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Colombia’s False Positives

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“In Colombia Heroes Do Exist:” Abstract: As a result of interviews with two human rights defenders and two family members of victims of extraordinary acts of violence, this two-part article investigates the “false positive” scandal that has cast a lasting doubt on the country’s armed force´s claim to be the “heroes of Colombia.” In October, it was revealed that at least eleven young men from the Cundinamarca municipality of Soacha had been lured to Ocaña, in North Santander, where they were executed and their bodies presented as enemy combatants killed in battle so that the soldiers could claim the rewards that go to troops which have demonstrated “results.” This article investigates the historical and structural causes of the phenomena, and explores the nature of the government’s relationship with the vaunted “democratic security policy” of President Alvaro Uribe Vélez. It concludes that while the Government clearly has a high degree of responsibility for the phenomena, it is still premature to insist on qualifying the killings as “crimes of the state.”

Part 1: “In Colombia Heroes do Exist:”

“In Colombia, heroes do exist.” So reads the principal slogan of the campaign by the Colombian army to retain the confidence of the population and keep military recruitment levels high.. Television advertisements regularly show Colombian troops on daring patrols, along with the words, “Although you don´t see us, we are there, although you don´t hear us, we are always there, and even in the darkness, we are your guardians.” Highways are lined with billboards reading “travel calmly, the armed forces are on the way.” The army´s website even features a section entitled “our heroes,” devoted exclusively to pictures of soldiers who have lost limbs in combat. The message is clear: the army is full of humble, unrecognized, unsung heroes who risk their lives daily to protect the majority of good, hard-working and patriotic Colombian citizens.

And until last year, María Ubilerma Sanabria would not have had any qualms with any of the above. This is because she, like the majority of Colombians, believed in the armed forces. She thought they were there to protect people like her and her family. That, she says, is why she voted for President Alvaro Uribe. But everything changed in February 2008, when her 16 year old son, Jaime Estiben, left Soacha, (their working class town on Bogotá´s periphery), in search of a tempting job opportunity in the Colombian countryside. He had been convinced to go by an apparently well-connected but mysterious man in a local shop where Jaime and his friends often hung out.

The Militant’s Helping Hand

Although Jaime had talked vaguely about the opportunity, Doña Maria didn’t understand why he had to leave, and thought she had convinced him not to. She didn´t try to claim any type of “mother´s intuition” when she was recounting this sad, sinister story. In the days before Jaime left, she said she hadn´t noticed any dramatic change in his behavior. He was still the same fun-loving, charismatic, affectionate child she had always known, who was keen on sports, girls, and ranchera music sung by popular singers like Vicente Fernandez and Antonio Aguilar. When she left him sleeping at home on February sixth, there seemed no reason to worry. The next day, Jaime phoned his sister, saying he was in the North Santander town of Ocaña. Speaking in a hushed tone and in a hurried manner, he told her not to worry. It was the last time the family would ever hear from him.

Nidia Milena Montañez, a 26-year old single mother of four had even more reason to trust in the armed forces: three of her brothers had served in the army. She last spoke to her separated husband, 27- year old Joaquin Castro Vasquez, on January third, ten days before his disappearance, and twelve days before his murder. Similarly to Doña Maria, Nidia had not seen any particular change in his behavior or temperament in the days leading up to the fateful event. He had, however, phoned Nidia´s mother in December, promising her that he had a good job prospect lined up, and was going to “make some money and then win my wife and children back.” Beyond this mysterious and final phone call, he did not inform anyone of his plans to leave Soacha.

Thereafter came months of agonizing uncertainty for Maria and Nidia. Both thought their loved ones would return at any moment, and Nidia once even was convinced she had seen her ex-husband on a bus. Maria frequently sensed her son was about to come back. “When I walked around Soacha, and saw other boys, I always thought that Jaime would be among them, but he never was. When I was in the house, I constantly had this sensation that he was about to walk in through the door. Then, when I finally found him again, he was still sleeping, just like when I left him.” That was in October, when Maria and one of her daughters travelled to the North Santander town of Ocaña, where they were shown Jaime Estiben´s body, and informed then that “your son, the guerrilla, was killed in combat.” Maria could not believe that Jaime, who had never held a gun in his life, could have joined the guerrillas. There were other things that didn´t fit. Jaime had left Soacha on February sixth, yet documents to be found at the forensics institute Medicina Legal showed he was killed on the 8th. “What an intelligent son I had, capable of learning to be a guerrilla in two days,” remarks Maria bitterly. For Nidia, the story was similar. While newspapers claimed her ex-husband had been “killed in combat” in August, Medicina Legal showed he had, in fact, been killed within two days of his disappearance from Soacha. By October, it was clear that these macabre cases were not isolated, and that many other mothers in Soacha were complaining about similar disappearances. At least 11 men had been killed in mysterious circumstances in Ocaña within 2 or 3 days of leaving Soacha and without notifying their families. While President Uribe initially claimed that the victims were “delinquents” as he had done in the past, by giving the worst possible interpretation, even if it indicted the victim rather than the culprit. He soon had to retract that claim in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

