Colombian Army Officers Implicated in Killings to Be Promoted

Nov 29, 2012 | Human Rights, Impunity and Justice, News, Our Partners

By Susana Pimiento

Sharp contrast with the Petraeus and Allen cases
Recent U.S. news has been flooded with stories of generals David Petraeus and John Allen, both involved in what is perceived as improper conduct. The scandals cost Gen. Petraeus his position as head of theCIA and Allen’s promotion to command U.S. troops in Europe. The speedy strict consequences in both cases contrast with the fate of four Colombian army officers who, despite their involvement in outrageous crimes, have been chosen for promotion. That is the case of Lieutenant Colonel Orlando Espinosa Beltran and Lieutenant Alejandro Jaramillo, who participated in the February 2005 San José de Apartadó Peace Community massacre. Jaramillo was even sentenced to 34 years in prison for murder by an appeals court last June.

1289Officers chosen for promotionOther officers to be promoted to general include Emiro Barrios Jiménez and Jorge Navarrete Jadeth, who paid a thousand-dollar booty for the extrajudicial killings of two civilians in Manizales (Caldas), one of the cases known as “false positives,” the killing of unarmed civilians to bolster the officers’ body counts.

We learned about these cases from human rights defenders Jorge Molano and German Romero, who represent the victims in both cases. Both have received death threats, presumably due to their efforts to halt these promotions. In Molano’s view, promoting the officers amounts to “protection of those who are responsible for crimes, an invitation to emulate those actions, and a threat to the victims. It puts in doubt the seriousness of [Colombia’s] human rights policy.”

The San José de Apartadó 2005 massacre

1287Victims of February 2005 massacre. Photos: Susana PimientoDuring the first week of February 2005, the Colombian Army was trying to recover from an ambush by FARC leftist guerrillas that resulted in 18 soldiers dying, an episode known as El Porroso, in Mutata (Antioquia). The army’s response was Operation Fenix, a joint military-paramilitary operation, carried out by troops of the Army’s 17th Brigade, along with over 100 men belonging to the Heroes of Tolova death squads, a paramilitary group that had sown terror in the region for over a decade. Fenix was conceived by then-commander of Seventh Division, General Mario Montoya, and a group of high officials, including General Héctor Fandiño, the head of the 17th Brigade and the commander of the Velez Battalion — and currently a candidate for promotion — Colonel Orlando Espinosa Beltran.

For five days, from February 18 to 22, the Army and death squads patrolled the San José region. Jaramillo commanded one of the platoons that participated in the operation, which carried out one of the most brutal massacres of the last decade in the Colombian armed conflict. Among those killed were not only charismatic Peace Community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra, but three children (Diener, 11, Natalia, 6, and 18-month-old Santiago) were chopped in pieces with machetes.

The cruelty of the massacre caused an international uproar and demand for justice and accountability. But in a country in which 98% of the crimes against civilians go unpunished, the Peace Community massacre proved no exception. Seven years later, despite mountains of evidence of how the operation was planned and carried out with collective Army participation, only a couple low-ranking officers have been convicted. 1288Proceedings against higher-ranking officers, such as Generals Montoya and Fandiño, which require action by Colombia’s Prosecutor General, have been stalled for years in their preliminary phase. General Montoya hasn’t even been requested to give a deposition, much less charged with any crime.

Mid-ranking officers, including Espinosa and Jaramillo, were prosecuted and acquitted by a lower court in 2010. Last June, an appeals court confirmed the acquittal of Colonel Espinosa Beltran and other soldiers. The appeals court found four officers, including Alejandro Jaramillo, guilty of homicide and conspiracy, and sentenced them to 34 years each. Incredibly, to this day, the military has not even requested Jaramillo to report to serve his sentence. He continues his life as a free man and active duty officer.

False Positives in Manizales

On March 17, 2008, the head of the 8th Brigade, with headquarters in the coffee growing town of Manizales in Caldas state, Colonel Emiro Barrios Jimenez, and his deputy commander, Colonel Jorge Navarrete Jadeth, signed a receipt for a bounty paid to a civilian for information that lead to “the killing in combat of two (2) unidentified terrorists, male, allegedly members to criminal bands in the service of drug traffickers,” which took place on February 8, 2008.

A planned military operation took the lives of Darbey Mosquera (23) and Alex Ramirez (31). José Didier Marín’s life was spared: when his turn came to be shot, the soldier’s rifle jammed and Marín was able to escape. Marin became a witness under protection.

As with many other “false positive” cases, the three victims were recruited by a deception in their hometown Pradera, in Valle state, transported to another town, Pereira and then, in taxi, taken to Java, on the outskirts of Manizales, where army officers were expecting to kill them, plant weapons on them, and report them as killed in combat.

