Colombian military officials admit crimes against humanity in ‘false positives’ case

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — A Colombian general and nine other military officials admitted Wednesday to committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in one of the darkest times in the country’s history.

For the first time, they spoke directly to the families of the victims as they accepted responsibility for overseeing and in some cases encouraging the killing of at least 120 people falsely labeled as guerrillas to signal that government forces were winning a decades-long war.

“I planned and delivered weapons for innocent young people with dreams… to be turned over and killed and reported as dead in action,” all in the name of “operational results,” the retired sergeant said. Sandro Mauricio Pérez said during an emotional hearing. “These were cold-blooded murders.”

Testimony from the long-awaited hearing marked the highest-level confessions of military officials implicated in the “false positives” scandal that continues to rock Colombia. It was also the first time officials had admitted committing war crimes and crimes against humanity before a tribunal created by a peace accord, according to judges presiding over Wednesday’s hearing.

The country’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace was established in 2017 as part of the peace deal with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The Peace Jurisdiction, which operates outside of traditional Colombian courts, is responsible for holding accountable those who have committed crimes in the conflict. But instead of a prison sentence, those who accept responsibility for their crimes can be sentenced to terms such as house arrest.

At least 6,402 Colombians were killed as fake enemy combatants between 2002 and 2008, the court found. In July, the Court of Peace indicted 10 military leaders, including a general, in the deaths of at least 120 of these people in Catatumbo in the department of Norte de Santander. Many of the victims were unemployed, homeless, or disabled young men, some of them lured by the promise of a job opportunity.

This week’s hearing provided family members of the victims with the opportunity to hear directly from some of those responsible, bringing them closer to a years-long effort to answer a question now painted on murals across Colombia: “Who gave the order?

“We know that behind you are great people,” said Carmenza Gómez, a mother whose eldest son died in August 2008. “We want names.”

But for some mothers and loved ones in the room Wednesday, the most anticipated testimony of the day did not bring them any closer to an answer. The highest ranking military officer in attendance, retired Brigadier. General Paulino Coronado Gámez denied ordering, sponsoring or planning the killings “committed by men under my command”. Yet he accepted responsibility for failing to stop them. He admitted not having foreseen the impact of the military’s emphasis on casualties – which he said was pushed by General Mario Montoya, the US-trained commander who was leading the army at the height of the killings.

“I accept that I didn’t follow the first lesson they taught me when I entered military school,” he said. “The commander is responsible for what his subordinates do and stop doing.”

Throughout the two-day hearing, military officials and a civilian admitted to helping plan or execute kidnappings and killings in response to expectations of meeting body counts as a measure of success. On Tuesday, a colonel, Santiago Herrera, admitted to pressuring his subordinates by offering rewards and creating competitions between units for the highest number of results.

“This unfortunate criminal pact was formed by some of the members of the military unit under my command,” Herrera said, “as I pressured my subordinates to get the results in terms of combat casualties at all costs.”

Pérez, the sergeant, looked family members in the eye in the room as he read the names of the victims and seemed to hold back tears at times.

“My lack of love and respect for human life, for human dignity, led me to become a murderer,” he said. “A monster.”

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