In March 2022, Colombia’s Army staged an early-morning attack on a large, hung-over gathering of participants in a “community bazaar”—including a few armed-group members, who fired back—in a rural zone of Putumayo, in the country’s south. The soldiers killed several civilians, including a pregnant woman and an Indigenous community leader.
Top defense officials in the government of President Iván Duque insisted that the troops did nothing wrong and that no human rights or international humanitarian law violations took place. Colombian journalistic investigations found otherwise.
Colombia’s civilian Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía) looked into the case, and agreed with the journalists. The Colombian magazine Cambioreported on August 20:
the Prosecutor’s Office deployed an interdisciplinary team that included ballistics experts, forensic doctors, topographers and prosecutors from its Human Rights Unit. The material collected, as CAMBIO was able to verify, reveals that the indigenous governor Pablo Paduro died as a result of a rifle shot by one of the uniformed officers and that the weapon found near his body was never fired or manipulated by him, but was planted on him with the intention of diverting the investigation. In addition, there is incontestable evidence: the dead were 11 and the weapons found were 5, so at least 6 of them did not have the means to shoot at the Army.
The prosecutors, though, are being held up by delaying tactics. Defense attorneys for the accused military personnel made a last-minute appeal to have the case heard in Colombia’s military justice system. The military system is meant for disciplinary infractions (“acts of service”), not human rights abuses; when it does get jurisdiction over a crime against civilians, it almost never convicts. For such cases, it is an impunity factory.
Cambio explained the legal machinations:
The indictment hearing was scheduled for the first days of August, but in an unexpected decision, the 106th judge of Military Criminal Instruction of Puerto Leguízamo [Putumayo] accepted the request of the soldiers’ lawyers and sent the process to the Constitutional Court to resolve a jurisdictional conflict. The judge’s decision has been criticized because a month after the operation, in May 2022, the same Military Criminal Court sent the process to the Prosecutor’s Office, arguing that the possible human rights violations could not be considered acts of service.
The Constitutional Court has yet to decide whether the Alto Remanso massacre case will go to the military justice system, where justice is unlikely, or the civilian system, where prosecutors and investigators have done thorough work and are ready to go. Colleagues at Human Rights Watch just sent an amicus brief to the Constitutional Court asking it to slap down the military attorneys’ gambit, and move the case back to the civilian justice system.
The military attorneys may be happy just to run out the clock. Cambio warns, “For now, the legal process is suspended and waiting for the Constitutional Court to define the conflict of competences. The clock is ticking, and the ghost of the statute of limitations’ expiration is haunting the investigators’ work.”
On August 30, Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace’s Truth Recognition Chamber indicted the former commander of the army from 2002 until 2006, Mario Montoya, for his responsibility in the extrajudicial killings of 130 civilians. The crimes took place when he commanded the IV Brigade based in Medellin, Antioquia. The entity pointed out that Mr. Montoya lied about the number of persons killed, covered up the extra limitations employed by the forces under his watch and employed disturbing language that glorified this violence. Such language included ordering the units under his command to report their actions in terms of “liters,” “squirts,” “rivers,” “barrels,” or “tanker trucks” of blood.
In February 2021, the peace court found that between 2002 and 2008 6,402 civilians were extrajudicially killed by the armed forces of Colombia. This macro-criminal practice of assassinations and forced disappearances led to the illegitimate presentation of guerillas killed in combat. For years, victims’ families of the extrajudicially killed and forcibly disappeared have lived with the pain and torture of these crimes and in many cases reprisals and death threats for seeking justice for their loved ones. Over the years, high officials of the Colombian governments have diminished and denied these crimes.
As WOLA, we welcome the JEP’s indictment with the hope that this helps to guarantee non-repetition of such crimes and provides some solace to the victims’ families. During this time the U.S. provided Colombia with at least $3.8 billion in military assistance. We therefore call upon U.S. authorities to cooperate fully with any information requests from the JEP, including declassifying relevant information for the role that U.S. funding and training to the Colombian armed forces played in these murders.
The Guardiancalled it a “botched army raid.” An Indigenous group called it a “massacre.” The commander of Colombia’s army insisted that it took place “with strictest observance of human rights and international humanitarian law.”
Early on the morning of March 28, dozens of people were gathered in a communal space in the town of Alto Remanso, near the Ecuador border in Colombia’s southern department of Putumayo. They had been partying all night, the ground littered with beer cans. Speakers were still blasting music. It was the third day of a community “bazaar,” a festival to raise money to pave a nearby stretch of dirt road.
Just after 7:00 AM, shots rang out. Community members say that men dressed in black, shouting “we’re not the security forces,” fired at the gathering. Some people at the bazaar—almost certainly members of an ex-FARC dissident group active in the area—returned fire. Shooting continued for at least an hour and a half. At that point, helicopters arrived, and the townspeople were shocked to find out that the black-clad invaders were Colombian soldiers.
Later that day, Colombian President Iván Duque and Defense Minister Diego Molano posted tweets celebrating the “neutralization” of 11 ex-FARC dissidents, and the arrest of 4 more. The Army said it was a long-planned operation to capture Carlos Emilio Loaiza, alias “Bruno,” a leader of the Comandos de la Frontera, a Putumayo-based armed group that trafficks cocaine. (“Bruno” was not present.) The Comandos are believed affiliated with the “Segunda Marquetalia” network, led by re-armed former FARC guerrillas, which the U.S. State Department added to its list of foreign terrorist organizations last November.
Much remains unclear about the Alto Remanso incident. What we know comes from denunciations by local Indigenous and campesino groups, and Bogotá-based human rights groups; three Colombian media outlets’ thorough fieldwork; and a mission from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Colombian daily El Espectador has produced a helpful timeline of events.
What was the human toll of the operation?
Eleven people died in Alto Remanso on March 28. At least four (one sourceclaimssix) were civilian non-combatants: the president of the town’s Community Action Board, Divier Hernández; his pregnant partner, already a mother of two, Ana María Sarrias; a Kichwa Indigenous reserve governor, Pablo Panduro; and a 16-year-old boy, Brayan Santiago Pama. Another of the dead was a former FARC guerrilla who demobilized in 2017, Jhon Jairo Silva.
Four more people were wounded, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission confirms, including a soldier who was shot in the arm.
Were four additional people captured?
No. Early reports, including President Duque’s tweet, noted the arrest of “four criminals” in addition to the eleven killed. Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (FIscalía) responded days later that no suspects had been handed over. Three people who had been wounded in the operation received medical care at clinics elsewhere in Putumayo, and were freed.
Were those killed combatants, or civilians?
Witnesses insist that at leastfour(or perhaps at leastfive) of those killed had nothing to do with armed groups.Of the other six or seven, it is unknown which or how many were armed or engaged the military in combat. The Army recovered only six weapons from the scene.
Alto Remanso is an area with very little state presence. People who are not combatants coexist every day with armed groups like the Comandos de la Frontera. It is not surprising that members of this armed group, which keeps close watch over all activity in the area, would have been present at a large community gathering.
Rather than admit errors or “collateral damage” in a crossfire, Colombia’s Army and Defense Ministry insist that every single one of the dead was a combatant. Military sources provided the pro-government Semana magazine with an account of months of preparation and intelligence leading up to the operation, including soldiers’ surveillance of what the magazine called a “cocalero bazaar” starting on March 26. In a March 30 Twitter response to opposition presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, Defense Minister Molano wrote that the operation “wasn’t against innocent Indigenous people, but against narco-cocaleros [apparently a reference to coca farmers]. It wasn’t at a bazaar, but against criminals who attacked soldiers.”
