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.
Gen. Montoya will not be indicted in regular justice system
In a decision that, El Tiemporeported, “didn’t cause surprise for the majority of sectors,” Bogotá’s Superior Tribunal refused to allow the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) to charge or indict Gen. Mario Montoya, the commander of Colombia’s army between 2006 and 2008, for human rights crimes. The court ruled on August 30 that Colombia’s regular criminal justice system, led by the Fiscalía, may continue to investigate Gen. Montoya’s role in the military’s numerous killings of non-combatants during his tenure. But while his case remains before the 2016 peace accords’ special transitional justice system (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP), the Fiscalía cannot separately charge him or bring him to trial.
Gen. Mario Montoya, now 72, faces allegations of creating a command climate and incentive structure that led soldiers to kill thousands of civilian non-combatants. Throughout the country, under pressure to increase “body counts,” officers claimed falsely that civilian victims were armed-group members killed on the battlefield. The JEP is investigating these abuses, known as “false positives,” and has charged former commanders in two regions of the country so far. It surprised the country earlier this year by releasing a very high estimate of the number of civilians killed by the military: 6,402 between 2002 and 2008, which would be well over 40 percent of the armed forces’ claimed combat kills during those years.
A highly decorated officer whom many Colombians associated with the country’s security gains of the mid-2000s, Gen. Montoya resigned in November 2008 after a particularly egregious example of “false positive” killings came to light, blowing the scandal open after years of human rights groups’ denunciations. Former subordinates have portrayed the general as a key architect of the incentive system that encouraged officers to pad their units’ body counts even if it meant paying criminals to kill the innocent.
In 2018, Gen. Montoya agreed to have his case tried in the JEP instead of the regular justice system, even though the Fiscalía at the time was barely moving on its investigation of him. In his appearances before the transitional justice tribunal so far, Montoya has insisted on his innocence. This is risky: if he were to confess to his role in false positives and take actions to make amends to victims, Gen. Montoya would most likely be sentenced to up to eight years of “restricted liberty”—not prison. However, if he pleads “not guilty” and the JEP determines otherwise, he could go to regular prison for up to 20 years. The JEP has not yet formally charged Montoya with anything.
The Fiscalía, led by chief prosecutor Francisco Barbosa, surprised many in July when it announced it would seek to indict Gen. Montoya for his role in 104 “false positive” killings that took place after a 2007 order requiring the military to de-emphasize body counts. With his case already moving in the JEP, it was not clear whether the regular justice system had the legal standing to issue charges against Gen. Montoya at the same time. On August 30, Judge Fabio Bernal decided that it did not.
For now, Gen. Montoya’s case will proceed in the transitional justice system. While the Fiscalía is not appealing the August 30 decision, relatives of some “false positive” victims plan to do so, because they believe that separate charges in the regular justice system would increase the chances of the General being held accountable. According to Sebastián Escobar of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, who represents some of the victims, a Fiscalía indictment would have helped because of Gen. Montoya’s reticence so far before the JEP:
If the Fiscalía were to continue with these investigations and charge him for at least some of these acts, it would contribute to the participants reaching a scenario of recognition [of responsibility for crimes]. In the case of Montoya, although he submitted voluntarily to the JEP, because his case was not advanced in the regular justice system, he has come to the [transitional] jurisdiction with an attitude of denying his participation in the policy that promoted these acts, and of not recognizing his responsibility from any point of view.”
Former president Álvaro Uribe, the country’s most vocal opponent of the 2016 peace accord with the FARC guerrilla group, met at one of his ranches on August 15 with the president of the Truth Commission created by that accord, Fr. Francisco de Roux, along with two other commissioners. Uribe, who faces questions about human rights abuses committed during his time as governor of Antioquia (1995-1997) and president (2002-2008), spoke at great length during the meeting, with little pushback from the commissioners.
The ex-president surprised many by calling for an amnesty for human rights and other crimes committed during the armed conflict. “Perhaps this country will need a general amnesty, almost a clean slate,” he told Fr. de Roux. This would appear to contradict one of Uribe’s many criticisms of the peace accord: that, in his view, it confers “impunity” on ex-guerrillas who (along with military personnel) will receive light sentences if they make full confessions and reparations.
On August 26 Uribe presented a draft amnesty law to legislators of his Centro Democrático party, a bill “to overcome judicial asymmetries and asymmetries in access to government employment.” Under the proposal, those accused of conflict-related crimes would receive a full amnesty if they ask forgiveness, recognize what they did “or, failing that, contribute to the truth, without this implying self-incrimination.”
