By Alfredo Molano Jimeno, CAMBIOColombia, August 20, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
In March 2022, the Colombian Army carried out a dubious military operation in Alto Remanso, Putumayo Department. Now the Attorney General’s Office concludes that there were serious violations of human rights there.
CAMBIO has learned that criminal charges are being filed against 25 Colombian Army soldiers. The investigation reveals that the indigenous Governor, Pablo Paduro, was defenseless when he was killed, and they planted a rifle to make it look as if he was a guerrilla. Other civilians killed that day were the President of the Community Action Board, Divier Hernándz, and his pregnant wife, Ana María Sarrias. The scene was manipulated, but there were some members of the Dissidents there.
A year and five months have passed since the day when the Colombian Army executed a dubious military operation in the town (vereda) of Alto Remanso in Putumayo Department where campesinos and indigenous people from Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru were having a bustling community bazaar. Emerging in the early morning of the third day of the party, a group of 24 soldiers attacked the location and reported these results: “We killed 11 members of the Dissidents.” The operation had the support of then-President Iván Duque, his Minister of Defense, Diego Molano, and the Commander of the Colombian Army, Eduardo Zapateiro, who defended it ferociously in public statements. However, for the Attorney General’s Office, there is no doubt that a very serious violation of human rights took place there.
The conclusion by the Attorney General’s Office confirms the joint investigation carried out by CAMBIO, EL ESPECTADOR, and Vorágine which denounced that on that March 28 the operation against “alias Bruno”, the head of the Border Commandos, ended up as a massacre in which the Colombian Army killed several civilians and manipulated their corpses to make them look like guerrillas, using the same devices used for the false positives. The Attorney General’s Office deployed an interdisciplinary team that included experts in ballistics, forensic medicine, topography, and prosecutors from the Human Rights Unit. The material that was collected, as CAMBIO was able to establish, reveals that the indigenous Governor, Pablo Paduro, died as the result of a rifle shot from one of the soldiers, and that the weapon found next to his body had never been used or handled by him, but rather, it had been planted for the purpose of derailing the investigation. There is also uncontestable evidence that, while there were 11 people killed, only five weapons were found. Six of the victims possessed nothing they could have used to shoot at the Colombian Army.
The investigation also concluded that, because of the amount of liquor some of the people killed had imbibed, including Paduro, it’s impossible to believe that they could have taken part in any combat with members of the Colombian Army. So much so that, in their condition, they were defenseless and had limited motor capacity. The President of the Community Action Board, Divier Hernández and his pregnant wife, Ana María Sarrias, also died in that condition. That and other elements of the investigation are also part of the charging document that the prosecutors will present at the hearing. The 25 soldiers that carried out the operation, including Lt. Col. Néstor Andrés Cadena who commanded the operation but was not present at the site, will be charged with the crimes of homicide of a protected person and attempted homicide. The prosecution will ask that all of them remain in custody without bail.
The charging hearing is scheduled for early August, but, in an abrupt decision, Judge No. 106 of the Military Criminal Investigations in Puerto Leguizamo granted the petition by the attorneys representing the soldiers to refer the case to the Constitutional Court to resolve the issue of jurisdiction. The decision of that judge has been criticized because one month after the operation, in May of 2022, the Military Criminal Justice system itself referred the case to the Attorney General’s Office, suggesting that the alleged violations of human rights could not be considered to be part of military service. Last July 21, the prosecutor himself, Luis Alfonso Cabezas, who was handling the investigation, even stated that “it would be a juridical insult” to send the file to the Constitutional Court, because jurisprudence establishes that an action of this nature lies within the ordinary justice system. Now the file is waiting in the Court so that it can make a decision before the statute of limitations expires.
What the Director of the Human Rights Unit in the Attorney General’s Office has to say
Prosecutor Hugo Tovar, the Director who is specialized in prosecuting human rights violations, and who was the coordinator of the investigation, spoke with CAMBIO about the progress in the case and the elements that allowed them to request the charging hearing against the members of the Colombian Army.
“We encountered a scene with several bodies of the people who had died in the operation. We reconstructed the scene with an interdisciplinary team composed of ballistics experts, forensic medical personnel, and topographers, among others. We gathered testimony from people who had been in El Remanso at that time. And since the bodies speak as well, we carried out a very serious exercise to establish the direction the shots that killed those eleven people had come from. With that task, we were able to learn that the shots had not all come from one place, but from two different places. From that we knew that the Army was using an encircling maneuver, firing from two opposing points,” explained the prosecutor.
