Globe, Human Rights, Politiks, United Kingdom

A war measured in “litres of blood”

The phrase comes from a Colombian army official – who confessed that he had participated in the murder of various civilians – to explain that the success of the war against guerrilla fighters is measured by the number of enemies killed in combat.


Javier E. Núñez Calderón

Some of the saddest episodes of the war in Colombia have been the serious violations of human rights, committed by serving members of the military forces, who have killed hundred of civilians, later presenting the dead to society as guerrilla fighters who had died in combat.

According to the CCEEU (Co-ordination of Columbia, Europe and the United States), between 2002 and 2008, 3,345 cases of arbitrary execution were registered, of which 99% went without punishment.

The situation has put Columbia under the watch of international tribunals, who may investigate and condemn those who are primarily responsible for the murders, if the state proves reluctant to prosecute those responsible.

Former soldiers or members of paramilitary groups were mostly responsible, acting as recruiters who would deceive elderly individuals, driving them to remote spots in the countryside under guerrilla control and eventually deliver them to military units, where their deaths would be ordered.

After killing them, they would dress the civilians in military clothing and place guns around them, to make it look as if they had died in combat.

Both the army and the recruiters bore in mind that the victims were quiet, solitary people, so as to make identification of the bodies difficult.

However, some investigators from the office of the Columbian Attorney General began to notice some inconsistencies while the bodies were being recovered.

For example, some had uniforms on with no holes in, despite the fact that the bodies had been shot with bullets; others had shoes on the wrong feet; there were even cases where the citizen was found, appearing to hold a gun in their left hand, even they were right-handed.

It is well known fact that in the majority of cases, the scene of the crime is tampered with, both to mislead the media, who have fought hard against subversive activity and to contradict the testimony of the mourners, who make assurances that their dead family members had no connection with armed groups outside the law.

The cases were reported gradually in different regions of the country, without much significance for the wider public. However, the scandal broke in 2008, when it was reported that various young people from Soacha, in Cundinamarca, had disappeared.

The mothers of the victims began to search for their children, who were finally found 700 kilometres away from the city, buried in a mass pit and falsely reported to have been working for the army as criminals, paramilitaries or guerrillas killed in combat.

The CCEEU warned in its report that “when these claims take on public notoriety, families all over the country will begin to denounce the disappearances and murders of loved ones in similar circumstances.”

The then government did not give much credibility to the first complaints, but as soon as the story broke, several high-ranking army members were dismissed and it forced the resignation of the Commander of the Colombian National Army, General Mario Montoya, who nevertheless, would go on to be appointed as the Colombian Ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

Throughout its military history, Colombia has been responsible for unlawful killings, and the state has been accused of this kind of human rights violation before. However, cases of this type multiplied between 2004-2008, during the presidency of Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

Human rights organisations believe that a direct relationship exists between the executions and the political implications for Uribe Vélez’s government during its 2002-2008 tenure, which gave promotions, licences, and ordered military actions as rewards, in return for the capture or abatement of illegal, armed groups.

Juan Carlos Rodríguez, one of the few officials who has confessed to his involvement in the crimes, warned in an interview that the incentives were achieved with a casualty quota: “In 1995, they gave you medals for two dead bodies; in 2004, it was for ten.”

The purpose of this policy was to make the actions of the military forces more effective and to achieve concrete results; an army is going to react against attacks from criminals on the ground, rather than fighting relentlessly against these organisations.

The new military strategy permitted the capture and killing of fighters and ringleaders of the organisations, as well as control over several zones in the country that were previously under guerrilla rule.

However, constant pressure to obtain immediate results accompanied the use of incentives throughout all military ranks, which only increased when the army suffered enemy attacks or failed in their objectives.

In a testimony mentioned in the CCEEU report, a soldier stated that: “…starting in 2008, the Colonel Juan Carlos Barrera said to the commanders of the battalion that if in 90 days we had little to no fighting, then the army could define you as negligent or incapable of operation”.

The strategy of reward and punishment, depending on the outcome of the war against subversive organisations, led many members of the army to become involved in a macabre practice that left hundreds of defenceless civilians dead.

For the army, this was the simplest and safest manner in which to benefit from the incentives.

The infamy of this practice hit rock bottom, ending up responsible for the deaths of innocent people to satisfy the political requirements of a government fighting against subversion. There were also soldiers who committed crimes with the aim of obtaining permission to go home to his family for public holidays, such as Christmas or Mother’s Day.

The government stated that such crimes were isolated incidents, committed by a few ‘bad apples’ in the institution – individuals who had violated the rule of the law and human rights.

However, human rights organisations criticised the way the government has played down the problem, instead believing that the practice was in fact systematic and widespread.

These organisations have identified the then president, Alvaro Uribe, as Commander General of the Military Forces, the Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos (current President of the Republic) and other senior military commanders, as responsible for having established a system of rewards and incentives that, while existing in other countries, “were implemented without the necessary controls or the required transparency, which led to the irregularities described.”

Out of more than 3,000 crimes, only 1% of these have resulted in judicial sentences, with only soldiers of low rank being prosecuted.

In the view of many specialists, progress towards justice has been slow, because there is a lack of political willingness to prosecute, and because high-ranking members of the military, those potentially involved in the crimes, would rather not know the truth of the matter.

The situation has led organisations, such as the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), to write a detailed report, recently delivered to the International Criminal Court, on the state of the complaints along with two confidential annexes to the report, which identify those most responsible for these crimes against humanity. With this, they seek to determine whether the Colombian state has advanced the investigations and judicial procedures against those responsible for such acts.

If the ICC finds fault with the judicial proceedings, it will open the first case against the country for crimes against humanity and will be responsible for investigating and punishing those responsible for such crimes.

(Translated by Daniela Fetta)

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