Past Extrajudicial Murders Haunt Colombia’s Military Command

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The presence of several generals accused of being involved in extrajudicial killings within Colombia’s military command has raised concerns that President Iván Duque is whitewashing past misdeeds to achieve his national security goals.

On February 27, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that at least nine generals, including the army’s top ranking officer, are currently under investigation for human rights abuses and killings that took place in units under their command from 2002 to 2008.

These killings, known as ‘falsos positivos’ (false positives), saw soldiers lure young  Colombian men, many of them poor or mentally handicapped, from their homes and murder them. The dead were then declared to have been members of guerrilla groups and used to bolster enemy body counts. The commanding officers of units responsible for these murders were often rewarded with promotions and other benefits.

In 2015, prosecutors said that they were investigating cases involving nearly 5,000 false-positive victims.

SEE ALSO: A Blast from the Past: The Duque Security Plan for Colombia

Since the scandal first broke in 2008, numerous soldiers have been jailed for their involvement and senior officers have been fired. However, nobody at the rank of general has ever been charged.

The nine generals now linked to the ‘false positives’ are Nicacio Martínez, head of the army; Jorge Enrique Navarrete Jadeth, head of general staff for human resources and logistics; Raúl Antonio Rodríguez Arévalo, chief of staff for planning and policy; Adolfo León Hernández Martínez, commander of transformation for the army’s future; Diego Luis Villegas Muñoz, commander of the Vulcano Task Force; Edgar Alberto Rodríguez Sánchez, commander of the Aquiles Task Force; Raúl Hernando Flórez Cuervo, head of the army training school; Miguel Eduardo David Bastidas, commander of the Tenth Brigade; and Marcos Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo, commander of the Thirteenth Brigade.

According to the report, three of the generals are directly under investigation already, namely Villegas Muñoz, David Bastidas and Pinto Lizarazo. The other six allegedly commanded units implicated in the extrajudicial killings.

General Nicacio Martínez has denied the charges, saying that “God and my junior officers know how I acted.” The Defense Ministry also issued a statement in support of Martínez, saying he was not under investigation.

In the days since these accusations, the Colombian Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP), created as part of the ongoing peace process, announced they are investigating 55 soldiers for their links to this scandal.

InSight Crime Analysis

There are several major elements of concern here. First, President Duque has adopted a hardline approach similar to that of previous administrations in shaping the role of the military in his national security policy.

By permitting tainted generals to serve in top positions, Duque is confirming what many human rights advocates have feared: that accusations of past misconduct are no bar.

Second, what message does this send to the rest of the army? The appointment of these generals could mean the return of notorious tactics from Colombia’s bloody recent past. Soldiers may be given overly broad autonomy in going after the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrillas and other criminal structures, leading to human-rights violations.

SEE ALSO: 3 Obstacles for Transitional Justice in Colombia

Finally, these appointments further jeopardize the peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). Part of the 2016 agreement was that the JEP would investigate past abuses by the military and paramilitary groups. The appointment of generals allegedly involved in some of the most notorious cases of abuse only confirms suspicions that the Duque administration does not intend to honor the prior government’s commitments.

While it is encouraging to see the JEP forge ahead with its investigation into extrajudicial killings even after the generals’ role in the current army was revealed, the JEP has been undergoing a crisis of late, as Duque’s actions have created a climate of doubt that the body can act according to its founding mandate.

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