The military’s headquarters in Puerto Berrio, Antioquia, is based in an old, colonial-style hotel by the Magdalena River. On some walls hang yellowed pictures of dinners and weddings, events the hotel hosted in the days when steamboats traveled the river, decades before the army took over the building. The colonel, who was giving me a tour of the premises along with a small group of military officials, pointed at one picture of a wedding and said, “Young people in Colombia don’t want to get married anymore. Why is that? Is it like that in the States?” “Well, in the States, you have men wanting to marry other men,” I hedged. Everyone found this remark very funny, for whatever reason.
Later on, during lunch conversation over the requisite plate of beans and yucca, the small-talk became a bit more serious than banter over changing marriage norms. One officer spoke with some bitterness about a friend of his “under judicial review.” “Every single death in combat now, it has to be investigated and reviewed and investigated again by a court,” he lamented, shoveling his fork into a pile of rice. “And we are always automatically presumed guilty. Investigations, fine, let there be investigations – but why not through a military court?” A few others murmured in agreement.
Nobody came out and said anything so directly, but my impression after that conversation is that your everyday Colombian officer or solider has a grudging suspicion that battlefield operations have been hindered by fear of human rights trials. And there is a lot of bad feeling about how monitoring the military became such a public sensation, especially with “the terrorists” still at large.
Personally, I don’t think either of these viewpoints is accurate. Colombia’s military forces have longed complained that media and human-rights organizations are biased in favor of the guerrillas, and that atrocities committed by the security forces are publicized from a loudspeaker, while crimes committed by the guerrillas are ignored. Last week’s incident, involving a retired army colonel sentenced to 30 years for the forced disappearance of civilians during the 1985 Palace of Justice siege, is a good example of the bad feelings that arise when the army feels that persecuting the military’s misdeeds is prioritized over punishing Colombia’s other, illegal actors. President Uribe in particular was highly critical of Vega’s sentence, and the Ministry of Defense expressed “deep sorrow” over the decision.
I don’t know that much about the particularities of Plazas Vega’s case (I do know that among the 43 civilians killed during the Palace of Justice siege there were janitors, cafeteria workers and secretaries, some of whom may have been killed because the army accused them of supporting the guerrilla’s operations). I do agree with Uribe’s passionate “support our troops” conviction. But the best way to support the troops is to ensure the army follows the rule of law, and that army officials found guilty of abuses receive the sentences that their crimes deserve. If the military’s campaigns are carried out lawfully and responsibly, in the full knowledge that abuses will be punished, this will help soldiers continue their offensive against criminal groups terrorizing Colombian civilians. This notion that being “overly” concerned for human rights will hamper or hinder military operations on the ground is extremely irresponsible, and harmful to the soldiers that Colombians should be supporting.
There is no arguing that the fact that the army’s history of human rights abuses is sordid, to say the least. It is very likely that the next Colombian president will be Juan Manuel Santos, who presided over one of the biggest scandals yet to hit the army: the “false positives” scandal, in which soldiers killed civilians and presented the bodies as members of the FARC killed in combat. We should also remember how the military cultivated strong relationships with AUC strongmen, Fidel and Carlos Castaño. Local army commanders frequently shared intelligence with the paramilitaries, such as lists of suspected guerrilla sympathizers to be massacred.
Yes, the army has killed many innocent civilians. So have the FARC, the drug traffickers, the paramilitaries, and so on and on. But still, as much as I applaud Uribe’s strong relationship with the military, I am uneasy when he suggests the creation of a special court to try the military’s alleged crimes. In other countries in Latin America, like Brazil, where the police are responsible for investigating themselves, this has led to rampant, unchecked violence and abuse. Where did this perception come from, that holding the army accountable for its illegal actions will weaken the military, and thereby strengthen the FARC and Colombia’s countless other criminal groups? There should be no conflict between protecting human rights and promoting public security.
Nobody I’ve talked to in the military is interested in anything besides doing what’s best for Colombia. I am glad they are out there fighting, but I will also be glad when the soldiers accused of killing innocent civilians to boost their body-count receive a just and fair trial in a court of law. After all, a lawful Colombia – and a lawful military – is the FARC’s worst nightmare.