Licensed Murder in Colombia : The Macabre Ruse of ‘False Positives’

Carmenza Gómez Romero of Soacha, Colombia, shows a picture of her son Victor, one of two sons she has lost in “false positive” operations in the Ocaña area. Photo from El Espectador.

Grotesque staged civilian murders:
Colombia’s ‘false positive’ operations

By Marion Delgado / The Rag Blog / January 12, 2010

CARTAGENA DE INDIES, Colombia — On the eve of 2010, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez accused Colombia and the U.S. of plotting to set up a fake rebel camp on Venezuelan soil to discredit his government.

Chavez accused Colombia of preparing what he called a “false positive” operation, saying “today it’s feasible for the neighboring country to build a makeshift camp in a remote location, then plant corpses and guns to make it seem that a rebel camp had been discovered.”

Colombian officials have said that leftist rebels from their country take refuge as needed in Venezuela. Chavez says the officials are trying to portray him, falsely, as being in cahoots with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which Colombia has been battling for decades.

“We have evidence that the Colombian government, instructed and supported, or rather directed by the United States, is preparing a “false positive,” Chavez said.

He said Colombian forces could bring bodies to “Venezuelan territory, build some huts, an improvised camp, put some rifles there… and say, ‘There it is, the guerrilla camp in Venezuela.'”

Is this guy really crazy like they say on U.S. TV during the obligatory hate minutes every half hour or so? As far as I know, a “false positive” is what you claim when you get nicked on a drug-war piss test. Is the narco-paraco government of Colombia going to give Hugo a piss test? This sounded strange and a little bit “funny”; I needed to find out what is going on.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, shown inspecting troops December 28, 2009, has accused Colombia of staging “false positive” operations in Venezuela territory. Photo by Juan Carlos Solorzano/ Miraflores Press Office / AP.

It turns out that the macabre story of false positives, while strange, is not funny at all. It’s a new chapter in the story of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Colombian army, in cahoots with their usual partners, the right wing paramilitaries that plague Colombian society.

The phenomenon is well known. A victim is lured under false pretenses to a remote location. He is killed soon after arrival, by members of the military. The scene is manipulated to make it appear as if the victim was legitimately killed in combat. He is commonly photographed wearing a guerrilla uniform, and holding a gun or grenade. Victims are often buried anonymously in communal graves, and their killers rewarded for the “results” they’ve achieved in the fight against drugs and/or rebels.

I started to get a leg up on the false positives talk from recently declassified cables and documents in National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 266, under the title: Documents Describe History of Abuses by Colombian Army.

CIA and senior U.S. diplomats were aware as early as 1994 that U.S.-backed Colombian security forces engaged in “death squad tactics,” cooperated with drug-running paramilitary groups, and encouraged a “body count syndrome,” according to the declassified documents.

These records shed light on a policy — recently examined in a still-undisclosed Colombian Army (COLAR) report — that influenced Colombian military officers for years, leading to extrajudicial executions and collaboration with paramilitary drug traffickers. The secret report has led to the dismissal of 30 Army officers and the resignation of Gen. Mario Montoya Uribe, (no relation to El Presidente), a Colombian Army Commander who long promoted using body counts to measure progress against guerrillas.

The Los Angeles Times reported in 2007 on a classified CIA report linking Gen. Montoya Uribe to joint military-paramilitary operations in Medellín while he served as brigade commander in 2002. His replacement as Army commander, General Oscar Gonzalez, also commanded the 4th Brigade, as well as other units in the conflict-prone area around Medellín. The 4th Brigade, a traditional launching point for officers seeking to move up the military chain-of-command, has long been accused of collusion with local paramilitary groups.