The commander of Colombia’s Army, Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, reiterated on April 11 that all of those killed were guerrilla dissidents. “This isn’t the first operation in which pregnant women and minors get killed,” Gen. Zapateiro told a television interviewer. (Gen. Zapateiro caused controversy in February 2021 with a tweet comparing human rights advocates to venomous snakes, posted the day after major revelations about past extrajudicial executions.)
On April 12, Gen. Juan Carlos Correa, commander of the Army’s Air Assault Division, told the Caracol radio network that all of the dead were armed-group members, either fighters or support personnel. Gen. Correa is a close U.S. ally: he spent 2019 and 2020 in Miami, at U.S. Southern Command headquarters, as the director of the U.S. military command’s J7/J9 (Exercises and Coalition Affairs) Directorate.
The Colombian Armed Forces shared a document purporting each deceased individual’s ties to the armed group. It claims that Hernández, the community leader, went by the alias “Gordo,” and his partner, Sarrias, was alias “Dayana.” It alleges that Panduro, the Indigenous leader, was shooting a rifle with a scope. In the document, Pama, the 16-year-old, was allegedly carrying a rifle too.
Townspeople say that the four had no armed-group affiliation; even if they did, though, that would not be grounds for use of lethal force against them. Hernández and Sarrias were not armed when they were shot: investigative journalist José Guarnizo of the online media outlet Voráginewrites that he has photos, too explicit to publicize, that prove it. Panduro “never picked up a weapon, and there is an infinity of testimonies” supporting that, wrote Guarnizo. Witnesses of the military operation say that Pama was shot not while carrying a rifle, but while trying to offer first aid to a combatant who had been carrying a rifle.
What is the security situation in Putumayo?
The security situation is dangerous. A Maryland-sized department (province) of about 350,000 people, Putumayo has long been ungoverned and conflictive. One of Colombia’s principal coca-growing departments, it is also a key corridor for cocaine transshipment across the border into Ecuador. It was a stronghold of FARC guerrillas, until paramilitary groups made inroads into towns—with military support —in the late 1990s. In 2001, Putumayo was theinitial theaterof U.S.-backed military operations supported by the first “Plan Colombia” aid package.
Do the military units involved receive U.S. aid?
Yes. A pro-government media report identifies the Colombian Army’s 3rd Counternarcotics Battalion as the unit to which the soldiers who carried out the attack belonged. This mobile battalion was created with generous U.S. support in the early 2000s with funding from the first Plan Colombia appropriation, and continues to get U.S. support today. During the Duque government, this and other counternarcotics battalions were reorganized into a Command Against Narcotrafficking and Transnational Threats (CONAT), which also works closely with U.S. counterparts. U.S. trainers were present for the CONAT’s March 2021 activation ceremony.
This is one of the Colombian Army’s most elite units, whose members “are trained day and night about international humanitarian law and human rights,” law of war expert Jean Carlo Mejía toldEl Espectador.
The Leahy Law prohibits U.S. aid to foreign military units that commit gross human rights violations unless “effective” or “corrective” steps are being taken. As long as investigations continue (see below) and responsible officials are held accountable, the Leahy Law will not be invoked. Should investigative and accountability processes stall, assistance to the 3rd Counter-Narcotics Battalion, and possibly to the CONAT, could be in jeopardy.
Did this operation violate International Humanitarian Law?
A consensusview in recent reporting is that it is very likely that this attack, launched in the middle of a party crowded with civilians, violated international humanitarian law. “According to International Human Rights Law, the intentional use of lethal weapons can only occur when it is strictly unavoidable, and with the purpose of protecting life,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Colombia field office recalled in a April 13 tweet .
The armed forces insist that the operation was legitimate: that it was planned and executed at all phases “based on the principles of international humanitarian law.” President Duque said on April 11, “There was an exchange of fire, members of the security forces were wounded, and all protocols were followed.”
However, the decision to pursue a “high value target,” spurring a firefight in the midst of dozens of civilians, including women and children, ran a very high risk of violating the “principle of distinction,” which requires soldiers to avoid harming non-combatants in all but the extreme circumstances, like urgent self-defense. The soldiers took that risk on March 28, ordering snipers to fire “discriminately” (in their words) at the gathering—even after video taken through a sniper’s rifle sights, shared later with Caracol, showed women and children present.
Did the soldiers wear black outfits and say they weren’t the Army?
Yes to the first, “probably” to the second. Townspeople in Alto Remanso say that the soldiers arrived in the town dressed all in black, and that they shouted, “Get down, we are not the security forces.” Some had their faces hidden; some had facial hair. Gen. Correa said that special-forces units do occasionally wear black uniforms, a practice that “is totally regulated.”
It is a violation of international humanitarian law to wear outfits lacking “a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance.” It is also a violation (perfidy) for actors to pose as members of another side.
Did the Army delay or deny urgent medical assistance?
Almost certainly. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission “ received information about a supposed denial of medical assistance required by affected people.” Indeed, it appears that some of those killed in Alto Remanso bled to death from wounds that might have been treatable.
Divier Hernández, the Community Action Board president, lay bleeding outdoors, well enough to ask another townsperson to take the keys to his boat and bring his wounded, pregnant partner, Sarria, to get medical aid. The townsperson carried Sarria to the river’s shallows where they sat, submerged, unable to reach the boat because of gunfire. Sarria eventually bled to death from her leg. Panduro, the Kichwa governor, lay on the ground for half an hour begging for help until he, too, perished. Amid the shooting, nobody could get near him to assist.
Was the scene tampered with?
It appears likely. Army personnel had Alto Remanso to themselves for about seven hours: investigators from the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) did not arrive until after 2:00 PM on March 28th. By then, soldiers had moved the dead, allegedly to “keep them in a secure area.” The Fiscalía personnel were initial crime scene investigators, some of whom were seen hugging Army commanders upon their arrival. Fiscalía detectives did not begin to interview witnesses in the town until four days later.
More serious are allegations that victims’ bodies may have been manipulated to make them appear to have been combatants. Strong questions surround Brayan Santiago Pama, the 16-year-old who was killed. Reporters from Cambio, El Espectador, and Vorágine have photos of Pama’s body—which they’ve reproduced as artist renditions out of respect for the victim’s family—showing Pama first lying on the ground unarmed, and then later lying on the floor of a boat with a rifle laid on top of him.
In another video shared by Vorágine we see a grieving woman, while an off-screen voice asks soldiers, “We civilians don’t have weapons, why are you doing this to us? What is most shocking is that you put guns on them. The man you put a rifle on is a governor accredited by the mayor’s office. He was an unarmed person.”
What happened to the money and the whiskey?
They’re gone. Reporters who visited Alto Remanso and spoke to townspeople heard that the three-day bazaar was going well, having raised about 11 million pesos (US$3,000) for the road-paving. The boozy gathering still had about eight cases (96 bottles) of Buchanan’s whiskey still left to sell or drink.
Several witnesses said that the Army took the money, and that the whiskey is no longer in the town. Some say soldiers also took another 36 million pesos in cash (nearly US$10,000), the proceeds of a land sale. A sex worker said that, as she lay on the ground, a soldier put his foot on her head and wrested away her mobile phone “without any explanation.”
The Army reported seizing 9.8 million pesos in cash during the raid, along with weapons. A Defense Ministry source toldCambio that it would be “unthinkable” for the soldiers to have taken the liquor, because “each one would have had to carry two bottles.”
Are credible investigations happening?
