“Take No Prisoners” in Practice

by John Lindsay-Poland, Fellowship of Reconciliation

A new and long-awaited report on civilian killings by the Colombian military from 2002 to 2010 argues convincingly that the spike of state violence during those years grew directly from the policies of “Democratic Security” that attempted to militarize all Colombian society.

The study was produced by the Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Observatory of the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination (known by its acronym in Spanish, CCEEU), a coalition of more than 200 Colombian human rights organizations and their counterparts in Europe and the US. Twenty of these organizations have come together to document, analyze and carry out judicial strategies on extrajudicial executions. The coalition has painstakingly compiled records of 3,512 reported extrajudicial killings from 2002 to 2010, during the presidency of Álvaro Uribe.

Ninety-five percent of the cases remain in impunity because “the Colombian criminal justice system has not undertaken criminal investigations that would identify the criminal structures and those who had the highest responsibility for acting,” according to the study.

A problem of state violence in the 1990s—with 739 civilian killings reported from 1994 to 2001—became widespread, with nearly five times as many killings in 2002-2010. These do not include the large numbers of killings by paramilitaries, who were typically tolerated or encouraged by state forces. Family members of those killed were doubly victimized, as their loved ones were presented as guerrillas or criminals killed in combat, and they were themselves frequently stigmatized when they denounce these crimes.

What happened? CCEEU claims that a majority of civilian killings reported were “false positives,” victims of state forces’ fictitious claims of combat. But what brought this about?

The former UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Philip Alston, identified three factors in the false positives phenomenon: 1) military pressure to show results measured as “number of casualties”; 2) incentives for soldiers as well as civilians in the production of these “casualties”; and 3) the levels of impunity in all disciplinary and investigative processes. The report cites Colonel Luis Fernando Borja Aristizabal, the highest ranking officer to be tried for false positives, who confessed to taking these actions “out of fear, out of pressure, for losing my job, for losing my rank, and for fear of something happening to my family, and also, for the praise received for operational results obtained.”

The report describes how the practice of civilian killings was concentrated in some areas, especially in Antioquia—the large and populous state where Medellin is located, Uribe was governor in the mid-1990s, and more than 41% of civilian killings occurred from 2002 to 2007—and then expanded geographically as army commanders for those areas were promoted and given responsibility for wider areas of military operations. Antioquia also had a high concentration of forced displacement and of murders of trade unionists.

There were also a large number of extrajudicial killings in southern Colombia, something the report says should be given more attention, “since the military units operating here have received the largest amount of military assistance from the United States.” As the report says, such “assistance, according to US law [known as the Leahy Amendment], should be suspended for units and commands that are credibly implicated in gross human rights violations.” (Fellowship of Reconciliation analyzed the application of the Leahy Amendment in Colombia in our 2010 report.)

The Uribe government asserted that there was no war, at the same time as it recruited the citizenry into war. CCEEU points out that by denying a condition of war in Colombia, the State was able to defy the application of international humanitarian law (which protects civilians in wars), while denying any political motivation on the part of guerrilla forces, treating them instead as criminal organizations. This was a way of fusing combatants and civilians, and the loss of this distinction made the killing of civilians easier. This fusion was also effected through the creation of an enormous network of millions of civilian informers for the military, some of who collaborated in the recruitment of other civilians who became victims of false positives.

The size of the military itself increased greatly, from 313,406 soldiers and police in 2002 to 485,000 today, making the armed forces nearly 45 times the estimated size of guerrilla combatant forces. The enormous size of the military itself poses a risk for civilian abuses, CCEEU notes. Colombia is now a regional military power, with the third largest Blackhawk helicopter fleet in the world, and trains the militaries and police of close to 20 other nations, including Mexico and Afghanistan. This investment in the military—almost two thirds of national public investment is in military equipment—dwarfs Colombia’s social investment, making its social inequality even greater.

The report also argues that Democratic Security policies required a concentration of power in the executive branch, to the detriment of the legislative and judicial branches. Judicial investigative agencies were ordered to have staff assigned to military units. Executive decrees criminalized large sectors of civilians in some geographic areas. Uribe publicly issued orders for arrests of individuals (not a power he legally possessed), and scolded the courts when they ruled against human rights violations. In one case, after Uribe publicly objected to the sentencing of a colonel for forced disappearances committed in 1985, the judge in the case received threats and had to leave the country. Social assistance by civilian agencies became subject to and coordinated through military strategies in special zones, and in many of these zones the paramilitary presence and number of forcibly displaced people actually increased.

In these conditions, CCEEU says, “the Democratic Security Policy created a veritable ‘Lawless State’ or a ‘State Outside the Law.'” The impacts of such a lawless state were exacerbated by collaboration between the State and narco-paramilitary forces responsible for the bulk of political violence during the period. “Frequently the people murdered by paramilitary groups were used so that military commanders could show positive results,” the report says. Paramilitary groups claimed allegiance of fully a third of Colombia’s congress, and 92% of legislators implicated in the parapolitica scandal belonged to Uribe’s coalition.

From 2002 to 2004, civilian killings were more concentrated in the countryside, with peasants and social activists as victims. This first stage of Democratic Security also gathered extensive intelligence, which “prepared the way for the mass production of executions” committed later. More civilians from the cities were targeted as the practice spread in 2006 and 2007.

As the number of civilian killings grew, CCEEU says, “the armed forces’ morale deteriorated in large part when they abandoned legality to participate in mercenary activities of fictitious reports of casualties in exchange for compensation offered and demanded by the government, [which] on top of that generated greater insecurity in many regions.” In some areas armed groups no longer operated, so that military units had to “heat up the area,” that is, “harass people, show the community a collective imaginary of insecurity,” according to a military officer implicated in the killings. When army killings led to community protests, as in North Santander, the 15th Mobile Brigade in the area changed strategies, instead bringing young men, often unemployed and socially marginalized, from distant poor urban communities, in a form of “social cleansing.”

In 2008, the false positives scandal broke, human rights organizations increased advocacy to stop the killings, international pressure peaked, and Army commander Mario Montoya was cashiered. The “drastic reduction [of civilian killings] after measures were taken in late 2008 shows that the State authorities who managed security at that time had sufficient control of events to have been able to put in order from the beginning security policies that didn’t result in this dynamic of large-scale elimination of human lives.” Though some civilian killings have continued, the prosecutor general’s office has made access to information difficult since 2010.

CCEEU calls for “security policies that overcome the logic of ‘anything goes,’ that combat all kinds of criminality equally without allying with any of them, and that abandon once and for all the subordination of important parts of the armed forces to regional economic and political actors that are tied to land-owning and often with illegal mafias.”

Unfortunately, a reform to the military justice system, approved by the Colombian Congress on Oct. 16, would allow the military to classify extrajudicial killings as violations of international humanitarian law, and such crimes could be tried in the military system, which is highly likely to lead to impunity. The persistent work of groups such as those in CCEEU may have led to a sharp drop in civilian killings by the Colombian army, but a world with truth and justice for those killings is still a distant goal.


This story first appeared Oct. 26 on the website of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

The Spanish text of the study, “Ejecuciones extrajudiciales en Colombia, 2002-2010,” can be downloaded as a PDF.

From our Daily Report:

International Criminal Court to probe Colombian army in civilian killings
World War 4 Report, June 16, 2012

See also:

by Gina Spigarelli, FOR Colombia
World War 4 Report, August 2012

Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Nov. 19, 2012
Reprinting permissible with attribution