False Positives: A Bold New Term for a Reprehensible New Crime?
Since then, the army´s term for the phenomena has become a new byword in Colombia´s lexicon of brutality and violence. Suddenly, everyone is aware of this grotesque new phrase to describe a vile new class of scandal: “false positive.” A false positive – something you initially think is good, but certainly isn’t. While the term “false positives” clearly does not go far enough in highlighting the reality of human rights degradations at the highest level, it has acquired its own chilling notoriety, and its very utterance is enough to invoke heated emotions.

Until the Soacha incidents, the phenomena of false positives was unknown to most Colombians, even though the human rights organization Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular (CINEP) had documented such cases since 2006, but did not see fit to produce a report dedicated to this particular form, of abuse until a significant increase in the cases were catalogued in 2007. But it is becoming clear that false positives are not a new practice in the Colombian army. In fact, recently declassified documents obtained by the National Security Archive in Washington show that the United States Embassy was aware of the practice from as far back as 1990. In 1994, the issue was emphasized by US Ambassador Myles Frechette, (seen by many fellow foreign service officers as a committed conservative), forthrightly claimed that “body count mentalities” were prevalent in the Colombian army. According to Michael Evans, Director of the NSA´s Colombia Project, these “mentalities” were, at least in part, linked to the rise in army-paramilitary cooperation during the 1990´s. The claim is substantiated by recent allegations by former paramilitaries who were members of right wing death squads, such as Juan Vicente Gamboa, alias “the panther,” who has confessed to taking part in 30 false positives prior to 2003. In such cases, there seems to be a strong confluence of factors driving the phenomena: for example, the political goal of eliminating figures loosely linked to the left and of disguising human rights abuses.

When Killing Becomes a Business
What is apparently new about the recent cases is that they have been motivated primarily by internal military incentive structures, rather than political motives. Not even paramilitary paranoia could have led one to associate the young men with the FARC or any other armed leftist group; they were simply apolitical youths, and some had even served in the armed forces.

They were killed so that army units and their commanders could demonstrate “results” to their superiors, and thereby win both financial rewards and promotions. In this war, progress has long been measured by the number of “enemy combatants” immobilized, preferably killed, and career prospects often depend on demonstrating such “results,” in a big way. Investigations have revealed an extensive web of recruiter networks penetrating poor neighborhoods across the country, operating in a shadowy underworld in collusion with army contract agents. In the case of Soacha, the recruiters were men who had lived in the neighborhood for some time, which helped them win the confidence of their victims. They promised the Soacha youth work of dubious legality, to lure them to travel to Ocaña, often under the effects of drugs, where they were then sold to soldiers for approximately $500 each. The soldiers would then strip them of their documents, and with arms and uniforms procured on the black market make them appear as enemy guerrilla or paramilitary combatants. They would then shoot them from long range to make the story more credible, and bury them in communal graves. For dispatching these apparent “positives” in North Santander, the assassins could count on receiving, benefits such as paid holidays, special courses abroad, promotions and pay raises.

