the countryside,” she said and demanded they clear the name of her son. “I am proud to be speaking up for my son, because he worked to help me and his brothers, but you took him away from me. You thought you could do that, and that there was no mother behind, who would give her life for her children. You separated me from my son. My son is not dead, he remains alive for me.”

Blanca Nubia Monroy, the mother of Julián Oviedo Monroy, was the next victim to speak at the hearing. “My son was a young man who left home full of dreams and joyfulness, because he was going to earn money to pay for his parents’ house, so we wouldn’t be evicted. He didn’t know he was going to an appointment that he will never return from,” she said.

Her demand from the soldiers was to name the high-ranking officers implicated in these cases. She repeated the emblematic phrase of the families that have been victims of false positives: Who gave the order? “Let them say who it was that gave them the order. Sr. Paulino Coronado, if the President gave you the order, say so. I don’t care who is the President; it doesn’t matter if it was that President and that he was still running the country through Duque (. . .) What we want is to know who it was that gave the order to murder our sons.”

Testimony by the recruiter

I was the person that brought all of your loved ones from different parts of Colombia. I declare that I am responsible for having brought people from Soacha, from Gamarra, Aguachica, and Bucaramanga, to turn them over to the Colombian Army so it could murder them. I want to admit that I did that, so that you know the truth.” That’s how Alexander Carretero, a civilian third party, opened his testimony. He has been identified as the “recruiter” of the young men that were murdered by the Colombian Army to be passed off as guerrillas.

Carretero gave a detailed report about his involvement in the extrajudicial executions, beginning with his relationship with the group of recruiters put together by Dairo José Palomino, Énder Obeso, Uriél Ballesteros, and Pedro Gómez.

“In the beginning of 2008, Énder Obeso made me an offer; he told me that he was in a kind of a problem and asked me if I could go and take a youngster to Ocaña and give him to Dairo Palomino. I said sure, I was hurting for money. In the afternoon, he brought me the kid at the terminal in Bogotá. An innocent kid. I saw that he wasn’t like other kids. We got on, and the bus was empty. I went to one seat. He went to a different seat. We didn’t talk at all the whole trip. We arrived in San Martín, César Department, the next day. I asked him if he was hungry and he said, yes, he was. I gave him something to eat. We ate lunch and then went on. We got to Santa Clara, a road that leads to Ocaña, and to Aguachica. There was Dairo Palomino waiting for us on a motorcycle. We got out of the car and Dairo went with Fair Leonardo Porras on the motorcycle. The next day I went back to Soacha,” explained Carretero. Fair Porras is the son of Luz Marina Bernal, one of the Mothers of Soacha.

Carretero described how several times he had taken young men from different parts of the country and on the roads, he had turned them over to soldiers who forced them into vehicles. He also said that he lent his I.D. papers to Palomino so that he could receive money for those recruitments. “That day with the ID he showed me on the computer the photo of Fair Leonardo Porras, who had been killed. I asked him why they had killed him and he told me, ‘Keep still about that if you don’t want what happened to a kid who was working with us to happen to you. We killed him because he knew too much,’ Scared to death and really nervous, I didn’t say anything,” he explained.

He also said that Palomino helped him buy a house in Ocaña where they took the boys and the campesinos for the Army to take away. I’m responsible for having picked up the people from Soacha and Bogotá that they took to Ocaña, to my house (. . .) And more responsible because I knew what was going to happen to your loved ones,” he said.

And he added, “I can’t give them back to you, but I can cooperate by telling the truth, because, as they say, not all of us are here. There are several soldiers that are still in active service.” Carretero also stated that he had been threatened because of his testimony in the ordinary legal system and before the transitional justice system. “The soldiers tried to kill me so that I would keep quiet. I’m alive so I can keep on cooperating with you and get to wherever they tell me to go,” he said.

The soldiers admit their responsibility for the extrajudicial executions

It was 10:00 a.m. when the admissions of responsibility by the former soldiers in the case of the “false positives” began. Sandro Mauricio Pérez Contreras was the first soldier submitting to the JEP to speak during this second day of the hearing. During the campaigns of the “false positives”, Sergeant Pérez served as a noncom in Intelligence in the Colombian Army’s Francisco de Paula Santander Infantry Battalion No. 15. There he furnished the weapons that were used to fake the combats, as well as paying the alleged informants. He was also a party to the murders of protected persons (extrajudicial executions).

