By Catalina Oquendo, EL PAÍS, November 8, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Relatives of the victims, along with human rights organizations, are relying on the principle of universal jurisdiction to ask for a criminal investigation of the former President of Colombia for the murders of civilians during his administration.
The former President of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, is a defendant in a federal court in Argentina where the plaintiffs request an investigation of his criminal responsibility for crimes against humanity. The plaintiffs are three human rights organizations and 11 relatives of victims, the civilians who were murdered in order to demonstrate them as “combat kills”, known as “false positives”. The plaintiffs ask the courts of Argentina to apply the principles of universal jurisdiction to investigate Uribe “for being the one who led the governmental structure that was employed in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity” by members of the Colombian Army under his command.
“We are filing a complaint of the participation of Álvaro Uribe Vélez for his commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity. We allege that he is criminally responsible for at least 6,112 murders and disappearances of defenseless people who were illegitimately presented as ‘combat kills’ by agents of the Colombian government,” states the complaint filed this Wednesday in Buenos Aires, and examined by EL PAÍS. Although in Colombia, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which is the transitional justice system agreed upon by the Colombian government and the now-defunct FARC guerrillas as part of the Peace Agreement, has documented 6,402 cases of false positives, this complaint is limited to the 6,112 murders or disappearances that occurred between August 8, 2002 and December 31, 2008, the date on which, according to the plaintiffs, the government headed by Uribe took effective measures to end the criminal practice.
Several relatives of victims traveled to the Argentina capital along with representatives of the Liberty Legal Corporation, the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners Foundation, and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, the plaintiff organizations, to file the complaint in person. They plan an event for this Thursday in the Plaza de Mayo, the place where the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo regularly gather.
Laura Piña, the daughter of Álvaro Adolfo Piña, a taxi driver and automobile painter who was murdered, says that she is pressing the complaint “so that at least they investigate the responsibility of Sr. Uribe in all of this.” Her objective, she says in a phone call, is to open a path for all of the victims of false positives, so that other sons and daughters will not have to feel the loss of the embraces of a father in the way they do. “That is what gives me the strength to be here working to undo the impunity and the denialism.”
Her father—as we know now—was taken to a distant location through deception by soldiers, and then murdered along with another person not yet identified. They shot them in their backs and passed them off as “combat kills”, the killer has admitted. “But I’m not just looking for the actual perpetrator of my father’s murder, because this was a system that was used all over the country. Rather, I’m trying to answer the question we victims are asking: who gave the order, because this order was carried out. So we are asking the legal system (Argentina’s) to investigate those responsible for this security policy in his administration.”
Andrey Betancourt, whose father, Beyer Ignacio Pérez, was killed in April of 2007 in Casanare has also come to Buenos Aires. “The JEP has some abysmal limitations in investigating a former President, and we know that the Accusations Commission in the Congress never functions at all; it’s an Acquittal Commission. That’s why we are turning to this legal system,” he said in a conversation with EL PAÍS.
Universal jurisdiction is a principle of international law that permits governments to investigate, judge, and punish those who commit serious crimes, regardless of the nationality of the victim or the perpetrator, if the countries where the crime was committed do not investigate. That’s why, for Argentinian attorney Máximo Castex, who is working on the complaint, this action can open for the first time a path for a former Colombian President to be investigated for international crimes.
Argentina is one of the countries that admits universal jurisdiction. Currently cases against the security forces of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Myanmar, and Spain are being investigated. The most famous complaint is the one regarding crimes by the Franco dictatorship, to which countless victims have been added. Thirteen years after being accepted, the process has required exhumations in Spain and for the first time, a judge is hearing from dozens of victims, among other milestones. Something similar could happen in the case of Colombia, explains Castex.
However, the victims in the complaint consider that the key precedent is that of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was charged and arrested by order of the National Hearing in Spain 25 years ago. “The way they conducted that proceeding, I think could be the option in Argentina, although we know it will take time,” said Andrey.
Along with Castex, the case is being handled by Bénedict de Moerloose, an expert in universal jurisdiction litigation. According to representatives of the organizations, the complaint in Argentina does not imply a clash with or lack of confidence in the JEP, but rather a complementary task, because that tribunal is prohibited from summoning presidents or ex-presidents to appear.
The contentions in the complaint
The document of nearly 300 pages contains a summary of the policy of democratic security, the emblem of the former President. In one of its paragraphs, it states that Uribe, as President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, “had permitted, authorized, incited, and even ordered the commission of these terribly serious crimes.”
The plaintiffs contend that a series of decisions and decrees by the President directly influenced the creation of a context “highly favorable to the commission of the thousands of murders committed by the Army.” They mention, among other examples, the declaration of a “state of interior commotion” shortly after his inauguration and that this, although it was declared partly unenforceable by the Constitutional Court, authorized the restriction of fundamental rights and of controls of the military apparatus.
For example, it included the redesign of funding for the courts and for the agencies of control, so that they would not be an obstacle to the exercise of Presidential powers in the war on terrorism; it provided for arrests without warrants, for temporary retentions, inspection or searches of a residence and residential searches conducted by the Armed Forces.
“Those changes furnished a wide variety of legal and extralegal arrangements that were denounced from the beginning as bases for the violations of human rights, but the President refused to change, even with full knowledge of the risk generated, and the way the risks materialized in crimes against humanity committed by his subordinates; in spite of that, he still continues to defend them to this day.”
One of the central points in the complaint is the contention that Uribe “was aware” of the commission of the so-called false positives from the beginning of his term in office. To demonstrate that, the plaintiffs gather official statements like that of Christian Salazar Volkman, then director of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner in Colombia (OACNUDH). He stated that in 2003 and 2004 his office directly informed the former President of several cases of this kind, and that the President paid no attention and took no action to halt them. “Even fully aware of the criticisms formulated by the United Nations, President Uribe publicly supported the Army’s version,” said Salazar.
The plaintiffs also point out that human rights agencies continued their complaints to different government and other agencies in the following years, but the only thing that happened was an increase in the cases. They cite a meeting between government officials and the Army in Antioquia, in which they discussed complaints of false positives in that region. “The meeting took place in May of 2006, some months after Mario Montoya Uribe had taken command, as this was the time of the greatest total in 2007, which presupposed that at that time there was no reason to be surprised at the occurrence of the phenomenon or of this modus operandi ,” states the complaint. Montoya, who became the Commander of the Colombian Army, was recently charged by the JEP with 130 false positives.
The complaint charges the former President with pressuring his troops in spite of the complaints. “He not only omitted to react, refusing to take any action sufficient to stop the practice herein complained of, but rather on multiple occasions directly pressured and/or ordered Army officials directly to execute “combat kills”, as several of the individuals appearing before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace have stated under oath,” states the document in one of its paragraphs.
Castex explained that other victims may be added to the complaint, as has happened in the case of the crimes by the Franco dictatorship, and that the victims who traveled to Buenos Aires will be present this Thursday before the court to ratify the complaint and furnish evidence. The case was placed in the hands of Federal Judge #2, Sebastián Ramos, who will also investigate the alleged crimes against humanity by the Venezuelan security forces.