The Truth Commission abruptly cancels a planned event about false positive killings, organized by Maj. Carlos Guillermo Ospina, the Commissioner who is a retired military officer. The decision comes because one of the event’s foreseen panelists was to be Col. Hernán Mejía, who was sentenced to 19 years in prison for ordering “false positive” killings and has been released pending trial before the JEP. Col. Mejía is an outspoken figure on Colombia’s political right who denies any responsibility for abuses.
Colombia’s Senate approves the promotion to Major General of Army Chief Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro. All opposition senators boycott the vote, as Zapateiro faces five investigations for alleged corruption and disciplinary violations. Another allegation that has been dropped involved Gen. Zapateiro’s possible involvement in the 1995 disappearance of Jaime Enrique Quintero, father of star soccer player Juan Fernando Quintero.
Coca-growing farmers confront a forced eradication operation, begun on May 26 and carried out by the military’s Omega Joint Task Force, Narcotics Police, and Police Anti-Disturbances Squadron (ESMAD) personnel in Tercer Milenio, Vistahermosa municipality, Meta. The security forces wound at least six farmers, some of them seriously. An Army statement alleges that the farmers were obligated to resist by FARC dissidents (“Gentil Duarte’s” group). The National Coordinator of Cultivators (COCCAM) contends that campesinos in this community had repeatedly voiced their desire to substitute their crops voluntarily.
As fallout continues over a scandal involving military intelligence abuses, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo announces new measures: the creation of new inspectors to supervise military intelligence and counter-intelligence units, new standards for personnel entering intelligence units; and stronger mechanisms for receiving complaints of wrongdoing.
A U.S. embassy announcement that a military training unit will be coming to Colombia generates much controversy. A team from the U.S. Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, a recently created unit whose sole mission is training other security forces, is to send 53 trainers at the beginning of June to several conflictive sites around the country designated as “Zonas Futuro,” where they will remain for four months. U.S. Southern Command states that the unit “will focus on logistics, services and intelligence capabilities directly supporting U.S.-Colombia counter-narcotics collaboration and information sharing.” A statement from the FARC political party calls the deployment part of the U.S. strategy to pressure the Maduro regime in Venezuela.
A Defense Ministry resolution fires another nine Army officers. Though no motive is named, press coverage notes that the firings come after revelations of intelligence abuse and corruption earlier in the month.
The Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría) initiates disciplinary proceedings against 13 Army officers, including 3 retired generals, for their role in misuse of intelligence against civilians.
Security forces kill Digno Emérito Buendía, a coca-growing campesino, during an eradication operation in the rural zone of Cúcuta, Norte de Santander. Three other campesinos are wounded.
The Colombian newsweekly Semana reveals the existence of “Operación Bastón,” a counterintelligence effort that sought to root out corruption inside the country’s army. The operation found 16 of the Army’s 63 generals involved in suspicious behavior, including one who likely helped the FARC for years. The magazine alleges that Operación Bastón—begun in response to a house-cleaning recommendation from NATO when Colombia affiliated itself as a partner of the alliance—was greatly weakened by the high command that President Duque named at the beginning of 2019.
Citing health and COVID-19 concerns, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) grants conditional release from prison to retired Gen. Jesús Armando Arias Cabrales, who led the Army’s Bogotá-based 13th Brigade during the 1985 M-19 guerrilla takeover of, and subsequent military assault on, the Palace of Justice in the city’s center. Gen. Arias Cabrales had been jailed for the torture and disappearance of civilians during that operation.
Colombia’s Supreme Court opens a new investigation of former president and ruling-party Senator Álvaro Uribe. The Court begins looking into allegations that Uribe may been the beneficiary of military units’ illegal intelligence-gathering activities against civilians, carried out throughout 2019 in what has become a major scandal. The Court is already investigating the former president for allegations of encouraging witnesses, some of them former paramilitary members, to give false testimony against a political rival.
In a speech at the Army’s Infantry School, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo issues an unusual and forceful call for unity within the officer corps. “Colombia must continue always to have cohesive Armed Forces,” Trujillo says amid rumors of internal splits within the force following revelations of intelligence-abuse and corruption scandals. That same day, the Army turns information over to the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) about Army intelligence units’ compilation of dossiers of information about civilians.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) decides to study whether to order collective protection measures for former FARC members and former security force personnel who are participating in transitional justice. It cites threats against ex-military defendants, and the killings of at least 193 former FARC members through March.