Investigations are ongoing, for now. The Internal Affairs Office (Procuraduría) has launched a preliminary inquiry into what happened in Alto Remanso, though the Army has so far not provided requested documents. Senators are calling on Defense Minister Molano to testify. Reporters from El Espectador couldn’t ascertain whether personnel from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office had managed to visit Alto Remanso.
Real judicial accountability resides with the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía). “We urge the Fiscalía to conduct a thorough and independent investigation to guarantee the victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights field office tweeted on April 13. “We recommend that all disciplinary and criminal measures be taken to prosecute and punish those responsible for what happened.”
The quality of the Fiscalía investigation is not assured. Detectives came to interview witnesses four days after the events occurred, though reporters and NGO investigators were able to arrive days before. Interviews with witnesses took place outdoors without privacy. Military personnel stood nearby, some with video cameras mounted to their helmets.
What is the humanitarian situation now for community residents?
Serious. Residents say they have alerted the Fiscalía about the disappearance of five people from the Alto Remanso community, including an eight-year-old boy. Meanwhile, the town is virtually abandoned: El Espectador’s reporter wrote that about 20 people came to the town to talk to her, but “by the evening, the village was once again nearly unoccupied.” Contagio Radionoted, “fear reigns due to reprisals following the denunciations, and many of the region’s inhabitants continue to suffer forced displacement without government assistance.”
What does this mean for politics and civil-military relations in Colombia?
Unless clarity and accountability come swiftly, it is a bad sign. The Alto Remanso, Putumayo attack has generated a political firestorm as Colombia heads toward May 29 first-round presidential elections. The deeply conservative Duque government, which is unpopular, is facing calls for Defense Minister Molano’s resignation and a move by opposition legislators to censure him (which probably lacks necessary votes).
All presidential candidates have weighed in. While all call for an investigation, their postures vary. Rightist, pro-government candidate Federico Gutiérrez assures that the military “rigorously respects human rights.” Rightist independent candidate Rodolfo Hernández criticizes “media tribunals that, without knowing the full facts, make these narco-guerrilla meetings look like a Boy Scout camp.” Centrist Sergio Fajardo said, “the government cannot present a disproportionate and vile action as a successful operation.” Leftist Gustavo Petro called it “a war crime against Putumayo’s population,” adding, “In my government, honor will be the security forces’ axis.”
Of particular concern is the Defense Ministry’s and security forces’ defiant attitude in the face of mounting evidence that not all of those killed were combatants. Mistakes happen in combat. For leaders to insist that none occurred in Alto Remanso—that what happened on March 28 was an exemplary operation—carries serious and lasting risks to the credibility of Colombia’s security sector, when much careful reporting indicates otherwise.
Retired Col. Pedro Javier Rojas, a moderate, oversaw doctrinal reforms a decade ago but resigned from Colombia’s army in late 2020 over disagreements with the current, harder-line high command. Speaking with El Espectador, Rojas viewed the Putumayo attack as an ominous sign that the armed forces are losing their way. “Today, doctrine, one of the three pillars of any military force—together with cohesion and principles and values—is weakened. The current Army leadership did not continue to build it, and furthermore it has not been correctly internalized and disseminated. That is why we see these repeated mistakes in operations.”
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Ambassador Michael Kozak U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg U.S. Department of State and U.S. Embassy to Colombia, Bogota
Dear Ambassador Kozak and Ambassador Goldberg,
We write out of deep concern, which we are confident you share, regarding the revelations that Colombian Army intelligence units compiled detailed dossiers on the personal lives and activities of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, union leaders, and possible military whistleblowers. As you know, the group contained U.S. citizens, including several reporters and a Colombian senator.
This scandal is disturbing in itself and for what it says about Colombia’s inability to reform its military and intelligence services. In 1998, the 20th Military Intelligence Brigade was disbanded due to charges that it had been involved in the 1995 murder of Conservative Senator Álvaro Gómez Hurtado and his aide and, according to the 1997 State Department human rightsreport, targeted killings and forced disappearances. In 2011, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), Colombia’s main intelligence service, was disbanded due to the massive surveillance, as well as threats against, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, Supreme Court judges, and reporters. In 2014, Semana magazine revealed army intelligence was spying on peace accord negotiators in the so-called Operation Andromeda. In 2019, Semana exposed another surveillance campaign using “Invisible Man” and “Stingray” equipment against Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, and U.S. and Colombian reporters, including its own journalists. In March 2020, a Twitter list compiled by the Colombian army identified the accounts of journalists, human rights advocates, and Colombia’s Truth Commission and Special Jurisdiction for Peace as “opposition” accounts.
The surveillance is far worse than a massive invasion of privacy. The targeting of political opposition, judicial personnel, human rights defenders, and journalists leads to threats, attacks, and killings. For example, during the 2019 surveillance operation, Semana reporters and their family members received funeral wreaths, prayer cards, and a tombstone. This surveillance and targeting has a chilling effect on the very people and institutions needed to maintain a vibrant democracy. It means that no amount of government protection programs can stop the targeted killing of human rights defenders and social leaders. The persistence of this kind of surveillance suggests that an important segment of Colombia’s military and intelligence services – and of the political class – fail to appreciate the fundamental role of a free press, human rights and other civil society organizations, and peaceful dissent in any vibrant democracy.
We are also deeply concerned to hear that some U.S. intelligence equipment may have been used for these illegal efforts. Semana “confirmed with U.S. embassy sources that the Americans recovered from several military units the tactical monitoring and location equipment that it had lent them.”
As we review this latest manifestation of Colombia’s deeply rooted problem of identifying as enemies and persecuting those who wish to defend human rights, uphold justice, and report the truth, we ask ourselves: What can ensure that this never happens again?
At a minimum, we recommend that the U.S. government:
Support the creation of an independent group of experts under the auspices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate and recommend steps to achieve justice and non-repetition.
Press for a thorough review of military doctrine and training to ensure that it promotes a proper understanding of the role of the military in a democratic society, including the role of human rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians, and an independent judiciary. While the written doctrine was revised during the Santos Administration, clearly improvements to doctrine are not being followed. The review should seek an accounting for the too-frequent episodes of senior military behavior that contradicts this revised doctrine. Such a review must have input from Colombian human rights defenders and judicial experts, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Urge the Colombian government to provide all necessary protection measures, agreed upon with the targeted individuals and organizations, to ensure their physical and psychological integrity, as well as that of those around them.
Urge the Colombian government to purge all intelligence files, whether of state security forces or other organizations, collected on human rights organizations, finally addressing the long-standing demand by human rights organizations, unfulfilled for nearly a quarter century.
Urge the Colombian government to reveal publicly the full extent of illegal intelligence operations targeting civil society activists, politicians, judges, and journalists, clarifying who was in charge, to whom they reported, what kind of intelligence was carried out, and with what objectives.
The administration should direct DNI, CIA, NSA and DIA to inform congressional intelligence, armed services and foreign relations and foreign affairs committees of their conclusions on the full extent of illegal Colombian intelligence operations, clarifying who was in charge, to whom they reported, what kind of intelligence was carried out, and with what objectives. The administration should direct the same agencies to inform these congressional committees whether and when the U.S. government learned of these actions by the Colombian military and intelligence services and whether U.S. intelligence agencies cooperated with their counterparts even after learning of those actions.
Investigate whether recipients of U.S. training and/or equipment participated in ordering or implementing these illegal activities and immediately suspend individuals and units involved from receiving U.S. training and equipment, per the Leahy Law.
Suspend all U.S. support for Colombia’s military and intelligence services if the Colombian government does not immediately suspend and promptly investigate and prosecute officials who ordered and executed these illegal activities and conduct the thorough review and rewriting of military doctrine and training mentioned above.
