By Guylaine Roujol, CAMBIOColombia, September 27, 2023


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The French journalist, Guylaine Roujol, who investigated the false positives to complete her dissertation as a graduate of Sorbonne University, discovered that, behind the scandal of the false positives was another scandal that had been concealed and covered up: the murder of soldiers by their peers to cover up crimes committed by the Army.

In September of 2008, an investigation of a series of disappearances of some 19 young men from Soacha, revealed to the country a scandal of national extent known as “false positives”: the murders that took place all over Colombia; at least 6,402 people were murdered at the hands of the Colombian Army between 2002 and 2008 as part of the policy of democratic security imposed by then-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Before arriving at that statistic, which was disclosed by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in February of 2021, the families of the victims had to face obstacles of every kind.

Fifteen years later, we are awaiting the decision by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace on a penalty in the case known as the Catatumbo case, in which five colonels, four officers and noncoms, and a civilian recruiter admitted their responsibility for the murders of the boys who came from Soacha and Bogotá.

Nobody can deny the existence of that criminal phenomenon or its magnitude, even the most radical denialists. “False positives” were real victims.

One aspect that not much has been spoken about is the destiny of soldiers, mostly common soldiers, corporals or sergeants, who attempted to oppose that policy that called for producing “results” in exchange for incentives, which has cost the lives of hundreds of innocent young men.

Besides facing threats and discrimination for speaking up about this phenomenon, the families of both civilian and military victims have struggled to restore the good name of the victims, to discover the truth about the homicides. The figure of 6,402 victims is probably underestimated, because other families have not wanted to complain and thus expose themselves to that kind of treatment.

A modus operandi against recalcitrant members of the military

Just as there was a pattern all over the countryside to kill thousands of civilians and pass them off as members of an armed group at the beginning of the decade of the 2000’s, there was or is a modus operandi against members of the military that tried to stop or complain about these crimes by the government or tried not to participate in carrying them out.

You only have to seek out testimony from soldiers or civilians that expressed serious doubt about a relative in the military who disappeared. Some of them, in a climate of fear, had doubts about telling what they knew, out of their fear of reprisal. Others took their cases to court. Sometimes they had to fight for years, confronting refusals, lies by the Army, threats and intimidation, but they didn’t give up.

That is the case of Raúl Carvajal, who died on June 12, 2021, without reaching the final objective of his existence, learning that his son, a Corporal in the Antonio Ricaurte Infantry Battalion in Bucaramanga, belonging to the 2d Division of the Colombian Army’s 5th Brigade, killed on October 8, 2006 in El Tarra (Norte de Santander Department) was recognized as being a “military false positive”.

In spite of the evidence, the signs of torture, and the inconsistencies in the operation file signed by Colonel Álvaro Diego Tamayo Hoyos—the same member of the military who certified his death in combat and had so much difficulty in admitting to the JEP his responsibility for the “false positives”—Don Raúl was not able to see his last wish come to pass.

The trajectories of Raúl Carvajal and Jesús María Suárez are at once similar and symmetrical, but with one great difference: the JEP recognized that 2d Lieutenant Jesús María Suárez of the 79th Counterinsurgent Battalion (BCG) was murdered by the Colombian Army in the town of Llano Gordo in the Municipality of Mutatá (Antioquia Department) and then was falsely represented as a member of an illegal armed group who was killed in combat.

Just like Raúl Carvajal, after the death of his son on March 18, 2005, Jesús María Suárez has dedicated his life to having the murder of his loved one recognized as an extrajudicial execution. Order #1 of 2022 of the Admission of the Truth, Responsibility, and Determination of the Facts and Actions (SRVR) branch of the JEP, issued July 11, 2022, admits that, “he lost his life at the hands of his own troops” in “a military operation apparently legitimate (. . .) with the direct support of members of paramilitary groups (. . .) and that the BCG 79 Commander, David Herley Guzmán Ramírez, as his superior, took responsibility for the planning and execution of this homicide.” In other words, the Tribunal recognized his situation as a “military false positive”.