Members of the military would be released from prison and allowed to hold office. A new chamber of the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP) would be set up to judge military personnel separately. Anyone who in the past has investigated, denounced, or made public statements about these military human rights crimes would be disqualified from serving as a judge in that chamber.
Uribe’s proposal makes no distinction between commanders and subordinates involved in past crimes. He would not amnesty people accused of “war crimes, crimes against humanity, or public corruption.” The current list of non-amnistiable crimes that must go before the JEP, however, is longer and more specific: “War crimes, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial executions, child recruitment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, genocide, hostage taking or other serious deprivation of liberty, torture, enforced disappearance, child abduction, and forced displacement.”
“Let’s not talk about general amnesty, let’s talk about amnesty as a strong word to generate a national debate and look for a solution,” Uribe said last week. A national debate is very much underway, as the ex-president’s proposal has generated strong reactions.
“People can’t be ‘washing their faces’ with total amnesties, this will not happen as long as I am prosecutor, I will not allow this to go forward,” said the prosecutor-general (fiscal general), Francisco Barbosa, who is close to President Iván Duque, who in turn is a member of Uribe’s party.
The lead government negotiators in the 2012-16 talks that led to the FARC peace accord issued a 12-point document rejecting Uribe’s proposal. Humberto de la Calle and Sergio Jaramillo argue that it “would undermine the investigation and prosecution of those most responsible for serious violations, and victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation.” They recalled having to explain to the FARC negotiators in Havana, “in January 2015, one of the most difficult moments in almost five years of negotiations,” that Colombia’s international commitments (the 2002 Rome Statute, the Inter-American human rights system) prohibited amnesties.
Were Uribe’s proposal to go into effect, the former negotiators add, “the first victims, in addition to the conflict victims of course, would be the members of the armed forces and other agents of the state who are currently participating in the transitional process and who will see their legal security disappear.” Notes Gustavo Gallón of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, “His [Uribe’s] argument is that they [the military] must not be equated with guerrillas. But it is the crimes they have committed that make them equal. In addition, in his effort to favor them, he would do them harm: the [peace] agreement and the JEP are more lenient than the ordinary justice system, in theory.”
Álvaro Uribe faces human rights questions ranging from many political associates’ sponsorship of paramilitary groups, to those groups’ rapid growth during his tenure as governor, to the military’s killings of several thousand civilians during his presidency (discussed in the next section). Jaramillo, the former negotiator—who served as vice-minister of defense under Uribe—told Colombia’s Blu Radio that Uribe “has long been seeking a general amnesty and a clean slate. This is something that has been on his mind for a long time and he will continue to insist on it.”
The creation of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP in Spanish) as part of the 2016 Peace Treaty between the Colombian State and the guerrilla group FARC has seen its work much criticized over claims from certain powerful factions that it has a hidden agenda to free former FARC leaders and imprison senior military commanders.
Investigations carried out by the JEP have been a major success of the peace agreement and the process that followed. But most of the right-wing section of governing party Centro Democrático have been working to cut its funding and complicate the implementation of the peace deal.
Founded on the principle of transitional justice, the JEP works by recognizing accountability for past crimes from the conflict and establishing alternative sentences. This does mean some powerful people – politicians, businesspeople, and landowners – may feel threatened because its investigations may reveal their past connections to both official and nonofficial repression unleashed upon trade unionists, peasants, politicians, and civilians in the name of defeating the FARC.
Ariel Avila, from the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, states that as transitional justice moves forward ‘victims will be more at risk. As ex guerrilla members, military officers, parapoliticians, begin to tell the truth, they will inform on those who supported them, those who benefitted from the war, people who, for the most part, are within the scope of legality’.
Hostages and human rights violations
The JEP recently accused seven FARC leaders for promoting kidnapping as a systematic practice and inflicting human rights violations on hostages, and also announced it will investigate and prosecute state security forces for war crimes, as the Colombian army stands accused of allegedly murdering at least 6,402 innocent civilians under what is called ‘false positives’ – counting them as guerrilla fighters to give the impression they were winning the war against the FARC.
Almost 80 per cent of those crimes were committed between 2002 and 2008 when right-wing political leader Álvaro Uribe was president and, since the JEPs’ creation in 2017, he and some of his followers – known as ‘Uribismo’ – along with Iván Duque’s current government have been persistently critical of the body.
This has led the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to express concern about ‘persisting public statements questioning the suitability of the JEP and their staff, and about the legislative proposals to abolish the Special Jurisdiction for Peace’, and the damage being done to the JEP was revealed in a detailed report from 14 senators of different opposition parties in the Colombian Congress, led by Senator Juanita Goebertus (Green Alliance Party).