Democratic Security and False Positives

As Mauricio Garcia, Director of CINEP, points out, while false positives may have been present in Colombian for as many as 20 years, they have only been consolidated as a coherent phenomena under the current government. CINEP´s statistics show that since Uribe assumed the presidency, the number of victims of false positives per year has risen from 14 in 2002 to 229 in 2007, falling to 175 in 2008. Statistics from the politically neutral Prosecution Service (La Fiscaíia General de la Nación) show fewer than 6 cases a year under the previous administration, before rising to 370 under Uribe. To Garcia, the reason for this rise is obvious: President Uribe´s determination to aggresively take the war to the FARC has meant heavily incentivizing the killing of enemy combatants, effectively persuading more and more army units to target innocent and entirely uninvolved civilians as the easiest way to acquire such rewards. Senator Gustavo Petro has specifically highlighted a government directive which was circulated in 2005 by then Minister of Defense Camilo Ospina, in which specific amounts of money were offered for every enemy combatant killed. On the other side of the coin, soldiers and their commanders who failed to show such “results” could easily find their careers either blocked or terminated, and as recent confessions have shown false positives were often sought for following repeated pressures from above to get “strategic results.” It is still not scientifically known whether the phenomena was carried out with the full complicity of all levels of the army, although Petro points out that all sectors of the chain of command stood to benefit from more “results.” Neither can it be claimed that the phenomena is isolated or limited to only a few areas of the country: both CINEP and the Fiscalía have exposed cases in over half of the departments in the country.

It is still unclear whether this unsavory option was chosen as a result of an unwillingness to take on tough guerrilla groups capable of putting up stiff resistance mano a mano, or in response to a low guerrilla presence in the respective zones. If the latter is the case, it may later be seen that the increase in false positives was due to the Government´s success against the FARC, which led to a reduced guerrilla presence in various zones of the country, thereby encouraging soldiers to target civilians to “make up the numbers,” but this is purely speculation.

Crimes of the State?

One of the biggest controversies has been whether or not to classify false positives as “crimes of the state.” This has been the contention of Ivan Cepeda Castro, president of the National Movement for Victims of Crimes of the State (Movice). The organization led a march on March 6th featuring the slogan, “False positives are crimes of the state.” Fernando Escobar, the Personero of Soacha (the politically neutral, independent public official who represents the individual and collective rights of the local population) was the first to denounce the disappearances and has since sought to defend the rights of the victims’ families. He argues that false positives could theoretically fit into this category, as they are crimes committed by people when they are in the service of the state. However, both he and Mauricio Garcia are prepared to acknowledge that the term is politically loaded and implies that false positives are a conscious policy of the government, something which has not yet been demonstrated. One way of analysing the controversy is to look at the extent to which such crimes have served the state. To do this, one must necessarily make a distinction between policies motivated by the political and economic objectives of the government,army,paramilitaries, and those driven solely by the personal desire for rewards and incentives (as in the Soacha/Ocaña case).

Undoubtedly, the more politically motivated false positives that have been witnessed since the early 90s (i.e. the elimination of politicized individuals, and the presentation of their bodies as felled guerrillas in order to avoid opening the door for embarrassing accusations of human rights abuses) can be seen to have well served government purposes. While this may not be the case for the financially motivated instances which have triggered the present scandal, it seems likely that there has been a link between the two types of false positives. At the same time, if one is to take Uribe’s “democratic security” at face value and accept that the main governmental aim is indeed to unremittingly and inevitably defeat the FARC, then the false positives as they occurred in Soacha were clearly contrary to that objective. On the other hand, cynics might suggest that the government´s main priority is just to cultivate the image of defeating the FARC, in which case the false positives could conceivably have been viewed as a means to inflate fatality figures in order to project this image. However, this would be a curious policy given that the effect on statistics would be limited (at an absolute maximum, two thousand victims of false positives in the last 10 years) compared to the inherent risk that such a policy would one day be discovered and the public, along with the international community, would react with the kind of predictable abhorrence which is now being witnessed. What is far more likely in this instance is that these false positives were carried out by low and mid-level soldiers, an unintended bi-product of the policies to monetarily incentivize search and destroy tactics ostensibly against the guerrillas.

Nevertheless, questions remain as to the extent to which high level officials were “knowingly ignorant” of the crimes. If the U.S. Embassy has been aware of this phenomena since the early 90s, it would be straining credibility to assume that all, or even some, high-ranking Colombian army and government officials have been completely ignorant. Senators such as Gustavo Petro openly denounced such crimes as early as 2006, and generals such as Alvaro Valencia Tovar highlighted the inherent dangers of incentivizing the killing of enemy combatants. Rather than a concerted state policy to kill civilians and present their bodies as guerrillas or paramilitaries, it is more likely to be the case that individuals within both the army and government are aware of, but fail to denounce the false positives for fear of hurting either the army´s or their own prestige and standing. Only significant investigations by seemingly compromised officials, conceivably rising to the presidential office, will show what has happened and the extent to which the false positives culture has penetrated the marrow of the armed forces and the level of its current toxicity.