The first time the public heard about “false positives,” the military practice of kidnapping and killing poor civilians and passing them off as dead guerrillas, was in September 2008. But declassified US documents point out the CIA and the US Embassy officials were aware of the human rights abuses as far back as 1994 during the Samper administration.
Colombia’s Attorney General’s office is currently investigating 1,666 cases of extrajudicial executions perpetrated by more than 400 soldiers in more than half of Colombia’s 32 departments.
It was/is called a “body count” policy, under which officers were/are motivated with extra leave, promotions, and cash rewards for dead guerrillas. It was common for a soldier to receive as much as $2,000 dollars for a guerrilla corpse. President Uribe used to criticize—and often publicly humiliate—military units with low body counts.
Last November, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón sought to have all crimes committed by soldiers, including human rights abuse, be considered “acts of service,” and sent to Colombia’s military justice system, which has a history of not conducting proper investigations and leading to much impunity, as exemplified in the military prison/ resort at Tolemaida.
It is a good thing that the Santos government has delayed passing the legislation that allows military crimes to be judged in military courts. Taking the advice of a commission made up of former magistrates and retired military, military crimes are likely to end up judged in civilian courts. Soon, a new bill promises to send allegations of the most serious human rights crimes immediately to the civilian justice system, and this is a good thing.
The bill is controversial. Juan Lozano, senator and president of the U Party, said it’s a step backwards and sends the wrong sign for the men and women of the Public Forces who are risking their lives to defend Colombians. The feeling is referred to as “judicial insecurity,” the perception within the ranks that human rights investigations and trials, including over 2,500 extrajudicial execution cases mostly from the past decade, make it difficult for the troops to carry out operations.
But to defend military crimes be judged in military courts sends the sign that Colombians perceive crimes against humanity, torture, forced disappearance, and extrajudicial executions as an issue to be taken lightly. It is the same sign the US sends when, since 1994, it seemingly stayed silent about the practice of false positives.