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Colombian Military Brass Likely Knew Their Soldiers Were Killing Civilians in Place of Guerrillas

After killing their victims, the report finds, soldiers would take their clothes and belongings, dress them in the guerrilla combat boots and fatigues, and plant weapons on them.

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In the early 2000s, Colombian military leaders told their troops that they wanted to see more dead guerrilla bodies — a good way, in their view, to ensure that government forces were making progress in their decades-long war against the FARC and other armed rebel groups.

Soldiers responded quickly, piling up corpses, and their superiors rewarded them with bonuses and vacation days, food and cigarettes. But as a new report by Human Rights Watch details, many of the corpses didn’t actually belong to rebels. They were bodies of people at the margins of society — poor farmers and children, people who were homeless, unemployed, or addicted to drugs, as well as former fighters and petty criminals — that soldiers figured they could dupe or kidnap, kill, and then present as “dead rebels” without causing too much of a stir.

While these extrajudicial killings, known as “false positives,” first came to light years ago, the HRW report released Wednesday uses extensive unpublished court records and interviews to show how high up in the military complicity in the 2002-2008 killings reached. It finds, for example, that both General Juan Pablo Rodriguez, the current head of Colombia’s armed forces, and army chief General Jaime Lasprilla led brigades accused of dozens of the “false positive” killings.

More than 800 members of the army have been convicted for their role in what HRW calls “one of the worst episodes of mass atrocity in the Western Hemisphere in recent decades.” Some 3,000 cases are under investigation. But the report criticizes Colombia’s justice system for prosecuting mainly low-ranking soldiers, and in some cases helping cover up the responsibility of higher-ups. It also argues the U.S. government should make its military aid to Colombia of around $7 million per year contingent on a fuller investigation.

After killing their victims, the report finds, soldiers would take their clothes and belongings, dress them in guerrilla combat boots and fatigues, and plant weapons on them. They’d send word about the new dead bodies and wait for congratulations from their bosses, who would sometimes make out payments to the fictional civilian informants who had supposedly led their troops to the “rebels.”

According to the report, this ruse should have been “entirely obvious” to military leaders. Soldiers didn’t always do a great job disguising their victims, who sometimes turned up in areas where armed groups didn’t operate, and some guns placed in the hands of “rebels” didn’t work, or were weapons that only members of the military — not guerrillas — would have carried. With evidence like that, according to a former lieutenant mentioned in the report, for someone ‘with the rank of a colonel and the experience you could have at this rank it is no secret that the troops… [were] killing innocent people.’”

The practice of killing civilians and framing their corpses as target groups isn’t unknown in other countries. Rights groups say that during Mexico’s drug wars, authorities have framed noncombatants as criminals in ways reminiscent of Colombia’s “false positives.” In India, incidents in which trigger-happy security forces plant weapons on the corpses of civilians they’ve killed so they can claim self-defense, including near the border with Pakistan, are common enough that they’re known by the euphemistic term “fake encounters.”

But the scope of the Colombia killings is unique. “We are not aware of security forces in any other country in Latin America — or the world — that have killed civilians on such a large scale just to falsely inflate body counts. False positives in Colombia are an unprecedented phenomenon,” Max Schoening, HRW’s Colombia researcher and the report’s author, told Foreign Policy.

Colombia has acknowledged that the “false positive” killings happened but denied that they were a systematic practice — and that’s a key distinction. Under the 2012 framework for peace talks between the government and the FARC, people accused of war crimes are exempt from criminal investigation – unless those crimes are considered “systematic.”

HRW’s report makes a strong argument that, as one former battalion official put it, “It was one modus operandi, one system.”

MAURICIO DUENAS/AFP/Getty Images

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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