The Colombian newsmagazine Semana, which has revealed several examples of corruption or human rights abuse in the armed forces over the past year, publishes a new cover story revealing that Army intelligence units, in 2019, assembled at least 130 dossiers of information profiling journalists (including U.S. reporters in Colombia), opposition politicians, judges, human rights defenders, union leaders, and even other military officers and President Iván Duque’s own chief of staff. Semana alleges that military cyber-intelligence units may have misused, through corruption, some of approximately US$400,000 per year in assistance from “a foreign intelligence agency.” An unnamed military source says, and the article largely concludes, that an illegal espionage effort of this scale would have had to been ordered by top military commanders. These commanders include Army chief Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who retired in December 2019 shortly before Semana revealed an earlier, related intelligence scandal.
Less than 24 hours before Semana’s revelations become public, the Defense Ministry fires 11 senior officers, including several with direct involvement in the intelligence scandal. The 11 include Gen. Eduardo Quirós, who already stood accused of a role in 2019 communications intercepts and surveillance of journalists that Semana had revealed in January. Another general retires: Gen. Gonzalo Ernesto García Luna, who had headed the Joint Department of Intelligence and Counterintelligence but had not faced accusations before.
On May 2 President Iván Duque tweets, “I won’t tolerate those who dishonor the uniform or carry out practices contrary to the law. I’ve asked Carlos Holmes Trujillo, since he arrived at the Defense Ministry, to carry out a rigorous investigation of the past 10 years’ intelligence efforts.”
On May 3 Colombia recalls the military attaché from its embassy to the United States, Col. Juan Esteban Zapata. He forced into retirement due to his alleged role in illegal spying on civilians when he headed the Army’s 1st Military Intelligence Brigade.
The U.S. embassy in Colombia states that it is “deeply concerned about allegations in media reports of illegal activity within the Colombian armed forces and about any possible misuse of U.S. assistance,” the Wall Street Journal reports on May 3. The Journal is unable to get a comment from U.S. Southern Command, which works most closely with Colombia’s army. “The use of U.S. aid to spy on opposition politicians, journalists and social activists would be a flagrant violation of the purposes for which the aid was provided and an abuse of government power,” says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
In a May 3 statement, the Bogotá office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights “acknowledges the measures adopted” in response to the revelations, like the firing of 11 officers, “and reiterates the urgent need to undertake additional actions to prevent the repetition of such events.”
In a May 3 statement, a long list of journalists subject to the military spying demand answers to several questions about what was done to them.
On May 4 the government withdraws the assignment of retired Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who headed the Army in 2019 during the scandal, to be the military attaché in Colombia’s embassy in Belgium, and thus the country’s military representative to NATO. Gen. Martínez tells El Tiempo that he is “the victim” of “a defamatory campaign against me” carried out by “a group of people, there must be economic and political interests who want to take command or want other people to be in command of the Army.”
In a May 4 statement, the Truth Commission calls on the Defense Minister to turn over documents related to the Army’s illicit spying.
On May 6, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo tells a Senate committee, “we reject any illegal action against opposition leaders and journalists.” He adds that 24 commanders of intelligence and counter-intelligence units have been changed in recent months.
On May 6, three senators subjected to the spying, Antonio Sanguino, Roy Barreras, and Iván Cepeda, send a letter to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission denouncing the Army’s actions and demanding a public list of all who had dossiers compiled about them.
In a May 8 editorial, the New York Times strongly objects to the Colombian Army’s espionage against Casey, its reporter. It adds, “Colombia needs to address not just malfeasance in its military when it is exposed by the press, but also the culture of abuse and the sense of being above the law that continue to infect the army. It makes little sense to denounce human-rights violations and at the same time appoint an officer with General Martínez Espinel’s history to lead the army.”
