Ex-president Uribe proposes an amnesty
Former president Álvaro Uribe, the country’s most vocal opponent of the 2016 peace accord with the FARC guerrilla group, met at one of his ranches on August 15 with the president of the Truth Commission created by that accord, Fr. Francisco de Roux, along with two other commissioners. Uribe, who faces questions about human rights abuses committed during his time as governor of Antioquia (1995-1997) and president (2002-2008), spoke at great length during the meeting, with little pushback from the commissioners.
The ex-president surprised many by calling for an amnesty for human rights and other crimes committed during the armed conflict. “Perhaps this country will need a general amnesty, almost a clean slate,” he told Fr. de Roux. This would appear to contradict one of Uribe’s many criticisms of the peace accord: that, in his view, it confers “impunity” on ex-guerrillas who (along with military personnel) will receive light sentences if they make full confessions and reparations.
On August 26 Uribe presented a draft amnesty law to legislators of his Centro Democrático party, a bill “to overcome judicial asymmetries and asymmetries in access to government employment.” Under the proposal, those accused of conflict-related crimes would receive a full amnesty if they ask forgiveness, recognize what they did “or, failing that, contribute to the truth, without this implying self-incrimination.”
Members of the military would be released from prison and allowed to hold office. A new chamber of the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP) would be set up to judge military personnel separately. Anyone who in the past has investigated, denounced, or made public statements about these military human rights crimes would be disqualified from serving as a judge in that chamber.
Uribe’s proposal makes no distinction between commanders and subordinates involved in past crimes. He would not amnesty people accused of “war crimes, crimes against humanity, or public corruption.” The current list of non-amnistiable crimes that must go before the JEP, however, is longer and more specific: “War crimes, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial executions, child recruitment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, genocide, hostage taking or other serious deprivation of liberty, torture, enforced disappearance, child abduction, and forced displacement.”
“Let’s not talk about general amnesty, let’s talk about amnesty as a strong word to generate a national debate and look for a solution,” Uribe said last week. A national debate is very much underway, as the ex-president’s proposal has generated strong reactions.
“People can’t be ‘washing their faces’ with total amnesties, this will not happen as long as I am prosecutor, I will not allow this to go forward,” said the prosecutor-general (fiscal general), Francisco Barbosa, who is close to President Iván Duque, who in turn is a member of Uribe’s party.
The lead government negotiators in the 2012-16 talks that led to the FARC peace accord issued a 12-point document rejecting Uribe’s proposal. Humberto de la Calle and Sergio Jaramillo argue that it “would undermine the investigation and prosecution of those most responsible for serious violations, and victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation.” They recalled having to explain to the FARC negotiators in Havana, “in January 2015, one of the most difficult moments in almost five years of negotiations,” that Colombia’s international commitments (the 2002 Rome Statute, the Inter-American human rights system) prohibited amnesties.
Were Uribe’s proposal to go into effect, the former negotiators add, “the first victims, in addition to the conflict victims of course, would be the members of the armed forces and other agents of the state who are currently participating in the transitional process and who will see their legal security disappear.” Notes Gustavo Gallón of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, “His [Uribe’s] argument is that they [the military] must not be equated with guerrillas. But it is the crimes they have committed that make them equal. In addition, in his effort to favor them, he would do them harm: the [peace] agreement and the JEP are more lenient than the ordinary justice system, in theory.”
Álvaro Uribe faces human rights questions ranging from many political associates’ sponsorship of paramilitary groups, to those groups’ rapid growth during his tenure as governor, to the military’s killings of several thousand civilians during his presidency (discussed in the next section). Jaramillo, the former negotiator—who served as vice-minister of defense under Uribe—told Colombia’s Blu Radio that Uribe “has long been seeking a general amnesty and a clean slate. This is something that has been on his mind for a long time and he will continue to insist on it.”
Attorney-General seeks to charge ex-army chief for “false positive” killings
Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is seeking to indict retired Gen. Mario Montoya, commander of the Army between 2006 and 2008, for his role in the military’s so-called “false positive” killings during the armed conflict. A hearing took place on August 25 before a Bogotá judge who will decide on August 30 whether Montoya may be indicted.
If Judge Fabio Bernal gives a green light, Montoya will be the highest-ranking military figure to face justice for these killings in the civilian criminal justice system. He could also become the first person with a case before both the post-conflict transitional justice system (JEP) and the regular criminal justice system. What that means is not entirely clear.
The term “false positives” refers to soldiers, apparently under heavy pressure to produce results measured in body counts, killing several thousand civilians and falsely presenting the murders as combat deaths. The JEP has estimated that as many as 6,402 false positive killings took place just between 2002 and 2008, Álvaro Uribe’s first seven years in office. If accurate, that number would be equivalent to about half of the 12,908 armed-group members whom Colombia’s Defense Ministry claimed to have killed during those years.
