La Silla Vacía, September 2, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
On October 14, 1992, a group of soldiers captured the campesino Henry Palencia Antúñez, accused of being an ELN militant in Zulia, in Norte de Santander Department. They held him helpless for several hours and then they shot their defenseless prisoner. That’s how Antúñez was added to the list of “positives” by the Army officers that were there. The order for the operation was signed by the Commander of the Maza Mechanized Group, Lieutenant Colonel Mario Montoya. Nobody investigated the event at the time. Montoya’s career continued to advance, full of medals and glory.
I met him in Puerto Asís in the year 2000, when he was leading the Antinarcotics Battalion. A group of journalists went to the military base where he was directing the operations to confront an armed stoppage decreed by the FARC-EP. A few meters away from the base we met a group of the AUC, patrolling as if they owned the place. When the reporters, some of them from other countries, asked Montoya about the brazen paramilitary presence, he minimized it and then made a theatrical gesture, “We’re going after those gangsters!” But he wasn’t going after them. The Armed Forces only went after the guerillas, while the paramilitaries turned Putumayo into a river flowing with blood. At that time Montoya was already famous for being a cowboy, spoiled by the gringos, the real owners of the anti-narcotics operations.
General Montoya had a soft spot for the communications media, especially in front of the television cameras. The press called him “General TV Screen”. I think he was also a master of performance. When the FARC-EP committed the massacre of Bojayá, in Chocó, Montoya put on a a media show. I heard a lot of my colleagues criticizing the way he had manipulated the scene, and the way he avoided answering the most important question: Was the Colombian Army patrolling along with the paramilitaries on that occasion?
Between 2001 and 2003 he was acting as commander of the Fourth Brigade. At that time the supposed “kills in combat” by that unit shot up, and Medellín and its surroundings were taken over by the paramilitaries of the Metro Bloc and the Cacique Nutibara. Subsequent testimonies connected him with those groups. The complaints by the NGO’s and the UN were dismissed by the Ministers of Defense as part of a “juridical war” by the guerrillas. His advancement continued to be unstoppable.
He was promoted to Commander of the First Division and of the Joint Caribbean Command, and there also the shooting of civilians went up. One day in Montes de María, by a lucky break, journalists were able to hear a live radio communication by Montoya with his troops, in which he effectively demanded results, deaths, bodies, kills.
Montoya’s career was outstanding. Nobody dared to mess with him for two reasons: he made a good impression on the gringos, and he got along well with some very important politicians. The military used to (still do?) create relationships of mutual favors with the local elites, and they would send troops to guard their ranches and the favor would be retuned when Congress decided on their promotions.
When he became the Commander of the Colombian Army, the “kills” were doubled, and the officers in whose areas those “kills” were produced became a caste of untouchables. His cowboy image held fast, and his theatrical gifts remained intact. The phony demobilization of a nonexistent front of the FARC-EP, the Cacique la Gaitana, came shortly after he took over. The staging and props for the farce were put together by the Army itself. Anybody that questioned the set-up was discharged from the institution instantaneously.
Then he tried to swindle us, and he showed us, with cinematographers and neon lights, the supposed rescue of an Army Captain who had been chained in a hole in the canyon at Las Garrapatas. The officer said that he had been in the power of the ELN for five years, and that he had been subjected to serious humiliations and tortures. In reality, he had joined the mafia in the northern part of Valle Department, and the whole operation was put together to get him back into the Army with a story that was false.
In 2008, Montoya played the role of protagonist in Operation Jacque, which freed a group of kidnap victims and was the inflection point in the war against the FARC. But at the same time, it was the high point of the executions of civilians. That was vox populi. In those years the society seemed to be exulting in the war. It accepted, and on occasion, celebrated whencorpses were exhibited in a public plaza and on the front pages of newspapers and magazines; celebrated that they mutilated and rewards were paid for severed hands, and who knows whether there were ears and index fingers like the barbarians? Candidates even based their race for President on the blood that had been spilled.
Montoya, who is charged by the JEP with serious war crimes, was not an isolated case; he was not the only one that measured his success in blood, nor the only one that trivialized the killing. In reality, his trajectory is the result of the way that the war was being conceived. Of a way of thinking, a way of teaching, a way of feeling, and of measuring victory. Of a system of values that rewarded lies and blind obedience and punished anyone who criticized. A system where the civilians didn’t do their jobs, and neither did the Presidents, or the Ministers, or the Members of Congress, or the legal system. Of a system of power that was reflected in the promotions that lacked any real political control or transparency. A system that many active duty officers believe has been overcome now, that is over, and that won’t be repeated.
But I have serious doubts. Some weeks ago, Defense Minister Iván Velásquez said that to turn the page on these acts of horror, it will be necessary to read the whole book of truth, completely. That’s not happening, Minister. The false positives are a prohibited subject, a taboo that is never spoken of, that is never studied, that is never analyzed. The denialism is maintained, regardless of the evidence.