Like Cuba’s Ladies in White and Argentina’s Mothers of the May Plaza before them, Colombia’s Mothers of Soacha continue to do the slow and painful work of human rights defence in one of the world’s riskiest countries. According to civil society estimates, Colombia is perennially the most dangerous country in the world for human rights defenders, and since the beginning of 2017 more than 200 social, political, and community leaders have been murdered. Despite these grim numbers, the Mothers of Soacha are motivated and united by one cause: justice for the deaths of their children at the hands of the Colombian Army.
One of the Mothers is María Sanabria, now 60. Her son, Jaime Estiven, was just 16 when he disappeared in Soacha. ‘After nine years, you start to wonder whether anyone will ever be convicted for this crime. But I want at least to know what happened, how it happened and why they did it. To know that, as a minimum, is another way of securing justice.’ Photo: Oxfam
Family Portraits: the Madres de Soacha fight against impunity for the ‘false positive’ murders. Video (Feb 2016) by Cronicas de un Despojo.
In 2008, rogue Colombian soldiers enticed as many as 19 young men from the working-class Bogotá suburb of Soacha to leave their homes with promises of work on a coffee farm at Ocaña (Norte de Santander) in a rural area of the country. Weeks later, their brutalised corpses turned up more than 400 miles away and were tallied in official counts as insurgents killed in combat. The Soacha scandal exposed the involvement of several senior officers and soldiers in the murders, and according to the United Nations, the military units involved in these ‘systematic’ and ‘widespread’ abuses routinely reported murdered civilians as rebels killed in combat in exchange for promotions, monetary perks, and extended leaves of absence.
Because they affected a community so close to Colombia’s bustling capital, these high-profile murders, known in Colombia as ‘false positives’, helped shed light on thousands of other extrajudicial murders carried out by Colombia’s security forces, mostly in more remote rural areas across the country. As of 2012, the Colombian Attorney General’s Office had opened investigations into at least 4,700 cases of suspected false positives.
The publication of a study last month by a retired Colombian police colonel, however, suggests that the total number of extrajudicial killings is probably much higher. After ten years of interviews with military and police officers involved in the false positive investigations, sociologist Omar Rojas contends that the Colombian security forces are responsible for at least 10,000 homicides of civilians—a count that would mean that state security forces murdered nearly two civilians for every insurgent killed in combat over the most intense years of the country’s long-running armed conflict. Although the Colombian government has yet to comment on these allegations, conducting a thorough investigation and delivering justice in these cases remains an outstanding task for authorities.
The majority of extrajudicial executions occurred during the administration of President Alvaro Uribe Velez, who from 2002 to 2010 took a hardline approach in dealing with Colombia’s chaotic security situation. During his presidency, Uribe restructured the military and put the security forces on the offensive against the country’s main rebel groups, which saw their numbers dwindle in the face of a more aggressive and operationally proficient army. He also benefited from a hefty US security assistance package known as Plan Colombia, which brought more than $10 billion in aid from 2000 to 2015. Highly publicised annual tallies of insurgents demobilised or killed in combat were essential to Uribe’s strategy of keeping US aid-paymasters happy, improving public perceptions of security, and bolstering his own popularity. Recent revelations would suggest that those numbers included thousands of false positives.
Reawakened public scrutiny of the false positives has complicated prospects of truth and reconciliation as part of Colombia’s fragile peace process with the country’s largest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In 2017, 8,500 FARC guerrilla fighters demobilized after five years of painstaking negotiations with the government of President Juan Manuel Santos. In compliance with the peace deal, the FARC have agreed to confess to crimes committed during the five-decade conflict in a special justice tribunal, known by the Spanish acronym JEP, in exchange for alternative punishments such as community service. Colombian military leadership, too, has fought to include sentencing for false positives in the special tribunal, and just this month the first five soldiers received conditional liberty in exchange for their confessions of abuse, torture, and murder. In total 1,792 members of the armed forces have applied for sentencing via the JEP.
Under the ordinary civil justice system, however, soldiers responsible for false positives face decades in prison. Human rights defenders insist that the JEP, which sacrifices retribution for truth telling, should only apply to abuses committed by the military in compliance with military orders. These critics, including the Mothers of Soacha, argue that as the soldiers committed the false positives for personal gain, their participation in the special tribunal would confer impunity for their crimes. As María Sanabria says, ‘Nine years on and this is what they are telling me? That they are referring the case go a new system, the JEP, which hasn’t even started to operate yet? We are living through a double crime: first they kill our children, and now they deny us access to justice.’
Truth and reconciliation may be further jeopardized by political changes at present under way in Colombia. A leading right-wing contender for the presidency, Iván Duque, has expressed little enthusiasm for the peace process and his political mentor, Alvaro Uribe, has publicly denounced the terms of the accord for being too generous to demobilized guerrilla fighters. Uribe, now a senator and currently facing an investigation for an unrelated obstruction of justice charge, remains a powerful yet divisive figure in Colombian politics, and his return to the executive branch, even in an advisory capacity, would signal at best an unenthusiastic and incomplete implementation of the FARC peace agreement.
Indeed, the 27 May presidential elections will serve as the litmus test for Colombia’s commitment to the peace agreement and, just as importantly, to reconciliation and justice. To date, justice has been slow for the Mothers of Soacha: judicial hearings and convictions have taken nearly a decade in some instances. Still, in the wake of their activism, Colombian political leadership dismissed dozens of senior army officials, and hundreds of members of the armed forces have been convicted with jail time for false positives since 2008. The true test for Colombia, however, lies not just in the government’s ability to adjudicate these crimes but also in its obligation to ensure that they never happen again. Such guarantees will be exceedingly hard to make if the same individuals who encouraged and condoned military excesses during the conflict now acquire the power to protect their perpetrators.
Paul Angelo is a PhD Candidate at the Institute of the Americas, University College London. From 2010 to 2011, he served as an adviser to the Colombian Ministry of Defence under Plan Colombia. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defence.