The Colombian government has appointed at least nine officers credibly implicated in extrajudicial executions and other abuses to key positions of the army, Human Rights Watch said. At least three of the officers are under investigation, and prosecutors are investigating killings by forces under the command of the other six.
On December 10, 2018, the government of President Iván Duque appointed General Nicacio de Jesús Martínez Espinel as the new head of the country’s army. On December 21, Gen. Martínez Espinel and Defense Minister Guillermo Botero appointed other new commanders to key army positions. Human Rights Watch has identified evidence linking eight of these officers, as well as General Martínez Espinel, to “false positive” killings and other abuses. From 2002 through 2008, in the cases that have come to be known as false positives, army personnel carried out systematic killings of innocent civilians to boost body counts in the country’s long-running armed conflict.
“The Colombian government should be investigating officers credibly linked to extrajudicial executions, not appointing them to the army’s top command positions,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “By appointing these officers, the government conveys the troubling message to the troops that engaging in abuses may not be an obstacle for career success.”
Human Rights Watch reasearch has shown that patterns in false positive cases – including their systematic nature and the implausible circumstances of many of the reported combat killings – strongly suggest that commanders of units responsible for a significant number of killings knew or had reason to know about them. Under international law, commanders are not only responsible for war crimes or crimes against humanity that they directly order and carry out. They must also be held criminally responsible if they knew or had reason to know that subordinates under their effective control were committing such crimes and failed to take all necessary and reasonable steps in their power to prevent or punish the act.
The newly appointed officers credibly linked to abuses are Martínez Espinel, head of the army; Jorge Enrique Navarrete Jadeth, Head of General Staff for Human Resources and Logistics; Raúl Antonio Rodríguez Arévalo, Head of General Staff for Planning and Policies; Adolfo León Hernández Martínez, head of the Army Transformation Command; Diego Luis Villegas Muñoz, head of the Vulcano Task Force; Edgar Alberto Rodríguez Sánchez, commander of the Aquiles Task Force; Raúl Hernando Flórez Cuervo, commander of the National Training Center; Miguel Eduardo David Bastidas, commander of the 10th brigade; and Marcos Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo, commander of the 13th brigade. All of them are army generals.
Gen. Martínez Espinel was second-in-command of the 10th brigade from October 2004 to January 2006. Prosecutors have opened investigations into 23 killings by 10th brigade troops in 2005.
Human Rights Watch had access to a document signed by then-colonel Martínez Espinel certifying a payment of COP 1,000,000 (US$400) to an informant who provided information leading to “excellent results” in two military operations. In one of them, troops reported the “kill of a female ‘no name’ subject and a male ‘no name’ subject, apparently belonging to the Front 59 of the FARC.” Yet courts have concluded that the people killed were Hermes Enrique Carrillo Arias, an indigenous civilian, and 13-year-old Nohemí Esther Pacheco Zabata.
In 2011, a court convicted two soldiers and a former paramilitary member for murdering the pair. It found that troops abducted the victims from their home at dawn, murdered them, placed weapons on their bodies, and reported them as FARC guerrillas killed in combat. In 2013, an appeals court asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate “possible [criminal] conduct due to [possible] lack of control by the superiors.”
Gen. Navarrete Jadeth, the new General Staff for Human Resources and Logistics, was the second-in-command of the 8th brigade between July 2007 and August 2008. The Attorney General’s Office has opened investigations into at least 19 killings by the 8th brigade in 2008.
Human Rights Watch reviewed a document signed by Gen. Navarrete Jadeth in March 2008, certifying a 2,000,000 Colombian pesos (US$1,000) payment to an informant for information that led to the “death in combat of two terrorists.” In April 2012, a court concluded that the “terrorists” were unarmed civilians who had been recruited from a nearby city and extrajudicially executed.
Colombian courts have convicted hundreds of soldiers for their role in extrajudicial killings, the vast majority of them low-ranking. But the authorities have failed to prosecute senior army officers allegedly responsible for illegal killings. Instead, the authorities have promoted many of these officers through the ranks, allowing several to hold top positions in the armed forces.
The administration of former President Juan Manuel Santos also appointed officers linked by credible evidence to false positives to key army positions. Gen. Juan Pablo Rodríguez Barragán, under criminal investigation for such killings, headed the Colombian armed forces from 2014 through 2017.
A portion of United States military aid to Colombia is subject to human rights conditions. In 2018, the conditions included that “military personnel responsible for ordering, committing, or covering up cases of false positives are being prosecuted and appropriately punished, including removal from positions of command.”