A former top army commander in Colombia has been sentenced to 19 years and six months in prison for ties to paramilitaries, only the second high-profile military official to be condemned for links which have engulfed many of the country's elite.
Colonel Publio Hernan Mejia, who led the La Popa Battalion in the northern region of Valledupar between 2002 and 2004, was sentenced on September 9 for collaboration with paramilitaries and involvement in so-called "false positives" -- the murder of civilians or extrajudicial killings reported as army combat kills.
According to the investigation, Mejia colluded with notorious paramilitary leader Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias "Jorge 40," whose men joined Mejia's troops on patrols and whose murders Mejia reported as combat kills, reported El Espectador.
In one incident, witnesses described how a group of paramilitaries assassinated after an internal struggle within Tovar's organization were officially reported as National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas killed in combat by Mejia's men. Mejia has claimed that then-President Alvaro Uribe endorsed the operation.
According to Semana, witnesses have claimed Mejia received up to $15,000 per month from Tovar's paramilitary organization for his continued collaboration.
Mejia was removed from his position in 2007 by Uribe, after his involvement in the false positives scandal became evident, reported El Tiempo.
InSight Crime Analysis
The number of confirmed false positives totals almost 4,000, according to Colombia’s Attorney General's Office -- yet Mejia is only the second senior army official to be imprisoned for involvement in the scandal, according to Semana. Colonel Luis Fernando Borja was the first, and could serve up to Colombia's maximum sentence of 60 years for involvement in over 50 such cases.
Tovar went on to become one of the most high-profile paramilitary leaders to emerge from the Colombian conflict, leading the Northern Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary umbrella organization which demobilized in 2006. Files from his computer sparked the so-called “para-politics” scandal, during which many politicians -- including members of Uribe’s family -- were imprisoned for paramilitary links.
The para-politics scandal has exposed the deep links between the country's elites and paramilitary organizations, especially during Uribe's 2000 to 2008 presidency, with Tovar himself a cattle rancher from an elite family in northern Colombia.