Colombia civilians caught in war against insurgents

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Times Staff Writer

Street vendor Israel Rodriguez went fishing last month and never came back. Two days later, his family found his body buried in a plastic bag, classified by the Colombian army as a guerrilla fighter killed in battle.

Human rights activists say the Feb. 17 death is part of a deadly phenomenon called “false positives” in which the armed forces allegedly kill civilians, usually peasants or unemployed youths, and brand them as leftist guerrillas.

A macabre facet of a general increase in “extrajudicial killings” by the military, “false positives” are a result of intense pressure to show progress in Colombia’s U.S.-funded war against leftist insurgents, the activists say.


Rodriguez’s sister Adelaida said he had served three years in the army and was neither a guerrilla nor a sympathizer. “He never made any trouble for anyone,” she said, adding that she believed the army killed her brother to “gain points.”

Such killings have spread terror here in the central state of Meta. Last year the state led Colombia in documented cases of extrajudicial killings, with 287 civilians allegedly slain by the military, according to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a human rights group. That’s a 10% increase from the previous year

Although there appear to be no official -- or unofficial -- tallies of “false positives,” human rights activists say they believe such incidents are on the rise, along with the overall increase in killings by the military, based on their discussions with victims’ families and analyses of circumstances surrounding individual cases.

“It’s quite likely, because the same scenario appears over and over again in the cases I review,” said John Lindsay-Poland of the New York-based Fellowship of Reconciliation. “Victims last seen alive in civilian clothing later are found dead dressed in camouflage and claimed as guerrilla casualties.”

The killings have increased in recent years amid an emphasis on rebel death tolls as the leading indicator of military success, the human rights groups say. Even Colombian officials acknowledge that soldiers and their commanders have been given cash and promotions for upping their units’ body counts.

Since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002, the military has scored notable successes in winning back territory from leftist rebel groups and improving security, buoyed by billions of dollars in military aid from the United States under Plan Colombia, the program that fights drug trafficking and terrorism.


But at the same time, the military’s human rights record is getting worse, charged a coalition of Colombian and international human rights groups.

And new research by two U.S. peace groups into the killings raises serious questions about whether the United States is doing enough, as required by law, to bar U.S. funding to Colombian military units that have elicited allegations of killings and other human rights violations.

Amnesty International USA and the Fellowship of Reconciliation have found that the U.S. government “vetted” or approved military assistance to at least 11 Colombian armed forces units last year despite “credible allegations regarding killings, disappearances and collaboration with outlawed paramilitary forces,” Renata Rendon of Amnesty International USA said in Washington this month.

“It’s outrageous this is happening. It’s up to the [U.S. government] to ensure that we are not providing aid to abusive units,” Rendon said.

While not responding specifically to the claims, an official at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota said this month that Colombian armed forces’ killings of civilians were a “serious problem, a serious concern.”

“It’s something we take very seriously. If you’re going to win a war like this, a big part is establishing rule of law and winning the people’s confidence in your legitimacy and commitment to legal institutions,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak for attribution. He defended the vetting process but said it was complicated by the fact that allegations of human rights abuses often were “not sufficiently specific or verifiable.”


To address the issue of impunity, Colombia’s attorney general last year set up special investigative teams in Meta and Antioquia states, which had the highest numbers of alleged abuses by the military. In November, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos sent a directive to military commanders ordering major changes, including giving civil courts more jurisdiction in investigating incidents.

But the killings are still spreading terror here in Meta state. Ramiro Orjuela Aguilar, a Bogota human rights attorney representing 20 families of suspected “false positive” victims in Meta, blamed the military’s use of paid informants or demobilized guerrillas for many of the killings.

“They have an incentive to name people as rebels because they are paid for information whether it’s correct or not,” Orjuela said.

Several of the Meta victims last year were youths living in and around Granada, the hub of a cattle and farming region that has been fiercely contested in recent years by leftist guerrillas, the armed forces and right-wing paramilitary troops. It is also home to the army’s 12th Mobile Brigade, a unit that Orjuela says is implicated in many of the killings.

Orjuela alleges that the army is engaging in “social cleansing” in Meta, home to four of the five municipalities that made up the so-called neutral zone occupied by Colombian guerrillas from 1998 to 2002. Killings and mass displacements of residents here are efforts to deprive guerrillas of sympathizers, Orjuela said.

“They are trying to deprive the fish of its water,” he said.

Kidnapped on an outing to the Ariari River, Rodriguez, the street vendor, may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, relatives theorize, caught by a band of police officers or soldiers who were on a “fishing trip” of their own for victims.


Orjuela said cases involving alleged “false positives” seemed to decline after the Colombian army issued the November directive to all commanders ordering that officers and the rank and file be made aware that the most important standards of success are demobilizations and captures of guerrillas, and then body counts. But he said he had noticed a resurgence lately, noting the Rodriguez killing.

Adelaida Rodriguez said that despite the government’s initiatives, she and her family were reluctant to press for an investigation. Referring to her brother, she said, “If we make noise, we’ll end up like him.”