Gen. Mario Montoya was a key figure during this period. A U.S.-trained officer, he commanded the “Joint Task Force South” that carried out U.S.-backed counter-drug operations during the first years of “Plan Colombia” in the early 2000s. He went on to command the Army during the height of the Uribe government’s anti-guerrilla offensive, including the triumphant July 2008 rescue of 15 FARC hostages known as “Operation Jaque.” (“As their bonds were cut free, the former hostages were quietly told that the Colombian Army had just freed them,” reads an account of the rescue. “Then, the recovery team began to chant, ‘Uribe! Uribe! Uribe!’ followed quickly by ‘Montoya! Montoya! Montoya!’”)
Just a few months later, in November 2008, Gen. Montoya was forced to resign. The triggering event was the revelation that 22 men who disappeared from the poor Bogotá suburb of Soacha had turned up dead hundreds of miles away, in Ocaña, Norte de Santander. The men had been lured with offers of employment, taken away and killed, only to be presented as armed-group members killed in combat. The Soacha case capped years of human rights groups’ denunciations—long denied by the Uribe government—that the military had been falsifying combat kill totals by murdering civilians.
Gen. Montoya has been under a cloud ever since, and in 2018 he agreed to have his case heard in the JEP. The transitional justice court is approaching “false positives” in a bottom-up fashion, starting with some of the most serious cases and working toward top commanders. That means it could be some time before the transitional justice court indicts Montoya, if it finds enough evidence to do so.
While Montoya has appeared before the tribunal, so far he has denied any responsibility for the killings. In an early 2020 appearance, the general sparked outrage by blaming soldiers from poor backgrounds: “those kids didn’t even know how to use forks and knives or how to go to the bathroom.”
The JEP is looking into whether commanders like Montoya created a climate, and set of incentives, that encouraged officers to rack up large body counts even if it meant killing non-combatants—and whether the commanders knew that so many combat kills were falsified. The Fiscalía is more specifically seeking to charge Montoya with responsibility for 104 killings, including 5 children, that took place in 2007 and 2008. That is the period after the issuance of a military directive to prioritize guerrilla demobilizations and captures over killings, which the Fiscalía contends that Montoya ignored.
He “allegedly pressured all division, brigade and battalion chiefs to follow a different strategy that reportedly rewarded and awarded decorations to commanders and groups that reported deaths,” according to the prosecutor’s office. “Commanders of his subordinate units knew that Montoya did not ask for (but) demanded combat kills.” A soldier who says he was kicked out of the force for disobeying these orders claimed that Montoya demanded “rivers of blood,” a phrase the General denies using.
Colombia’s civilian criminal justice system could have acted on the allegations against him at any time since 2008. In fact, as El Espectador explains, “a process against Montoya for false positives committed under his command was announced in 2016. The proceedings were suspended and then, with the arrival of Néstor Humberto Martínez at the Fiscalía [a chief prosecutor with little interest in military prosecutions] and the signing of the Peace Accord, it was left in limbo.”
Martínez’s successor, Francisco Barbosa, announced his intent to revive Gen. Montoya’s indictment on August 12. In the regular criminal justice system, the General could face up to 50 to 60 years in prison if found guilty. Montoya’s case is principally before the JEP, though, where he would face 5 to 8 years of “restricted liberty” if he admits to crimes and provides reparations, or up to 20 years in regular prison if he refuses to admit responsibility but is found guilty.
Colombia is still working out what it means to have two parallel justice systems considering war crimes. In 2018, the Constitutional Court ruled that prosecutors in the regular justice system could continue investigating crimes in parallel. In 2019, the prosecutor in Montoya’s case decided that this meant the general could be investigated, but not indicted, while his case remained before the JEP. Barbosa, the current chief prosecutor, later altered that interpretation, claiming that he had the power to indict Montoya—though the case could not go to trial in the regular justice system.
Gen. Montoya’s lawyers dispute that. So does the government’s internal affairs branch, the Procuraduría, which argues that the JEP has primacy because Montoya has agreed to have his case heard there and has attended all his hearings.
In any case, an indictment without a trial is largely symbolic. Still, the Fiscalía cites declarations from JEP officials who have supported its ability to continue investigating. Lawyers representing victims of false positives have also been supportive: Sebastián Escobar of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective told El Espectador, “it has been the JEP itself that has insistently asked the Fiscalía not to abandon the investigations, but to continue them until they are completed.” Germán Romero, an attorney who represents 12 false positive victims, added, “This is a real and concrete investigation… it is impossible and it could be understood as a substantial affectation to the rights of the victims if this indictment doesn’t happen.”