None of them were members of a criminal band, as the army reported. The three men were desperate for money, had a history of problems with the law and were contacted by an army soldier with the offer of a good paying job, a blackmailing operation. According to Human Rights Colombia, they fit the profile for the ideal victim of extrajudicial killings: “They were perfect bait to be presented as combatants. Their problems with the law would guarantee that they would be unlikely to be missed once they were killed.”

In March 2012, a lower court in Manizales sentenced seven low-ranking Army officers to 42 and 43 years each for the extrajudicial killings of Darbey Mosquera and Alex Ramirez. Proceedings against the soldiers’ commanding officers, including Barrio Jimenez, have not gotten beyond an initial deposition.

Bleak Prospects for Justice in Colombia

As mentioned above, Colombia has a 98% impunity record for serious human rights violations. Recent legal reforms to the judicial system, made in the framework of peace talks between the Colombian government and the leftist FARC guerrillas to end the five decade armed conflict, would have the effect of only exacerbating this bleak scenario.

On June 19, the Colombian Congress approved the Legal Framework for Peace, opening the door to a transitional justice system that would be applied to the guerrilla combatants and army soldiers. The law prioritizes cases against those most responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes; conditionally dismisses all other cases; and suspends selected sentences. Among the beneficiaries of the suspension of selected sentences would likely be the very few top army officers who have ever been sentenced to lengthy sentences for serious crimes, thanks to the arduous effort of human rights defenders.

Such victories can be counted with one hand and include, General Rafael Uscategui, sentenced to 40 years for the Mapiripan massacre; General Rito Alejo del Rio, head of the 17th Brigade and sentenced to 25 years for the brutal killing of a Marino Lopez Mena, an Afro-Colombian leader, in a joint military-paramilitary operation in the Urabá region; and, most notably, Colonel Jorge Plazas Vega, sentenced to 30 years for the disappearance of 11 persons in connection with the military’s retaking of the Palace of Justice in November 1985. Senate president and author of the bill, Roy Barreras, in a June 5 radio interview, conceded that the sentence of any army officer for a crime in the framework of the armed conflict, including Plazas Vega, could be terminated.

Human rights defenders paid a steep price to achieve Plazas Vegas’ conviction: human rights lawyerEduardo Umaña, who represented some of the victims of the case, was slain in 1998. Jorge Molano and German Romero have continued his work. Prosecutor Angela Buitrago lost her job, and the judge that convicted Plazas Vega, Stella Jara, received so many threats that she was forced into exile shortly after issuing the ruling.

Another bill making its way through the Colombian Congress is a constitutional amendment that would send cases of human rights violations — including war crimes — to military jurisdiction. The bill, which has already passed seven of the eight debates required for a constitutional amendment, has stirred an outcry in the Colombian and international human rights community. In an unprecedented move, eleven United Nations special rapporteurs and working groups sent a an open letter on October 22 to the Colombian Government and Congress stating that “such a reform would represent a historic setback to the progress achieved by the State of Colombia in the fight against impunity and respect and guarantee of human rights” and urged “the Government of Colombia and the Congress to seriously reconsider this constitutional reform project.” Three weeks later, over 230 organizations issued a call to the Colombian government to withdraw the bill.

The Colombian Senate partially gave in to international pressure, expanding the list of crimes that would be excluded from military jurisdiction. The House version only included genocide, forced disappearances, and crimes against humanity, which in itself excludes anything that is not systematic. The Senate sponsors of the bill submitted a report that added to the list extrajudicial executions, sexual crimes, forced displacement, and torture. Still outside the civilian courts are the crimes highlighted by the U.N. in its open letter:

… arbitrary detention; cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and other violations such as violence against the person and mutilation; taking of hostages; outrages upon personal dignity, including humiliating treatment; and the obligation to treat persons taking no active part in the hostilities humanely in all circumstances, without any distinction on grounds of ethnicity, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria, prohibited by virtue of common article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

The fact that both bills are being debated or have been passed in the framework of the ongoing talks between the FARC and the government makes them especially problematic. Undoubtedly, after five decades of war, Colombians yearn for peace, but nevertheless, whether peace can be achieved without justice continues to be a valid question. That is the big challenge for any transitional justice system.

Furthermore, for a society that strives for reconciliation, the requirements to achieve such a goal acquire a new sense of urgency. As Ivan Cepeda so movingly articulated in his April 2011 speech in which he forgave the killing of his father, the elements needed for such reconciliation are justice, truth, reparation, and a guarantee that the events will not re-occur.