An independent United Nations human rights expert today warned that although guerrilla groups in Colombia commit a significant number of murders, more concerning are the so-called ‘false positive’ slayings performed by security forces.
Despite a dramatic improvement in the country’s security situation since 2002, with a fall in the total number of homicides, much remains to be done, said Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions.
In addition to the actions of security forces, Mr. Alston also looked at executions committed by paramilitaries and other illegal armed groups, as well as remedial measures taken by the Government to address the pattern of violence, intimidation and killings.
He said the ‘false positive’ killings involve luring innocent victims under false pretences to a remote location, and the murdered bodies are often photographed wearing guerrilla uniforms and holding a gun or grenade to appear as if the individual was legitimately killed in combat.
“Victims are often buried anonymously in communal graves, and the killers are rewarded for the results they have achieved in the fight against the guerrillas,” Mr. Alston said in a statement issued at the end of a 10-day fact-finding mission.
Mr. Alston said that the term ‘false positive’ provides a “sort of technical aura to describe a practice which is better characterized as cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit.”
In addition, he said that the focus on the most publicized ‘false positive’ case last year in Soacha, a suburb of Bogotá, encourages the view that the killings are limited to a geographic area and to a period in time. “But while the Soacha killings were undeniably blatant and obscene, my investigations show that they were but the tip of the iceberg.”
Through interviews with witnesses and survivors who described very similar killings in several districts of Colombia, Mr. Alston determined that a significant number of military units were involved in killings.
“The ‘dangerous guerrillas’ who were killed include boys of 16 and 17, a young man with a mental age of nine, a devoted family man with two in-laws in active military service, and a young soldier home on leave,” said Mr. Alston, disputing some claims that the killings were legitimate.
The military’s systematic harassment of the survivors is part of a common pattern, said the Special Rapporteur. “A woman from Soacha described how, in 2008, one of her sons disappeared and was reported killed in combat two days later.”
He said that when another of her sons became active in pursuing the case, he received a series of threats and was shot dead earlier this year. Since then, the mother has also received death threats.
Mr. Alston is encouraged by the steps take by the Government since last year aimed at stopping and addressing the killings, including disciplinary sanctions, better cooperation with the UN and other international organizations, more oversight of payments to informers, and requiring deaths in combat to be investigated first by judicial police and modifying award criteria.
There remains a worrying gap between the good faith effort on behalf of the Government and the reality on the ground, said Mr. Alston, with the number of successful prosecutions remaining very low and a serious lack of resources to implement the measures.
In addition, in some areas “military judges ignore the rulings of the Constitutional Court and do all in their power to thwart the transfer of clear human rights cases to the ordinary justice system.” He said that the “transfer of information is delayed or obstructed, wherever possible jurisdictional clashes are set up, and delaying tactics are standard.”
The delays, often of months or years, devalue the testimony and the evidence is jeopardized, but the “the good news is that there has been a significant reduction in recorded allegations of extrajudicial executions by the military over the last six to nine months.”
Mr. Alston added that despite the significant steps taken to reduce paramilitary violence, killings by groups that include formerly demobilized paramilitaries “continue at a disturbingly high rate across the country.”
He also highlighted the intimidation, killing and false accusations of being – or being close to – guerrillas or terrorists made against human rights defenders in the South American country.
The expert – who, like all UN Special Rapporteurs, reports to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council in an unpaid, independent capacity – is expected to recommend a number of reforms, including the removal of all forms of incentives to members of the military for killing, when he presents his report in four or five months time.