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BOGOTA, Oct 30 2008 (IPS) - The dismissal of 20 officers and seven noncommissioned officers for extrajudicial executions of civilians presented as battlefield casualties “is a triumph for human rights organisations and for Colombian society as a whole,” said Reynaldo Villalba of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective.
Villalba urged the Attorney General’s Office to carry out an in-depth investigation, “not only of the fired officers but especially of those who were not fired, who remain hidden and are responsible for these policies.”
The three generals, 11 colonels, four majors, one captain, one lieutenant, six sergeants and one corporal who were sacked were posted in the northern departments (provinces) of Santander, Norte de Santander, Arauca and Antioquia.
The second and seventh army divisions both lost their commanders, Generals José Joaquín Cortés (Santander, Norte de Santander and Arauca) and Roberto Pico (Antioquia).
The third general who was cashiered is Paulino Coronado, commander of the 30th Brigade. The scandal was triggered by the discovery of bodies of missing men in the remote district of Ocaña in Norte de Santander, which is in his jurisdiction.
The dismissals were announced Wednesday during a visit by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, a South African jurist who sat on the International Criminal Court and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
She also “recognises that it is very important that these cases are investigated by civil courts and encourages the Attorney General to strengthen the Human Rights Unit in order to address, as soon as possible, all claims regarding extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances.”
Stefano Sannino, European Commission general director of foreign relations for Latin America, said on a visit to Colombia this week that there have been very significant and positive advances in terms of human rights and the Colombian government’s attention to the issue.
The case began to come to light on Sept. 23, when it was reported that the morgue in the small town of Ocaña was full, because the contract with the local Catholic church had expired and there was nowhere to bury so many bodies.
At least 23 of the bodies were those of young men brought in over the last four months by the military and reported as fighters killed in combat.
On different dates, 11 of the men had gone missing from their homes in the poor southern Bogotá suburb of Soacha, and a day and a half or two days after they disappeared, their bodies were turned in to the morgue at Ocaña.
But Ocaña is 700 km from the capital, and the trip takes at least a day and a half by road. That means they were either flown to the remote district, or were killed immediately after arrival in the remote region.
Operating in Ocaña are the 15th Mobile Counterinsurgency Brigade – two of whose colonels were sacked – and the 15th Infantry Battalion and the Road Energy Plan Battalion.
The body of Joaquín Castro, a 25-year-old smelting company worker, was no longer occupying space in the morgue. He disappeared from his home in Soacha on Jan. 13 and two days later his body was delivered to the morgue in Ocaña, where he was registered as a guerrilla fighter killed in combat. His mother, Elvira Vásquez, was notified on Sept. 20.
The families emphatically deny that their sons were criminals or members of the far-right paramilitaries or the left-wing guerrillas, as General Coronado claimed. Of the 11 men from Soacha, the army reported that eight were paramilitaries and one was a rebel fighter.
The day the scandal broke, the ombudsman’s office even issued a statement blaming the “forced recruitment of minors,” a practice used by the irregular armed groups, not the army.
The authorities, meanwhile, focused on the criminal records of some of the men whose bodies were found in Ocaña.
The secretary of the Bogotá city government, Clara López of the left-wing Alternative Democratic Pole party, said from the start that the cases involved “forced disappearance for the purpose of murder,” but she was harshly attacked by the government, which warned her not to “prejudge.”
One of the focuses of the flagship policy of the right-wing administration of President Álvaro Uribe, the counterinsurgency Democratic Security policy, is to improve the image of the security forces.
In a stab at human rights activists, Uribe said on Jul. 25 that the “guerrillas’ strategy” would be to “mobilise their spokespersons in the country and abroad each time an insurgent is killed, to claim that it was an extrajudicial execution.”
On Sept. 9, Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos reported the “discovery” of “a deliberate policy by certain organisations” with respect to the “misnamed extrajudicial executions.”
This policy, according to the minister, consisted of “simple inflating the numbers” to “delegitimise the security forces” by means of accusations that are later “very difficult to counteract politically.”
“It’s very curious that whenever there is fighting with guerrillas in civilian dress, the denunciations of extrajudicial executions begin,” Santos told the W Radio station on Sept. 29.
Since September 2007, the Defence Ministry has instructed the troops that “a demobilised fighter is better than a captured one, and a captured one is better than a dead one,” according to Santos.
But Uribe himself has ordered the troops on innumerable occasions to “exterminate” the guerrillas.