If the nation is to realize the vision of so many Colombians to create a truly “post-conflict” society with shared prosperity under the rule of law, then intelligence targeting and surveillance of democratic actors must finally end. Thank you for your efforts to ensure Colombia turns the page for once and for all on these deadly, illegal, and anti-democratic activities.
Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America Colombia Grassroots Support, New Jersey Colombia Human Rights Committee, Washington DC Colombian Studies Group, Graduate Center – College University of New York Colombian Studies Group, The New School International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights Latin America Working Group (LAWG) Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) Oxfam America Presbyterian Peace Fellowship School of the Americas Watch United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective
On May 19 WOLA hosted a 2-hour discussion of new revelations that Colombian Army intelligence had been spying on journalists, judges, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, and other military officers. The nine speakers included several victims of the spying and some U.S.-based analysts.
The discussion’s video feed is below. The first is presented in the languages the speakers used, and the second is dubbed with a full English translation.
Join the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective (WFP), the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), the International Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights, the Colombia Human Rights Committee, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), and Amnesty International USA for an online forum.
On May 1, 2020, the Colombian weekly news magazine Semana revealed that Colombian military intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance on more than 130 individuals between February and December 2019. Among those targeted were human rights defenders, Colombian and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and members of the military. Several were targeted for reporting, documenting, or representing families of victims of extrajudicial killings, and for bringing to light other grave abuses.
This illegal espionage is not a new phenomenon. In 2011, Colombia’s former intelligence agency, the Administrative Security Directorate (DAS), was dismantled after revelations in 2009 that it was illegally wiretapping and monitoring the activities of civil society leaders, judges, and politicians. The recent revelations by Semana raise the question: why is this a recurring problem in Colombia, and what needs to happen to secure accountability and at last bring about much-needed reforms to Colombian army intelligence and military doctrine?
Journalists, human rights defenders, and military whistleblowers are carrying out crucial work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices amid a fragile security situation in post-conflict Colombia. When units in the military criminalize this work, it undermines efforts to build a more peaceful, democratic Colombia. What should be done to guarantee the end to illicit surveillance of social leaders? What role can the U.S. government play in achieving accountability, given its status as Colombia’s top military donor and trainer? How can the Organization of American States and the United Nations guarantee protection, justice, and non-repetition of such crimes? What are the implications of these revelations for Colombia’s 2016 peace accord?
To help answer these questions, we invite you to join us for a webinar with individuals targeted by this illegal surveillance and with Colombia human rights experts.
Semana, a Colombian newsmagazine that often exposes human rights wrongdoing in Colombia’s armed forces, published another scoop on May 1, 2020. Army intelligence units, it found, had been developing detailed dossiers on the personal lives of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, and possible military whistleblowers. The list of targets includes U.S. citizens who work in Colombia as reporters for major media outlets.
This is the latest of a long series of scandals involving illegal wiretapping, hacking, surveillance, or threats from Colombia’s powerful, U.S.-backed security and intelligence forces. Though Colombia has taken modest steps toward accountability over its military, the Semana revelations show us how fragile and reversible this progress is.
The purpose of intelligence should be to foresee and help prevent threats to law-abiding people and their freedoms. In a country where a social leader is murdered every other day, such threats abound. For scarce intelligence resources to be diverted away from those threats, and channeled instead to illegal and politicized ends, is a betrayal of public trust and an attack on Colombian democracy.
Preventing a further repetition of these intelligence abuses will require Colombia’s government to take bold steps. These include holding those responsible, at the highest levels, swiftly and transparently accountable for their crimes. Because U.S. assistance may be implicated in, or at least adjacent to, the military intelligence units’ actions, how Colombia responds must have giant implications for the integrity of the bilateral relationship and the ostensible purposes of U.S. aid. Any indication that these crimes may once again end up in impunity must trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid to the units involved.
What we know about the latest revelations comes mainly from Semana and other Colombian media. We lay it out in the following narrative.
Prehistory: this keeps happening
Unauthorized wiretapping scandals recur with numbing regularity in Colombia. In 2009, Semana—which tends to reveal most of these misdeeds—uncovered massive surveillance and threats against opposition politicians, judicial personnel, reporters, and human rights defenders. These were carried out by an intelligence body, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), that reported directly to President Álvaro Uribe. The DAS had already run into trouble earlier in Uribe’s government (2002-2010) for collaborating with paramilitary groups on selective killings. As a result of the 2009 scandal, the DAS was abolished in 2011.
In 2013 Colombia passed a landmark intelligence law prohibiting warrantless surveillance or intercepts, and put strong limits on judges issuing warrants against people who were not organized criminals, drug traffickers, or terrorists. The law created a congressional oversight body that has been largely inactive, while a commission to purge intelligence files issued a report that was not acted upon.
By 2014, army intelligence was at it again. Semana revealed the existence of a hacking operation, “Andromeda,” working out of what looked like a restaurant in western Bogotá. Its targets included government negotiators participating at the time in peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. Since then, efforts to hold accountable those responsible for Operation Andromeda have shown “no results to date,” according to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
President Juan Manuel Santos’s second term (2014-2018), marked by the conclusion of a peace accord with the FARC, was a quieter period for military human rights scandals. A moderate, and moderately reformist, high command implemented doctrinal changes and supported the peace process, while human rights groups documented fewer extrajudicial executions committed directly by the armed forces.
2019, a bad year for Colombia’s army
Progress reversed sharply in 2019. The high command that new President Iván Duque put into place, including Army Chief Gen. Nicacio Martínez, fell under criticism from human rights groups for their past proximity to “false positive” extrajudicial killings a decade earlier. Colombian media began gathering reports about increased abuses, and abusive behavior, at the hands of military personnel. Semana revealed that in a January meeting Gen. Diego Luis Villegas, the chief of the military’s “Vulcan Task Force” and now head of the army’s “Transformations Command,” said, “The army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over.… If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.”
In April, troops in Gen. Villegas’s task force killed a former FARC guerrilla in northeast Colombia’s volatile Catatumbo region. Semana reported later in the year that a colonel had told his subordinates that he wanted Dimar Torres dead. (Gen. Villegas apologized publicly for the killing, and the colonel is detained awaiting trial.)
In May 2019, the New York Times ran with a story that Semana had been sitting on: army chief Gen. Martínez and his commanders were reviving “body counts” as a principal measure of commanders’ effectiveness. Rather than measure territorial security or governance, army brass decided to require unit commanders to sign forms committing themselves to a doubling of “afectaciones”—armed-group members killed or captured—in their areas of operations. This raised concerns about creating incentives for “false positives”: killings of innocent civilians in order to pass them off as combatants to pad body counts, as happened thousands of times in the 2000s.
Whistleblowers within the military were the main sources for the Times story. Rather than upholding those whistleblowers and rethinking “body counts,” the high command launched a campaign to root out officers who talked to the media, including New York Times reporter Nicholas Casey. In what Semana revealed in July and called “Operación Silencio,” counterintelligence officers began interrogating and polygraphing army colleagues suspected of snitching. (We would learn in May 2020 what the army was doing at the time about Nicholas Casey.)
The second half of 2019 had more bumps for the army. Semana revealed corruption scandals, including selling permits to carry weapons and misuse of funds meant for fuel and other needs. These led to the firing of five army generals, including Gen. Martínez’s second in command. In November, the civilian defense minister, Guillermo Botero, was forced to resign amid allegations of a cover-up of an August bombing raid on a rearmed FARC dissident encampment, which killed eight children.