Citing their vulnerability to COVID-19 while imprisoned, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) orders house arrest for 25 people accused of committing war crimes while serving in the security forces. On April 22, the JEP’s Legal Situations Chamber denied release to two former senior officers, Colonels Joaquín Correa López y Jorge Eliécer Plazas Acevedo, both over 60 years old. The JEP mandated that they be granted humanitarian protective measures while detained.
Maximum ELN leader Nicolas Rodriguez alias “Gabino” sends a message calling on the armed forces to join in a bilateral ceasefire. The group had declared a unilateral ceasefire for the month of April, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.
- On its Twitter account, Colombia’s army briefly creates a reading list called “Opposition,” which includes the accounts of 33 journalists, former guerrillas, politicians, opinion leaders, and non-governmental advocates. The Army apologizes, and either deletes the list or takes it private.
- The investigative news outlet La Nueva Prensa triggers a political firestorm by revealing audios of a top Duque campaign figure arranging a 2018 vote-buying scheme with José Guillermo Hernández, alias “el Ñeñe,” a large landowner with close organized crime ties who was under investigation for murder when he was killed in Brazil in 2019.
- The Army acknowledges that it transported “el Ñeñe” on its aircraft on at least two occasions since 2015.
- JEP personnel investigating “false positive” killings have extracted about 54 bodies of possible Army victims from a mass grave in the town cemetery of Dabeiba, Antioquia. In this historically conflictive municipality, the practice of killing civilians and claiming them as combat deaths may have gone on for 25 years. Victims have had little or no recourse until the JEP’s effort began.
- The Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP) amnesties Marilú Ramírez, a FARC member who infiltrated the Nueva Granada Military University in Bogotá in order to set off a car bomb there in 2006. The attack wounded 33 people; Ramírez was sentenced to over 27 years in prison in 2015. After two years of deliberation, the transitional justice tribunal determines that the school was a legitimate military target, and the attack was therefore amnistiable under the peace accord.
- “Let’s eliminate the JEP, the Democratic Center Party has said so for a long time,” tweets the governing party’s founder, former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe.
- Gen. Mario Montoya, who headed Colombia’s army between 2006 and 2008, testifies for two days before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). At least 41 victims are in attendance, others gather outside to protest.
- The JEP is holding hearings for its “macro-case” about so-called “false positive” killings, in which military personnel murdered thousands of civilians and claimed them later as combat kills. Eleven military witnesses have signaled Gen. Montoya as playing a key role in creating the incentives for these killings.
- The law governing the JEP dictates that when a person has been implicated by a report or testimony, the JEP will give that person the opportunity to give his or her version of what happened. At that opportunity, the person may recognize or deny the allegations.
- In 40 minutes of comments, Gen. Montoya denies any responsibility for the “false positives,” and invokes his “right to remain silent,” responding vaguely to magistrates’ questions.
- Gen. Montoya’s silence causes an outcry among victims. They particularly object to Montoya’s response when magistrates ask him how to prevent “false positive” killings in the future. Montoya reportedly replied by citing most soldiers’ low social class origins. “We have to teach them how to use the bathroom, how to use silverware, so it’s not easy.”
- On February 18, active-duty Col. Álvaro Amórtuegi tells Caracol Noticias that in 2001, Montoya had ordered him to kill some people captured by paramilitaries, adding that he would send him some armbands with which to pass them off as guerrillas. When he refused, the colonel alleges that Montoya replied, “You’re a coward, you disgust me and I spit on your boots… If you’re afraid, go kill an idiot or a crazy person, or take them from the morgue.”
- Some victims’ groups call on the JEP to expel Gen. Montoya for his non-cooperation, which would send his case to the regular criminal justice system.
- A civilian judge sends to preventive prison, pending trial, an Army colonel who allegedly green-lighted the April 22 murder of former FARC combatant Dimar Torres in Catatumbo. “This man should be killed,” Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita reportedly said of Torres, whose murder by soldiers caused a national outcry. “We can’t stand to see him captured only to get fat in jail.” The corporal who carried out the deed was sentenced to 20 years in prison in late 2019.
- Truth Commission President Francisco De Roux says that the Defense Ministry has gone a year without honoring requests for classified files necessary for the elaboration of the Commission’s report. De Roux says he has spent more than a month seeking a meeting with Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo, whose order could probably produce the needed files.