High-ranking Colombian Army commanders bear responsibility for hundreds of civilian killings committed by troops under their command, according to a scathing report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) last week, On Their Watch. Colombian prosecutors are investigating nearly 4,500 such killings.
During the period examined by HRW — 2002 to 2008 — more Colombian troops received U.S. training than from any other country, more even than Iraq or Afghanistan. Today, Washington not only claims this aid as “success,” it is funding Colombian military and police training for thousands of troops in other nations with abusive and corrupt security forces, especially Honduras.
A primary cause of the killings, according to On Their Watch as well as earlier reports by human rights groups and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, was relentless pressure from the top for combat killings, with little or no scrutiny of how they were achieved. (Full disclosure: I was a researcher and author of some of the earlier reports.) Some commanders allegedly even ordered, facilitated, or covered up the executions of civilians. Colombian prosecutors have identified 180 battalions and other tactical units reportedly responsible for civilian killings, HRW found.
Of 23 Colombian commanders named by HRW, 20 of them received U.S. military training, mostly at the School of the Americas (SOA, renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC), according to military school records. This is not surprising, since nearly all Colombian officers must receive at least a two-week course from the United States on the path to promotion. But many of them also took extended courses in the United States at the National Defense University, U.S. Army War College, Fort Leavenworth, as well as at Fort Benning, Georgia.
What’s more, at least four commanders who commanded units with the most egregious patterns of civilian killings were invited instructors in U.S. military schools attended by Latin American soldiers. If we want to understand how abusive practices can be replicated and multiplied through international training and exchange programs, we should review the records of those who serve as teachers in those programs.
One of those, Colonel Santiago Herrera, was invited to teach at WHINSEC for a year in 2005, after he worked with Green Beret trainers in Colombia in 2003. Upon his return to Colombia, Herrera commanded the Army’s 15th Mobile Brigade, whose soldiers are under investigation for 38 killings between 2006 and 2008. Herrera is currently on trial. BBC interviewed a sergeant who blew the whistle about murders of civilians committed while he was an intelligence officer in Herrera’s brigade. Since testifying to prosecutors, the sergeant has received threats and recently was granted protective measures by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
The worst period of “false positive” killings occurred under Colombian Army commander General Mario Montoya from 2006 to 2008. Montoya was also an instructor at Fort Benning, even receiving a U.S. Army commendation for his work there. One retired officer told me how Montoya pressured him to produce more combat kills and to reward soldiers who produced them with money and time off. When I asked if I could quote him by name, he said, “No! I don’t have a bodyguard!”
Montoya’s successor as Army commander, General Oscar González Peña, also taught at SOA. Prosecutors are investigating at least 113 alleged extrajudicial killings by Fourth Brigade troops during the time that González Peña commanded it, according to HRW.
General Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar, current commander of the Colombian Army, taught at WHINSEC in 2002-03, then received a masters degree in National Security Strategy at the National Defense University in Washington in 2005-06, weeks before assuming command of a brigade in southern Colombia. Troops under his command are under investigation for 48 killings, and dozens more have been documented by human rights organizations. Yet Lasprilla asserts that every single one of these investigations is of a legal combat death.
The HRW report presents persuasive evidence that commanders knew or should have known of the civilian killings committed in the field. That is the standard of criminal responsibility for commanders under international law, if they did not act effectively to stop them. “It seems improbable that low-ranking soldiers could have repeatedly deceived so many commanders, in so many cases, over such a prolonged period of time,” Human Rights Watch concluded.
It also seems improbable that U.S. military advisors, who had staff offices in the Colombian Army’s high command, could have remained in the dark about so many killings of civilians over the course of years, unless their ignorance was willful or they believed the ends justified the means.
Such erasure of massive crimes continues in the assertions that the Colombian military is “heroic” and its expertise should be exported to police and military forces in Central American and Caribbean countries. Last year, Colombian instructors trained more than 3,000 Honduran police on the U.S. dime, according to a State Department response to questions posed by Congressman Hank Johnson.
If Congress approves a billion-dollar aid package currently proposed for Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, including a more than doubling of counter-drug police and military funding, we can expect even more Colombian training of Central American police, with little transparency, even as tens of thousands of protesters call for the resignation of presidents in Honduras and Guatemala who command these police.
It is past time for Congress and the Administration to stop using Colombian soldiers to train Central American forces, which helps to prop up corrupt and abusive regimes there. Instead, we ought to address the abuse of illicit drugs in our own communities through treatment on demand.