Some Colombian legal experts, though, are concerned and wonder why the Fiscalía is acting now. While the regular justice system’s prosecutors may continue investigating military and police officials’ alleged crimes, they “cannot rule on their responsibility since that decision corresponds to the JEP,” writes Rodrigo Uprimny, co-founder of the DeJusticia think tank. “The Fiscalía cannot charge them, which is an attribution of responsibility, but must refer those investigations to the JEP.”
Uprimny, writing in El Espectador, wonders what Fiscal Barbosa may actually have in mind with an indictment in the Gen. Montoya case.
Its basis is bizarre and could have very serious implications. According to Barbosa, Montoya is being charged because he continued to demand combat kills after November 2007, disobeying Directive 300-28 of that date, which prioritized demobilizations and captures over casualties. That is why the Fiscalía will charge him with “only” 104 executions that occurred after that directive, when there were thousands of false positives in previous years and Montoya was already commander of the Army and demanded casualties.
Does this mean, then, that for Barbosa the thousands of false positives perpetrated when the previous directive was in force, which favored casualties, do not involve any responsibility of senior officers, even though they demanded casualties at all costs as an operational result? If that is so, who should answer for those false positives perpetrated in previous years? Only the soldiers who perpetrated them, but not those who incited those deaths because they were following a directive? And what responsibility, then, according to Barbosa, is incumbent on those who drafted and promoted the previous directive?
We will know more after the judge rules on May 30. Meanwhile, human rights organizations are calling on the JEP to eject another retired senior military officer, former Col. Publio Hernán Mejía. One of the Colombian Army’s most highly decorated officers, Col. Mejía was sentenced to 14 years in prison for conspiring with paramilitaries and involvement in false positive killings. He was released when he moved his case to the JEP, but has been uncooperative and has been making very aggressive statements on Twitter and considering a far-right run for the presidency next year.
Police reform and accountability debates, 4 months after Paro Nacional
On August 26, four months after the April 28 launch of protests that went on for several weeks, several thousand protesters took to the streets of Bogotá, Cali, and a few other cities. The day was mostly peaceful, according to the National Police.
Fallout continues, however, from the Paro Nacional protests of April through June, when some protesters caused property damage and an often vicious police response killed 43 people, according to the NGO Temblores, while dozens more remain disappeared. While victims continue to seek justice, the authorities have been quietly cracking down on people whom they believe to have played leading roles in protest-related disorder, often charging them with “terrorism.”
- An El Espectador analysis detailed several cases of very likely killings of civilians at the hands of police in Cali, none of which has been investigated.
- Police have now captured 165 people they allege to have been leaders of the “Primera Línea”—young people who occupied the “front line” of protests—in several cities. Many face terrorism charges.
- Among them is Juan Fernando Torres, a 25-year-old Medellín primary school teacher who became known as “El Narrador” because he documented protests, and confrontations with police, on video, posting them to his social media accounts. While the videos record him shouting rude epithets at the police, they do not appear to show Torres taking part in violence. Nonetheless, at 5:00 in the morning of July 29, police broke down his door and took him away while his family looked on.
- A well-known student protest leader in Popayán, Estéban Mosquera, who had lost an eye to a tear-gas canister shot by a riot policeman during a 2018 protest, was shot to death on August 23 by two men on a motorcycle.
- Thirty social leaders, human rights defenders, and former combatants in Tolima department say they have received death threats during the past seven weeks. Some say the threats began to escalate after the Paro Nacional began.
- Relatives of people killed by police during earlier protests—after a September 9, 2020 episode of police brutality in Bogotá—say that they are receiving death threats and experiencing aggressive behavior from police in their neighborhoods. “In an intimidating message, in which several relatives of September 9 victims were mentioned, a person implied that he has already identified the people involved in the commemorative acts and, in addition, left a sentence via text message: ‘let’s see if you want the game to start, we will gladly start.’ The message dates to August 3.”
- In a bit of encouraging news, the Constitutional Court ruled that the military justice system does not have jurisdiction over the May 1, 2021 police killing of protester Santiago Murillo in Ibagué, Tolima. The Court found no evidence that the accused policeman, Maj. Jorge Mario Molano, fired his weapon in self-defense or to protect anyone else. His case will be tried in the regular civilian criminal justice system.
- As Colombia’s national debate over police reform continues, the Ideas for Peace Foundation and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Colombia released a report, based on inputs from 11 experts, about what obstacles stand in the way of meaningful reform to Colombia’s National Police force. The report highlights the need for civilian leadership of reform and of citizen security policymaking, which in turn requires a larger number of civilians educated and trained in the field.
