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Colombia: Do human rights matter?

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Do Human Rights Matter?

by Ines PG-Ward in Bogota

Juan Manuel Santos swept through the second round of the Colombian elections with the highest vote ever received by a President. He seduced the electorate on Sunday, with a message of national unity.

But his victory is controversial. During his term as Minister of Defense, it emerged that the army had murdered more then 2,000 civilians over several years, passing them off as guerrillas. Under President Uribe’s Democratic Security policy, soldiers are rewarded for the number of rebels they kill, called positivos.

Falsos Positivos

The scandal known as Falsos Positivos erupted late in 2008 when 19 young men were reported missing in the municipality of Soacha, only to reappear as rebels killed in action a day later, on the other side of the country. “Those young people were contacted by guys that were related to the army and they were delivered to them”, said Maria Victoria Llorentes, the Executive Director of the think tank, Ideas para la Paz, that monitors the Colombian armed conflict.

But the army is also under tremendous pressure to defeat the rebels. Uribe and now Santos have made this the cornerstone of their mandate. “Uribe has been pushing the military forces a lot for results. Previous Presidents have not pressed as hard; he is really obsessed with the figures ”, said Maria Victoria LLorentes

Juan Manuel Santos reacted quickly when the scandal emerged. He fired leading members of the military staff, including the commander of the armed forces, General Montoya. Santos also created a new human rights doctrine for the armed forces in late 2008.

Doubts remain over how much he knew

“Santos only took action once the killings went public”, said Hollman Morris, a journalist and strong critic of Uribe’s presidency. “ Why only in 2008? What happened to the internal control mechanisms of the armed forces? It seems as if they hushed it up”.

However, Roy Barreras, a senator and member of Santos’ political party, defended Santos “The Minister of Defence was the one who denounced the falsos positivos which had been happening for a long time. He warned about what was going on and stopped it.”

The murders outraged the educated classes of Colombian society who denounced what was going on in the media. But they left the rest of the country indifferent. “It was like, yes, it’s horrible and everything, but that is it. Life goes on”, said Maria Victoria Llorentes. “The feeling against the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) is so strong. In fact, that is why Santos won. Most of the people couldn’t care less about human rights”.

“The feeling of greater security and safety that Uribe and Santos were able to transmit weighed more than the scandal. There is also class prejudice in it. The kids that were killed were mainly poor kids so it makes it easier for people to close their eyes”, said Angelika Rettberg, a political analyst at the Los Andes university.

Many people feel not enough was done

“In Israel, for the murder of 9 activists on the flotillas, they are asking for the Prime Minister to resign. And here in Colombia where thousands died, we elect Santos as President”, said William Salamanca, 43, a taxi driver. It is the question of political responsibility that remains the most troubling. No one knows who should take the blame for the Falsos Positivos.

But the recent verdict condemning General Plazas Vega for the murders committed by the army during the siege of the Palace of Justice in 1985, is setting a new precedent.

Will President Juan Manuel Santos be held accountable in the future for the Falsos Positivos?


Any opinions or viewpoints that are published herein are directly from the contributing author and does  not necessarily represent the philosophy or viewpoints of Latin America Bureau.