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Feb 222006

Gen. Reynaldo Castellanos, the head of Colombia’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. We’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 army’s Center for Instruction and Training in Piedras, Tolima department. According to the Colombian newsmagazine Semana, which broke the story, the soldiers – most from poor rural backgrounds – 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 Colombia’s military – “violence against soldiers by their superiors is extensive, this isn’t news,” one officer who requested anonymity told Semana – and how it may manifest itself in the armed forces’ interactions with Colombia’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 – read Human Rights Watch’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 – where human-rights cases belong in Colombia, thanks to a 1997 Constitutional Court decision – is also good news.

These steps are positive, but they don’t guarantee that justice will be done. While Colombia’s military courts are notoriously lenient in human rights cases, we have also seen dozens of serious cases languish in civilian jurisdiction (Mapiripán, Arauca unionists, Cajamarca and many others). Many trials of human-rights abusers end up going nowhere – or ending with unexpected acquittals – 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 “prudent” course for sending “a necessary message of zero tolerance” would be “to punish the commanders closest to the acts, like some of the respective battalion, brigade or division commanders.” Colombian media reports have so far indicated that only the battalion commander is under investigation – 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 – and that he did so only when complaints from the victims’ family members began to generate media interest. If Gen. Castellanos’ silence violated Colombian law – whether civilian or military – 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, “but the head of the army was fired, how can you say there was impunity?”

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 – perhaps up to the brigade or division commander – 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 military’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 – no matter that Gen. Castellanos was forced out.

3 Responses to “A general goes down, but will the torturers face justice?”

  1. jcg Says:

    Mostly agreed, except for this bit:

    “it is hard to imagine this being done to young Colombians from a wealthy or middle-class background”.

    It may be hard to imagine at first sight, but it’s not that hard to do a little press or live research and prove that similar kinds of abuse have indeed happened even to recruits from that kind of background before, among those that are actually exposed to military service.

  2. rainer cale Says:

    In today’s El Tiempo there is an interview with Reynaldo Castellanos.

    The overall tone of the article is just astounding. It centers not on the abuses, but on how the general feels about being forced to resign. We are shown the human side of the toruturer, invited to sympathize with him, to empathize with the difficulties the poor guy is going through. Sickening.

    Why am I still not used to it?

  3. jcg Says:

    Rainer Cale:

    That’s because General Reynaldo Castellanos, as far as is publicly known, is not currently the person accused of being “a torturer”, and especially not in this particular case.

    He was not fired for the torture per se, as he was not involved, but for not relaying the information to his superiors (the Minister of Defense, the President) once it reached him. That’s a big difference.

    I would advise you to read up on the case and on the CIP text above us.

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