The January 2020 hacking revelations
After a stormy year-long tenure, Gen. Nicacio Martínez, the army commander, abruptly resigned on December 26, 2019. (The General toldEl Tiempo that he discussed his exit with his family on December 8, notified President Iván Duque the next day, and was out 17 days later.) On January 13, 2020, Semana published a bombshell cover story on what it called “the real reasons that caused the government to retire the army commander.”
This is an English translation of a statement signed by the U.S. and European human rights and humanitarian aid organizations whose logos appear above. (PDF en español)
International civil society organizations warn of the serious risk that misuse of state intelligence systems represents for peace and democracy in Colombia
The international civil society organizations that sign this communiqué express their solidarity with the more than 130 people, including journalists, members of political parties, NGOs defending human rights, and trade unionists who, according to Semana magazine investigations, have been victims of a new episode of illegal interceptions, through the implementation of a computer monitoring program, executed by several units of the national Army. These intercepts, which include even high officials of Iván Duque’s government, call into question the guarantees of constitutional and democratic principles in Colombia.
The results of this journalistic investigation are worrying: the surveillance took place in response to the publications, by the New York Times in early 2019 on the return of extrajudicial executions, and the investigation by La Liga Contra el Silencio and Rutas del Conflicto in July 2019 about agreements between extractive companies and the Ministry of Defense.
Freedom of expression is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, in Colombia it is a constitutional right (article 20) and it is essential, as stated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in its chapter VIII, for the development of democracy and for the full exercise of human rights.
As highlighted by the Office in Colombia of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, state intelligence systems should be used for the protection of human rights, and not to violate them. In this sense, we urge the Colombian State to take concrete measures to regulate these intelligence systems .
It is urgent that the Colombian State, in an exercise of transparency with the Colombian people and with the international community, carry out the pertinent investigations to clarify the origin of these actions and bring to the competent authorities those responsible for this very serious aggression against the work of human rights defense, freedom of the press, and guarantees to the political opposition in Colombia.
The Colombian State must, likewise, provide sufficient guarantees for life and integrity and the right to defense of individuals and organizations defending human rights in general and in particular of those who have been exposed with this illegal practice.
As international civil society organizations, we warn of the high risk of the sustainability of the peace process in Colombia, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with this type of persecution of the political opposition, added to the increase in murders of human rights defenders and ex-combatants from the Farc, which so far in 2020 already number more than 100, according to the records of Indepaz.
Intelligence systems must respect human rights and be subject to strict civil and judicial controls
In an investigation published on May 1, Colombian weekly news magazine Semana reported that between February and December 2019, Colombian army intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance of more than 130 individuals, including human rights defenders, national and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and other members of the military.
Among those who were illegally monitored are veteran U.S. journalists, as well as partners of WOLA like rural land reform advocate César Jerez, indigenous leader Senator Feliciano Valencia, and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), a non-governmental organization that has represented families of victims illegally killed by members of the military.
The report adds more detail to a previous Semana investigation that revealed a military intelligence unit was illegally wiretapping journalists, politicians, and others, including members of the Supreme Court. Since the new report’s publication on Friday, 11 military officials have been dismissed or resigned. The Attorney General’s Office said it is investigating Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who headed the army at the time; the Inspector General’s Office is also opening an investigation.
Colombia should be devoting its intelligence resources to investigating organized crime networks and establishing a state presence in territories still essentially controlled by armed groups. Intelligence should also be used when appropriate to support investigations by the Attorney General’s Office into the killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. Instead, what the Semana reports reveal is that military intelligence is targeting reformers and the free press. The perversity of this can’t be understated.
Colombia previously lived through a major illegal wiretapping scandal in 2009, involving the now-dissolved Administrative Security Directorate (DAS). In 2014, an army intelligence unit was discovered, also by Semana, to have been hacking the communications of government peace negotiators taking part in talks with the FARC.
In order to send the message that these types of anti-democratic activities are unacceptable and will not be tolerated, it is essential that both the civilian Attorney General’s Office and Inspector General’s Office conduct thorough and independent investigations, resulting in appropriate sanctions and disciplinary procedures against those who ordered the illegal monitoring. A further purging of state intelligence units may be necessary to guarantee that history will not repeat itself again. Additionally, in order to send a message that the state is taking transparency concerns seriously, authorities should declassify and release all information illegally obtained about human rights defenders.
While important security gains were made under the 2016 peace accord, the Colombian army is currently facing significant challenges, due in part to the Duque administration’s resistance to fully implementing the accord, the lack of a negotiations process with rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), and an ongoing struggle to confront paramilitary successor groups. As many as 15,000 people are in more than 20 rapidly growing armed groups across the country. Colombia’s budget crunch has left the armed forces with only 15 out of 42 Black Hawk helicopters in good operating conditions. The army should not be spending scarce resources on compiling intelligence dossiers on the phone numbers, vehicles, and even the voting sites used by journalists.
Troublingly, the Semana investigation notes that Colombian army cyber-intelligence battalions have received about US$400,000 from “a foreign intelligence agency.” A military source told the magazine, “The Americans aren’t going to be happy that part of their own money, from their taxpayers as they say, has been diverted from legitimate missions like the fight against terrorism and narcotrafficking, and ending up used to dig up dirt on the lives of reporters from important media outlets in their own country.”
That U.S. assistance may be even tangentially related to this military activity is extremely alarming. These revelations, which cap a year of human rights and corruption scandals in the army, demand a thorough reappraisal of U.S. military assistance to Colombia, with full participation of congressional oversight personnel. Congress should move to freeze U.S. military aid to Colombia at the first indication that the Colombian army is pushing to have this behavior tried in the military court system, failing to cooperate with civilian investigators, using delaying tactics, or otherwise stonewalling efforts to hold accountable those responsible.
Journalists, human rights defenders and military whistleblowers should not be treated as “internal enemies.” These advocates are doing important and valid work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices, at a crucial moment for Colombia’s security. The military should recognize this work as legal and legitimate, and as essential for helping the armed forces do its job better, at a time when it risks being hobbled by corruption and poor leadership.
On February 25 the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its annual report on the human rights situation in Colombia. It is a very useful document, full of hard-to-obtain statistics. It also makes some reasoned, high-credibility judgments about controversial topics like implementation of the peace accord and government efforts to protect threatened social leaders.
The Colombian Government didn’t like the report. President Iván Duque criticized “imprecisions” and “not telling the truth” about the government’s performance in implementing the FARC peace accord’s rural provisions, adding that the report’s recommendation that the National Police pass from the Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry was an “infringement of sovereignty.” High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, who is charged with implementing many peace accord commitments, said “I have no problem with being told that things are being done badly, but blunders [chambonadas] like this don’t lead to anything.”
This is not the first time that Colombia’s government and the OHCHR have had public disagreements since the office’s establishment in 1996. This won’t be the last time, either. The Office’s injection of inconvenient facts and perspectives into the high-level debate shows why its continued presence in Colombia, with a strong mandate, is so important.
Here are some highlights from the report:
On attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders
In 2019, OHCHR documented 108 killings of human rights defenders, including 15 women and two LGBTI defenders.
The Timely Action Plan initiated by the Ministry of Interior in December 2018 was developed to improve such coordination. To increase the effectiveness of this Plan, broader and more sustained participation of regional authorities and civil society should be prioritized.
Killings of women human rights defenders increased by almost 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2018.
