Will the politicians behind Colombia’s mass killing of civilians go to court?

The sinister practice of Colombia’s army to inflate combat kills by executing civilians could have legal implications for far-right former President Alvaro Uribe and other politicians.

The country’s war crimes tribunal announced to prioritize the extrajudicial executions between 2002 and 2008 when Uribe was in office.

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) confirmed the army began executing civilians before Uribe too office, but stressed that 78% of the victims were murdered after the former president’s so-called “Democratic Security” policy took force.

The purpose of the JEP is to establish who is ultimately responsible for which the transitional justice court is currently trying commanders, mainly from the National Army.

The former president was quick to stress he never even insinuated executing civilians as the transitional justice court may also investigate allegedly responsible politicians.

The investigation into the kidnapping practices of former guerrilla group FARC showed that the JEP is not just filing criminal charges against those who ordered war crimes, but also those who were complicit.

Colombia’s war crimes tribunal exposes former guerrillas’ sinister kidnapping practices

Former President Alvaro Uribe

Former President Alvaro Uribe

As commander-in-chief, Uribe was ultimately responsible for the Armed Forces in the years that the army executions rapidly escalated.

The former president personally promoted the top military officials, like retired General Mario Montoya, who are believed to be main promotors of the sinister practice.

Additionally, Uribe was the primary political beneficiary of the mass execution of civilians whose murders were broadly publicized as combat kills that would confirm the success of the former president’s security policy.

Uribe would not be the only one who may share responsibility. His four former defense ministers may also have played a role or may have neglected to take action after human rights organizations sent out alerts over the escalating practice.

Extrajudicial executions

Vice-President Marta Lucia Ramirez

Vice-President Marta Lucia Ramirez

Colombia’s Vice-President Marta Lucia Ramirez was Uribe’s first defense minister and responsible for the implementation of the “Democratic Security” policy.

Ramirez was for example responsible when Uribe issued a state of military emergency in August 2002 and another decree that effectively imposed military rule in so-called “Rehabilitation and Consolidation Areas.”

According to preliminary prosecution statistics, the number of extrajudicial executions shot up from 13 in 2001 to 248 in 2003 when the defense minister stepped down amid piling human rights scandals.

Former Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe

Former Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe

Ramirez’ successor, Jorge Alberto Uribe, was appointed defense minister in November 2003 and resigned in July 2005, reportedly because of the businessman’s failures to receive the support from the military.

At the time of Uribe’s resignation, National Army commander General Reynaldo Castellanos said his combat results were largely due to the outgoing minister.

In 2005, however, the number of extrajudicial executions had risen to almost 386, according to the preliminary prosecution statistics.

Former Defense Minister Camilo Ospina

Former Defense Minister Camilo Ospina

Uribe’s third defense minister, Camilo Ospina, lasted only a year in office and may have played the most controversial role in the army’s rapidly escalating extrajudicial executions practices.

Ospina issued the infamous Directive #29, which granted rewards to members of the military for reported combat kills, in November 2005.

In June 2006, the defense minister additionally ordered to forward investigations into homicides committed by the military to the notoriously ineffective military justice system.

The prosecution later noted that extrajudicial executions in 2006 nearly doubled to 753.

Former President Juan Manuel Santos

Former President Juan Manuel Santos

Former President Juan Manuel Santos became Uribe’s fourth and longest-lasting defense minister in July 2006 and tried to put an end to the mass killings after international media broke the scandal in 2008.

The year before the scandal blew up, however, the security forces were executing approximately three people and presenting them as combat kills on an almost industrial scale.

“Three common elements were identified: the presentation of civilian victims as combat kills, the alteration of the scene of the crime by the perpetrators and the investigation of the facts by the military criminal justice system,” the United Nations reported in 2007 without Santos taking any action.

Former chief prosecutor Mario Iguaran

Mario Iguaran

Former Prosecutor General Mario Iguaran agreed not to prosecute members of the military facing homicide investigations, but to allow the military to try its own crimes.

This June 2006 decision ignored international humanitarian law that dictates that civilian homicides are no matter for military justice.

Because Colombia’s military justice system is notoriously ineffective, this effectively granted many members of the National Army impunity and allowed the mass killing of civilians to become even more widespread.

How politicians are tried

The JEP at the moment can only try politicians if they have voluntarily submitted to the transitional justice system.

If the court finds evidence Uribe and other politicians were allegedly involved in war crimes, the transitional justice system is obliged to forward this evidence to the ordinary justice system.

Neither the president nor any of the former government officials involved in the decision-making related to the army’s mass killing of civilians have submitted to the JEP.

This mean that Uribe has presidential immunity and his former ministers would have to be tried by Congress notoriously ineffective Accusations Committee.

The Supreme Court would have jurisdiction to try controversial former chief prosecutor Mario Iguaran.

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