Colombian public prosecutors are investigating an alleged army massacre of which at least one victim was later reported as a guerrilla killed in combat.
The killings took place in the early morning of May 17 in Alto Amarradero, a rural community in the Ipiales municipality on the border with Ecuador.
The army’s 6th Division reported initially that soldiers had killed four members of rebel group FARC in Alto Amarradero, a rural part of the municipality Ipiales.
“In the process of military operations against the terrorist structures of the 48th Front of the FARC in the state of Putumayo, troops from the Jungle Brigade No. 27 of the 6th Division of the National Army neutralised four guerrillas,” the press statement read.
However, supported by local, British and US rights organizations, the community claimed that these alleged guerrillas were the same men as the ones killed in Alto Amarradero.
The locals claim the alleged combat kills were in fact “false positives,” a term used for the Colombian army practice of inflating kill counts by executing civilians. According to authorities, more than 3,500 civilians have been killed and presented as guerrillas since the beginning of the century.
According to the locals, the killed men were not guerrillas, but community leaders tied to legitimate labor unions.
Villagers from Alto Amarradero told local human rights organization Equipo Nizkor that military helicopters woke much of the village around 2AM, when foot soldiers began conducting warrantless searches of homes, verbally abusing and threatening villagers, and demanding all cell phones be handed over.
“The way the army had arrived was not normal. Soldiers are always asking for platano, yuca, a meal, they greet us, and sometimes they stay to talk, but this time they treated us very aggressively. That is when I heard the noise of two helicopters, one of them went down and came back up,” one of the witnesses told local human rights organization Nizkor.
After the soldiers had dispersed, the community heard gunshots coming from a nearby ranch.
When locals arrived later on to see what was going on, police showed them photos of the four victims. The locals immediately identified them as their neighbours and family.
Maria Dolores Acanamejoy, one of the villagers who had gone to the place, recognised her brother Jose Antonio in one of the photos, according to a witness.
“She was screaming. ‘What guerrillas? What subversives? They are dressed in the clothes they wore last night, I fed them, one of them is my brother. You have killed civilians. Guerrillas are dressed in camouflage’,” Nizkor quoted the witness as saying.
In the afternoon, a helicopter arrived in the village to pick up the bodies. The remains were then transported to a military base in the town of Puerto Asis. Three days later, the remains of the victims were returned and their families were able to bury their loved ones.
Army insists killed men were guerrillas
Both the army’s 6th Division and the Defence Ministry admitted to killing the four men in Ipiales, but insisted that the victims were members of the FARC, Colombia’s largest rebel group.
Furthermore, the Defence Ministry insisted that the combat in Mocoa had taken place.
However, when doing so, the ministry’s human rights director, Carlos Sula, identified one of the guerrillas allegedly killed in Mocoa as Brayan Yatacue Secue, one of the men killed in Alto Amarradero.
The official refused to explain more, referring to a military court and public prosecutors who have begun investigating the case.
Killings spur outrage
“It is disturbing to see that soldiers continue to practice extrajudicial executions of civilians and claim that they are guerrillas killed in combat. Testimony from the local community clearly shows these young men – the youngest just a 15-year-old child, were active community members. They had spent the previous evening planning the community’s Mother’s Day celebrations,” Mariela Kohon, Director of the London-based NGO Justice for Colombia, told Colombia Reports.
US labour union United Steel Workers sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging Washington to “take all measures to prevail upon the Colombian government to investigate these incidents, to bring those responsible to justice and to protect the lives and well-being of those in Colombia who dare to engage in union activity.”
The Colombian military has been under increased scrutiny since 2008 when the Washington Post revealed the scope of the false positives scandal and Colombian prosecutors began investigating thousands of members of the armed forces accused of carrying out “false positives” killings.
According to the Public Prosecution Office, more than 400 commanders, 800 unit commanders and 2900 soldiers are subject to criminal investigations for the killing of civilians.
- Statement and information from Workers Uniting and Justice for Colombia
- Tropas de la Sexta Division neautralizan a cuatro terroristas de las Farc en Putumayo (Sexta Division, Ejército Nacional de Colombia)
- Masacre del Ejército en Putumayo: una mentira en cuatro bolsas blancas (Equipo Nizkor)
- Statements from human rights department of Colombia’s Ministry of Defense with participation of reporter Hannah Matthews
- Letter to U.S. State Department from Steelworkers Uniting