Colombia Conflict: Soldiers Claimed 6,400 Killed Civilians Were Rebels

Image source, JEP Néstor Gutiérrez described how he targeted a local farm worker and planted a weapon on his body
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BBC- Eleven Colombian ex-soldiers are giving details about extrajudicial killings carried out by the army during Colombia’s armed conflict.

They are taking part in a public hearing of the special court examining crimes committed during the conflict.

More than 6,400 civilians were killed by the military and falsely passed off as enemy combatants between 2002 and 2008, an inquiry revealed last year.

But this is the first time those involved have given detailed accounts.

“We murdered innocent people, farmers,” former soldier Néstor Gutiérrez told relatives of victims.

‘I robbed children of their fathers’

About a hundred relatives were present at Tuesday’s hearing of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) court, which was set up as part of a peace deal between left-wing rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and the Colombian government signed in 2016.

“It’s not easy being here,” Mr Gutiérrez said. “I executed, I killed the relatives of those who are here.”

The former soldier recalled how he had lured civilians “through lies and deceit” to the places where he had “shot them, cruelly killing them”.

“I placed weapons on them to suggest it had happened in combat, that they were guerrilla fighters. I sullied their name and that of their family,” he said of the practice of upping the army’s “kill rate” by passing off civilians as rebels to give the impression it was winning the armed conflict against the group.

“I robbed children of their fathers and parents of their children.”

Mr Gutiérrez was among six former members of the military who gave evidence on the first day of the hearing on Tuesday. Four more and one civilian are due to appear on Wednesday.

The six took responsibility for killing at least 120 civilians between 2007 and 2008 and passing them off as combat fatalities in the Catatumbo region, in eastern Colombia.

Relatives of the victims also spoke at the hearing. Soraida Navarro was one of them. Her father Jesús was killed by soldiers 15 years ago, the whereabouts of his body remains unknown.

Soraida Navarro speaks during the JEP hearingImage source, JEP
Image caption,
Soraida Navarro’s father was one of those killed by the army

“I’d like to give him a Christian burial,” she told the former soldiers before asking them if they had children. “My children ask me ‘mommy, what was grandpa like?'”

Ms Navarro said that her mother had died three years after Jesús Navarro was killed, leaving Soraida and her siblings orphaned.

“On special occasions and on holidays, we want to hug my father and my mother, but we can’t. Why? Because you despicable people took our loved ones from us,” she said, directly addressing the ex-soldiers.

Pressure to deliver deaths

Santiago Herrera, a retired army colonel, described how he had pressured those he commanded “to cause deaths and produce results”.

Retired Colonel Santiago Herrera speaking at the JEPImage source, JEP

Mr Herrera said he used a “carrot and stick” system – threatening those who did not deliver with bad reports, and rewarding those who did with extra days off and bonuses.

He told the JEP that he himself had come under pressure from the head of the armed forces at the time to up his brigade’s “kill rate” .

“I feel ashamed by the crimes committed by my brigade,” Mr Herrera said.

Scores of army officials – most of them of fairly low rank – have been detained and convicted of involvement in the “false positives” over the past decades but relatives of the victims hope the perpetrators will be more open at the JEP hearings and reveal who ordered the killings.

The JEP is a transitional court system which was put in place for a period of 10 years to try all participants in the conflict, be they rebels or members of the security forces.

Those who admit to their crimes up front can avoid jail time, but are required to contribute in other ways to reconciliation – such as participating in programmes to remove landmines, build key infrastructure or construct monuments.

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