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Colombia: Premeditated Murder In The Name of Peace?

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

10 July 2009

The UN special rappateur on extrajudicial executions, Phillip Alston visited Colombia between June 8 -18 to look into allegations of executions carried out by the Colombian security forces.  The visit was prompted by reports from Human Rights that 955 people had been murdered by the army and the police between July 2002 and June 2007.

Even though the figures for murders by the army began to increase in 2002 it took a long time for there to be any reaction.  They systematically ignored the issue, except when forced to by events such as  Sergeant in the region of Catatumbo going public on the issue.  The State accused those pointing the finger at the army of being liars, terrorists etc.  It was the Soacha/Catatumbo case that forced their hand and finally made the media acknowledge that state forces were engaged in murder.

The Soacha/Catatumbo killings were particularly disturbing even by Colombian standards.  President Uribe has long demanded action from the military, which they were only too happy to do.  Action was measured in statistical terms, number of successful operations or positives as they are referred to.  There were a number of scandals involving intelligence operatives paying ex guerrillas to plant bombs in the city of Bogotá which they would then detect and defuse, thus gaining them much needed kudos with Uribe.  In Soacha it went one step further the army lured 23 young people to a remote region with the promise of work and then dressed them up in military fatigues after which they were murdered.  The soldiers then presented them to the media as positives, i.e. guerrillas killed in combat.  All of the soldiers involved were given financial and other rewards for their participation in the killings, as laid down in Colombian law.  The murders were not just of young people from Soacha but also people from around the country.  In one case they murdered an off duty soldier attached to an elite mobile brigade.  He was on leave recovering from injuries sustained fighting the guerrillas.  The other was a mentally retarded person with the mental age of nine.  Once the murder was exposed the media began to refer to them as False Positives rather than what they are.  Fortunately, the UN rappateur did not mince his words on this point.  He stated that the “term provides a sort of technical aura to describe a practice which is best characterised as cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit.”  Given that Alston is a UN diplomat it is as good a description as any, though he immediately lost the plot or reverted to diplomatic type by stating that “I have found no evidence to suggest that these killings were carried out as a matter of official Government policy” though he balanced this by saying that “the explanation favoured by many in Government – that the killings were carried out on a small scale by a few bad apples – is equally unsustainable.”

In the face of systematic murder hedging your bets is not an option.  Here we have a State that legalised the death squads for most of their history; a President whose principal advisor is the cousin of Pablo Escobar; a President whose family were and are on first name terms with many of the leading drug barons that helped finance the paramilitaries at the beginning; 4,000 trade unionists murdered since 1985, the main opposition party in the 1980s the Union Patriotica was wiped out through the murder of another 4,000 people; and even after that someone thinks that the buck stops somewhere short of the Presidency in a country were nothing happens that the State doesn’t want to.

The paramilitaries in Colombia were founded and armed by the State in the name of waging a war on the Colombian people.  Now that the paramilitaries have been stood down in much, though not all, of the country the number of killings attributed to the State has gone through the roof.  When the paras were founded as they increased their body count the killings attributed to state forces fell in proportion, now with the reduction in paramilitary troops, official troops have taken over their former duty. 

The Soacha killings are disturbing but many of the other murders continue to be leaders in their communities.  The Soacha killings are victims in a media war.  Uribe needs to show results on a regular basis and at opportune moments, neither of which can be guaranteed by the normal course of events in the war.  The 23 youths are victims in a twisted media strategy, a role the mainstream media have only been too willing to play.  Whilst one has to be careful with one’s words it is no exaggeration to describe the media as unarmed actors in the conflict.  Their role has led to thousands of deaths, they are not neutral observers in the conflict.  It is no accident that Colombia is one of the few countries in the world where the signal for the Venezuelan International Channel Tele Sur is blocked.

Even Mancuso, the former head of the AUC, now in jail in the US on drug charges, which effectively let him off the hook for thousands of murders for which he will not be prosecuted, has described himself as an agent of the State.  In a recent letter to Uribe he has threatened to go public and has claimed he has not done so yet due to threats to his family which remains in Colombia.  Roberto Ivan Duque, alias Ernesto Baez, has also made declarations to a similar effect.

The army has changed tactics once again.  The so-called False Positives have in the midst of the scandal given way to the use of forced disappearances and the media are silent.  In six years time the UN will send another rappateur to Colombia to report on forced disappearances.

The families of the victims place great hope in Alston, which is understandable given that he is the first international figure to describe what is happening as murder.  However, he has already signalled that whilst he may accuse high ranking figures and that the State is likely to come in for severe criticism he is unlikely to blame the State per se.  He is joined in this by the lawyers representing the families who have allowed the Prosecutor’s Office to file murder charges against low ranking soldiers, rather than push for the ‘killing of a protected person’ a figure in Colombian law which would almost automatically result in a questioning of the State, allowing for the prosecution of the commanding officers.  The commanding officer is not defined and could in theory go as high as the Generals who were sacked for their role in the killings or even the President himself.

The systematic murder of its own people is not a minor issue in Colombia’s future and how it is described is of the utmost importance.  If it is not a State policy as Alston claims then certain reformist positions have a certain coherence and plausibility from their reformist point of view.  However, if the State is indeed guilty and has been so since at least 1948 then the proposal for a negotiated solution to the conflict has no basis at all, not even from a reformist point of view.  With which bunch of genocidal maniacs do you negotiate?  What you do with the killers is a minor point in the grand scale of things, it is more important to wonder what a State that has murdered hundreds of thousands of its own since 1948 is likely to negotiate.  Having committed wholesale slaughter, what possible reason could the Colombian elite have for giving in now?  What reason would they have for ceding on some points?  The answer is none.  Those who think the State will negotiate a solution that is not based on its complete triumph are fooling themselves.  The unfortunate situation is that they are also fooling many organisations in the country and perhaps sections of the guerrillas themselves.  If anything is to be learned from a State that murders young people as part of a media strategy is that it will not cede in the name of peace having waged unrelentless bloody war against its own people.


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