Lessons for LatAm from Colombia’s Extrajudicial Killings

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A report implicating top Colombian army officers in extrajudicial killings committed by soldiers further illustrates how the criteria used to measure success in the fight against criminal groups can lead to widespread abuse — a phenomenon seen elsewhere in Latin America.

On June 24, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report incriminating Colombian Army officers in the “false positives” scandal. HRW defines “false positive” cases as the “unlawful killings that military personnel staged to look like — and officially reported as — lawful killings in combat of guerrillas, paramilitaries, or criminals.” The vast majority of victims were civilians.

In the report, HRW asserts that Colombian officers (including active and retired generals) knew or should have known about the killings — the bulk of which appear to have occurred between 2002 and 2008, although some cases date back to the 1980s.

According to HRW, over 800 members of the Army have been convicted as part of the false positives scandal, which first came to widespread public awareness in 2008. Prosecutors are investigating more than 3,700 alleged cases. To date, however, no officer with the rank of brigade commander or higher has been convicted.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Rights

Nonetheless, HRW’s investigation found “compelling reasons to believe” that senior army officers “were involved with or responsible for false positive killings.” These killings, argue HRW, were committed by “the vast majority of brigades across Colombia,” and required tactical unit and brigade commanders to issue “orders of operations” and other documents, providing a veneer of legitimacy to the killings.

HRW found two common incentives described by Colombian soldiers and officers involved in the false positives scandal: pressure from superiors to increase the number of combat kills to show “results” in the fight against guerrillas and organized crime, and rewards for supposed combat kills.

Testimony HRW obtained from Army personnel who admitted responsibility for false positives, “strongly suggested that commanders measured success in terms of reported combat kills, and pressured subordinates to increase them.” This pressure, according to HRW, “appears to have pervaded the Army’s chain of command,” and involved top generals as well as the foot soldiers conducting the killings.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Robinson Gonzalez del Rio — who has admitted responsibility for a number of false positive killings — told prosecutors, “You were evaluated based… on combat kills… It is a policy that [former Army commander] General Mario Montoya implemented… Every Monday he highlighted the 10 best units in the country. But these units were evaluated by combat kills.”

Gonzalez also explained how combat kills were valued higher than arrests or demobilized guerrillas: “Between Wednesday and Sunday the brigade and battalion commanders would enter into a crisis because they knew that on Monday they had to report combat kills. If they didn’t report combat kills, the Army commander would reprimand them, threaten to remove them, fire them.”

In addition to finding evidence of superiors giving subordinates quotas for combat kills — and threatening punishment for those with none to report — HRW discovered some military units may have organized competitions over who could achieve a higher number of kills.

HRW also found evidence of reward systems in place for combat kills, including vacation time, promotions, training courses, and recognition from superiors. One soldier from a battalion in the Army’s Fourth Brigade said soldiers in his unit received 35 days off after carrying out several extrajudicial killings in 2005. 

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The false positives scandal has been a black eye for the Colombian military since it first came to widespread public awareness in September 2008, after Colombian media revealed soldiers had been killing young men from the Bogota suburb of Soacha and passing them off as guerrillas killed in combat.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

HRW’s report — suggesting top Colombian military officers were involved to a greater extent then previously thought — has refocused attention on the scandal. Indeed, the timing of the report’s release may yet complicate the Colombian government’s fragile peace process with the FARC guerrillas, especially regarding the issue of transitional justice and how to hold those responsible for war crimes accountable.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the FARC

The findings included in the HRW report also offer an important lesson for a variety of different security contexts. Namely, the metrics that the security forces use to measure success — and the reward system meant to incentivize the desired results — can pervert the fight against enemy groups and lead to widespread abuses.

Indeed, by strongly emphasizing the number of enemy combatants killed as a measure of operational success — something that has been referred to as the “body count syndrome” — and rewarding those who produced results, the Colombian army created a mentality that led to the systematic practice of false positives. This, in turn, made the kill count a misleading and dangerous proxy for progress in the fight against Colombia’s non-state armed groups.

Such a progression, however, is not exclusive to Colombia. The perverse side-effects of this kind of numbers-heavy approach has been seen elsewhere in Latin America. 

One example is Mexico, where, under former President Felipe Calderon, government forces employed a “Kingpin Strategy” to confront drug cartels. Under this policy, the government emphasized the capture of cartel leaders and high-level criminal operatives; an approach that produced exciting headlines and a means for the government to demonstrate it was achieving positive results.

Yet widespread evidence of human rights abuses by Mexican security forces accompanied this strategy. The Mexican military — called in to help take down cartel leaders and members — has been implicated in scandals similar to Colombia’s false positives case, with soldiers having committed extrajudicial killings (with one of the most prominent cases being the Tlatlaya massacre of 2014). 

Central America offers another parallel example. The implementation of “Mano Dura” (iron fist) security polices in countries like El Salvador to confront insecurity and the region’s notorious street gangs, or “maras,” gave police authority to carry out the mass arrest and imprisonment of suspected gang members.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

Filling the prisons with gangsters, however, did little to successfully reduce violence on the street, and actually served to strengthen the gangs by allowing them to use the prisons to consolidate their activities and recruit new members.

Nonetheless, governments need — and should seek — to establish metrics to measure the impact of their efforts in tackling organized crime groups. Key to this task, however, is determining any unintended outcomes that may result from emphasizing certain indicators of “success.” Strict oversight of the forces responsible for carrying out government policy — and holding those guilty of abuses accountable — is also crucial. As demonstrated by Colombia’s false positives scandal, failure to do so can result in widespread violations of the rights of those the government is purportedly meant to protect.

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