Colombian military leaders accused of assassinating civilians in civil war

By Bhadra Sharma

A special court in Colombia has charged a general and other top military leaders with crimes against humanity, accusing them of assassinating 120 civilians and presenting the victims as combat casualties in a bid to show the country was winning its long civil war.

The indictments are the first in which Colombia’s special peace court, created by a 2016 agreement between the country’s government and its largest rebel group, has held anyone accountable for the killings, which erupted into public view in 2008 and became known as the “false positives” scandal.

The scandal has emerged as emblematic of the country’s decadeslong internal conflict, a painful symbol of the way that civilians were not just accidental casualties in a war between left-wing guerrillas, paramilitaries and the military — but sometimes targets of all three groups.

Hundreds of members of the military were convicted in the scandal by the country’s regular court system but were later released under the 2016 peace accord, which transferred jurisdiction of their cases to the special peace court.

The charges are part of a larger legal and political reckoning around the facts of the war, one that continues to divide society, with some arguing that the civilian killings were the crimes of a few bad actors, and others calling them a systematic military practice.

In all, the special peace court accuses the military of killing as many as 6,402 civilians and trying to pass them off as combatants.

The indictment names Brig. Gen. Paulino Coronado Gámez as one of those responsible for the killings, making him the highest-ranking official to be accused in the false positives case in any court, said Juan Pappier, Colombia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Past indictments in the regular court system focused on lower-ranking officials. (One other general, Henry Torres Escalante, was previously indicted in the regular system, though he was a colonel when the alleged crimes took place.)

In all, 11 people are charged in the new indictments, and officials said they plan to charge more people soon.

In court documents, authorities said the killings, which took place in 2007 and 2008 in the Catatumbo region, by the border with Venezuela, “were not isolated, spontaneous or sporadic acts.”

Instead, they said, “these acts are interrelated and were committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, that is, they are crimes against humanity.”

The court said that members of the military at first captured and killed young men from rural areas in the region of Catatumbo. But after complaints from locals and human rights groups in the area, soldiers moved to new a strategy: contracting with third parties to recruit vulnerable people — including unemployed, homeless and disabled people — from other municipalities and bring them to Catatumbo.

There, the victims were assassinated and their deaths were used to “criminally add to the official statistics of military success,” the court said.

In a news conference after the indictments were issued, Judge Catalina Díaz said that witnesses had described how officers were pushed to bring in combat casualties with promises of awards, vacations — and even special meals of hamburgers and fried chicken.

Among the victims was Julián Oviedo Monroy, 19, whose mother said he disappeared one night in 2008 after telling her he’d been recruited for a job.

In an interview last year, Blanca Nubia Monroy, 62, said that she later discovered that the recruiters had handed him over to the military, who had killed him and tried to pass him off as a member of one of the country’s left-wing guerrillas.

On Tuesday, she said the indictment brought her a measure of peace.

“They’re not going after the low-level officers like the regular justice system,” she said of the peace court. “They’re going after the highest ranks, so that the deaths of our children do not end with impunity.”

Pappier of Human Rights Watch called the announcement “a vindication for victims and human rights groups that have been fighting for justice in this case for more than a decade.”

Under the terms of the special peace court, the 11 individuals have the option to acknowledge the crimes as charged, or go to trial. If they admit to the crimes, they will receive up to eight years of an alternative sentence that could include home confinement or participation in public building projects. If they choose to go to trial and are found to be guilty, they could face up to 20 years in prison.

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