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Prosecutors pursue murder charges against Colombia’s former army chief in ‘False Positives’ killings of civilians

Colombia’s army commander, Gen. Mario Montoya, speaks to the media in Bogota in 2008. (Jose Gomez/Reuters)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — On a Sunday morning in 2008, Idaly Garcerá Valdez returned from a visit with family to find her apartment empty, her 26-year-old son gone and a note posted on her front door.

“Don’t worry,” read the note from Diego Tamayo Garcerá. “I’ll be back on Monday.”

Days earlier, her son had told her he had been invited to travel to the Colombian coast for a job opportunity — and a chance to see the sea for the first time.

Instead, his mother would later learn, he was taken hundreds of miles from their home in Soacha, just outside Bogotá, to rural Norte de Santander department. He was handed over to members of the Colombian army, and on Aug. 25, shot and killed — one of thousands of people slain by government forces and then falsely labeled as guerrilla fighters to boost the number of enemy casualties in the country’s half-century-long civil war, according to a Colombian court.

For 13 years, Garcerá and others have sought to hold the country’s top military leaders accountable for what has become known as the “False Positives” scandal. Their demand, now painted in murals across Colombia: “Who gave the order?”

It’s a question they have long put to one man in particular: Gen. Mario Montoya, the U.S.-trained commander who led the army at the peak of the killings, celebrated for helping defeat the largest rebel group in the war.

On Wednesday, the 13th anniversary of Tamayo’s death, Montoya appeared in court to be formally charged with murder for allegedly overseeing and incentivizing the killings of 104 civilians, including five children, according to the country’s attorney general. The retired general, who commanded the army between 2006 and 2008, is the highest-ranking military officer to face accountability in the scandal that continues to haunt the country nearly five years after a peace deal ended decades of armed conflict.

The charges, pursued by an attorney general closely aligned with President Iván Duque, could signal that the government is now willing to come to terms with one of the darkest aspects of its military’s history, said Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight program for the Washington Office on Latin America.

“It’s a real blow to the Colombian army’s image,” Isacson said. “People who are upheld as heroes and as people who are turning the country around 12 or 15 years ago, now facing charges of human rights abuse.”

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At the arraignment hearing Wednesday, lawyers for both Montoya and the victims of the killings debated whether Attorney General Francisco Barbosa should be granted jurisdiction over the case. Judge Fabio David Bernal Suárez postponed the decision until Thursday, leaving Montoya’s criminal charges in limbo.

But for family members of victims, the retired general’s appearance in the courtroom, wearing a suit and a mask, was a symbolic and significant step toward accountability. It was the first time in Colombia’s recent history that an attorney general has requested criminal charges against the former head of the army, according to Juan Pappier, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“Seeing him there, arriving like any other criminal … that was important,” said Jacqueline Castillo, a member of the “Mothers of Soacha,” a group of family members of victims of the extrajudicial killings.

At least 6,402 Colombians were killed as false enemy combatants between 2002 and 2008, according to a postwar court created in 2016 as part of the peace deal with the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The court, known as the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, is charged with investigating the facts of the war and holding those who committed crimes accountable through restorative sentences and, in some cases, prison time.

In July, the tribunal charged 11 top military leaders, including a general, in the deaths of at least 120 people in Catatumbo, Norte de Santander. The kidnappings and killings of innocent people, many of them unemployed, homeless or disabled, were carried out in response to pressure to meet body counts as measures of success, the court said. Military leaders incentivized soldiers to kill by offering medals, awards and even vacation time.

The charges pursued by Barbosa are separate from a peace court investigation into Montoya’s actions, which has not yet yielded charges.

The attorney general’s office said it would charge the former army commander with multiple counts of aggravated homicide and concealing, altering or destroying evidence. Montoya is accused of ignoring a directive issued by the commander general of the military forces to prioritize captures over combat deaths. Instead, according to the attorney general’s office, he pressured the leaders of divisions, brigades and battalions to carry out a strategy that rewarded commanders who reported casualties.

Andrés Garzón, a lawyer representing Montoya, said the retired general denies all charges. Garzón argued that the attorney general’s office does not have jurisdiction over the case and that the peace tribunal does.

“Everyone must answer for their actions, and at no time did Mario Montoya’s actions give rise to those heinous events,” the lawyer said. “We respect the pain of the families in these 6,400 events and we ask that these circumstances be clarified.”

The arraignment marks a steep fall from grace for a commander who became “the face of this modernizing military on the offensive” in the civil war, Isacson said.

Montoya was “a darling of the Americans,” Isacson said, particularly as head of Colombia’s Joint Task Force South, the chief recipient of U.S. aid in the early days of the anti-drug-trafficking and anti-insurgency initiative Plan Colombia.

He led the army at a time when “the pendulum crossed a midpoint and began to move inevitably in the direction of a win for the Colombia government over the FARC,” said William Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia between 2007 and 2010.

Perhaps most famously, Montoya was one of the chief orchestrators of Operation Jaque, in which the Colombian army liberated 15 FARC-held hostages, including the Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. A photograph of the general raising a fist beside Betancourt after her rescue was widely circulated in Colombia as the country celebrated the victory.

Brownfield, now a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, dealt frequently with Montoya. He described him as “a soldier’s general.”

“He was almost Pattonesque in terms of how he projected himself,” Brownfield said. “I would not be surprised if, given his leadership style, General Montoya had made it clear to his sub-commanders that he expected to see results. And results, from his perspective, was taking the fight to the FARC … and producing evidence of victory.”

Ordinarily, Montoya could be sentenced to 50 to 60 years in prison if convicted. But while he’s also being investigated by the peace tribunal, the attorney general’s office will not be able to proceed with a trial, according to lawyers representing victims’ families. Still, the charges could provide critical evidence to support the peace tribunal process, lawyer Sebastián Escobar said. Pappier said they would also provide incentives for Montoya to cooperate with the process.

If he were charged in the peace court, he would have two options. He could accept responsibility for the crimes and face five to eight years of restrictive measures, such as house arrest. Or he could go to trial and, if convicted, face five to 20 years in prison.

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Castillo said she hopes to see Montoya “recognize and accept that these are real facts.” But she and others want to see authorities take the case further up the chain — to determine any role played by former president Álvaro Uribe.

Uribe has denied wrongdoing and condemned the entire peace court process. He described a recent report from the court as an “attack” meant to discredit him.

In a statement provided by a spokeswoman Wednesday, Uribe described Montoya as “a good person” and said “it would never cross the president’s soul to think that the general had ordered deaths.” “Uribe demanded results,” the former president said in testimony before Colombia’s Truth Commission last week. “That is their grand accusation against me. ... So I’ll explain: Some incapable people believed that producing results meant producing crimes.”

German Romero, another lawyer representing families in the Montoya case, said he doubts either court will pursue a case against the former president, who is exempt from charges in the peace tribunal. Montoya, the lawyer said, “is the grand prize.”

But Garcerá said she hopes the former army commander will take responsibility and “say who else was working with him.”

“I fear I’m going to die without finding justice, without knowing the truth,” said Garcerá, now 73. “Who killed my son?”

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