Gen. Reynaldo Castellanos, the head of Colombiaâ€™s army until yesterday morning, should not have been forced to resign. His departure cannot be considered a blow against impunity in the armed forces. Weâ€™re still waiting to see whether such a blow will be struck.
Gen. Castellanos was forced out following revelations of horrific torture suffered by twenty-one young recruits in late January, as they underwent basic training at the armyâ€™s Center for Instruction and Training in Piedras, Tolima department. According to the Colombian newsmagazine Semana, which broke the story, the soldiers â€“ most from poor rural backgrounds â€“ were subjected to extremely cruel treatment: burned with hot irons, forced to eat animal excrement, and sexually abused.
The episode raises real questions about the extent to which such a sadistic culture exists in Colombiaâ€™s military â€“ â€œviolence against soldiers by their superiors is extensive, this isnâ€™t news,â€ one officer who requested anonymity told Semana â€“ and how it may manifest itself in the armed forcesâ€™ interactions with Colombiaâ€™s civilian population. It raises questions about class in Colombia: in an economically unequal country where those with high school educations stand little chance of being recruited, it is hard to imagine this being done to young Colombians from a wealthy or middle-class background. (The guerrillas, incidentally, also stand accused of horrific abuse of young, poor recruits â€“ read Human Rights Watchâ€™s 2003 report on child combatants.)
The torture episode also shows what can happen in an environment in which commanders have little reason to believe that they will be punished for their crimes. It is thus encouraging that four instructors are under arrest and some other officers, including the local battalion commander, have been suspended while investigations proceed. The decision yesterday to move the case from the military court system to civilian jurisdiction â€“ where human-rights cases belong in Colombia, thanks to a 1997 Constitutional Court decision â€“ is also good news.
These steps are positive, but they donâ€™t guarantee that justice will be done. While Colombiaâ€™s military courts are notoriously lenient in human rights cases, we have also seen dozens of serious cases languish in civilian jurisdiction (MapiripÃ¡n, Arauca unionists, Cajamarca and many others). Many trials of human-rights abusers end up going nowhere â€“ or ending with unexpected acquittals â€“ due to threats, corruption, endless legal maneuvering, or a simple lack of prosecutorial zeal.
The hope is that the Piedras torture case will not end up this way: that the judicial system will assign punishment to those who ordered the torture, those who created an environment that rewarded such behavior, and any who sought to cover it up. Oft-quoted security analyst (and senatorial candidate) Alfredo Rangel writes that the most â€œprudentâ€ course for sending â€œa necessary message of zero toleranceâ€ would be â€œto punish the commanders closest to the acts, like some of the respective battalion, brigade or division commanders.â€ Colombian media reports have so far indicated that only the battalion commander is under investigation â€“ and he has been suspended, not sacked like General Castellanos, the army chief.
Why was Castellanos, who commands nearly 200,000 men, fired for a crime committed far down the chain of command? Clearly, President Uribe was angry that the general knew about the episode for about three weeks before informing him and Defense Minister Camilo Ospina â€“ and that he did so only when complaints from the victimsâ€™ family members began to generate media interest. If Gen. Castellanosâ€™ silence violated Colombian law â€“ whether civilian or military â€“ then he should be tried for that, not fired. (This recommendation, of course, comes from a citizen of a country whose vice president just went many hours without telling his boss that he had accidentally shot a man in the face.)
The fear is that firing Gen. Castellanos is a distraction, an attempt to relieve pressure for a real investigation of the torture allegations, one that leads to strong penalties against those responsible. Months or years from now, when human-rights defenders complain that the case is stuck in the justice system, and that most officers with command responsibility have paid no penalty for the tortures, the response might well be, â€œbut the head of the army was fired, how can you say there was impunity?â€
Gen. Castellanos should not be the fall guy. A much better outcome would be that he keep his job, and that those responsible for the tortures â€“ perhaps up to the brigade or division commander â€“ undergo real trials and serve real penalties. But we may be seeing the opposite: Gen. Castellanos is now a civilian, and those responsible have a fair chance of going free.
The danger of impunity is why the State Department must include the Piedras tortures on the list of cases it considers when it decides whether to certify the Colombian militaryâ€™s human rights performance, a step that the law requires in order to free up much military aid. (A certification decision may be made within the next month or two.) If the case is not moving, and there is a danger that impunity for the torturers could result, then State must not certify â€“ no matter that Gen. Castellanos was forced out.