In addition, the Order specifies, “One of the purposes of this killing was to generate terror in the heart of BCG 79 and intimidate anybody that wanted to oppose or not be connected with the criminal enterprise.” The Colombian Army killed Jesús Javier Suárez Caro and tried to blame third parties for his murder; they did it to dispose of anybody who might be a grain of sand that could endanger the criminal enterprise, and to make an example for all the other soldiers that might want to follow the same path.

Examples to generate terror

“As one retired from the military, I understood that they were seeking both heaven and earth. It’s the only case in this region of a person that was killed and his body turned over to his family,” Jesús María Suárez confided. He was the one who started fighting from the very beginning because he wanted to recover his son’s body.

To generate terror, to intimidate anybody who wanted to oppose them . . . those two cases are the best known, not only by the people of Colombia, but also by the JEP and the ordinary justice system. Just as the cases of the civilians who disappeared from Soacha were for years the tip of the iceberg of the phenomenon of the “false positives”, the trajectories of Carvajal and Suárez are like the trees that are hiding the forest: a silent and hidden scandal in Colombia, the scandal of the “military false positives”, actions to cover up the crimes of the government.

Raúl Carvajal and Jesús Suárez are not the only ones who paid with their lives for confronting their commanders or filing complaints with the Attorney General or the Inspector General, inside or outside of the Army. The interviews I was able to do for my dissertation and the indirect testimony map out a profile of the military victims. The majority of the cases are soldiers or noncoms that were threatened and who saw their professional development halted for that reason.

That’s what happened to Corporal Carlos Eduardo Mora who complained inside the Army about what he had seen in Ocaña, before the murders of the boys from Soacha. He owes saving his life to the protection he got from the Inter-American Court for Human Rights (CIDH)—he was the first member of the Colombian military to take advantage of that agency—with the support of some NGO’s. Today this former soldier who escaped several attempts to kill him and who was forcibly confined in a psychiatric hospital is rebuilding his life in a foreign country.

Unlike the high officials who, in spite of their criminal convictions, didn’t lose their promotions, benefits, or pensions, Carlos didn’t receive anything like that, not even the unemployment benefits to which he had a right. On the contrary, retired Colonel Santiago Herrera, who had threatened him when they were both in the 15th Mobile Brigade in Ocaña, benefited from the superior indulgence and understanding of the Colombian Army.

According to the Spanish newspaper EL PAÍS, he had been connected to extrajudicial executions and investigated by the ordinary justice system before he finally admitted his responsibility for extrajudicial executions to the JEP in 2021, and that same year he benefited with a 220 million peso contract (roughly USD $50,000 at current exchange rates) for a Colombian Army professorship on human rights. Carlos Mora, on the other hand, was denied access to his most basic rights.

The pieces of a sinister puzzle

There is no lack of examples of soldiers who were threatened, or still worse, killed, after testifying or making complaints of crimes committed by the Army. In a report by Human Rights Watch, they document cases like that of the soldier Nixón de Jesús Cárcamo. Eleven days before he was killed in a military detention center where he was being held because of a case of extrajudicial executions by the BCG #10, he had told the Attorney General’s Office about his fear of being killed for having denounced the crimes his superiors were committing.

I don’t know what happened to Sergeant Alexander Rodríguez Sánchez of the 15th Mobile Brigade fifteen days after his complaints at the beginning of 2008. He described in detail the process of fabricating the “false positives” in Catatumbo without ever using that term, which only appeared eight or nine months later. Expelled from the Army, he was captured a few months later by the Gaula[1] for a supposed attempt at extortion.

In 2019, the magazine SEMANA reported about a colonel who had been investigated by the ordinary justice system for some twenty “false positives”, and who gave information to the JEP about dozens of additional cases, after which he received threats. In 2021, members of the military reported having been pressured by Fondetec[2], urging them not to facilitate any search by the SRVR for the truth about the responsibility of members of the Colombian Armed Forces for these crimes.

On September 1, 2023, the SRVR of the JEP cited ex-soldiers from the Atila 1 Squad of the Cartagena Battalion, who denied committing a “false positive” on April 22, 2008, and who were retired from military service. These soldiers, are now demanding justice; theya have been living on odd jobs since then or as taxi drivers or sidewalk vendors, because they can’t rejoin the Army, which had been the career where they hoped to escape from poverty.

