Colombian Troops Kill Farmers, Pass Off Bodies as Rebels'

Cruz Elena González, accompanied by a daughter, talks about the death of her son, shot by army troops in August.
Cruz Elena González, accompanied by a daughter, talks about the death of her son, shot by army troops in August. (By Juan Forero -- The Washington Post)
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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 30, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO, Colombia -- All Cruz Elena González saw when the soldiers came past her house was a corpse, wrapped in a tarp and strapped to a mule. A guerrilla killed in combat, soldiers muttered, as they trudged past her meek home in this town in northwestern Colombia.

She soon learned that the body belonged to her 16-year-old son, Robeiro Valencia, and that soldiers had classified him as a guerrilla killed in combat, a claim later discredited by the local government human rights ombudsman. "Imagine what I felt when my other son told me it was Robeiro," González said in recounting the August killing. "He was my boy."

Funded in part by the Bush administration, a six-year military offensive has helped the government here wrest back territory once controlled by guerrillas and kill hundreds of rebels in recent months, including two top commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

But under intense pressure from Colombian military commanders to register combat kills, the army has in recent years also increasingly been killing poor farmers and passing them off as rebels slain in combat, government officials and human rights groups say. The tactic has touched off a fierce debate in the Defense Ministry between tradition-bound generals who favor an aggressive campaign that centers on body counts and reformers who say the army needs to develop other yardsticks to measure battlefield success.

The killings, carried out by combat units under the orders of regional commanders, have always been a problem in the shadowy, 44-year-old conflict here -- one that pits the army against a peasant-based rebel movement.

But with the recent demobilization of thousands of paramilitary fighters, many of whom operated death squads to wipe out rebels, army killings of civilians have grown markedly since 2004, according to rights groups, U.N. investigators and the government's internal affairs agency. The spike has come during a military buildup that has seen the armed forces nearly double to 270,000 members in the last six years, becoming the second-largest military in Latin America.

There are varying accounts on the number of registered extrajudicial killings, as the civilian deaths are called. But a report by a coalition of 187 human rights groups said there are allegations that between mid-2002 and mid-2007, 955 civilians were killed and classified as guerrillas fallen in combat -- a 65 percent increase over the previous five years, when 577 civilians were reported killed by troops.

"We used to see this as isolated, as a military patrol that lost control," said Bayron Gongora of the Judicial Freedom Corp., a Medellin lawyers group representing the families of 110 people killed in murky circumstances. "But what we're now seeing is systematic."

The victims are the marginalized in Colombia's highly stratified society. Most, like Robeiro Valencia, are subsistence farmers. Others are poor Colombians kidnapped off the streets of bustling Medellin, the capital of this state, Antioquia, which has registered the most killings.

Amparo Bermudez Dávila said her son, Diego Castañeda, 27, disappeared from Medellin in January 2006. Two months later, authorities called to say he had been killed, another battlefield death. They showed her a photograph of his body, dressed in camouflage.

"I said, 'Guerrilla?' " she recalled. "My son was not a guerrilla. And they told me if I didn't think he was a guerrilla, then I should file a complaint."

Military prosecutors ordinarily initiate investigations when the army kills someone. In cases that appear criminal, civilian prosecutors take over, as they did in the slayings of Valencia and Castañeda in San Francisco. But human rights groups and government prosecutors say the initial probes have usually been perfunctory, and investigators have been under intense pressure from high-ranking military officers to rule in the army's favor.

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