BOGOTA - Declassified
U.S. documents show that the CIA and former U.S. ambassadors were fully
aware, as far back as 1990, that the military in Colombia the third
largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel and Egypt were committing
extrajudicial killings as part of "death-squad tactics."
They also knew that senior Colombian officers encouraged a "body count"
mentality to demonstrate progress in the fight against left-wing guerrillas.
In an undetermined number of cases, the bodies presented as casualties in the
counterinsurgency war were actually civilians who had nothing to do with the
country's decades-old armed conflict.
Since at least 1990, U.S. diplomats were reporting a connection between the
Colombian security forces and far-right drug-running paramilitary groups, according
to the Washington-based National Security Archive (NSA).
In the meantime, the U.S. State Department continued to regularly certify
Colombia's human rights record and to heavily finance its "war on
The declassified documents were published Jan. 7 by the NSA, a non-governmental
research and archival institution located at the George Washington University
that collects, archives, and publishes declassified U.S. government documents
obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.
NSA's Colombia Project identifies and secures the release of documents from
secret government archives on U.S. policy in Colombia regarding issues like
security assistance, human rights, impunity, and counternarcotics programs.
"These records shed light on a policy recently examined in a still-undisclosed
Colombian army report that influenced the behavior of Colombian military
officers for years, leading to extrajudicial executions and collaboration with
paramilitary drug traffickers," says the NSA report released last week.
The secret army report mentioned by the NSA led in late 2008 to the dismissal
of 30 army officers and the resignation of Gen. Mario Montoya, the Colombian
army chief who long "promoted the idea of using body counts to measure
progress against the guerrillas," writes the author of the NSA report,
In one of the declassified documents obtained by the NSA, then-U.S. Ambassador
Myles Frechette complained in 1994 about the "body count mentalities"
among Colombian army officers seeking to climb through the ranks.
"Field officers who cannot show track records of aggressive anti-guerrilla
activity (wherein the majority of the military's human rights abuses occur)
disadvantage themselves at promotion time," said Frechette.
Evans, director of the NSA Colombia Project, states in his report that "the
documents raise important questions about the historical and legal responsibilities
the army has to come clean about what appears to be a long-standing, institutional
incentive to commit murder."
"But the manner in which the investigation was conducted in absolute
secrecy and with little or no legal consequences for those implicated
raises a number of important questions," says Evans, who asks "when,
if ever, will the Colombian army divulge the contents of its internal report?"
The question of extrajudicial killings by the army made the international
headlines and drew the attention of the United Nations after a scandal broke
out in the Colombian media in September 2008 over the bodies of young men reported
by the armed forces as dead guerrillas or paramilitaries.
It turned out that the men had gone missing from their homes in slum neighborhoods
on the south side of Bogotá and that their corpses had turned up two
or three days later in morgues hundreds of kilometers away.
Since then, scores of cases of "body count" killings by the army,
also known as "false positives," have emerged.
Although the government expressed shock and indignation, evidence soon began
to emerge of a pattern that dated back years.
As defense minister under current President Álvaro Uribe, Camilo Ospina,
who is now Colombia's ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS),
signed a 15-page secret ministerial directive in 2005 that provided for rewards
for the capture or killing of leaders of illegal armed groups, for military
information and war materiel, and for successful anti-drug actions.
According to the W Radio station, which reported on the secret directive in
late October, it could have encouraged extrajudicial killings under a new system,
which may include "a mafia of bounty-hunters allied with members of the
But in the view of Iván Cepeda, spokesman for the National Movement
of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), "this is not about an infiltration
of organized crime in the armed forces, nor about people who have broken the
law. As the NSA report shows, this is an institutional practice that has been
followed for decades."
The defense ministry directive encouraged the phenomenon by creating a system
of incentives that rewards "results" in the form of battlefield casualties,
"discounting accepted methods and controls and the observance of human
rights and international humanitarian law," he said.
Cepeda also maintained that the activities of far-right death squads and the
army's "body count" killings were connected, and that the military
used the paramilitaries to show results.
"The paramilitaries delivered to the army the bodies of people who were
supposed members of the guerrillas but who were actually people selectively
killed by those [paramilitary] groups," he told IPS.
When the killings became more and more widespread, the armed forces themselves
asked the paramilitaries to hide the remains, to keep the country's homicide
rate from soaring any further, paramilitaries who took part in a demobilization
process negotiated with the right-wing Uribe administration have confessed.
The declassified documents demonstrate "that the U.S. military as well
as U.S. diplomats and governments have taken a complacent stance toward this
kind of practice," said Cepeda.
The declassified records are in line with the results of "Colombia nunca
más" (Colombia never again), a monumental effort to document human
rights abuses carried out by 17 organizations since 1995.
"'Colombia nunca más' has created a databank on 45,000 [human
rights] violations, including around 25,000 extrajudicial executions and 10,000
forced disappearances, committed between 1966 and 1998," said Cepeda.
Colombia's two insurgent groups emerged in 1964 and the paramilitaries in 1982,
although the latter launched a lethal offensive beginning in 1997.
Cepeda told IPS that in the next few months, MOVICE would begin to organize
the families of victims of extrajudicial killings, which would culminate in
a national meeting to discuss "what routes of documenting the truth and
obtaining justice can be followed in an organized manner by the families of
the victims of this practice."
The earliest of the declassified documents obtained by the NSA is a 1990 cable
signed by then U.S. Ambassador Thomas McNamara, addressed to the State Department
and copied to the Defense Department, the U.S. Army Southern Command, and the
U.S. embassies in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru.
The cable, whose subject line reads "human rights in Colombia
widespread allegations of abuses by the army," cites reports that an army
major "personally directed the torture of 11 detainees and their subsequent
carried out by cutting off the limbs and heads of the still
living victims with a chainsaw."
Referring to the connection between army officers and the paramilitaries,
the ambassador stated that many "officers continue to discount virtually
all allegations of military abuses as part of a leftist inspired plot to discredit
the military as an institution."
In addition, the cable mentions "strong evidence linking members of the
army and police to a number of disappearances and murders which took place
earlier this year in Trujillo, Valle de Cauca department."
McNamara also mentioned "an apparent June 7 incident of extrajudicial
"The military reported to the press that, on that date, it killed nine
guerrillas in combat in El Ramal, Santander department. The investigation by
Instruccion Criminal and the Procuraduria [legal authorities] strongly suggests,
however, that the nine were executed by the army and then dressed in military
fatigues. A military judge who arrived on the scene apparently realized that
there were no bullet holes in the military uniforms to match the wounds in
the victims' bodies, and ordered the uniforms burned," said the ambassador.
As sources told the ambassador, "all of the victims were part of the
same family, and one of them, said by the army to have been a guerrilla, was
87 years old."