COLOMBIA: 'Body Count' Scandal Haunts Uribe's Candidate

  • Analysis by Javier Darío Restrepo (bogotÁ)
  • Inter Press Service

'All you have to do is look at the statistics: the period when the highest number of non-combat killings was…when Santos was minister,' the opposition Liberal Party's presidential candidate Rafael Pardo said in early March.

Santos, who was defence minister from July 2006 to May 2009, is the candidate backed by right-wing President Álvaro Uribe, in office since 2002.

The scandal, which broke out in September 2008, led to the removal of three generals and 24 other officers and noncommissioned officers, as well as the November 2008 resignation of then army chief Gen. Mario Montoya, regarded as one of the promoters of the so-called 'body count' system, which used incentives like weekend passes, cash bonuses, promotions and trips abroad to reward soldiers and officers for 'results' in the counterinsurgency effort.

The magnitude of the phenomenon was such that more than 60 prosecutors have been assigned to the nearly 1,300 cases involving the murders of over 2,000 civilians - including 59 minors and 122 women - who were presented as battlefield casualties.

This South American country has been in the grip of civil war since 1964, when the left-wing FARC and ELN guerrillas rose up in arms. The far-right paramilitary groups that emerged in the 1980s to combat the leftist insurgents alongside the government forces remain active despite the reported demobilisation of tens of thousands of their numbers between 2002 and 2006.

The 'false positives' story was first reported by the press in September 2008, when a human rights official in Soacha, a vast shantytown in the hills on the southwest side of Bogotá, denounced that the bodies of young men who went missing from the neighbourhood in January of that year had appeared in a morgue in northeastern Colombia.

According to one description, a short, dark-skinned, robust young man with a military-style haircut had recruited them to travel to faraway jobs.

The recruiters targeted young men - manual labourers, students or the unemployed - between the ages of 17 and 32 in different parts of the country.

Forensic exams showed that the young men from Soacha had died between 24 and 48 hours after leaving their neighbourhoods or towns.

'Those boys died in combat; the troops found them as part of intelligence operations,' said Gen. Paulino Coronado, the army commander in the northeastern province of Norte de Santander.

But the prosecutors found the army's arguments unconvincing, because it appeared impossible for the young men to have travelled so far and engaged in armed combat so soon after they left their homes or workplaces.

The explanation was as illogical as the image of one of the bodies that was exhumed: a young woman wearing shorts and tennis shoes, who according to the army had been killed in combat.

The initial doubts about the military's explanations arose from the short lapse of time between the victims' departure from Soacha and their deaths.

The number of victims quickly grew, from the original 11 to 19 just one week after the first media reports. And on Sept. 27, 2008, the El Tiempo newspaper reported that the office of the public prosecutor was investigating 400 cases in which hundreds of active and retired members of the security forces were implicated in non-combat killings.

But despite the magnitude of the accusations, then defence minister Santos claimed he knew nothing about the killings.

A week after the discovery of the first bodies was reported, he said in an army officer promotion ceremony: 'I have a hard time believing it's true.'

'We prefer a demobilised combatant to a captured one, and a captured one to a dead one,' he stated at the time. 'There will be zero tolerance for this kind of action.'

A year later, the public prosecutor's office was preparing to bring charges against two colonels, one major and 43 rank-and-file soldiers for charges like aggravated murder, conspiracy to commit crimes and forced disappearance.

But the killings have not come to a halt.

After President Uribe said in March that 'this kind of killing is not occurring any more in Colombia,' the Jesuit Centre for Popular Research and Education (CINEP) reported that between November 2008 and December 2009, there were nine reported cases of 'false positives', as the civilians passed off as battlefield casualties are known.

Accused and hassled by his political adversaries, Santos will have to explain the implementation of 'directive 024' issued in 2005, which established incentives for members of the army based on the number of 'positives' or casualties in the counterinsurgency war.

The minister eventually ordered then army chief Gen. Montoya to visit the military divisions to warn that the body count system 'is not valid in the war the Colombian state is waging against the illegal groups.'

The system of incentives created by the 2005 directive had not been used by Santos' predecessors in the Defence Ministry.

Former defence minister Marta Lucía Ramírez (2002-2003), who originally planned to run in the May 30 elections, said Santos was trying to pass off the body count system as an older practice: 'When I was minister, the combat deaths system was eliminated, at my express insistence.'

Pardo, meanwhile, also a former defence minister, said 'Santos has to assume responsibility, because this happened under his nose, and he has no explanation as to why he did not control it, why it kept happening, why it was a systematic practice. He has to be investigated in connection with this.'

Even Santos' campaign chief, Rodrigo Rivera, said a year ago that 'political responsibility cannot merely rest with the military; that is, the defence minister must be held accountable, so that he knows that whether or not he remains in his post depends on putting a halt to these incidents.'

The tension generated by the accusations prompted Uribe to attempt to come up with an explanation, as columnist Ramiro Bejarano, an outspoken government critic, wrote in the El Espectador newspaper on Mar. 28.

'A strange version came from Uribe, according to whom a witness that he met with in the United Nations offices informed him that the people responsible for the 'false positives' were drug traffickers who had infiltrated the 15th Mobile Brigade in Ocaña,' Bejarano wrote.

Uribe has come out in defence of Santos, the candidate for the president's U Party.

But the question of the 'false positives' could have a serious impact on the former defence minister's presidential aspirations.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service