The main targets of the attacks by the government and Uribistas are the reforms in the rural sector, voluntary coca crop eradication, and the implementation of transitional justice, which the peace treaty committed the government to achieve. Returning land to thousands of peasants displaced by violence would reverse gross inequalities in land distribution, as would the political strengthening of local communities.
But rural elites strongly oppose these moves and the state has been largely absent in these rural areas, contributing to a rise in illegal mining, illicit crops, and now the killings of social leaders and ex-FARC guerrilla combatants. The president of the JEP recently claimed ‘a social leader is killed every 41 hours’ and, according to a report by the Colombian Commission of Jurists along with other local groups, these killings are being committed by hit men, FARC dissidents, organized crime, and even members of the armed forces.
Most cases are not being solved and the Inter American Commission for Human Rights indicates most government investigations focus on the material authors of the crime, not those who gave the order. Human Rights Watch says that, because of such state shortcomings, investigations and prosecutions are facing significant hurdles particularly with regard to the ‘intellectual authors’ of many killings.
Rural communities under pressure from criminals
OHCHR estimates 513 human rights defenders and 248 former FARC combatants were killed between 2016 and the end of 2020 but this is disputed by the government. Many of those who died had accepted the peace agreement, committing themselves and their communities to stop harvesting coca in exchange for receiving state financial assistance and shifting to producing legal goods. But Duque’s government, believing alternative crops do not work, froze the scheme alleging a lack of funds.
This put communities under renewed pressure from organized crime and guerrillas to produce coca again, an option made easier by the ban on the coca fumigations which were used by the US government between 1994 and 2015 to keep crop levels down and reduce drug production.
Fumigations were ended in 2015 by the Colombian Supreme Court due to evidence that the crop spraying harmed the environment as well as human and animal health, but the risk of cuts to aid and loans from the Donald Trump US administration recently pushed Duque to try and lift these restrictions.
They also consider stabilization to be too dependent on the military, and various experts also consider this approach to be inefficient and a poor substitute for the lack of a proper state presence in rural Colombia.
Now with the change of administration in the US, Joe Biden has already expressed interest in the protection of human rights and appears less likely to be supportive of restarting fumigation as well as any ongoing resistance of the Colombian government to the peace agreement, especially as key Democrats in the Obama administration and Congress supported the negotiation and approval of the peace deal and many are now in the Biden administration.
The trick for Duque now – and Uribe – is to successfully balance their own partisan policy preferences with the country’s need for long-term military, strategic, and economic ties to Washington.
The JEP declares “precautionary measures” for ex-FARC members among its defendants, who are facing increased security threats. The transitional justice tribunal calls on the High Commissioner for Peace and the Presidential Counselor for Stabilization to convene bodies created by the peace accord to guarantee ex-combatants’ security, among other specific recommendations.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) rejects former top paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso’s petition to participate in the FARC peace accords’ transitional justice system as a “third party.” As a paramilitary leader, Mancuso—who was extradited to the United States in 2008 and imprisoned for drug trafficking, but who completed his sentence in early 2020—falls within the “Justice and Peace” transitional justice system set up for the paramilitaries’ post-2006 demobilization. The JEP denies that Mancuso, one of the most senior leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), could possibly have qualified as an outside supporter of paramilitaries during the pre-AUC era (late 1980s and early 1990s).
In a special hearing, Maximum FARC party leader Rodrigo Londoño asks the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) to grant protective measures (medidas cautelares) to former guerrillas, nearly 200 of whom have been killed since the peace accord’s signature. Londoño says that 40 percent of those killed have been ex-guerrillas who were released from prison upon demobilizing; 39 more have suffered assassination attempts; and 177 have received threats since 2017. He adds that the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) has only “clarified” (identified the responsible actor) in 11.4 percent of cases.
Citing health and COVID-19 concerns, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) grants conditional release from prison to retired Gen. Jesús Armando Arias Cabrales, who led the Army’s Bogotá-based 13th Brigade during the 1985 M-19 guerrilla takeover of, and subsequent military assault on, the Palace of Justice in the city’s center. Gen. Arias Cabrales had been jailed for the torture and disappearance of civilians during that operation.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) decides to study whether to order collective protection measures for former FARC members and former security force personnel who are participating in transitional justice. It cites threats against ex-military defendants, and the killings of at least 193 former FARC members through March.
Citing their vulnerability to COVID-19 while imprisoned, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) orders house arrest for 25 people accused of committing war crimes while serving in the security forces. On April 22, the JEP’s Legal Situations Chamber denied release to two former senior officers, Colonels Joaquín Correa López y Jorge Eliécer Plazas Acevedo, both over 60 years old. The JEP mandated that they be granted humanitarian protective measures while detained.