Colombian President Álvaro Uribe announced Oct. 29 the sacking of 25 soldiers and officers—including three generals and four colonels—in connection with the deaths of 11 young men from the town of Soacha, in central Cundinamarca department. The move followed a probe of suspected extrajudicial executions falsely reported as combat deaths.
“The investigation has found that members of the armed forces could be involved in murders,” Uribe told a press conference, flanked by senior military leaders. In a statement, the Defense Ministry cited a “lack of leadership at different levels” that could have led to collusion between soldiers and outside criminals, “who enjoyed impunity in exchange for helping achieve results.”
The scandal broke following the discovery in late September of 19 bodies in communal graves in Ocaña, Norte de Santander department. Some were identified as the missing youth form Soacha. Over 100 bodies have been found Ocaña so far this year.
Relatives of the Soacha victims said that before they disappeared they had been offered high-paying work on farms elsewhere the country by strangers. The youths were killed just a day or two after disappearing, making it unlikely that they would have had time to join and train with an armed rebel movement. An army investigation was launched in early October.
Nearly 1,300 Colombians have been killed for political reasons since Uribe took office in 2002—mostly by the security forces—according to a new report by the International Observation Mission, a group representing around 100 non-governmental human rights organizations. The report notes a “considerable increase in the number of extrajudicial executions” in a time period that “coincides” with an Uribe security crackdown. A part of that crackdown was a policy of rewarding soldiers for combat casualties to demonstrate progress in the war on Colombia’s guerillas.
At a Colombian congressional debate three years ago on so-called “false positives”—the army practice of executing civilians to inflate the number of combar deaths—about 1,000 disappearances similar to the current case were reported, according to opposition Sen. Gustavo Petro.
The ousted officers all declared their innocence. “In no circumstance would it have crossed my mind to have someone murdered to present a false positive,” Gen. Paulino Coronado told Radio Caracol. Gen. Roberto Pico told RCN Radio he was “very surprised” by the government’s decision. “My conscience is clear,” he said.
The military purge coincided with a visit to Colombia by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council is to examine the human rights situation in Colombia in December.
Amnesty International on earlier this week denounced “false positives” in Colombia’s civil war, saying 330 people were reported killed in extrajudicial executions by security forces in 2007—most of them falsely presented as guerrillas killed in combat.
Colombia’s Prosector General Edgardo Maya Villazón announced after the military purge that 2,300 security officials are currently being investigated for their possible role in over 900 extrajudicial executions.
The Liberal Party is demanding the resignation of Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, saying in an official statement that he “can not wash his hands in innocence” in the affair. (AFP, IHT, El País, Cali, Colombia Reports, Colombia Reports, Oct. 29)
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