Extrajudicial assassinations by government forces, or “false positives“, once again call into question the integrity of the Colombian military and its human rights record. So why has the pursuit of justice been so lengthy and difficult?
In October 2008, it emerged that members of the army had murdered eleven innocent civilians and then presented them as guerrillas or paramilitaries killed in combat. The victims were poor young men from Soacha, a slum south of Bogota. They had been promised lucrative jobs in a violent area near the Venezuelan border, where they were later killed by members of the army. Soon after the Soacha case made the headlines, thousands of people came forward with allegations that their family members had died in similar circumstances.
The scandal called into question the human rights cost of President Alvaro Uribe‘s hard-line security policy. Uribe’s Colombia has long been considered a success story in the fight against crime, terrorism and drug trafficking, having experienced significant and steady drops in homicide and kidnapping rates between 2002 and 2008. But the false positives scandal suggested that the policy may have had some appallingly immoral excesses. Indeed, in many suspected “false positives” cases, the officers in charge were promoted.
Human rights defenders likened the scandal to mass murder. Thousands of cases are under investigation, and the victims are almost always poor. In a particularly gruesome case, it was alleged that members of the army were sent to Medellin to kill homeless people and present them as rebels killed in combat. This is eerily reminiscent of the “social cleansing” carried out by drug traffickers and paramilitaries during the 1990s, often without resistance from the army or the police. President Uribe’s initial reaction to the scandal disappointed victims. He first suggested that the scandal was being used to discredit and hinder the security forces in their fight against terrorists. Eventually, the President admitted that some innocent people were in fact killed. He has since pushed for harsh punishments in the few most well-known cases, including the Soacha case. Nevertheless, his government still insists that the media and victims’ groups are exaggerating the scale of the problem.
The false positives scandal further discredited the Colombian military, already a tainted institution. It is perhaps the clearest example of the Colombian army blatantly abusing human rights during the Uribe presidency. It is also one reason why the U.S. government has begun to consider reducing the military component of Plan Colombia, a ten-year old program that has delivered more than US$6 billion in aid to the Colombian government.
However, in the past month, dozens of soldiers implicated in the Soacha case were released from jail after the three-month time limit for bringing them to trial lapsed. Apparently, the prosecution was unable to prepare a viable trial before the deadline passed. Both the president and the inspector general have condemned the releases. The prosecution, with support from the president, may push for a change in the law that dictates the 90-day limit or try to find a way around it.
It would seem that in the Soacha incident, by far the most publicized false positives case, the government appears to share the victims’ families’ desire for swift justice and punishment of the guilty. Freddy Padilla, the commander of the Colombian armed forces, has met with the families of the Soacha victims, as have other military leaders. Allegations of extrajudicial executions have become less common and, hopefully, the phenomenon will soon be a thing of the past. In fact, some members of the military have already been convicted, including seven this week for a 2006 quadruple homicide in northeast Colombia. Nevertheless, the government’s response to the false positives cases has been inconsistent. Officials seem more concerned with addressing the effect of false positives on the government’s image than in actually achieving justice. They still stand on the side of the armed forces in the vast majority of alleged cases and continue to accuse the media and human rights groups of exaggerating the phenomenon. Rather than reforming a clearly flawed military structure, the government has turned on those who exposed the epidemic of false positives.
In fact, even the family members of the Soacha victims feel neglected. Their access to legal hearings has been limited, they frequently receive threatening pamphlets and they have been harassed by soldiers outside the courtrooms. Members of the military have told them that they are “damaging the reputation” of the military. Their murdered relatives are not treated as homicide victims, but as burdens on an increasingly image-conscious army. The mother of a Soacha victim recently told Bogota daily El Espectador that she does not trust the President or the army “because I have not seen a willingness to punish anybody.” She says she has asked Uribe to meet her many times, but he has never found the time. As well as punishing the soldiers, she wants the president to apologize for initially suggesting that her son was in fact a guerrilla.
Unless there is a greater commitment to justice on the part of the military and the government, those responsible for false positives will never pay for their crimes. Hopefully, the president’s calls for justice in the Soacha case will set a precedent for other false positives cases. But as long as the government continues to blame the media and victims groups for exaggerating the scale of the phenomenon, rather than looking inward to address its own mistakes, the end result for thousands of cases will be impunity.