THE FORGOTTEN CASES OF FALSE POSITIVES
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, a CSN Volunteer Translator, with permission of Semana.com)
SEMANA reveals hair-raising photos, audiotapes, and testimonies about possible extrajudicial executions in the Urabá region. Those responsible have not been punished.
Colombians have waited almost two years for those responsible for the so-called “false positives” of Soacha to be punished. Nothing. The case goes slowly and is full of problems. But Soacha is not the only investigation. Investigations of dozens of possible extrajudicial executions of civilians in different regions of the country have been transferred to the civil justice system to by military criminal judges. Some of those cases had begun even before the scandal of Soacha broke out, in October 2008.
Many of these cases continue in the civil justice system without being cleared up, and those responsible are free. Some of the most worrisome incidents took place in Urabá.
SEMANA investigated and obtained dozens of photographs, tape recordings, forensic reports and statements of witnesses with first hand knowledge, which provide evidence of the existence of tens of cases of possible extrajudicial executions that took place between 2007 and 2008, of which the country is still unaware. These are just a sample of the horror that they are trying to hide in impunity.
Most of what is being revealed today is the result of the work of a military criminal court judge named Alexánder Cortés.
In March of 2007, Cortés arrived in Carepa to take charge of Branch 94 of the military criminal court. Even though it was still several months before the scandal of the “false positives” was known nationally, Cortés discovered that something irregular was going on with the body counts that were being reported by the different units of the 17th Brigade. Without a second thought, and complying with all the rules, he began transferring the suspicious cases to the civil justice system. In spite of the hostile reaction of the military, he sent tens of cases to the Attorney General to be investigated, and he began dusting off a number of prior cases of possible extrajudicial executions prior to 2006 that judges had closed and placed on file.
In June 2009 he was transferred to another Brigade in Boyacá, and in the beginning of 2010, Cortés was fired. This military criminal judge, with documents in hand, is defending himself and insists that he was disqualified unjustly. (See interview entitled “A captain will never judge a colonel.”)
In the heart of darkness
The cases that Cortés investigated in Urabá are hair-raising. On September 5, 2007, a communication from the Seventh Division reported successful operations against the guerrillas, as follows: “Soldiers from the Voltígeros Battalion, a formal unit of the 17th Brigade, had an armed confrontation with the fifth sector of the FARC in rural areas of Carepa municipality. During the contacts that took place in the town of Pedragoza el Reposo, and on the site known as El Palmar, the troops killed two of the lawbreakers and were able to capture rifles”. That’s what the military said.
But, when he investigated, Cortés found the case questionable. According to the photos, one of the supposed guerrillas killed by the soldiers, Jesús Alfonso Bedoya, confronted the Army troops armed with an old pistol. Stranger still is that the supposed member of the Fifth Front of the FARC suffered from renal insufficiency and, according to the Carepa Hospital, he also suffered from sickle cell anemia. People with this hereditary disease suffer lumbar pain, mobility impairment, and tire very easily.
In fact, the investigation showed that just a few days before he turned up dead, he had been hospitalized and the night before his death he had had a high fever.
After the Carepa case came another frightening case. It happened on April 4, 2008. That was the day that the Army’s Seventh Division issued a communiqué relating the results of military operations carried out by several of their battalions. “The major offensive by the troops took place in a rural area of the town of La India in the municipality of Chigorodó in the Urabá region of Antioquia Province. Troops attached to the 17th Brigade, actively carrying out military control operations, were able to neutralize six presumed members of criminal gangs devoted to drug trafficking, known as Bacrim”, was a paragraph of the communication. The announcement of this action remains even today as a “successful military operation.”
Nevertheless, from the very beginning of these events it was evident to Judge Cortés, who inspected the location of the supposed combat, that it might be a “false positive”. Children were among the dead, and serious irregularities were self-evident. Almost all of the bodies of the dead were in abnormal positions for men who supposedly were in combat. The clothes that most of the corpses were wearing were too big for them. Most of them wore brand new boots. Some of them were carrying grenades hanging from their pants, something that is really dangerous since, the way they were supposedly carrying them, they could have exploded at any moment. One of the children even had his boots on the wrong feet.
