BOGOTÁ, Colombia – The decision to promote ten military personnel involved in the heinous “false positives” scandal in which thousands of innocent civilians lost their lives was strongly criticized by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The ‘False Positives’ scandal was centered around the despicable plan in which, from 2002 to 2008, over 3,000 poor, jobless and sometimes even developmentally challenged men in rural regions were lured with promises of work by Colombian soldiers.
The men were then executed, dressed in military fatigues and passed off as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, the group which had been locked in a war with the Colombian military from 1964 until just less than a year ago when a peace agreement was ratified in Congress.
Later, many soldiers were paid handsomely in order to keep quiet about the crimes (and the murdered civilians they “recruited”) while the Colombian National Army and the units involved in the killings were rewarded for the “missions accomplished” with promotions and budget raises due to the exaggerated statistics of the liquidations of supposed FARC rebels and rebel camps.
This scandal broke in late 2008 and led to a purge in the military with the ousting of 27 generals and colonels, including General Mario Montoya Uribe, the lifelong military man and former Commander of the Colombian National Army.
Montoya Uribe officially stepped down but it is understood that he was forced to retire as it became public that he knew of the extrajudicial killings carried out as part of the ‘false positives’ case and did nothing to stop them, according to an earlier Human Rights Watch (HRW) report that cited former generals.
The initial scandal was followed in early 2014 by revelations of the aforementioned instances of hush money; the same generals and colonels that were arrested worked from inside their prison cells where they accepted deals and arranged the reception of payments they would get from various military officials in order to keep them quiet about the murders. This was done using public money, taken mostly from the army’s Aviation Unit funds.
The taped conversations involving the officials and the imprisoned generals and colonels were recorded in 2012 and 2013 and were released in early 2014. The various figures are heard explicitly referring to “favorable, lucrative contracts” and bribes consisting of up to 50% of certain contracts.
Montoya Uribe, who received military training in the United States at the US Army’s Fort Knox in Kentucky and served as the military attaché to the Colombian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, was summoned to testify in 2015 about his role in the ‘false positives’ scandal in a trial that resulted from the tapes.
His appearance, however, along with the appearances of several other generals implicated in the case, was suspended as the trial had moved at a snail’s pace and has practically stopped altogether, which has allowed many of the accused to continue in their positions of power within the military.
Not only has the trial been frozen, HRW has now announced that several of the figures implicated in the ‘false positives’ scandal were actually given promotions within the Colombian military.
According to HRW, there is evidence that five military officials, four colonels and a general linked to the scandal have been nominated for promotions within the Armed Forces as part of a larger group of 33 men; the only action needed is for the nominees to be approved by the Senate but this is a formality.
The named individuals that saw combat are Brigadier General Francisco Cruz Ricci and colonels Mauricio Zabala Cardona, Miguel Bastidas, Óscar Rey Linares and Raúl Flórez Cuervo.
The men slated for promotion are or were all suspects in the murders carried out as part of the ‘false positives’ scandal with the alleged killings involving these men taking place between 2003 and 2005 by three different batallions.
José Miguel Vivanco, the Executive Director of HRW’s Americas Division, said that the men have the presumption of innocence but stressed that “promoting these individuals while they are being investigated is a signal that the Colombian authorities are not committed to guarantee justice in the ‘false positives’ case.”
“Instead of sending a strong message that it has overcome the dark stage of the scandal, the Colombian Ministry of Defense is staining the reputation of the Armed Forces in promoting officials against whom serious allegations are levelled,” Vivanco said.
The HRW further demonstrated the lack of the Colombian government’s commitment to resolving the case by highlighting the fact that 3 of the 8 Divisions (regional commands) in the Army are headed by individuals implicated in the ‘false positives’ case.
Luis Carlos Villegas, the Defense Minister, said that the officials presented by his ministry “have the confidence and approval” of the government.
The reason for the approval is that none of the officials slated for promotion have had any formal criminal cases opened by the Army against them; the difference is that investigations against these men have been opened by civilian entities or by the military itself but not in a “formal” way or in the form of a criminal case.
HRW is now urging the Senate to “stop the promotion of all the military figures against whom there is credible evidence that they are implicated in serious abuses until such evidence is fully and adequately investigated.”