The murder of civilians by the military with the objective of presenting them as firefight casualties is a crime popularly known as “false positives” in Colombia. This common practice of the Army since 1994 peaked in the first decade of this century when 5,763 people were murdered. The post-agreement process has had to deal with the persistence of this practice which has apparently become a part of the public force’s modus operandi.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the body responsible for judging all crimes committed in the armed conflict in Colombia, is currently studying seven macro cases, including Case 03: Deaths illegally presented as casualties in combat, “false positives.” Within the framework of this case study, members of the Army who have participated in these crimes have voluntarily testified that high-ranking officers have instigated soldiers to commit these types of crimes, offering them perks such as breaks, congratulations and even hamburgers or Chinese rice dishes1. Already in 2012, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court stated that there are sufficient grounds to believe that this type of crime is part of state policy.
In 2019, a scandal arose when it was revealed that the Army had guidelines on this type of incentive, and encouraged the intensification of lethal attacks without “requiring their perfect” execution, thus reducing the protection of innocent civilians.
Likewise, generals had ordered “to do whatever is needed” to get better results, even if it meant working with criminal groups2.
One of the first reported cases is that of Dimar Torres, a former fighter.
The country’s rural communities have been denouncing, for some months now, cases of peasants murdered by the military. One can conclude that this is a permanent policy of the public force. One of the first reported cases is that of Dimar Torres, a former fighter. A group of peasants found his body when they searched for him after hearing shots fired on the night of April 22, 2019. Dimar’s body was riddled with bullets with signs of torture and castration. A group of military personnel was also on the scene digging a hole in the ground. In October 2019, a court convicted an army corporal for Dimar’s murder. The corporal acted on the orders of a general and two soldiers were helping him hide the body.
Salvador Jaime Durán met a similar fate in June 2020. Members of the community found the body of this young man killed by firearm. The peasants who found him detained six soldiers as the young man’s presumed assassins. Faced with these facts, an army brigadier claimed that Salvador’s death occurred in a firefight after the soldiers were attacked. However, in a later statement, the brigadier presented photographs of an ELN guerrilla, claiming that he was the murdered peasant.
Responding to the brigadier’s claims, the ELN denied in a statement that Salvador Jaime was part of their ranks. This sparked widespread outrage throughout the country because it’s yet another example of the military’s continued extrajudicial executions.
The public forces often justify these killings by claiming that the victims are members of illegal armed groups or criminals. This also happened with Joel Villamizar, an U’wa indigenous man killed by the military at the end of May. Army commanders justified the killing by claiming that Joel was a member of the security detail of some organized armed group leader.
This practice is in line with public statements of the military representative to the Truth Commission, who rejected that there is a “false positive” pattern and tried to present them as mere isolated acts. Members of the institutions seem to be denying the State’s crimes in Colombia.
The prevalence of the “false positives” isn’t the only type of human rights abuse involving the Public Force. In their forced eradication operations, the military is burning houses and subsistence crops and attacking and killing unarmed peasants. They’re also threatening communities with the return of paramilitary groups such as the AUC1. There are cases of sexual violence, such as the gang rape of an Emberá girl by seven soldiers. None of these incidents are isolated cases. General Zapateiro himself reported that since 2016, army personnel were involved in 118 sexual aggression cases.
Ronald Rojas, the FARC party delegate to the CSIVI, the Peace agreement’s Follow-up and Verification Commission, even claims he has evidence that in a talk to career soldiers of the Magdalena Battalion in Pitalito, an official stated that there is no difference between former members of the FARC currently working in the political party and the so-called dissidents or residual organized armed groups2.
The Final Accord doesn’t contain a point on reforming the security sector, although the international community recognizes the need for such reforms in post-conflict settings. The constant condemnations of human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law by the military put the discussion on reforming Colombia’s armed forces on the front burner.
1 Misión Humanitaria por la vida y la paz en los llanos orientales y la Orinoquía. Comunicado final. [Humanitarian Mission for Life and Peace in the eastern plains and Orinoquía.]
2 El Espectador (June 1, 2020) La propuesta que FARC le hizo a la JEP para detener los asesinatos de excombatientes. [The FARC presented a proposal to the JEP to stop the assassination of former fighters] https://www.elespectador.com/colombia2020/justicia/jep/las-propuestas-que-farc-le-hizo-a-la-jep-para-detener-los-asesinatos-de-excombatientes/
1 El Espectador (April 14, 2020) Las tres fases de los ¨falsos positivos¨ del Batallón La Popa. [The three phases of the La Popa Batallion “false positives”]: https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/judicial/las-tres-fases-de-los-falsos-positivos-del-batallon-la-popa-articulo-914601/
2 The New York Times (May 18, 2019) Las órdenes de letalidad del Ejército colombiano ponen en riesgo a los civiles, según oficiales. [According to officials, the Colombian army’s orders to use deadly force are putting the lives of civilians at risk]: https://www.nytimes.com/es/2019/05/18/espanol/america-latina/colombia-ejercito-falsos-positivos.html