I represent for you all a killing machine. I admit before all of you, the country, and the world, that I used my uniform and my rank in the Colombian Army as a pretext to provide operational results, making them believe that they were legitimate, while in reality they were murders that were committed against innocent human beings that were not connected with any illegal group; they never belonged to one, and for lack of the fear of God I was a party to a criminal pattern,” stated Pérez Contreras.

Later, the retired Sergeant Second Class explained to the victims how he had taken part in the extrajudicial executions. “I planned for them to be brought from Soacha to Ocaña, how they could be turned over to the soldiers; I took away the identities of your children that you loved so much. I obtained false documents so that what we were doing would be believable; I stole their documents so that they could be passed off as ‘Unidentified’, and I did that so it would be harder for you to find them and learn the truth,” he said.

In his testimony, Pérez took out a flower, and thanked Flor Hilda Hernández, one of the Mothers of Soacha, for having made him understand the value of life. “At our first meeting in Bogotá, you told me that this flower represents your son. Maybe this flower isn’t worth much to the people that are watching us, but from you, Sra. Flor, I understood that it reflects your sorrow and the responsibility that I have for taking away the life of your son. Thank you for making me understand the value of life,” he concluded.

While they were all weeping, Pérez emphasized the role of the victims in facing such a long and painful process. “I want to praise the work of the Mothers of Soacha who, from the beginning, were capable of confronting the institution I was a part of.” According to him, that gave him more encouragement to face up to the individual meetings with them.

Who gave the order? The victims’ petition

The first person to speak was Carmenza Gómez, the mother of Víctor Fernando Gómez Romero, who disappeared on August 23, 2008, and appeared dead on August 25 of that year in Ocaña. “I didn’t come here to speak for my son, but rather for the thousands of victims that are here,” she said in her statement.

“Today I say to the gentlemen who are being charged that, please, they have sons, daughters, and families, put your hands over your hearts and sincerely tell us the whole truth. Don’t just take all the blame yourselves, but rather, tell us who gave the order. We need those people. We know that there are some very important personages behind you, “she insisted.

In addition, she demanded that the victims receive the names of those behind the decisions that led to the extrajudicial executions. “They did harm to use and terrible harm to the mothers, the neighborhood, the community. Today I beg you to tell the truth and put the blame where it belongs, from (former President Álvaro) Uribe first, because I know he’s the guilty one, (former President Juan Manuel) Santos is guilty, (General Freddy) Padilla is guilty, (General Mario) Montoya is guilty. Say it, say their names,” urged Gómez.

When her turn came, Idalí Garcerá, the mother of Diego Alberto Tamayo, a young man from Soacha who disappeared on August 23, 2008, and was later killed by the Colombian Army in Norte de Santander, was the second victim to give testimony on the second day of the hearing.

The third person to speak was Anderson Rodríguez Sanabria, the brother of Estiven Valencia Sanabria. “The gentlemen (those who were submitting to the Court’s jurisdiction) are not soldiers but rather some cold-blooded murderers, because you knew what you were doing. You took my brother, just a kid, you took Farid Leonardo, a boy they brought

here from Soacha. And Sr. Carretero traveled with Leonardo that whole trip and never realized that he had special needs. Why did you torture the people if you were planning to kill them? That’s the question I have for you,” he said.

Rodríguez insisted that it’s necessary to guarantee that there will be no repetition of such practices. “So that there can be no repetition, you all who know who the owners and creates of this ghoulish business are, say it (. . .) some of them are still in active service. If you would turn them in, with their names and everything, they can discharge them from the Army. Let them speak here and not keep on doing such a sickening thing. You (those who are submitting to the Court’s jurisdiction) are dangerous, in my opinion,” he said.

Account of the first day of the hearing

In the first hearing held on Tuesday, April 26, six soldiers admitted their responsibility for at least 120 persons that were murdered and presented as “combat kills” between 2007 and 2008 in the Catatumbo region (Norte de Santander Department). The first soldier to stand up and face the victims was Néstor Guillermo Gutiérrez, who in that period was a Corporal in the Colombian Army and commanded a squad in the 15th Mobile Brigade. “I won’t justify what I did, because I committed felonies, crimes. I murdered innocent people, campesinos. I want to make that clear here; the people I killed were campesinos.”

Retired Colonel Rubén Darío Castro Gómez did the same thing. He had been Chief of Operations, later Chief of the Command Staff of the 15th Mobile Brigade, and still later the Commander of the Brigade, between 2006 and 2008. He admitted publicly that, “Inside that Brigade there existed a criminal gang, and I knew about it, and my only purpose was to increase operational results.”

[1] “El campesino embejucado” is an important song in Colombian folklore. It focuses on the oppression and suffering of those who dwell in the countryside.

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