Of the 108 killings documented by OHCHR, 75 per cent occurred in rural areas; 86 per cent in municipalities with a multidimensional poverty index above the national average; 91 per cent in municipalities where the homicide rate indicates the existence of endemic violence; and 98 per cent in municipalities with the presence of illicit economies and ELN, other violent groups and criminal groups. Fifty-five per cent of these cases occurred in four departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca and Caquetá. The sectors most affected continued to be those defending the rights of communities and ethnic groups, amounting to 65 per cent of all killings and sustaining a trend documented by OHCHR since 2016.
OHCHR continued to document attacks against representatives of Community Action Councils (JACs). 16 Especially in rural areas, JACs serve as the main body for communities’ political participation and the promotion of development and human rights initiatives. While noting a significant reduction from 2018, when it verified 46 cases, OHCHR documented 30 killings of representatives of JACs in 2019.
On the government’s response to these attacks
OHCHR appreciated the efforts of the Office of the Attorney General to investigate the cases it reported and noted some progress in 55 per cent of these cases, all of which occurred between 2016 and 2019. However, challenges persisted in the prosecution of intellectual authors of attacks against human rights defenders. The accused had been convicted in 16 per cent of the cases; 20 per cent were at trial stage; indictments had been issued in 7 per cent of cases; and a valid arrest warrant had been delivered in 11 per cent of cases.
The National Commission on Security Guarantees should be more regularly convened in order to fulfill its full role pursuant to the Peace Agreement, particularly concerning the dismantlement of criminal groups that succeeded the paramilitary organizations and were often responsible for killings of human rights defenders.
The Intersectoral Commission for Rapid Response to Early Warnings (CIPRAT) should sharpen its focus on human rights defenders, especially by defining coordinated and concrete measures to implement actions based on recommendations of the Ombudsman’s early warning system.
The Ministry of Interior’s National Protection Unit (UNP) made significant efforts to respond to the extraordinarily high demand for individual protection measures. Still, measures granted were not always adequate for the rural contexts in which most human rights defenders were killed. In 2019, six human rights defenders were killed in rural areas of Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Risaralda despite protection measures. Prevention and early warning should be prioritized over temporary, individual and reactive protection measures, which do not address the structural causes behind the attacks.
OHCHR highlights the need to increase collective protection measures. Such measures constitute a prevention mechanism, inasmuch as they seek to address risks faced by communities and organizations through the coordination of different authorities to advance human rights guarantees. Whereas the 2019 budget for collective protection measures represented merely 0.22 per cent of the budget of UNP, the implementation of collective protection measures was often hampered by coordination issues between national, departmental and municipal institutions.
On the military and human rights
OHCHR documented 15 cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life in Antioquia, Arauca, Bogotá, Cauca, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Santander and Valle del Cauca. This was the highest number of such cases OHCHR recorded since 2016. In 13 cases, the deaths appeared to have been caused by unnecessary and/or disproportionate use of force. According to information documented by OHCHR, in 11 cases the deaths occurred in military operations related to public security involving anti-narcotics and law enforcement activities. In six cases, the deaths were preceded by law enforcement activities that potentially could have allowed for the arrest of the suspects and thus avoided their killing. In one case, OHCHR observed that weak command and control appeared to result in the killing and attempted enforced disappearance of one person. The military was allegedly responsible in 10 cases and the police in four, while there was alleged joint responsibility for one killing. In all 15 cases, the Office of the Attorney General initiated investigations, but these did not appear to follow the Minnesota Protocol.
OHCHR documented cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life by members of the military and police. In following up on these cases, OHCHR was concerned that the military criminal justice system continued to request jurisdiction over such investigations. In some instances, the Office of the Attorney General even referred cases to the military justice system. In the case of El Tandil, Nariño, the Office of the Attorney General did not take the necessary actions to retain the case within its jurisdiction.
On blurring the lines between military and police
OHCHR observed an increased resort to the military to respond to situations of violence and insecurity. Despite existing protocols, norms and public policies regulating the participation of the military in situations related to public security, these were not fully applied in a range of settings, such as in rural areas in Arauca, Antioquia, Caquetá, Cauca, Córdoba, Cesar, Chocó, Meta, Nariño and Norte de Santander. Nor were they fully applied in urban centres, such as Convención, Medellín, Santa Marta and Valledupar, where the military conducted anti-narcotics operations and other law enforcement activities. Military training, equipment and the nature of military duties are inappropriate in such circumstances. According to police statistics, homicides increased in municipalities in Arauca, Norte de Cauca, Catatumbo and Sur de Córdoba, despite an increased military presence.
On 15 September, the General Command of the Colombian Armed Forces’ announcement establishing anti-riot squads composed of professional soldiers raised questions concerning Colombia’s respect for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ guidance related to the responsibility of the police, rather than the military, to maintain public order.
In line with the need to strengthen the police’s institutional capacity, OHCHR recommends transferring oversight of the police to the Ministry of Interior.
On “stabilization” and establishing state presence in ungoverned territories
Efforts to establish a comprehensive State presence, particularly of civilian authorities, including the Office of the Attorney General and the police have been insufficient, especially in rural areas. The five Strategic Zones for Comprehensive Intervention established by the Government through Decree 2278 of 2019 were created to address this vacuum. However, OHCHR observed that State presence in these areas has remained predominantly military and that the pace of establishing a stronger presence of civilian authorities was slow.
The Office of the Attorney General is present in almost half of Colombia’s municipalities. Nevertheless, it continued to face difficulties to reach rural areas, especially in Antioquia, Arauca, Amazonas, Caquetá, Cauca, Chocó, Guaviare, Huila, Meta, Nariño and Vaupés, greatly affecting its capacity to guarantee access to justice for all.
In 2018, 16 PDETs were formulated with high levels of community participation, including indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities. While this generated significant hope for the effective implementation of PDETs, during the reporting period, OHCHR observed few advances and minimal coordination with other relevant programmes, such as the Collective Reparation Plan contained in the Victims and Land Restitution Law and the Comprehensive National Programme for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS).
[T]he Comprehensive Rural Reform should be supported by an adequate budget to fully implement all of the plans, entities and mechanisms established in the Peace Agreement, rather than a limited focus on PDETs. However, the 2020 budget was reduced for all the institutions responsible for implementing the Comprehensive Rural Reform.
On illicit crop eradication and substitution
Police continued to recruit civilians to eradicate illicit crops. This practice exposes civilians to loss of life or injury due to the presence of anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance among the crops. Between January and November, 24 civilians and 8 antinarcotics police officers were affected by such devices in Tumaco, Nariño, while eradicating illicit crops.
OHCHR highlights the recent determination, in a joint report by the Government and United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), that 95 per cent of families participating in PNIS fulfilled the voluntary eradication requirement, whereas 0.4 per cent returned to the cultivation of illicit crops.
Here’s an English translation of a column WOLA’s Adam Isacson wrote for the Colombian political analysis website Razón Pública, which it posted today. It voices strong concerns about Colombia’s military, especially its army, which has been showing signs of institutional backsliding all year.
The Colombian Army’s Very Bad Year
Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America
The ties between the U.S. government and Colombia’s armed forces “are like the heart of this [bilateral] relationship,” said outgoing U.S. ambassador Kevin Whitaker, in his last interview with the Colombian daily El Tiempo. “They are very dear to us and very professional. There are elements of the Police and the Armed Forces that have a 21st-century character and are among the best in the world.”
Let’s leave aside how troubling it is that an ambassador in any country might say that the military relationship is more central than the diplomatic, commercial, or cultural relationships. Is the latter part of Whitaker’s statement true? Have Colombia’s armed forces—especially its army, which makes up 84 percent of all military personnel—become a professional twenty-first century force, among the world’s elite?
