Colombia’s so-called “false positives” scandal is centered around the extrajudicial killings of thousands of civilians by members of the armed forces who dressed their victims as guerrillas in order to present them as combat kills.
While governmental and non-governmental organizations had been denouncing the practice for years, the Colombian government of then-President Alvaro Uribe denied the armed forces were killing civilians until late 2008.
The scandal broke after prosecution investigators linked the bodies of unidentified rebel fighters found in the north of the country to people who had been reported missing in Soacha, a city south of the capital Bogota.
How bad things got
In an June 2015 report, the Prosecutor General’s Office said it had found that the armed forces and civilian collaborators had killed 4,475 civilians since 1986.
The same office said that 5,137 officials were implicated in the extrajudicial killings, while 923 had been convicted.
Some 862 members of the National Army — mainly lower-ranked officials — have been sentenced to prison.
Extrajudicial killings in Colombia per year
Investigators found out that the general modus operandi was to lure civilians to secluded areas, execute them, dress them up as guerrillas and then present the body as a combat kill.
Why the military began executing civilians
According to media reports, the civilians were killed in order to collect bonuses. This has been categorically denied by the Colombian government in spite of abundant evidence and testimonies corroborating that soldiers were given financial rewards and extra holidays if they were able to present combat kills.
What the practice did do — be it intentionally or unintentionally — was inflate the apparent success of the government in its fight against left-wing guerrillas and right wing paramilitaries.
When purifying the combat kills figure by subtracting the number of executed civilians from the number of registered combat kills, the apparent effectiveness of the army seems much different and shows that for example in 2007 — the year most false positives were registered — more than two of five registered combat kills were in fact executed civilians.
Combat kills as reported by the Colombian military
Reported combat kills minus established ‘false positives’
While the UN called the extrajudicial killings “widespread” and “systematic” and figures showed the practice occurred in 30 of Colombia’s 32 provinces by the majority of military brigades, the Colombian military command and government insisted the murders had been isolated incidents.
Extrajudicial killings by security forces per province
A very long history of abuse
It is unclear when the practice 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, particularly in the northwestern Antioquia province.
According to demobilized commanders of the paramilitary AUC, 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.
Keeping up appearances
Facing a declining number of combat kills in 2004, Defense Minister Camilo Ospina in 2005 issued the Directive #29 in which the government defined, among other, “the payment of rewards for the capture or killing of ringleaders of the illegal armed groups.”
This government decree set the reward at COP3.8 million, or $1,500, for each killed ringleader or member of rebel groups. The number of civilian executions subsequently doubled from 386 in 2005 to 753 in 2006 when Juan Manuel Santos took over Ospina’s role as defense minister.
In spite of growing complaints by both governmental and non-governmental human rights organizations that the military appeared to be executing civilians on a large scale, Santos ignored the allegations.
Consequently, the practice worsened to the extent that in 2007, 40% of the 2,000 reported combat kills were in fact executed civilians.
The beginning of the end
Unhindered by political pressure, the military kept on killing civilians and reporting them as killed guerrillas until in 2008 the Washington Post revealed the practice and Colombian weekly Semana reported on one case that happened in Soacha, a city neighboring the capital Bogota where at least 11 men had disappeared.
The publicity forced the resignation of National Army commander General Mario Montoya, who has since become one of 22 generals under investigation for the mass killings.