And despite repeated accusations that the security forces continue to work in collusion with illegal far-right militias known as the Black Eagles and other paramilitary groups that did not demobilise after negotiations with the government, Uribe has also continued to call for “results.”
The number of guerrillas reportedly slain by the army – used as a measure of success in the counterinsurgency war – has indeed gone up.
Leftist Senator Gustavo Petro said he led a parliamentary debate in October 2006 on “false positives” – civilians killed by the military and presented as war dead – in which he cited a report by the Interinstitutional Humanitarian Commission of Antioquia that documented 107 cases in 2006 in that province alone.
And in September 2006, the Office of the Inspector-General (Procuraduría General) said it had received 335 reports of extrajudicial executions from 2004 to that date.
“In that parliamentary debate, I said the phenomenon was motivated by the government’s policy of awarding soldiers for battlefield casualties with military promotions,” Petro told IPS.
“That number has grown to such an extent that the Attorney General’s Office today is investigating nearly 1,000 cases of extrajudicial executions,” he said.
The Office of the Inspector-General, meanwhile, announced Wednesday that it was carrying out disciplinary inquiries for 2,300 members of the security forces and civilian public employees implicated in extrajudicial killings.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia issued a harshly worded statement on Sept. 26 condemning the practice of extrajudicial executions, which it said it had documented in the northwestern provinces of Antioquia, Córdoba and Sucre.
The U.N. Office described a common pattern, in which the victims were promised jobs, either legal or illegal, and were taken from their hometowns to different municipalities or provinces, where their bodies showed up a day or two later as “combat deaths”.
The U.N. Office points to the existence of criminal networks dedicated to deceiving the victims and taking them to the areas where they are then killed.
The dismissal of the officers was announced an hour and a half before the presentation in Bogotá of four reports on extrajudicial executions by 209 local human rights groups and an international mission of 13 experts from four European countries and the United States.
One of the reports says that more than 55 of the bodies presented as “combat deaths” over the last two years in the jurisdiction of the 15th Brigade were actually, according to the victims’ families and friends, working men.
In the last three years, this Brigade “has been a veritable killing machine, leaving a trail of deaths in the area where it operates,” said jurist Alberto Yepes, coordinator of the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination Group’s (CCEEU) Observatory of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, which presented one of the reports.
Gustavo Gallón, director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, wondered “why this government and previous governments have not reacted before this,” given that the phenomenon “has been denounced at least since the 1970s.”
“This behaviour occurs in every brigade, every division, every region” and “follows a pattern based on discrimination against poor black or indigenous people, and of course, against government opponents,” Gallón told IPS.
Many of the victims come from the most vulnerable social sectors, including homeless people, drug addicts and others without social networks, “undoubtedly so they (the security forces) can act with greater impunity, believing that no one will seek these people out,” said Villalba of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective.
Between January 2007 and June 2008, extrajudicial executions by the security forces claimed the lives of one person a day, as indicated by the complaints received by the CCEEU, an umbrella group of 202 human rights organisations.
That is nearly twice the number of victims documented by the CCEEU from July 1, 2002 to Jun. 30, 2007, and nearly three times the number registered in the five years prior to the start of the first Uribe administration in August 2002.
Yepes attributes that increase to the intensification of the war.
“There has been an extreme militarisation of civilian life, which has significantly increased the presence of the security forces throughout the national territory,” added to “heavy pressure for results, on the troops, who have to show that they have the areas under their jurisdiction under control, at all costs,” Yepes told IPS.
This is combined with “a perverse system of incentives and sanctions” like bonuses, promotions, transfers and trips abroad, based on military “results” in the framework of the Democratic Security policy, he said.
“We have verified that brigades that are heavily involved in extrajudicial executions receive military aid from the United States,” and many of their commanders “have also received training” from that country, said Yepes.
The human rights conditions that the U.S. Congress sets on military aid to Colombia, the third-largest recipient of such aid after Israel and Egypt, “are not being fulfilled,” he said.
If the authorities had taken action earlier, “many deaths could have been avoided,” said Yepes.
But he also said there were some positive developments. “Public awareness about the appalling reality of extrajudicial executions has increased,” not only among society but among the authorities, “who are beginning to understand that this practice is internationally unacceptable,” he added.
“The brave stance taken by victims’ (families) who have dared to speak out and report the cases…despite the enormous risk to their lives,” as well as the efforts by the local and international human rights movement, and by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner, have also helped raise awareness, said Yepes.
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