The NSA documents raise important questions about the historical and legal responsibilities COLAR has to come clean about, and what appear to be longstanding institutional incentives to commit murder. They include:

  • A 1994 report from U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette that decries “body count mentalities” among Colombian Army officers seeking to advance through the ranks. “Field officers who cannot show track records of aggressive anti-guerrilla activity (wherein the majority of the military’s human rights abuses occur) disadvantage themselves at promotion time.”
  • A CIA intelligence report from 1994 finds that Colombian security forces “employ death squad tactics in their counterinsurgency campaign” and had “a history of assassinating leftwing civilians in guerrilla areas, cooperating with narcotics-related paramilitary groups in attacks against suspected guerrilla sympathizers, and killing captured combatants.”
  • A Colombian Army colonel’s comments in 1997 that there was a “body count syndrome” in COLAR that “fuel[ed] human rights abuses by well-meaning soldiers trying to get their quota to impress superiors,” and a “cavalier, or at least passive, approach when it comes to allowing the paramilitaries to serve as proxies… for the COLAR in contributing to the guerrilla body count.” The same colonel also asserts that military collaboration with illegal paramilitary groups “had gotten much worse” under Gen. Rito Alejo Del Río Rojas, now under investigation for a murder during the same era.
  • A declassified U.S. Embassy cable describing a February 2000 false positives operation in which both the United Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) paramilitaries and COLAR almost simultaneously claimed credit for having killed two long-demobilized guerrillas near Medellín. Ambassador Curtis Kamman called it “a clear case of Army-paramilitary complicity,” adding that it was “difficult to conclude anything other than that the paramilitary and Army members simply failed to get their stories straight in advance.”

    The ACCU (which witnesses say kidnapped the two) claims its forces executed them, while the Army’s 4th Brigade (which released the bodies the next day) presented the dead as Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN — the National Liberation Army) guerrillas killed in combat with the Army. After these competing claims sparked local fears and confusion, armed men stole the cadavers from the morgue.

Obviously, the U.S. has known about these atrocities for years, yet both Bush and Obama have continued to feed billions of tax dollars to the very people who are committing them.

The earliest record in the Archive’s collection referring specifically to the phenomenon of “false positives” is dated 1990. That document, a cable approved by then-U.S. Ambassador Thomas McNamara, reported a disturbing increase in abuses attributed to COLAR. McNamara disputed the military’s claim that it killed nine guerrillas in El Ramal, Santander state, on June 7 of that year: ‘The investigation by Instruccion Criminal (COLAR CID) and the Procuraduría (Inspector-General’s Office) strongly suggests… that the nine were executed by the Army and then dressed in military fatigues. A military judge… on the scene apparently realized that there were no bullet holes in the military uniforms to match the wounds in the victims’ bodies…”

Hence the oxymoron, “Military Intelligence.”

While Colombian Army officials scramble to get their “stories straight,” “body counts” and “false positives” have an institutional history in COLAR going back many years.

The U.S. Embassy’s Defense Attaché Office (DAO) in Colombia reported in 1994 that the claim by then-Minister of Defense Fernando Botero that there was “a growing awareness that committing human rights abuses will block an officer’s path to promotion” reflected “wishful thinking.” These are the people that thousands of our troops will join up with and learn from. U.S. “drug war” money pays for every death and there were and still are thousands of them.

The latest “false positives” story revealed that the Army has murdered perhaps thousands of civilians, who were then dressed in rebel uniforms or had guns placed in their hands. They were then presented to the media as guerrillas or paramilitaries killed in combat. This allowed Army units to fabricate results and officers to gain promotion. The number of victims is believed to be in the thousands.

The story broke last October when it was found that poor young men had been recruited from the slums of Bogotá, promised well-paying jobs in the province of Norte de Santander, then murdered in cold blood and presented by the army as having been killed in combat.

The Fiscalia (Attorney General’s office) has evidence that 30 young men were murdered in such circumstances; so far 17 soldiers have been arrested in connection with the extrajudicial killings.

In Antioquia state, where the most cases have been reported, the AG is investigating COLAR Battalion Bombon, of the COLAR 14th brigade. It is alleged that soldiers were sent to the city of Medellin to round up homeless people, who were later presented as rebels killed in combat. Investigators have identified six cases, and 46 reported operations by the battalion are being scrutinized amid fears that more were simply staged, using murdered civilians.

Former Defense Minister Santos, who is likely to run for the presidency in 2010, has stated that the problems have been resolved and that the human rights abuses will be stopped.

However, last week he admitted that a student, Arnobis Negrete Villadiego, had been snatched off the streets of Monteria, Córdoba, on Christmas day. The corpse of the 18-year-old appeared a day later, presented as a member of a drug-trafficking gang killed in combat.

