A special tribunal has stated the number of victims connected to Colombia’s false positives scandal is almost three times higher than previously reported, dramatically expanding the scope of one of the darkest phases of the country’s recent history.
Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz -- JEP) identified at least 6,402 victims between 2002 and 2008, during which time members of the military lured primarily poor young men away from their homes to be murdered, according to a February 18 press release.
Soldiers dressed the victims in military fatigues and placed weapons next to their bodies to pass them off as being active guerrilla members -- or false positives -- in order to boost the government’s body count of enemy combatants, a practice used to justify US aid to the military.
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The JEP’s estimate is significantly higher than what the Attorney General’s Office had recently recognized. In mid-2018, the JEP said Colombian prosecutors reported there were a total of 2,248 victims of extrajudicial killings between 1988 and 2014. That said, other estimates had previously put the total number of victims closer to 5,000.
In the first phase of its latest report, the JEP prioritized six regions: Antioquia, the Caribbean Coast, Norte de Santander, Huila, Casanare and Meta. The JEP found the victims identified between 2002 and 2008 represented 78 percent of the total, meaning there are more victims of military executions outside of this seven-year window.
The systematic killings came in the context of the armed conflict between the government, National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional -- ELN) and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia -- FARC), formerly the country’s largest guerrilla group before the rebels demobilized as part of an historic 2016 peace agreement.
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The JEP’s latest findings are a welcome step towards greater transparency in some of the worst human rights abuses committed during Colombia’s armed conflict.
In early 2019, Human Rights Watch announced the army’s top ranking officer was among nine generals under investigation for human rights abuses and killings that were allegedly carried out by units under their command. While a number of soldiers have been charged and jailed for their suspected role in the false positives killings, authorities have yet to charge anyone at the rank of a general.
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During the scandal, members of the military were also aided at times by guerrillas. Former ELN rebel Luis John Castro Ramírez, alias “El Zarco,” testified that he helped a special army intelligence unit recruit several victims to be executed, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
Ramírez, who demobilized in 2010 and fled to Europe before being captured February 13 in Spain, is under investigation in Colombia for homicide, according to President Iván Duque. He is accused of deceiving and handing over at least 14 victims to be killed by the army in Tolima and Valle de Cauca, according to the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes (Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado -- MOVICE).
Since then, aggressive military strategies have not disappeared. A 2019 New York Times investigation uncovered military commanders encouraging soldiers to engage with suspected criminals and ordering them to step up the number of people captured or killed.
The strategy was later walked back, but it raised serious concerns about the government’s hard-line security policy for combatting the current criminal panorama of dissident FARC fighters, ELN guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug trafficking groups.