Last fall, Colombia was horrified by revelations that members of the Army – or criminals in their employ – had been luring away young men with promises of employment, killing them, then presenting their bodies as those of guerrillas or paramilitaries killed in combat. The dead were called “falsos positivos” – roughly, “false positive results against armed groups” – and the scandal forced the November 2008 retirement of Army Chief Gen. Mario Montoya.
The Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination, a network of Colombian human-rights groups, issued a report alleging that 535 civilians had been killed by Colombia’s security forces between January 2007 and June 2008, about one per day.
Colombian security and defense officials long denied that “false positives” were a problem. Now, they are insisting that they have put the problem behind them. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos has said in at least two recent high-profile speeches that there have been no new cases of “false positives” since October.
We have had problems, as in the cases of extrajudicial executions or “false positives” that have been denounced, but we worked immediately, with all effort and rigor, and we can say that, since last October, no denunciations have been received about cases since then.
Is that correct, though? A recent report by the highly respected Colombian NGO CINEP and a new memo from the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination [PDF] both indicate otherwise. The CINEP report documents three possible new cases between October and December 2008 in Casanare, Cordoba, and Putumayo. The CCEEU memo mentions these cases, as well as a few others in which the victims were executed but not later presented as killed in combat – their bodies were disposed of instead.
The CCEEU argues that forced disappearance is replacing “false positives” as the “new modality” of military human rights abuse.
They seek to give the sensation that the order to end the executions is being followed, but continuing the same practice, only now placing special care in ensuring that the new executions are not reported (publicly) and the cadavers are diligently hidden, in order to leave no traces of the troops’ responsibility for these illegal acts.
Compounding the difficulty of judging the degree to which “false positives” continue is the way in which they are discovered. It may take several months to determine that the armed forces may have had a role in the case of one of the hundreds of people who disappear every year in Colombia. In the notorious case that brought the scandal to world attention last fall – the discovery of the bodies of missing young men from a slum near BogotÃ¡ buried in a province near the Venezuelan border – the lag between disappearance and discovery was at least six months.
An editorial in Monday’s edition of the BogotÃ¡ daily El Espectador looks at the issue and determines that, indeed, the Colombian defense minister may be speaking too soon.
We celebrate that the Army is carrying out a serious diagnosis to bring an end to this criminal conduct, that the investigations’ advances are communicated to public opinion, and that drastic measures are taken to restore credibility and trust to the institution. But the Minister should think twice before assuring that “false positives” are a thing of the past.