El Espectador, a Bogota daily newspaper, reported in August 2009 that the Colombia Prosecutor General’s Office was investigating 312 new complaints of people who say members of the armed forces killed civilians to present them as guerrillas killed in combat. Then in late September, 19 bodies were found in common graves in Ocaña, Norte de Santander. Some were identified as missing youths from Soacha. Over 100 bodies have been found in Ocaña so far this year.

Exhumation of bodies has shed light on the alleged atrocities in Colombia. Photo from BBC.

Relatives of the Soacha victims said that before they disappeared, they were offered high-paying work on farms elsewhere in the country by strangers. The youths were killed just a day or two after disappearing, making it unlikely that they would have had time to join and train with an armed rebel movement. An Army investigation was launched in October.

“The cases of Soacha [the most infamous case of so-called ‘false positives’] are just the tip of the iceberg,” UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial killings Philip Alston said when he presented his report on Colombia.

Nearly 1,300 Colombians have been killed for political reasons since Álvaro Uribe became President in 2002, mostly by security forces, according to a new report by the International Observation Mission, a group representing around 100 non-governmental human rights organizations. The report notes a “considerable increase in the number of extrajudicial executions” in a time period that “coincides” with an Uribe security crackdown. A part of that crackdown was a policy of rewarding soldiers for combat casualties to demonstrate progress in the war on Colombia’s guerrillas.

Although the government has said several times there have been no new “false positives” after an Army purge in November 2008, a recent report of the Human Rights Unit of the Procuraduría indicates the opposite. Of 1160 cases of extrajudicial killings, with 1881 victims, that are currently under investigation, 312 were opened this year January and July 2009.

One recent case involved Paez indigenous leader Reynal Dagua. Soldiers took Dagua from his home on July 26, killed him, and presented him as a guerrilla killed in combat, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) says. Indigenous representative Aida Quilcue brought this case to prosecutors. “I am concerned that it will not be considered as an extrajudicial killing. So far no soldiers were arrested; I don’t see that anything has changed,”

One case which investigators describe in detail is that of Aycardo Antonio Ortiz, 67, a farmer who lived in a humble wooden house in a neighborhood of Yondó, Antioquia. On July 8, 2009, troops from the Calibío Battalion of the 14th Brigade reported his as a guerrilla combat death. According to the Army, he had a 38-caliber revolver, a hand grenade, a radio, two meters of fuse, and camouflage pants. Those are elements that appear in almost all of the false positives cases. Some cynically call those items the “legalization kit.”

The version given by the then-commander of the battalion, Lt. Col. Wilson Ramirez Cedeño, is that a demobilized person had given them information that Ortiz was a member of the FARC, who used the alias “Murciélago” (“Bat”), and that when they attempted to surround his house his men were attacked from inside with gunfire, and responded. They installed a machine gun and initiated combat in which the suspected guerrilla died. Ramirez additionally said that in the same area they had found a guerrilla camp and a minefield.

The commission, after reviewing documents and technical evidence obtained on the ground, was able to prove that the victim was a known farmer from the area, that the demobilized man mentioned by the military never existed, that the operation order was signed the same day in which the murder took place — possibly after its occurrence — and that there never were intelligence reports on any “Murciélago.” Furthermore, there never was machine gun fire from the house, nor minefields, nor guerrilla camps.

Another scandalous episode involves the same Bomboná Battalion mentioned above, in the Magdalena Medio region of Antioquia. A young informant from that battalion, stationed in Puerto Berrio, says that in January 2008 fellow soldier Amílkar Hernandez requested that they look for a friend of his, and they went on this “mission” to the municipality of Vegachí.

The informant says the group went to the home of his friend, Johny Alexander Barbosa, who everyone called the “Tortuga” (“Tortoise”) because he was slow and somewhat lazy. Barbosa really didn’t want to leave his house, but in the end accepted the invitation and everyone went on motorcycles to Vegachi. Hernandez and the young informant slept that night back with the battalion, but “Tortuga” never returned home. According to the informant, now a witness for legal authorities, Hernandez brought street people from Medellín to assassinate them and make them look like combat casualties.

In each of six identical episodes an N.N. (“No-Name”) combat death was reported from whom a revolver or pistol was seized, while the soldiers involved are said to have spent exactly 650 bullets, eight hand grenades, and four mortar grenades. Military investigators question whether those incidents ever occurred, and believe they were used to “legalize” (steal) ammunition that some soldiers sell on the black market to guerrillas and criminal gangs.

