Colombian Army’s Kill Orders Put Civilians at Risk, Officers Say
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The head of Colombia’s army, frustrated by the nation’s faltering efforts to secure peace, has ordered his troops to double the number of criminals and militants they kill, capture or force to surrender in battle — and possibly accept higher civilian casualties in the process, according to written orders and interviews with senior officers.
At the start of the year, Colombian generals and colonels were assembled and told to sign a written pledge to step up attacks. Daily internal presentations now show the number of days that brigades have gone without combat, and commanders are berated when they don’t carry out assaults frequently enough, the officers said.
One order causing particular worry instructs soldiers not to “demand perfection” in carrying out deadly attacks, even if significant questions remain about the targets they are striking. Some officers say that order has instructed them to lower their standards for protecting innocent civilians from getting killed, and that it has already led to suspicious or unnecessary deaths.
The military tried a similar strategy to defeat Colombia’s rebel and paramilitary groups in the mid-2000s, before a landmark peace deal was signed to end decades of conflict.
But the tactics caused a national outrage when it emerged that soldiers, aiming to meet their quotas, engaged in widespread killings and disappearances of civilians.
Now, another incarnation of the policy is being pushed by the new government against the country’s remaining criminal, guerrilla and paramilitary groups, according to orders reviewed by The New York Times and three senior officers who spoke about them.
The new orders have sent a chill down the ranks of the army. Colombia’s military remains under investigation for the series of illegal killings in the mid-2000s, known as “false positives.”
Soldiers repeatedly killed peasants and claimed they were guerrilla fighters, sometimes even dressing them in fatigues and planting weapons near their bodies. The tactics stemmed from superiors demanding increased body counts, prosecutors say.
Two of the officers said in lengthy interviews that Colombian soldiers are under intense pressure yet again — and that a pattern of suspicious killings and cover-ups has begun to emerge this year.
In a meeting recounted by one of the officers, a general ordered commanders to “do anything” to boost their results, even if it meant “allying ourselves” with armed criminal groups to get information on targets, a divide-and-conquer strategy.
Beyond that, officers said, soldiers who increase their combat kills are being offered incentives, like extra vacation, in a pattern they fear is strikingly similar to the unlawful killings of the mid-2000s.
“We have gone back to what we were doing before,” said one the officers, who all spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by their superiors.
Major Gen. Nicacio Martínez Espinel, the top commander of Colombia’s army, acknowledged issuing the new orders and having officers set concrete goals for killing, capturing or forcing criminal groups and militants to surrender.
He said that he had issued the written order that instructed top commanders to “double the results” because of the threat that Colombia continues to face from guerrilla, paramilitary and criminal organizations.
“The criminal threat rose,” he said. “If we continued at the pace that we were going at, we would not have completed our objectives.”
Still, the general disputed how officers have interpreted his instructions.
“The orders are that you are operationally effective,” he said. “Some told me they wanted a 10 percent increase, good, you do 10 percent. Some told me they wanted a 50 percent increase, but with no dead. Some said, ‘I want a 100 percent increase.’ There are some who have kept their word, and others that haven’t been able to.”
He also acknowledged that the orders tell commanders to conduct operations when they are still uncertain about their targets.
However, General Martínez argued that the instructions referred only to planning missions, not to carrying them out.
“Respect for human rights is the most important thing,” he said. “Everything has taken place within the letter of the law.”
But the order itself says, “You must launch operations with 60 to 70 percent credibility or exactitude” — leaving enough room for error that the policy has already led to questionable killings, two of the officers said.
The new orders signal an increase in military campaigns against guerrilla and paramilitary groups in Colombia, which reached a peace deal with the nation’s largest rebel group — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — just two years ago.
Peace has been elusive. Many former guerrillas have returned to fighting, while other criminal and paramilitary groups have expanded their control over parts of the country.
One rebel group that never signed a peace deal carried out a deadly car bombing in the capital in January.
Colombia is also under pressure from the Trump administration to show progress in cracking down on drug trafficking, a battle that has shown little progress despite $10 billion in American aid.
