The Guardian called 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 source claims six) 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.
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 least four (or perhaps at least five) 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 Vorágine writes 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 the initial theater of 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 told El 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 consensus view 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 told Cambio 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 Radio noted, “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.”