During the dialog with CAMBIO, Tovar Pérez was emphatic and repeated that he could not refer to the details of the investigation until after the charging hearing. “We have made substantial progress in the investigation, but so as not to risk it, we will only talk about the details of the case after they have been revealed when the charges and supporting evidence are revealed at the public hearing,” he said. When he was asked about how Paduro, Divier, and Ana María Sarria died, he said, “I’m not going to talk abut any case. I can’t violate the confidentiality. I can only say that there were civilians among those killed.”
Where Tovar was able to talk, it was about the general elements of the investigation, and how they were able to reach a conclusion. “We collected a lot of cartridge cases, and compared them with the rifles that the soldiers carried. That permitted us to learn whose weapons had been fired. A determining element in this investigation was being able to obtain biological samples such as, for example, testing the bloodstains we found on the weapons. With that, we could establish who it was that had used the weapons that we found, and if they belonged to the people who were killed. We did that, because, from the beginning they had said that the dead were members of an armed group, so the prosecutors dedicated themselves to proving or disproving that hypothesis.”
And even though the prosecutor isn’t able to say very much, for him it’s clear that there was a serious violation of human rights, because of the fact that there was a disproportionate use of force and a violation of the “principle of distinction”. “The result is clear: there were civilian victims. There was a bazaar where, although there indeed were members of armed groups in attendance, the majority of the people there were civilians,” stated the investigator.
Regarding the possible alterations of the scene, he stated, “We found that the bodies had not retained the natural post mortem position, which indicates that eventually they had been manipulated. Here the essential thing was to establish whether that manipulation corresponded to an intention to preserve the body, in the cases where the river threatened to carry them away, as the soldiers explained. That is a plausible explanation in some of the cases. Not in all of them. He can’t provide names or details, because it would taint the investigation and damage the judicious work done by the forensics team. All of the evidence that supports the prosecutors’ hypothesis will be made available at the time of the charging hearing, so we are asking the media and the country for a little patience so as not to put the workings of justice at risk in this case.”
With that in mind, prosecutor Tovar explained that “international humanitarian law (DIH) has some governing principles: the proportionality of force used, the distinction between combatants and civilians. Those principles require members of the Armed Forces to measure the proportionality of their actions, and to know up to what point it is necessary to undertake a military operation when civilians and their property are at risk. Therefore, it is mandatory that members of the Armed Forces consider the proportionality and the risk. That is what professional soldiers are taught at their training Academy.”
He refers precisely to the fact that the prosecutors determined that “after the sniper’s first shot, there was a succession of shots that led to the death of eleven people, as well as to injuries to five people (one professional soldier and four civilians). The firing and the trajectories of the bullets permit a conclusion that alleged members of GOAR-E48 were indeed present and that there was also a violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution that govern in the DIH and which framed “Operation Military Tactics”.
In Tovar’s words, the conclusion is clear: “The Attorney General’s Office has filed charges against the members of the Colombian Army every time an investigation has demonstrated serious violations of human rights.” Even so, the work of the prosecutors is not over, as the Constitutional Court has not yet resolved the jurisdictional conflict, and also as to whether the prosecutors can prove their hypothesis about the events at a charging hearing. But, in addition, the prosecutor Tovar also asserted that the investigation is continuing to seek to establish whether or not there are other individuals involved in this irregular military operation.
This is a first step in the process. There will certainly be a procedural break that will return the investigation to the prosecutor, and we will go deeper into another area, to determine whether or not other individuals were responsible. The first part, which leads to these charges, is against the perpetrators. In the second part, we will investigate whether, in the chain of command, there were other individuals and officials at a higher level that may have been responsible.
Now the process is suspended and waiting for the Constitutional Court to resolve the jurisdictional conflict. Time flies, and the spectre of the statute of limitations is stalking the work of the investigators. With an additional ingredient: not only the United States Department of State, but also a group of eight members of that country’s Congress have their eyes fixed on this investigation, partly because the military unit that carried out the operation receives North American military support.
The truth about the military operation in Alto Remanso, Putumayo Department, seems to be finding its course, and confirming what was reported by an alliance of journalists a few days after the event, that a number of people that the Colombian Army killed were civilians, and that their corpses had been manipulated, and that the positive version, as told in grandiose terms by former President Duque, in reality was a massacre and a false positive.
 International Humanitarian Law provides: Rule 1. The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants. Attacks may only be directed at combatants. Attacks must not be directed against civilians.