Evidence Links Colombia Army Chief to Civilian Slayings
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — New evidence has emerged linking the embattled head of Colombia’s army to the alleged cover-up of civilian killings more than a decade ago.
The documents, provided to The Associated Press by a person familiar with an investigation into the extrajudicial killings, come as Gen. Nicacio Martínez Espinel faces mounting pressure to resign over orders he gave troops this year to step up attacks in what some fear could pave the way for a return to human rights abuses.
Colombia’s military has been blamed for as many as 5,000 extrajudicial killings at the height of the country’s armed conflict in the mid-2000s as troops under pressure from top commanders inflated body counts, in some cases dressing up civilians as guerrillas in exchange for extra pay and perks.
What became known as the “false positives” scandal has cast a dark shadow over the American-backed military’s record of battleground victories. Fifteen years later not a single top commander has been held accountable.
Human Rights Watch in February harshly criticized President Ivan Duque’s appointment of General Martínez Espinel, noting that he was second-in-command of the 10th Brigade in northeast Colombia during years for which prosecutors have opened investigations into 23 illegal killings. The rights group revealed that then-Col. Martínez Espinel certified payments to an informant that led to “excellent results” in a purported combat operation in which an indigenous civilian and 13-year-old girl were killed. A court later convicted two soldiers of abducting them from their home, murdering them and putting weapons on their bodies so they appeared to be rebels.
General Martínez Espinel said at the time of the report that he had “no idea” if he had made the payments.
But new documents from Colombia’s prosecutor’s office show that General Martínez Espinel in 2005 signed off on at least seven other questionable payments. The documents were provided to the AP by someone on the condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation.
Some of the rewards, which never exceeded $500, went to supposed informants whose names and IDs didn’t match. In two cases, judicial investigators found the real beneficiary was a soldier, Oscar Alfonso, who would go on to be sentenced to 40 years for his role in a third, unrelated civilian killing. One hidden recipient was a former paramilitary commander sentenced to 15 years for extortion.
“A decade ago, soldiers across Colombia lured civilians to remote locations under false pretenses — such as with promises of work — killed them, placed weapons on their lifeless bodies, and then reported them as enemy combatants killed in action,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “One can’t help wonder if any of the cockades in their uniforms, or the promotions throughout ‘successful’ careers, corresponds to the murder of innocent civilians committed over a decade ago.”
General Martínez Espinel said in a statement that he has faced no criminal or disciplinary investigations. He said that it was up to judicial authorities to evaluate the documents bearing his signature but that during his time at the 10th Brigade he had no involvement in combat operations.
The New York Times reported last week that Martínez Espinel had ordered troops this year to double the number of leftist guerrillas and criminals they killed, captured or forced to surrender in combat. The guidelines, made in writing at the start of General Martínez Espinel’s tenure as army chief in January, raised concerns about the heightened risk of civilian causalities.
In response to the Times’s article, the armed forces rolled back part of the controversial policy requiring field commanders to pledge in writing to double their operational results against criminal gangs and holdout rebels who have filled the void left by a 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
They left unchanged, however, orders instructing officers not to “demand perfection” from sources, saying attacks on military targets should be launched when there is a “60-70% credibility” about the veracity of information.
On Friday, President Ivan Duque announced the creation of a commisison to evaluate all military orders and protocols to make sure they are in accordance with human rights and international humanitarian law.