Victims of Colombia’s “false positive” scandal lose hope for justice
Jacqueline Castillo voted No in the country’s now-infamous October referendum to ratify a peace deal with the FARC. She worried that the deal offered impunity to the military men who had carried out illegal, extra-judicial “false positive” executions that had claimed her brother’s life in 2008.
The public had similar reservations about FARC rebels going unpunished, and narrowly voted against the deal in a record low turnout on October 2.
Yet the new deal — announced November 12 following renegotiations that incorporated the opinions of those who campaigned against the original pact — does little to challenge the fear amongst victims families that these military crimes will continue to go unpunished. Particularly alarming is the inclusion of language that states “actions of state forces are assumed to be legal.” The deal also promises the option of even lighter sentencing for military men who were already convicted.
Castillo and other relatives of victims of the Colombian army’s “false positive” tactic — known collectively as the Mothers of Soacha after the poor Bogotá suburb where many victims were abducted — expect little chance at justice now.
“There was no justice in the original deal and I don’t see any justice now,” Castillo said. “It’s not even about the time in jail. Fifty or sixty years won’t bring my brother back. What we need is that they apologize, that they admit what happened. We need the truth, I would be happy if there was some kind of openness about that.”
Castillo last saw her brother, Jaime, on August 10, 2008, as he headed off to his job at a carpentry workshop near Bogotá international airport. Two days later his body was found in a mass grave near the Venezuelan border, naked, bruised and riddled with bullet holes. Members of the army had lured him 426 miles from home with the promise of work, before he was executed and declared a rebel combatant as part of a larger effort to inflate stats in the government’s war against FARC rebels.
“He had no children, no wife, and our parents aren’t around,” Castillo said. “It was so easy for them to take him.”
His case, which was investigated by government officials, is one of over 3,000 “false positive” killings that took place between 2002 and 2008. These false figures were used to justify massive U.S. aid packages. And the soldiers who carried out the crimes were rewarded with time off and promotions.
Colombia’s decades-long civil war with FARC, which left 220,000 dead and nearly seven million displaced, will likely come to an end after a revised peace deal was agreed upon between government and FARC negotiators.
The deal promises two central mechanisms for justice. One, it would create a set of courts that would offer reduced sentences to rebels and military men for war crimes (FARC members will receive a blanket amnesty for rebellion). And two, a truth commission would be responsible to shed light on past atrocities during the war, but would have no power to convict.
It is that latter, that many victims and human rights groups hope will reveal how high up the power chain the “false positives” scandal goes.
While more than 800 soldiers have been convicted for their involvement in the military crimes, no generals have been arrested. Some connected with the scandal have even risen to the highest ranks of the military. General Juan Pablo Rodríguez, current general commander of the armed forces, briefly led brigades that carried out the extrajudicial murders, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), and last Thursday, five high-ranking members of the armed forces linked to “false positives” received promotions.
“The truth commision should help uncover and shed light on the false positives and on the connection of some politicians,” Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group, a think tank in Washington DC, told VICE News.
The new accord does present some minor steps toward justice for the victims of “false positive” killings, however. For one, Adam Isacson, senior associate at the nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America points to its promise that military personnel who committed abuses for monetary gain cannot enter the transitional justice arrangement. “Either FARC members or the military can decide to try their luck in the regular criminal justice system, with larger penalties, if they want to,” he said, but added that the only incentive to do so would be to avoid admitting guilt altogether.
Despite the modest steps toward justice, a new clause that would expel foreign judges and organizations from the process has some worried. “It’s frightening because it means the process is not guaranteed to be impartial,” Luis Guillermo Pérez, a lawyer who represents several Mothers of Soacha, said. “Colombia’s judges are vulnerable to intimidation. This deal represents a step back for justice.”
Ex-president and leader of the No campaign Álvaro Uribe saw his political stock soar following the initial deal’s collapse. The charismatic hardliner, who was in power during the “false positives” scandal, regularly called for harsher sentences for rebels, while he overlooked equally egregious crimes committed by military personnel. Uribe’s power extends beyond having a louder megaphone during the deal’s renegotiation — the ex-president has powerful allies who will be responsible for implementing it across the country.
For Castillo and the Mothers of Soacha, the prospect of Uribe’s greater influence is galling.
“Uribe has blood on his hands,” Castillo said. “We can’t know what he knew at the time, but it happened under his watch so he is responsible in some way.”
Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director at HRW, argued before the new deal was published that impunity for soldiers was used as a bargaining chip in negotiations between warring factions of the government. “The situation in Colombia is basically a race to the bottom of impunity for military abuses,” he told VICE News. “The best evidence that the [original] deal ensured impunity for state agents responsible for abuses is that dozens of soldiers convicted for false positive killings have publicly expressed their enthusiastic support for the deal.”
To some, Uribe’s opposition to the new deal with the FARC is suspect and may betray his own fears that he himself may one day be implicated. “He always talks about how the deal gives impunity to the guerrilla, but that’s one of his lies,” Senator Ivan Cepeda told VICE News. “What he’s scared of is that his people, and he himself, could in time end up before a tribunal. He’s scared of justice and he’s scared of democracy.”
Castillo says she will continue to demand that the victims of state crimes be heard. “The military talks about how the crimes of the guerrilla are criminal, but the crimes of the military are a ‘defense of human rights’?” Castillo asked. “How is executing civilians a defense of human rights?”
Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @joeparkdan