- The Truth Commission is three months away from a November 28 deadline to finish its work and publish a report, but Colombia’s Constitutional Court is considering its request for an extension, as the COVID-19 pandemic severely affected the Commission’s work, especially field research. Juanita León at La Silla Vacía believes that enough judges on the Court are in favor of permitting a deadline extension for seven or eight months, into the period between the election (May 2022) and inauguration (August 2022) of Colombia’s next president. The Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría), in its opinion sought by the Court, requested that the Truth Commission be granted seven more months to work. The Duque government, arguing that only the Congress has the power to grant it, has opposed an extension.
- The Duque government promulgated, after much delay, a law foreseen by the peace accord that will create 16 special congressional districts for victims’ representatives, increasing Colombia’s House of Representatives from 171 to 187 members between 2022 and 2030. This law, bitterly resisted by peace accord opponents, only passed after years of legal wrangling over whether a sufficient quorum existed during the Senate’s 2017 approval. This week, some retired officers demanded that a few victims’ seats be reserved for military personnel who suffered abuses, like kidnapping, at the hands of guerrillas.
- Citing a paramilitary plan to assassinate him and insufficient protection from the national government, the governor of the Caribbean department of Magdalena, Carlos Caicedo, left the country. Caicedo leads a local center-left political movement that has won the past three mayoral elections in Magdalena’s capital, Santa Marta. Caicedo is asking the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission to issue precautionary measures for his protection.
- The mayor of Segovia, Antioquia denounced that police in his municipality are cooperating with the Gulf Clan paramilitaries, for instance by leaking information about imminent counter-drug operations.
- “The Colombian military is the best partner force that I’ve worked with in 18 years,” U.S. Army Lt. Col. David Webb said at the conclusion of a joint exercise in Tolemaida, Tolima. “I pray for peace, but I’m always ready for war. If I do have to fight a war, I would be proud to serve with each and every one of you.”
- A key reason the UN/Colombian government estimate of coca cultivation is currently so much lower than the U.S. estimate is that it “subtracts the [eradicated] hectares reported by the field teams, but does not verify the effectiveness of the intervention,” writes Sergio Uribe at Razón Pública.
- According to a Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensoría) report, Antioquia may have displaced Cauca as the department where the largest number of social leaders were killed during the first six months of 2021. A report from the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE), blaming the proximity of campaigning for 2022 elections, found a 15.7 percent increase in aggressions against political leaders during the first six months of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020.
- The week saw many reports of violence in Pacific coast zones where armed groups are disputing control over drug trafficking routes.
- In Tumaco, Nariño, fighting between counternarcotics police and members of the local “Oliver Sinisterra” ex-FARC dissident group left 13 dissidents and one police agent wounded. On the other side of the international border from Tumaco, the fighting placed Ecuador’s security forces on alert.
- Just north of Tumaco, in Nariño’s Telembí Triangle region, Doctors Without Borders estimates that fighting displaced over 21,000 people and confined 6,000 others—combined, nearly 30 percent of the region’s population—during the first six months of the year.
- Further north, in northern Cauca, Indigenous organizations denounced several alarming events from the past week, pointing a situation of “generalized violence.”
- Further north, 4,679 people in 14 Indigenous communities are confined by fighting between the ELN and the Gulf Clan in southern Chocó’s Bajo Baudó river region. Fighting between the same groups displaced over 1,500 people in Chocó’s lower San Juan River region.
- Further north in Chocó, where the Bojayá river flows into the Atrato—site of a historic FARC massacre in 2002—the population lives in fear of three armed groups plus the security forces, El Espectador reports. Organized crime activity is causing extensive deforestation in Chocó, reported Cuestión Pública and La Liga Contra el Silencio.
- A devastating analysis by Camilo Alzate at El Espectador details the government’s failure to implement collective protection measures for threatened social leaders and ethnic communities along the Pacific coast.
- Tensions continue to increase along the Colombia-Venezuela border.
- In Arauca, fighting between the 10th Front ex-FARC dissident group and the Tren de Aragua, a Venezuelan organized crime group, appeared to have killed at least 13 people in a single week.
- In the department of Norte de Santander, which includes the convulsed Catatumbo region, 50 non-governmental organizations denounced the killing of 22 social leaders and the death of 36 people in 8 massacres in the department since January 2020. Analyst Luis Eduardo Celis described deteriorating security in the departmental capital, Cúcuta, which borders Venezuela.
- The Colombian government meanwhile claims that captured computers included evidence of contacts between Venezuelan government officials and “Gentil Duarte,” the maximum leader of the largest current network of ex-FARC dissident groups.
- “We are facing an increasingly parochialized insurgency that, for the most part, concentrates its strength and armed action on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, but which operates under different logics on both sides,” reads an analysis of the ELN by Andres Aponte, Charles Larratt-Smith, and Luis Fernando Trejos at La Silla Vacía.