BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The crimes were shocking, even for a country hardened by the atrocities of decades of internal conflict.
Colombian troops had killed hundreds of innocent civilians for no apparent reason other than to boost rebel body counts, U.N. investigators found. Typically, the victims were down-on-their-luck men lured to their deaths with job promises then dressed in military fatigues and registered as guerrillas slain in combat.
Five years after the scandal broke, roughly one-sixth of the soldiers accused have gone to trial or pleaded guilty, only a handful of the convicted holding the rank of major or higher. In all, authorities registered some 3,900 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings involving security force members.
Human rights activists say they are afraid a new law pushed through Congress by President Juan Manuel Santos in June will make it even harder to pursue those responsible, particularly senior officers. The law, which is under review by the Constitutional Court, would broaden the military justice system's jurisdiction and narrow the definition of extrajudicial killings.
Santos says the reform is needed to assure armed forces members they have nothing to fear from making peace with the country's main leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
But activists fear the reforms could hinder prosecutions of past and future war crimes by security force members and thus hurt prospects for peace talks launched in Cuba last year.
The FARC has denounced the military justice reform as granting "a pirate's banner to people who have committed terrible crimes against humanity." Some rebels also face war crimes accusations, but the military justice reform applies only to uniformed personnel.
"Why does the Santos government, if it's in a peace process, present legislation that strengthens impunity?" asked leftist congressman Ivan Cepeda. "It's incoherent and complicates matters."
The U.S. Congress is also concerned about impunity in what are known as the "false positives" cases — a term stemming from military jargon that used "positive" to identify a slain enemy combatant. The bulk of the killings occurred from 2002 to 2008 during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe. U.N. investigators deemed the crimes "widespread and systematic."
Washington provided more than $2 billion in assistance to Colombia's military when most of the killings occurred, but U.S. lawmakers are currently withholding at least $10 million in military aid over objections to the new law, said Tim Rieser, a senior aide to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
How much U.S. money went to Colombian military units guilty of "false positives" is unclear. No breakdown is publicly available.
A 1997 law named after Leahy prohibits U.S. funding of foreign military units with members facing credible accusations of rights abuses. Colombian units have been denied aid under the Leahy law, and the State Department, in response to an Associated Press query, characterized its unit vetting as "rigorous."
Peace activist John Lindsay-Poland of the U.S.-based Fellowship of Reconciliation is compiling a false positives database and says U.S. monitoring was sloppy before his group issued a 2010 report detailing abusive units that received U.S. aid.
The military reform will only increase impunity, said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for the watchdog group Human Rights Watch, calling it a loophole-filled "major setback for human rights."
Under the law, Colombia's military courts would try all violations of international humanitarian law committed by armed services members except seven types of crimes against humanity, including sexual violence, forced disappearance and extrajudicial killings. But the law narrows the definition of extrajudicial killings, which rights activists say means an increased possibility that such crimes will be sent to military judges. It limits the definition of such killings to circumstances in which, among other requirements, the victim was "under the control of the state agent" and "did not try to escape."
Because extrajudicial killings did not previously exist as a crime, activists also fear cases from before the law's enactment could be transferred to military judges.
Santos promises that any war crimes committed by Colombia's security forces will be punished, just as he insists FARC war criminals will not be allowed to evade justice.
"I don't understand why (human rights activists) believe that transitional justice has anything to do with the 'false positives,'" Santos, who was defense minister from 2006 to 2009, said in a recent AP interview.
The president says the killings were not systematic, which is also the contention of active and retired military officers.
"It is completely false to say it was a policy of state," said retired Gen. Carlos Suarez. As armed forces inspector general, he led the 2008 investigation after the scandal broke that prompted the dismissal of 27 officers, three of them generals.
International Criminal Court prosecutors are skeptical.
In a November 2012 report, they said "existing (judicial) proceedings have largely failed to focus on the persons who might bear the greatest responsibility" while Colombian prosecutors "perpetuated rather than diminished impunity" by largely failing to expose the circumstances of killings organized "at least at the level of certain brigades."
Several former soldiers have backed such claims and implicated superiors, breaking a code of silence they say is enforced by the threat of violent retribution.
One is Julio Cesar Parga, a cashiered major sentenced in July to 30 years in prison for murder after confessing to ordering or taking part in the killing of 47 noncombatants.
Parga said he organized the killings while leading an anti-kidnapping battalion of the army's 11th Brigade in Monteria, the capital of the western state of Cordoba.
In a jailhouse interview, he refused to discuss in detail the murders or his testimony against his ex-commander. He said he fears he will be the target of a contract killing.
A former captain who worked under Parga and has pleaded guilty to the same crimes, Antonio Rozo Valbuena, has also implicated senior officers, said the lawyer who represents both men, Jose Fernando Duarte.
"It wasn't they who invented false positives," Duarte said. "They simply carried them out in the name of others,"
Duarte called the killings "ingrained institutional policy" that in some cases involved generals, whom he would not name.
Of more than 600 servicemen convicted in extrajudicial killings cases, two-thirds are privates. As of June 30, the accused included 114 officers above the rank of captain. Twelve of them, including two colonels, have been convicted or pleaded guilty and received prison sentences.
"This was all coordinated with the big shots," said ex-Pvt. Eulicer Quintana. His testimony helped convict six former comrades in the February 2008 false-positive killings of two men.
The major who commanded Quintana's unit, the 57th counter-guerrilla battalion based in the western city of Manizales, is set to go to trial on Oct. 16 in the killings. Quintana will again be a witness along with the intended third victim, who escaped when a soldiers' rifle jammed.
Once slain, the still-warm corpses were clad in combat fatigues, black-market weapons placed at their sides, said Quintana.
"This was done at the company level," he said, claiming his battalion produced at least 46 false positives from 2006 to 2008 under two commanders, the first of whom was promoted in part because he garnered so many "combat kills."
Fifteen of the 60 men in Quintana's company would "do a job" and everyone got vacation as a reward — usually eight days per victim, he said.
Quintana, 33, has spent five jittery years in a witness protection program, unable to work, under armed guard and hoping he can leave Colombia with his wife and child when he's done.
"There are a lot of enemies around," he said by phone from an undisclosed location.
Josue Giovanni Linares, the ex-major who commanded his unit and is set to go on trial next week, has suggested that two of his superiors had advanced knowledge of the false positives of which he is accused , court papers show.
Both were recently promoted to general: Emiro Jose Barrios, the 8th Brigade commander at the time, and Jorge Enrique Navarette, the deputy commander. Neither has been charged. Both vehemently deny any wrongdoing but refused to discuss the accusations.
"I have absolutely nothing to do with it," Navarette told the AP.
According to a lawyer for the victims, Jorge Molano, both men signed a document authorizing a $1,100 payment to the "recruiter" who obtained the victims.
Human Rights Watch has objected that the military reform law puts soldiers rather than civilians in charge of initial battlefield investigations while creating a new, mixed military-civilian panel to decide jurisdictional disputes.
The eight-judge civilian tribunal that currently resolves such disputes already gave activists pause when it ruled in June that an army colonel accused in two 2007 false positive deaths should be tried by a military court even as the enlisted men in the same case face a civilian court trial. The court cited the new military justice law in its decision.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised concerns about the reform during an August visit and was assured by Colombian officials that it would not lead to impunity, said a senior State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
Quintana doesn't put any faith in such promises.
"When the day comes that (these cases) get settled by military justice there's going to be blood all over."
Associated Press writers Cesar Garcia and Vivian Sequera in Bogota and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.
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