Scandal of vulnerable Colombian citizens killed for €1,500 bonus


Many men have been disappearing – only for families to find out the army had shot them

WHEN Luz Marina Bernal’s 26-year old son went missing in February 2008, she immediately raised the alarm. Fair Leonardo Porras Bernal had a mental age of nine, could not read or write, and never strayed too far from his home in Soacha, a gritty satellite town of Bogotá, the capital of Colombia.

“He would never go off on his own. He would only go out with someone from the family. We searched hospitals, refuges, jails and filed a missing person report with the police, but there was no news until that August,” remembers Ms Bernal.

The news, when it came, stunned her. Fair Leonardo was dead, and had been buried in a common grave hundreds of kilometres away in the far north of the country. The army said they had killed him during combat with a group of guerrillas just four days after he went missing.

For Ms Bernal, it made no sense. How had her mentally disabled son transformed himself into a uniformed, armed guerrilla ready to take on South America’s most battle-hardened military, just four days after suddenly disappearing from home?

She discovered her case was not an isolated one. Men, mainly poor youths, were disappearing from Soacha, only for families to later find out they had been shot dead by the army, which claimed they were narco-terrorists – the term Colombian authorities use for the country’s Marxist guerrillas.

All their families insist the dead men had no previous involvement with any of Colombia’s illegal armed groups. Their outcry at the details of their children’s deaths sparked a broader investigation into what are now referred to as “false positive” deaths, in which investigators suspect military personnel murdered civilians and claimed they were guerrillas killed in combat in order to win bonuses of up to €1,500.

The “false positive” scandal threatens to stain the legacy of Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s outgoing president and the man considered by many to have saved the country from the anarchy that threatened to turn it into a failed state at the start of the decade.

On taking power in 2002, Uribe unleashed the army against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), pushing them back into remote jungle regions. He brought about a dramatic drop in murders and kidnappings in what was one of the most violent countries on Earth.

But the “false positive” cases have called into question the methods used to win such gains, and throw up the possibility that Mr Uribe’s administration presided over one of the darkest periods regarding human rights in South America’s recent history.

“People working for paramilitaries and criminals went to the poor barrios around Bogotá and lured youths, some disabled, others with criminal pasts, others with offers of work. Then they were sold to military units, who executed them and presented them as guerrillas killed in action. It was a perverse human traffic which led many of these people to death,” says Jorge Enrique Rojas of Codhes, a human rights group in Bogotá.

The Uribe administration introduced the kill bonus for units reporting higher enemy body counts in 2005 as part of its intensifying offensive against the Farc. But the policy instead resulted in an increase in civilian disappearances.

Up to 2,000 potential “false positive” deaths are now under investigation, and Rojas says the final total could reach much higher.

Observers say the Colombian military has a long history of killing civilians to inflate its successes in the field, a view held by US intelligence as revealed in documents declassified last year.

The Colombian army units which face most allegations of “false positives” are those which have received most funding from the US. Despite these concerns, Colombia was the biggest recipient of US aid outside of the Middle East and Afghanistan during the last decade.

The case also has implications for the man widely expected to win Sunday’s election to choose a successor to Uribe. Juan Manuel Santos was the president’s defence minister when many of the “false positive” killings took place. He sacked leading officers when the cases came to light, and he and Uribe stridently claim the killings were the acts of individual soldiers and units.

But in a recent report on Colombia, Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, wrote: “There have been too many killings of a similar nature to characterise them as isolated incidents carried out by individual rogue soldiers or units, or ‘bad apples’. Soldiers simply knew that they could get away with murder.”

Victims’ families are calling for the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate the president and his likely successor.

The cases remain under investigation in Colombia, but the military’s string of successes against the Farc means most voters, once again able to travel on the country’s main roads without fear of being kidnapped by guerrillas, are set to overlook the matter and heed Uribe’s call to replace him with Santos.

“Uribe will leave office as one of the most successful presidents in Colombia’s history,” says political analyst Jairo Libreros. “Many Colombians wanted a strong hand in charge, but it came at a huge price in terms of corruption and human rights. The question of human rights is the biggest cloud hanging over him. He missed a chance to leave a great legacy because he governed by the philosophy of the ends justifying the means.”