For much of this decade, Colombia’s military seemed to be headed in that direction. Accusations of extrajudicial executions and other serious human rights violations plummeted after 2008. High-ranking officers participated honorably in the peace talks with the FARC, and about 2,000 current and former soldiers agreed to participate in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. The armed forces developed a forward-looking new doctrine as they sought to adapt to a future, for the first time in decades, without a large-scale national-level insurgency. NATO agreed to include Colombia as a “global partner.” A new, post-“false positives” generation of mid-level officers, with years of training in much-improved military colleges, appeared to place a much higher value on human rights, international humanitarian law, and measuring results through territorial legitimacy. While some concerns persisted, especially allegations of espionage against participants in the peace process, the overall trajectory had been positive.
Then came 2019, which has been an annus horribilis for Colombia’s Army. The high command that new President Iván Duque put into place came under immediate attack from human rights groups for their past proximity to “false positive” killings a decade earlier. The ultraconservative new defense minister made repeated statements minimizing the severity of killings of social leaders and calling for crackdowns on social protests. And then, scandals started to hit.
On May 18, the New York Times revealed that, at the beginning of the year, the Army’s new high command had taken a leap backward in time, bringing back “body counts” as a principal measure of commanders’ effectiveness. After years of seeking to measure progress by measures of security and state presence in territories from which government had long been absent, the new commanders decided to seek something simpler. Unit commanders were instead required to sign forms committing themselves to a doubling of “afectaciones”—armed-group members killed or captured—in their areas of operations. While this signaled a return to a long-discredited territorial stabilization strategy, it also raised major human rights concerns about creating incentives for “false positives.” Already, Colombian media had been gathering reports about increased abuses, and abusive behavior, at the hands of military personnel in 2019.
July saw the Army buffeted by corruption scandals, including selling permits to carry weapons and misuse of funds meant for fuel and other needs. The scandals, mostly revealed by Semana magazine, have so far led to the firing of five Army generals, one of them imprisoned, and the jailing of nine more soldiers. One of the generals fired under a cloud of corruption allegations was the Army’s number-two commander, Gen. Adelmo Fajardo. Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán, meanwhile, revealed that Gen. Fajardo allegedly arranged to have his favored staff sergeants approved for officer training, even though they were not the most qualified candidates.
Non-commissioned officers, “the base of the Army, are furious,” Duzán reported. “There is a sense that too many generals are occupied more with benefiting from the perks of power than with serving the country, and that good soldiers and good officers are being left without power in the hierarchy, defeated not by a strategic enemy, but because they don’t want to participate in the feast of corruption.”
Duzán reveals something important here. The scandals that have buffeted Colombia’s Army this year have not originated from the work of human rights defenders or reporters. In all cases, the source of the information has been outraged members of the Army. That is new. Fifteen or twenty years ago, when the Army stood accused of working with paramilitary groups or committing extrajudicial executions, the sources were almost always victims, witnesses, or prosecutorial investigators. Now, the chief source is whistleblowers from within the institution: officers and soldiers who love the Army, believe that it has made important progress, and are deeply worried about the direction it is taking under current leadership.
On the other side is the “old guard,” at times allied with powerful retired officers, who opposed peace negotiations, resisted recent reforms, and who apparently believe that the key to victory is to lift commanders from the apparent burdens of accountability. Emblematic of that attitude is a January quote, revealed by Semana, and attributed to Gen. Diego Villegas, the commander of the military task force responsible for the conflictive Catatumbo region:
The Army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over. What we have to do here is takedowns. And if we have to ally ourselves with the Pelusos [the EPL guerrillas] we will ally with them—we already talk to them—in order to fight the ELN. If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.
We must hope that this quote is false, or at least that the number of “old guard” officers who really think this way is small. We must also hope that the high command—Defense Minister Guillermo Botero, Army Chief Gen. Nicacio Martínez—is not inclined toward the “old guard.” If they are, and if this faction is large, then Ambassador Whitaker’s sunny portrayal of today’s Colombian military is a sad caricature.
The high command’s handling of these scandals gives us even greater reason for worry. Instead of pledging to clean house, protect whistleblowers, and demand the most honorable behavior of all officers, the Army’s counter-intelligence apparatus has been deployed on an internal campaign of polygraphs, surveillance, and interrogations to identify those who have leaked to the press. Gen. Martínez, the army chief, has denied knowledge of what Semana calls “Operación Silencio,” but the Procuraduría has unearthed evidence that his denials are false: that the General in fact ordered the witch hunt. The Army’s botched damage control effort has done harm to the institution’s credibility at a critical moment.
And this is a critical moment. The number of armed groups, and armed group members, continues to proliferate in regions of former FARC influence. Homicides increased for the first time in six years in 2018, and if they are slightly down in 2019, as a new report from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation points out, it is only because criminal groups have secured dominance in some zones, or made accords with competitors in other zones. If Colombia’s security forces were achieving important security gains, it is likely that public opinion would overlook some of these scandals. But they are not making gains. “We see a paralysis of the military forces with regard to security at the territorial level,” the Foundation’s Ariel Ávila noted, citing ongoing scandals and strategic drift under President Duque and Defense Minister Botero.
Much can be done about this, immediately. While the Duque/Uribe government will always have a conservative high command, it is possible for that high command to be simultaneously conservative, competent, and institutionally forward-looking. Such officers must be identified and promoted.
It is meanwhile imperative that whistleblowers within the armed forces be given maximum protections. They are our best source of “early warning” about the institution’s direction. Colombia’s Congress, courts, and Public Ministry must maintain their protection from retaliation as a high priority.
And finally, the U.S. government, the Colombian Army’s most important international counterpart, must do more than just sing the Army’s praises. It must keep its eyes wide open and voice concerns about backsliding, whether publicly or privately, in strong terms. The U.S. Congress must maintain conditions in foreign aid law that freeze some assistance pending progress on human rights. These are the best ways to ensure that Colombia’s armed forces can once again move toward Ambassador Whitaker’s idealistic description of them.
A May 18 New York Times article revealed an alarming shift in how Colombia’s army, under leadership that took over last December, is measuring “success” in its operations.
The article got a lot of attention because of the human rights angle, especially the possibility of a return to “false positive” extrajudicial killings. And indeed, in the runup to the Times piece, Colombian media outlets had begun relayingreports of military personnel being more aggressive with civilians.
But the danger, and the counterproductivity, of this new policy go beyond human rights. The changes at the top indicate a return to “body counts” as the Colombian military’s main measure of success.
That’s a failed and discredited approach, which most of us thought had long been buried. But the right-wing government of President Iván Duque has dug it up. With a new cohort of commanders who rose during the “false positives” period, the old ways have come roaring back. Times reporter Nick Casey relayed what he heard from military officers who came forward to voice concern:
[A] major shift took place, they say, when [Army Commander] General [Nicacio] Martínez called a meeting of his top officers in January, a month after assuming command of the army.
… After a break, the commanders returned to tables where they found a form waiting for each one of them, the officers said. The form had the title “Goal Setting 2019” at the top and a place for each commander to sign at the bottom.
The form asked commanders to list the “arithmetic sum of surrenders, captures and deaths” of various armed groups for the previous year in one column, and then provide a goal for the following year.
Some of the commanders seemed confused — until they were instructed to double their numbers this year, the officers said.
In the post-peace accord period, Colombia’s military has identified several internal enemies as national security threats: the ELN guerrillas, FARC dissidents, the “Gulf Clan” paramilitary network, and smaller, regional groups. Together, they total over 10,000 fighters, plus support networks.
