By Carlos López, EL TIEMPO, May 23, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The disciplinary process covers a total of eight members of the military who were operating in a rural area in Putumayo.
The killing of 11 people in the town (vereda) of Puerto Leguízamo in Putumayo during the most controversial military operation in recent years, and about which the Attorney General’s Office has not yet made a final statement, has a new chapter.
EL TIEMPO has had access to an order in which the Inspector General has opened a formal investigation of the officers and noncoms responsible for the military action carried out in the rural part of Puerto Leguízamo on March 28, 2022, when the community of Alto Remanzo was holding a bazaar which had been going on for a couple of days.
The soldiers went there with the purpose of killing or capturing alias “Bruno”, the head of an illegal group known as the “Border Commandos”, one of the factions allied with the “Iván Márquez” Dissidents.
And even though at first they said that “Bruno” died there, that’s not what happened. The operation ended with the deaths of Pablo Panduro, Divier Hernández, Ana María Sarrias, Brayan Santiago Pama, Rubén Peña, Oscar Oliva, Luis Alfonso Guerrero, John Jairo Silva, Enuar Ojeda, Antonio Peña, and Alexánder Peña.
The soldiers claim that there is evidence that members of the Dissidents were in the town, but the community says that the people killed were not members of an illegal group which, they admit, is present in that region of Putumayo.
Fourteen months after the events, the Inspector General has decided to formally connect a Brigadier General to the investigation. He accuses him of having been responsible for the conduct that resulted in infractions of International Human Rights Law (DIH in Spanish).
It’s General Walther Adrián Giraldo Jiménez, an officer with an Army career of more than 33 years, who was the Commander of the Anti-Drug Trafficking and Transnational Threats Command on the date of the 11 deaths. At the end of 2022, he took over as Commander of the Quirón Task Force, one of the most important military units in the eastern part of the country.
The others connected to the case are Col. Carlos Mauricio Salgado Romero, Lt. Col. Néstor Andrés Cadena, Capt. Jorge Erney Marroquín, and Lt. Julián E. Ávila. The non-commissioned officers are Sgt. 2nd Class Andrés Quiñones Mendoza, and Corporals Wilson Santamaría Ramos and Wilmer Rodríguez Arango.
The troubling accusations
EL TIEMPO has had access to the 10-page order signed by three delegates of the Inspector General who are part of the Investigation Branch of the Disciplinary Unit. It contains extremely serious accusations that are now entering the stage of confrontation with evidence and testimony, after the opening of the investigation.
Although the families of those killed and their attorneys have spoken of irregularities, this is the first time that a judicial authority has questioned the legality of the operation in Alto Remanso.
The text of the letter reads, “At about 7:13 a.m. (on March 28, 2022) the soldiers in the area of operations, previously authorized by the Command, entered into combat with Gao-r 48 (the Dissidents) and, without discriminating among the targets, killed 11 people and wounded five more, for a total of 16 civilians injured by the actions of the Colombian Army.”
The word “civilians” appears in the order, which is no small thing, because at the time, they were saying that the soldiers had attacked members of the alias “Bruno” group that were at the bazaar. The purpose of the bazaar was to raise funds to build a path, which, a year after the tragedy that has grieved several families, is now nearly completed.
Before taking this step, the Inspector General’s Office made a thorough evaluation of the testimony and evidence, and concluded that, although it’s clear that at first the operation had a legitimate purpose, a purpose supported in the law, but irregularities were committed in its execution, and the result of the irregularities was the killing of people who had nothing to do with the criminal organization commanded by alias “Bruno”.
Another very serious charge contained in the document is that once the shooting stopped, the soldiers apparently “proceeded to modify the scene of the crime, adding battle equipment such as weapons and military vests on several of the civilians that had been killed in the operation, as well as moving the bodies from their positions before the judicial police could assess the scene.”
For that reason, the investigation covers not only the soldiers that were on the scene, but also those who gave orders from a distance. In the case of General Giraldo, the monitoring of the reports and communications from the troops shows that he was in permanent contact with the soldiers on the ground, especially with the highest-ranking officer who was in the area of the operation. That means, for the control agency, the Brigadier General understood the details of what had happened there and was not just limited to giving a generic order.
Thus, before drafting an eventual list of charges that the soldiers would have to face in a disciplinary proceeding, the Branch ordered a hearing of the evidence, including requiring a report on the events sent to the Commander of the Army, and summoned sworn testimony from General Juan Carlos Correa, who was the Commander of the Aviation and Aerial Assault Division at that time.
Also, in the coming days, there will be another order for evidence, starting on the basis that the Attorney General’s Office has already sent the Inspector General what it had collected from its agents. And in the criminal environment, according to attorney for the victims, including Augusto Gaitán, of the Minga Association, that system has more delays, and so he hopes, as the prosecutors announced to this newspaper, that in the coming weeks we will start to see some results from the criminal side.
Attorney Gaitán assures us that, “The victims’ only expectation is that the authorities act with due diligence to clarify the events that we have complained of as a serious violation of human rights, that the lethargy that has been imposed on the direction of these investigations will be overcome.”