As the pressure mounted, President Iván Duque, a conservative who campaigned against the peace deal because he thought it was too soft on the rebels, replaced the country’s top army commanders in December.
Mr. Duque’s government appointed nine officers linked to killings in the mid-2000s, including some who now hold top positions directing military offensives throughout Colombia, according to documents published by Human Rights Watch. One of the commanders linked to the killings, according to the rights group, is General Martínez, who at the time held a lower-ranking position.
General Martínez says he did not participate in any of the unlawful killings and that he is not under investigation by Colombia’s attorney general’s office.
The unlawful killings are a particularly contentious chapter in Colombia’s recent history. From 2002 to 2008, as many as 5,000 civilians or guerrillas were killed outside of combat, according to the United Nations. At least 1,176 members of the security forces have been convicted of crimes related to the illegal deaths, according to the government.
Two of the officers who spoke to The Times said they served during the killings and rose in rank through subsequent periods of reckoning and reform.
But a major shift took place, they say, when General Martínez called a meeting of his top officers in January, a month after assuming command of the army.
The meeting included the country’s top 50 generals and colonels, who met in a hangar in the mountains outside of Bogotá. Many were eager to hear if there would be a new direction under the new leadership.
After a break, the commanders returned to tables where they found a form waiting for each one of them, the officers said. The form had the title “Goal Setting 2019” at the top and a place for each commander to sign at the bottom.
The form asked commanders to list the “arithmetic sum of surrenders, captures and deaths” of various armed groups for the previous year in one column, and then provide a goal for the following year.
Some of the commanders seemed confused — until they were instructed to double their numbers this year, the officers said.
Soon afterward, the same order appeared from General Martínez, this time in writing.
“The goal is to double the operational results at all levels of command,” read the orders, which included his signature.
Three days after the meeting near Bogotá, a group of military intelligence officers and regional commanders were convened in the city of Cúcuta, on the border with Venezuela, the officers said.
At the meeting, the officers said they were told, “We have to do anything now,” including using illegal paramilitary groups provide information on rival armed groups “in order to get results.”
The suggestion of working with one armed group to defeat another created a hush among the people there, said one of the officers.
On Feb. 19, a new document titled “50 Command Orders” emerged. One order demanded “opportune and massive strikes” against the enemy.
But the instructions on the threshold required for ordering deadly attacks marked the largest shift from previous policy, the officers said.
In the past, they argued, military operations needed to be carried out with at least 85 percent of certainty of the target, after a series of meetings between commanders and intelligence agents to approve a strike. The new order called for a lower standard.
Soon after, the officers said they began identifying suspicious killings or arrests.
One of the officers cited the killing of what an army report called the death on Feb. 23 of a member of the paramilitary group Clan del Golfo. The report said that three members of the group had fought an army platoon, and that the fight ended in one death and two arrests. A pistol and revolver were found with the men.
The report was provided to The Times by the officer. He found it unlikely that three lightly armed criminals would combat an entire platoon of 41 men.
Perhaps the most disputed killing since General Martínez took command occurred around April 22, when the body of Dimar Torres, a former guerrilla who had disarmed under the peace deal, was found outside a village near the Venezuelan border.
Cellphone video circulated by villagers showed Mr. Torres’s body shot through the head. Villagers could be heard screaming epithets against paramilitary groups.
It turned out Mr. Torres was killed by the army. Colombia’s defense minister, Guillermo Botero, at first defended the shooting by saying Mr. Torres had been killed during a struggle over a weapon with a soldier. But days later, the general in charge of the region offered a public apology.
José del Carmen Abril, a peasant leader in the village, said townspeople found soldiers near Mr. Torres’ body attempting to “dig a grave to make him disappear” that night. Cellphone video showed soldiers near a half-dug grave.
The officers said they also were told the soldiers were attempting to hide Mr. Torres’ body. While the case has become a national controversy, the officers said that other killings are very likely to go unnoticed.
They produced a copy of a slide from a February presentation with the title “Days Without Combat.” It listed brigades and task forces, tallying how long each had gone without doing battle. The instructions were clear, they said: Increase kills, captures and surrenders.