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Wed Nov 12, 2014, 06:33 PM

NY Times opinion: Colombia’s Compromise With Murder (Jose Miguel Vivanco, Max Schoening)

Colombia’s Compromise With Murder
NOV. 12, 2014

BUENAVENTURA, Colombia — On Aug. 23, 2008, Víctor Gómez left his home outside of Bogotá, telling his family he had been offered work in another region of Colombia. The 23-year-old man had been struggling to provide for his young daughter as a part-time doorman. Two days later Mr. Gómez was dead, with a bullet between his eyes, in a faraway morgue, where the army had reported him an enemy combatant killed in action.

Mr. Gómez was just one of possibly thousands of civilians executed by Colombian military personnel between 2002 and 2008. Civilian prosecutors are investigating more than 3,000 cases, many involving young men lured by fake job offers to distant towns, where the army murdered them. Soldiers and officers, under pressure from superiors to show “positive” results and boost body counts in the conflict against guerrilla groups, would report the victims as insurgents or criminals killed in combat. Targets included the homeless, farmers, children and people with mental disabilities. In Colombia, the cases are known as “false positives.”

Now, the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos is close to securing passage of legislation that threatens to deny justice for these victims by transferring the cases of military personnel accused of the killings from the civilian to the military justice system. The bills, including one that could be approved as early as next week, appear aimed to appease the military leadership, which has been reluctant to support President Santos’s current peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

There has been some important progress in prosecuting low-ranking soldiers for “false positives.” But most cases remain unresolved and just a handful of senior officers have been convicted. This is a major concern for the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, who is closely monitoring investigations in Colombia. Her office has described the killings as apparently “systematic” and driven by a policy adopted at least within certain army brigades.

Civilian prosecutors’ investigations may be slow, but they at least allow for the possibility of resolving the thousands of unsolved cases and bringing to justice the top officials most responsible for “false positives.” Colombia’s military justice system has consistently failed to investigate alleged rights abuses by soldiers. So by expanding the jurisdiction of military courts over human rights crimes such as these, the Santos administration’s proposed legislation would all but eliminate the possibility that many of the killers and high-ranking officers behind the murders will be brought to justice.


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