By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 30, 2008
The Colombian government on Wednesday fired 27 army officers and soldiers, including three generals, amid allegations that poor young men had been lured to the country's turbulent outback from slums in the capital and killed there by troops.
The purge, announced by President Álvaro Uribe at a news conference, is considered unprecedented for Colombia's large, U.S.-backed army, which has long resisted reforms. The dismissals came as Uribe faces criticism abroad for his administration's human rights record while he attempts to lobby a Democratic-controlled Congress in Washington to support a free trade deal.
The president's office issued a statement that outlined serious command-and-control problems in the army an d said soldiers might have collaborated with criminal bands to inflate the number of combat deaths, traditionally used by the military as a measure of success.
"In some instances, there has been negligence in the army, and that has permitted some people to involve themselves in crimes, which in some regions end in the killings of innocents to show success against the criminals," Uribe said.
The head of the armed forces, Gen. Freddy Padilla, read the names of the officers and soldiers removed from service, including four colonels and seven lieutenant colonels. The generals were Paulino Coronado, who oversaw the region where the young men from Bogota were killed, and two division commanders, José Joaquin Cortés and Roberto Pico Hernández.
The last time the government purged so many officers at once was during the administration of President Andrés Pastrana.
"It's certainly the biggest one-day purge," said Adam Isacson, a senior military analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "Uribe has fired generals before, not always for human rights violations. But these are the biggest human rights-related firings in about 10 years."
A special military commission was formed Oct. 3 to investigate the disappearances this year of 11 young men from the poor district of Soacha, outside Bogota. Enticed by job offers, the men wound up dead days later in northeastern Colombia, where army units presented them as members of rebel and criminal groups who had been killed in combat.
In a telephone interview, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said 20 officers and seven soldiers were "administratively responsible" for the deaths, through either omission or direct action. He said the attorney general's office would determine whether criminal charges would be filed.
Military officials have said that the deaths of innocent civilians, amounting to hundreds in recent years, is a byproduct of the use of body counts to assess results in a long-running guerrilla conflict. The scandal has highlighted a breach in the armed forces between reform-minded officers and a cadre of tradition-bound officers, among them Gen. Mario Montoya, the army chief and a proponent of combat kills.
"The measurement of success cannot be the body count," Santos said. "Our men have to be commended for controlling territory, for the number of demobilizations that are registered. I have said it many times. I prefer a demobilized guerrilla to a combat kill."
The announcement of the purge was welcomed by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that provides U.S. aid to Colombia's military. He has held up funding in the past because of rights concerns but said the dismissals were "a commendable change that needs to become more of a pattern."
Michael Shifter, a senior analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue policy group in Washington, said Colombia took the steps, in part, to further its chances of winning Democratic approval for a free trade agreement after the Nov. 4 elections.
"There's been mounting pressure, not just internationally but domestically," Shifter said. "Unless Uribe really tackles it seriously, it would be impossible to get the trade deal through."
Bayron Góngora, an attorney for seven families that have reported the deaths of relatives in circumstances similar to those in Soacha, said that "extrajudicial executions" are neither new nor limited to a few military units.
"It became impossible for the government to keep covering this up," he said by telephone from the city of Medellin.
An official in the attorney general's office said by telephone from Bogota that investigators are handling 550 cases involving as many as 1,000 victims. The killers, he said, come from all branches of the armed services, including police, navy and army.
Lisa Haugaard, director of the Latin America Working Group, a Washington-based coalition of humanitarian groups, said that Colombian human rights groups had recently found allegations of extrajudicial killings in 27 of Colombia's 32 states and reported that the rate of killings rose in 2007. She noted that the army has begun training to stem such abuses but that more needs to be done.
The Soacha killings surfaced publicly after a local official there, Fernando Escobar, began receiving complaints from families who went to the authorities after their sons went missing.
On Wednesday, he and the families were launching a campaign to raise public awareness of the problem when he heard the news about the army purge. He said the victims never had a chance.
"They were looking for opportunity," he said, "and instead they found this horrible end."