Colombian Army Murdered Thousands of Civilians with the Help of US Tax Dollars

Claire Bernish
June 26, 2015

(ANTIMEDIA) A disturbing report published Wednesday by Human Rights Watch details how the Colombian military callously murdered thousands of innocent civilians and dressed their lifeless bodies in leftist rebels’ uniforms, just to artificially inflate the body count for a period of at least six years. The commander of the armed forces and other senior army brass knew about it the whole time.

Somewhat euphemistically termed “extrajudicial killings,” the practice has been recognized  for some time, but HRW found evidence in previously unpublished prosecutorial records that the practice was far more extensive and systematic than previously realized.

Prosecutors are currently investigating 3,700 deaths caused by state agents. From 2002-2008, the report, titled “On Their Watch: Evidence of Senior Army Officers’ Responsibility for False Positive Killings in Colombia,” revealed that more than 180 brigades and tactical units—and their commanders—were responsible for murders of civilians. These “false positives” bolstered records at a time when success in the ongoing war was measured in dead rebel bodies. According to the report:

“Under pressure from superiors to show ‘positive’ results and boost body counts in their war against guerrillas, soldiers and officers abducted victims or lured them to remote locations under false pretenses—such as promises of work—killed them, placed weapons on their lifeless bodies, and then reported them as enemy combatants killed in action. Committed on a large scale for more than half a decade, these ‘false positive’ killings constitute one of the worst episodes of mass atrocity in the Western Hemisphere in recent decades […] This report provides the most detailed published account to date,” of what is “now substantial evidence that senior army officers were responsible for many of the killings [who] at least knew or should have known about the [the practice], and therefore may be criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility.”

Suspicious mitigating circumstances and irregularities surrounding death counts—dubbed “entirely obvious” in the report—led HRW to believe there could be no plausible denial of awareness by senior army officers that the murders were occurring.

In just one example, a former 16th Brigade lieutenant testified that “with the rank of a colonel and the experience you could have at this rank it is no secret that the troops . . . [were] killing innocent people who had nothing to do with the conflict and were reported with weapons that the guerrilla does not use to confront you with.” In another instance, two unnamed battalion officials described regular meetings with their commanders to plan how to lure victims to their deaths. Once those schemes had been carried out, the officials were often rewarded with vacation time.

But holding the appropriate parties accountable for the murders has been a complicated process. Prosecutors face the seeming complicity of military judges, defense attorneys, and army officials who create “bogus delay tactics” such as refusing to hand over necessary documents. Ongoing threats and attacks on key witnesses—including a likely retaliatory murder—have hindered progress significantly.

It is extremely important to note that the United States government began the “Plan Colombia” aid project in 2000 under President Clinton. The U.S. has since donated over $6.5 billion to the country, with the vast majority earmarked for military and police.

According to Amnesty International, which is calling for an end to aid because of these exact human rights abuses, “in 2006, U.S. assistance to Colombia amounted to an estimated $728 million, approximately 80% of which was military and police assistance.” This was, of course, during the height of the military’s practice of killing civilians.

Last year, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) issued an extensive report that found a frightening link between U.S. assistance and human rights abuses. It states:

“Based on data on 5,763 reported executions in Colombia and extensive documentation of U.S. assistance to the Colombian military, we found a positive correlation between the units and officers that received U.S. assistance and training, and the commission of extrajudicial killings.”

Also revealed by the telling FOR report:

U.S. military training […] is practically a required step for the promotion of a Colombian Army officer.” And of those so trained,12 of them48%had either been charged with a serious crime or had commanded units whose members had reportedly committed multiple extrajudicial killings […] Our findings call into question much of the assumed wisdom about military assistance programs […] The U.S. Congress and State Department must take action to ensure U.S. tax dollars no longer bankroll military units that bankroll executions in Colombia. [emphasis added].

FOR concludes by recommending ten conditions for the continuance of any further U.S. assistance to Colombia, including close monitoring of units and personnel for human rights abuses as well as judging progress by actual conduct rather than promotions of personnel.

Though a “human rights certification” by the Secretary of State—which ostensibly tracks Colombia’s progress—once covered 100% of U.S. security assistance, it has since been lowered to apply to just 25% of monetary aid, rendering the stipulation ineffective at instituting any realistic change.

Human Rights Watch is calling for the U.S. to “enforce human rights conditions on military aid,” with suspension of all assistance should the country further breach policy. The group is also urging the International Criminal Court to hold Colombia under tighter scrutiny in ongoing prosecutions.


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