“When a Commander wants to get rid of a soldier, they look within their own troops for the killer to put him down,” (retired soldier)

A former Sergeant from the La Popa Battalion who didn’t want to kill civilians told me how anybody that refused to commit extrajudicial executions was intimidated and condemned to go on patrols until they dropped, while the others lived it up and rested at beautiful ranches. He described to me the training he went through in 2019 to obtain the rank of Sergeant First Class. They learned ballistics by firing over the heads and bodies of pigs at 30 to 40 meters distance, while fighting today is carried out at a distance that’s closer to 200 or 300 meters. “Why were they teaching us how the bodies or the clothes looked when we fired at close range?” he wondered. He said that these classes were focused on reliving the “false positives”.

Like for all of those who didn’t go along with this process and said so, things went badly. They took away the computer, they were threatened, and they had no option but to flee to a foreign country and start from zero.

Another soldier who retired after 20 years of service told me of some serious attacks on human rights that he witnessed or knew about when he was on active duty. He described a modus operandi within the units to make those crimes look like suicides if they weren’t to be presented as “combat kills”. “When a soldier was murdered by one of the troops in his Battalion, they wouldn’t allow the prosecutors to come in until they had altered the evidence,” he told me. “They had it all arranged. They said that the boy killed himself because he had debts, his girlfriend had been unfaithful, or something like that.” According to him, “when a commander wanted to get rid of a soldier, he looked within the same unit for a killer to put him down.” It was that simple.

How many unknown victims are there in the Colombian Army?

The battle by the mother of Óscar Iván Tabares Toro, a soldier from a counterguerrilla battalion in Meta Department, killed on December 28, 1997, was not fought in vain. That young man, who like Carlos Mora, Jesús Suárez, and Raúl Carvajal, was carrying out his dream of a military career, but he was quickly disappointed. On repeated occasions, he confessed to his family about what he described as mistreatment by a lieutenant. Two weeks before he disappeared, he talked to his mother about possibly getting out of the Army, because he couldn’t take any more of the situation with one of his superiors.

Officially, soldier Tabares Toro had deserted. The version related by several of his comrades was very different, because they thought he was dead, killed on the same day he disappeared. With the help of the Colombian Jurists Commission (CCJ), which presented his case to the CIDH, his mother had the satisfaction of seeing the Inter-American Court for Human Rights convict the government of Colombia of this, and of its failure to investigate it, as well as of the attack on his good name, his dignity, and his ability to protect his family. The Colombian government was notified of the decision on August 8, 2023.

Some weeks ago, I learned indirectly about doubts by the widow of a sergeant officially reported as having been killed by a sniper in Norte de Santander Department. When she found out about the role of Álvaro Tamayo Hoyos, the man who signed the document recording the official receipt of her husband’s body, during the admission hearings in Catatumbo in April of 2022, her doubts became clearer. Because of her fear, she still didn’t want to say anything. She only expressed her fear in private. How many cases like that are there and that still have not been investigated?

The interest of the United States in this situation

At the beginning of May in 2023, Beth Van Schaak, United States Ambassador for Global Criminal Justice, met in Bogotá with several heads of agencies and NGO’s working with victims of Colombia’s armed conflict, in defense of human rights, and including a military organization. They talked about the subject of “military false positives”. In spite of the invisibility of the issue in Colombian society and Colombia’s legal system, they really do know.

How long will Colombian justice be ignoring what happened? When will the transitional justice system for peace take up this phenomenon? How many years will it take for the families of the victims to make the Colombian people aware that, beyond the thousands of civilian victims, the “false positives” have also caused murders in the ranks of the military of people that were uncomfortable with that sordid practice?

In Colombia, every time more pieces of the puzzle are drawing a picture of a new scandal, the scandal of the “military false positives” who have served as a shield to try to cover up the “civilian false positives”, is now being investigated by the JEP.  

[1] Colombian Army Anti-Kidnapping Unit

[2] Fund for Specialized Defense of Members of the Armed Forces.

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