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.
The U.S. House of Representatives passes its version of the 2021 Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual bill making adjustments to the law underlying the Pentagon and the U.S. military. It includes two amendments relevant to Colombia. One, proposed by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), requires the Secretary of State to submit a report assessing allegations that U.S. aid to Colombia has been misused for illegal surveillance of civilians, including journalistsa and human rights defenders. A second, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), places weak limits on U.S. support for aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas.
Rep. McGovern tells Business Insider, “If it was up to me, I would end security assistance to Colombia right now. Those who are responsible for illegal acts ought to be held accountable.…Clearly that doesn’t happen in Colombia.”
Community members in the village of Filoguamo, in Teorama municipality in Norte de Santander’s Catatumbo region, allege that Army soldiers killed social leader Salvador Jaimes Durán. The military’s Vulcano Task Force, which operates in Catatumbo, releases a photo of guerrillas insinuating that Durán was a member of the ELN. The ELN denies it and the guerrillas release a recording of the individual who appeared in the photo.
Embera indigenous community leaders in Pueblo Rico, Risaralda, denounce that a group of soldiers raped a 12-year-old girl. The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalia) reports that seven soldiers have pleaded guilty, but 25 more “may have had knowledge of this act.” President Duque promises, “We will get to the bottom of the investigations, and if we have to inaugurate the use of life sentences with them, we will do so.” An Army spokesperson says that the institution will not be providing defense lawyers for the accused.
Ultra-conservative ruling party Senator María Fernanda Cabal, known for her incendiary statements and for being the wife of the president of Colombia’s cattlemen’s federation, tweets that the rape allegation might be a “judicial false positive” instigated by those who wish to defame the armed forces.
Colombia’s Free Press Federation (FLIP) learns that 14 more journalists were among the 130 civilians for whom military intelligence had been maintaining detailed profiles, part of a scandal known as the “Secret Folders” that broke in early May. That pushes to 52 the known number of profiled civilians who work as journalists.
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 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.
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 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.
- 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.
- 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 cover story in the Colombian weekly Semana reveals that Army intelligence units have been illegally intercepting the communications of, following, and threatening high-court judges, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, and journalists—including Semana reporters investigating military human rights and corruption allegations. Those being followed and intimidated include Army officers who had been providing information to investigators about these allegations.
- The magazine speculates that revelations about the illegal intelligence operation—the product of a dramatic judicial police raid on Army intelligence facilities in mid-December—forced the late-December exit of the Army’s chief, Gen. Nicacio Martínez. Gen. Martínez denies that he retired for this reason, blaming “retaliation” from elsewhere in the army “for denouncing and preventing corrupt acts.”
- Semana hints that Army personnel were passing information from intercepted communications to a legislator in the government’s party, the Democratic Center. Much speculation centers on Senator Álvaro Uribe, who was embroiled in a wiretapping scandal during the latter years of his 2002-2010 presidency. One of those being wiretapped is a Supreme Court justice in charge of a case against the former president, who is under investigation for witness tampering.
- Supreme Court President Álvaro García calls for a special investigation.
- The Inter-American Human Rights Commission expresses “deep concern” about the revelations.
- Visiting Bojayá, Chocó, President Duque promises to increase military presence and social investment in the battered municipality.
- That day, Bojayá social leader Leyner Palacios, who had met with President Duque three days before, receives a truculent letter from the commander of the Titan Joint Task Force, a Chocó-based military unit. Palacios had denounced episodes of collusion between members of the security forces and Gulf Clan paramilitaries. In what he calls a “freedom of information request,” Commander Darío Fernando Cardona Castrillón asks Palacios to provide “names or surnames of the security-force members, and the place and date during which such illegal acts were committed, so that respective investigations may be initiated.”