The investigating commission examined documents supporting operations in which 11 young men died. Despite the fact that almost all of them were reported as members of criminal gangs, investigators were surprised to find that intelligence sections of the brigades involved had no specific information about these gangs, only generally-known facts. Intelligence officials could not give the name or alias of any gang members, or their location, or modus operandi.

In addition to crimes against humanity, there is evidence that corruption exists at many levels. For example, in the report it is clear that an internal “leaky faucet” of “lost” ammunition feeds the black market that, ironically, benefits the armed groups the Army is fighting.

The U.S handed over $750 million in mostly military aid to Colombia in 2007 that paid for the murder of at least 1,900 innocent civilians and bought ammo that was later sold on the black market. The contribution of U.S. taxpayers’ money to fund the killing of innocent people will almost certainly raise eyebrows among human rights activists and others who have long criticized the Colombian government’s actions in its phony war against cocaine and insurgents.

In a preliminary report, the UN’s rapporteur for extra-judicial executions, Philip Alston, stated that the term “false positives” is in its self false, because it suggests that soldiers committing these killings are doing it accidentally. They aren’t.

All of this raises the question of how the U.S. should proceed with its long-standing policy of supporting the Uribe government in its fight against FARC rebels.

U.S. financial aid to Colombia’s internecine war has spiked from around $86 million per year in 1997 to more than $750 million in 2008, with much of the increase coming during the Bush era. Colombia got $810 million in U.S. blood money in 2009 and will get another $510 million, already passed by Congress, in 2010. That will buy a lot of false positives.

This is the same congress that couldn’t find the money for a measly 3% cost of living increase in my Social Security check.

A free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia, agreed to by the Bush administration in 2006, has had little luck getting passed in Congress. The Obama administration is currently studying “outstanding issues” relating to the deal. It is, however, a sure bet that Congress will pass it and Obama will sign it.

Which brings us back to President Chavez’s claim of a “false positive” guerrilla camp. A little paranoia is suitable when dealing with Colombia’s narco-paraco false positive army. Our troops are not only dealing with them, they are living with them, training with them, and learning from them.

On a more positive note, “false positives” may be the answer to the constant dilemma of trying to keep track of the many columns and fronts of the FARC army. From time to time, COLAR announces the dismantling of various columns or fronts, only to have the same ones reappear months later. Perhaps COLAR is rounding up civilians, killing them, and claiming they were from this or that column! A column is about 100 fighters. Killing 50 or so civilians in an area could be construed as “dismantling” a FARC Column.

Just saying!

The Rag Blog

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2 Responses to Licensed Murder in Colombia : The Macabre Ruse of ‘False Positives’

  1. Anonymous says:

    An additional note: The 17 soldiers arrested for some of the Soacha murders were released a week ago due to a “prosecutor’s error” they will not be recharged. Yesterday, 11 Jan 10 six soldiers charged in a different false positives case were similarly released. The General, Mario Montoya Uribe who was at first forced to resign, was later allowed to “retire” and then was appointed ambassador to the Dominican Republic, where he has been accused of spying on Colombian dissidents. Impunity is a word that surfaces frequently in my research. Much like the Blackwater murderers and many of the U.S. army personal that enjoy the same murder with impunity, “get out of jail free card” as do many of the killer-cops that roam our streets here at home. You are not only paying for it, they are doing it in your name, here, in Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many other places around the world.

    At least we can find comfort in the persecution of Pvt. Lindy England who was the architect and commanding officer of the Abu Graves torture sessions. She is the Rusty Cally of this war.

    Jan 14, 2010 6:54:00 AM

  2. Anonymous says:

    I was gratified that you included the U.S. police in the get-out-of-jail crowd. For many years now, I have been very disturbed at how quick some police are to use deadly force, especially in cases where the “suspect” is accused of minor crimes, property crimes, or worst of all, appears to be mentally ill. To my mind, the police too often are the prosecutor, jury, judge, and executioner. While there always have been some transgressions by police, it was not always this frequent or this deadly. My memory goes back several decades.

    Concerned in Florida

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