But when Colombia’s forces take out a leader, kill several fighters in combat, or convince some to demobilize, nothing really happens. The territories where these groups operate continue to be ungoverned.
Roads are scarce, and paved roads are unheard of. So are land titles. There is probably no connection to the electrical grid. Post-primary schools are distant. Residents report going months or years without seeing a non-uniformed representative of national or local government. The idea of going to the judicial system to resolve a dispute is beyond laughable: many municipalities (counties) have neither judges nor prosecutors.
In that environment, a military unit that comes in seeking high body counts comes away with two results. First, a terrorized population whose distrust of government is greater than before. And second, new armed groups—or other elements of the same armed groups—filling in the vacuum and taking over the territory’s illicit economy. Within weeks, a new commander, a new group or groups, or several warring factions are profiting the same as before from drug production and transshipment, illegal mining, fuel trafficking, extortion, and other income streams. A high “body count” changes little on the ground.
Militaries have known this for a while. For situations like rural Colombia’s, they’ve discarded “body counts” some time ago, and developed a whole field called “stability operations.” Here’s what the U.S. Army’s Stability Operations manual says about how security forces should measure “success”:
Throughout U.S. history, the Army has learned that military force alone cannot secure sustainable peace. A comprehensive approach is required, as well as in-depth understanding of an operational environment. Stability ultimately aims to establish conditions the local populace regards as legitimate, acceptable, and predictable. Stabilization is a process in which personnel identify and mitigate underlying sources of instability to establish the conditions for long-term stability. Therefore, stability tasks focus on identifying and targeting the root causes of instability and building the capacity of local institutions.
Instead of asking “how many enemies did we take out,” then, the question is more like “can the government do what a government is supposed to do in the territory, and does the population feel that this is a good thing that is making their lives better?”
For too long, Colombia’s military measured its success with body counts. This culminated, most tragically, in the “false positives” scandal that broke in 2008. It turned out that soldiers, seeking to earn rewards and be viewed as successful in a “body count” climate, ended up killing thousands of innocent civilians, at times buying the cadavers from paramilitaries and criminals.
The measures of success started changing in the late ‘00s, near the end of then-President Álvaro Uribe’s second term. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and Vice-Minister Sergio Jaramillo, working with David Petraeus-era U.S. military officers who’d been burned by the failures of the Iraq war, moved toward the second way of measuring success. They developed “territorial consolidation” metrics based on violence indicators, government presence, and the population’s access to basic goods. “Consolidation of territorial control,” read a 2007 Defense Ministry document,
shall be understood as a scenario in which the security provided by the security forces guarantees that the state may make public order prevail, and allow all institutions to function freely and permanently, so that citizens may fully exercise their rights.
They didn’t quite succeed at that: after some notable initial gains, the “Consolidation” effort petered out by 2013 or so for lack of political support, and the civilian part of the government usually failed to show up behind the soldiers. Still, as president, Santos named armed forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía, who developed a new military doctrine putting many of these new success measures at its core, including in the Army’s 2017 “stabilization” manual:
The objective of stability is to reduce the level of violence; toward that goal the military forces carry out operations mainly characterized by supporting the functioning of government, economic, and social institutions, and general adherence to local law as, rules, and norms of behavior.
Then, together with Jaramillo as peace commissioner, Santos negotiated a peace accord committing the government, once again, to try to “enter” the countryside, often for the first time. This comes through most strongly in the 2016 FARC peace accords’ first chapter on “rural reform.”
[N]ational plans financed and promoted by the state must be set up with a view to achieving the comprehensive rural development that will provide public services and goods, such as for education, health, recreation, infrastructure, technical assistance, food and nutrition, inter alia, which promote well-being and a dignified way of life for the rural population – girls, boys, men and women.
A military commander seeking success metrics like these would be measuring miles of road paved, children able to attend school, hectares of land titled, and poll data showing perceptions that the government has become more responsive and accountable. The commander would NOT be asked to fill in forms indicating how many fighters the unit would kill or otherwise “neutralize” in the coming year.
It’s not at all clear why Colombia’s Defense Ministry would want to take such a big step backward. A partial explanation could be Colombia now having a right-populist government that, because it represents large landholders’ interests, doesn’t place a priority on reforming rural areas. Perhaps, too, the Colombian military’s Southern Command counterparts have stopped communicating the “stability operations” vision, as the U.S. Defense Department’s current strategy now emphasizes great-power conflict over “small wars.”
But that’s not enough to explain this misstep. It could be something much simpler. Maybe the new high command just lacks imagination, and wants to go back to doing what they know—whether it works or not.
President Santos and government peace negotiators meet with the high military and police command on January 23.
“Fifty-one years of war and we’re going to reach peace, a peace that is your victory,” President Juan Manuel Santos told Colombia’s army in a pre-Christmas speech. “That courage, that determination, have been responsible for us talking about peace, because the enemy finally noticed that you are invincible, and today we have the best Army in our history.”
President Santos, who served as defense minister in the previous administration, regularly offers effusive praise to the armed forces. Except on December 2, when he appeared on the TV station of Bogotá’s left-leaning city government and warned, “People who aren’t acting with loyalty are coming out, and any officer, no matter how important, showing the slightest sign of disloyalty or lack of discipline will be out of the military.”
This comment, which came a day after the resignation of an Army general who had been captured and released by the FARC guerrillas, raised eyebrows in Colombia and reportedly angered the military.
Santos’s words drew attention to a concern brewing below the surface of Colombia’s peace process: that a significant sector of the armed forces and its leadership disagrees with the civilian government’s handling of negotiations with the FARC.
It is impossible to know how large this sector is, as active-duty officers usually respect their constitutional mandate to be “non-deliberative,” avoiding public criticism of civilian leaders. We must rely on off-the-record comments, some of them made to us and some of them reported by a small number of Colombian investigative journalists, as well as the public words of retired officers and of politicians believed to be close to the military.
These comments indicate that military leaders and rank-and-file who are unhappy about the Havana talks aren’t opposed to “peace” or agitating to prolong the conflict. Their likely concerns, listed below, have more to do with the design of the process, or its implications for their institution.
Military discontent is important. Colombia’s armed forces have grown rapidly in this century: today, about 450,000 Colombians wear a military or police uniform, up from less than 300,000 in 2000. While the possibility of a military coup is near zero, opposition from the armed forces could manifest itself in ways that make peace negotiations, or subsequent accord implementation, inviable. Analysts cite military resistance as a key factor in the failure of a 1980s attempt to negotiate with the FARC and mid–1990s efforts to get negotiations started.
Elements in the armed forces can hinder or derail peace talks through what longtime Semana magazine columnist Antonio Caballero called “sometimes quiet and sometimes open opposition, sometimes almost en bloc and sometimes, like now, in the form of surreptitious ‘loose wheels’” within the institution. Methods can include private communications to politicians opposed to the process, incomplete compliance with orders, filtration of damaging allegations (true or invented) by military intelligence, or politically damaging public statements which, as they are rare, often come with high officers’ resignations. In extreme cases, some officers’ opposition could even be expressed through uncredited threats or intimidation against civilians involved in, or supportive of, negotiations.
Evidence of Military Unease
Military commanders insist, and some analysts agree, that the armed forces have stolidly supported President Santos’s peace effort. “The Army’s support for the peace process is proved, clearly, by our work,” Gen. Jaime Lasprilla, the chief of Colombia’s army, toldEl Espectador journalist Cecilia Orozco in November. “The fact that the transfer of 30 terrorists to Havana has occurred without any incident is a concrete and forceful piece of evidence.”
While the institution as a whole has gone along with the talks, there have been troubling incidents.