The bodies were lying in an open field right near a highway. That is not a place where heavily armed guerrillas would travel, and certainly not undertake combat. Some of the children’s bodies showed that they had been shot at very short range and forensic tests to determine whether any of them had fired and showed traces of powder were negative. The photographs, the first that we know of in a case like this one, are very powerful and contradict the official version of the combat. (See images.)
The Attorney General’s Human Rights Unit, which is investigating the case, has still not been able to identify the six people that were killed. In part, as the Attorney General’s Office explained to SEMANA, this is because several of the dead were children, and therefore they have not yet been able to prosecute anyone for what happened.
“False Positives” a la carte
Two months later, on June 10, 2008, there was another event that, thanks to Military Judge Cortés’ investigations, may have been revealed to be another “false positive”. SEMANA found out about a taped conversation that shows how some soldiers from the 17th Brigade planned these crimes.
In one of these conversations, Captain Duván Hernández, of the Voltígeros Battalion of the 17th Brigade, is calling his superior, a colonel, whose first question is “How many kills are there?” The captain answers that, “Up to now, there is one “with everything”. He tells his superior that a combat took place. The colonel emphasizes that you have to say that they are members of the FARC. After this communication, the captain started to make desperate phone calls to different people, presumably paramilitaries in the region. In one of the calls, the officer is calling a paramilitary to tell him that he has a kill but there is a “problem” and it is that the victim was unarmed and they had to plant a weapon on the body.
The paramilitary offers a pistol, but the officer asks for a rifle. After several calls, the man obtains a weapon to give to the officer to place beside the victim’s body. (See box entitled Tapes. How a “false positive” is planned.) And it worked. The day after the calls, the Army released a communiqué with the results of the operations of the Seventh Division. It stated that: “The Army’s offensive resulted in a guerrilla of the Fifth sector of the FARC being killed in combat. The events took place in the town of Remigio in the municipality of Chigorodó in Antioquia Province when troops from the “Voltígeros” Battalion carried out search and control operations in the area; a rifle and a grenade were captured.”
Between August 2008 and April 2009, there were a total of 17 cases suspected of being “false positives” by members of the 17th Brigade. During that period the commander of that Brigade was Brigadier General Jorge Rodriguez, who had only headed the unit nine months and later was transferred to the office of Chief of Human Rights for the Army.
The previous events are only three examples of cases of “false positives” that the country had known nothing about.
When the macabre practice was discovered and the then-Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos began to take corrective measures, many criminal court judges found that they had support and began transferring hundreds of cases of extrajudicial executions to the civilian justice system. The Attorney General has undertaken the investigations.
Thus, for more than a year, cases like those of Soacha and Ocaña in North Santander, which are the best known to the public, started to advance. The Director of Military Criminal Justice, Luz Marina Gil, bravely led the process of investigating “false positives”. She resigned in the middle of last year. “It was like turning on a dime and going back to the past. The threats and the pressure not to send the cases to the civilian justice system began to increase. The directives that had been issued in 2008 to send the cases to the civilian justice system were practically reversed. The situation became unsustainable, not just because of the threats, but because those of us who were insisting on transferring the cases, in most of the cases, were simply declared unqualified, without any reason, and were thrown out the back door. Nothing came of those cases,” a source who was familiar with the situation told SEMANA, requesting anonymity.
This position, nevertheless, contrasts with the version of the present head of military criminal justice in the Ministry of Defense. There has been a substantial budget increase, demonstrating the commitment to provide the judges with tools for their investigations. They say that there is extremely careful examination of cases related to human rights and that there has been no massive and unjustified discharge of judges.
It is worrisome that cases as disturbing as those that took place in Urabá recently continue in impunity.
Sources in the Ministry of Defense told SEMANA that the problem is not the military criminal justice system but rather the lack of results by the Attorney General’s Office. This push and pull between the two justice systems weakens the Army’s advances in human rights and legitimacy, indispensable ingredients for the effective protection of the civilian population and for breaking the back of the guerrilla movement.