The Colombian army has executed more than 3,900 civilians to inflate its apparent success in the ongoing fight against leftist rebels, paramilitary groups and drug traffickers, the country’s Prosecutor General’s Office confirmed Monday.
In a report sent at the request of Colombia Reports, the Prosecutor General’s Office said that since 1986, 3,896 civilians have been assassinated and subsequently presented as combat kills by members of the security forces.
In August last year, the prosecution reported to have counted 3,000 killed civilians.
The latest report emphasizes the extent to which the practice was used during Alvaro Uribe‘s presidency, with an alarming 3,470 deaths recorded in between 2002 and 2008 when the scandal broke and the government promised to take measures.
The year before that, the inflating of the statistics had become so widespread that an astonishing 41% of reported combat kills for that year in fact were murdered civilians.
While non governmental and governmental organizations alike had denounced the practice for years, the Colombian government denied that the military were killing civilians until 2008, when prosecution investigators linked the bodies of unidentified rebel fighters in the north of the country to a group of young men who had been reported missing in the city of Soacha, south of Bogota.
That discovery, and reports in the Washington Post and weekly Semana on the issue, were coincidentally linked to a significant drop in recorded false positive killings, with 126 stated to have occurred in between 2009 and 2012.
Extrajudicial killings between 1995 and 2012
When the false positive figures are studied from 2002 onwards however, an intriguing pattern emerges.
The number of assumed legitimate rebel deaths by armed forces steadily rose in between 2002 and 2004, during which the total number of false positive killings was a combined 720.
From 2004 onwards however, the number of legitimate rebel deaths began to decrease, leaving something of a vacuum in the official numbers. It would appear that this vacuum was filled with increased extra judicial killings, as 2,750 innocent victims were recorded to have been killed by armed forces in between 2005 and 2008, culminating in an astonishing 1119 extrajudicial deaths throughout 2007.
Purified combat kills
While the false positive scandal has spread across all departments in Colombia, it has been most prolific in the department of Antioquia.
881 of the 3896 extra judicial killings occurred in this department, 10% of which were in Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city and home to the 4th brigade in whose jurisdiction occurred most false positives killings.
In spite of the 4th Brigade unrivaled record when it came to extrajudicial killings, commanders General Mario Montoya (2001 – 2003) and his successor, general Oscar Enrique Gonzalez (2003-2006), were both promoted to eventually become National Army commanders; Gonzalez replaced Montoya in 2008 when the latter was forced to resign over the scandal. Neither generals have been charged.
It is unclear when the false positive scandal began; according to a diplomatic cable from 1997, a “body count syndrome” in the Colombian Army tended “to fuel human rights abuses by well-meaning soldiers trying to get their quota to impress superiors.” Colombia’s Prosecutor General’s Office has registered extrajudicial killings since 1985, but did not register a steep increase until 2002.
According to demobilized commanders of the paramilitary AUC however, the practice began when authorities in the northwest of Colombia were complaining about high murder rates due to killings carried out by paramilitaries. In order to lower the homicide rate and increase the army’s apparent effectiveness, paramilitaries allegedly handed over murder victims to allied military commanders who then presented the victims as guerrillas killed in combat.