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Accused in deaths of innocents, a former colonel confronts his shame

Former Colombian army colonel Santiago Herrera Fajardo at an April hearing in Ocaña organized by the country's Special Jurisdiction for Peace. (Isabel Valdes for the Special Jurisdiction for Peace)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The former colonel clutched his notes as he waited for his name to be called. Santiago Herrera Fajardo had struggled to sleep the night before, waking up at 3 a.m. to practice the speech that would define the rest of his life.

To reach the microphone, he had to walk past rows of mothers and daughters who had waited nearly 15 years to hear him explain how and why his soldiers killed innocent men in one of the worst atrocities in Colombia’s history.

An army veteran of nearly 30 years, now stripped of his uniform, he asked the Holy Spirit to help these families see his sincerity. Would they believe him?

“Today, with all the shame and shrinkage that a soldier can feel, but with the most respect for the pain of the victims, I recognize that while I was in this position, a de facto criminal structure operated in the brigade,” Herrera told Colombia’s peace tribunal during the April 26 hearing. “I pressured my subordinates to get results, in combat casualties, at any cost.”

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Herrera, 57, admitted to urging his soldiers to kill as many people as they could to meet body count demands set by commanders at the peak of Colombia’s bloody 50-year conflict. He promoted competitions between units, offered vacations as rewards and threatened to give soldiers negative reviews if they fell short.

Herrera is one of the highest-ranking military leaders to accept responsibility in Colombia’s “false positives” scandal. Between 2002 and 2008, U.S.-backed forces killed an estimated 6,402 people and falsely labeled them as guerrilla fighters to signal they were winning the war, according to the country’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace. The jurisdiction was formed through the country’s 2016 peace deal with its largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — the FARC.

Many of the victims were poor, unemployed or disabled men who were lured by the promise of a job. Their bodies were often altered, dressed up as enemy combatants and posed with guns.

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Nearly 15 years later, Herrera’s testimony is part of a bold experiment in restorative justice that could become a model for other countries. In exchange for admitting their responsibility and cooperating with the jurisdiction, perpetrators can receive lighter sentences, such as house arrest.

But Herrera is one of only 10 military leaders who have admitted their involvement. More than 3,000 members of Colombia’s security forces have false positives cases pending before the jurisdiction. And even those who want to cooperate face significant barriers to speaking openly about their roles — and the roles played by their superiors — according to former military leaders and international observers.

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Former soldiers and ex-FARC combatants alike have faced death threats not to speak. But critics say the former soldiers have received less legal support than the former FARC fighters.

Peace negotiators arranged independent counsel for the ex-FARC combatants. Some former soldiers have complained that their government-provided lawyers have conflicts of interest. They accuse their lawyers of pressuring them to modify their testimonies or omit information to protect higher-ranking defendants. The lawyers have denied the accusations.

“What is clear is that they have for too long been left alone, abandoned by their own institutions,” said Dag Nagoda, minister councilor at the Norwegian Embassy, which has been monitoring the implementation of the peace accords. “They’ve been labeled rotten apples in the public debate, and there has been little accompaniment.”

The concern for these defendants is a practical one, Nagoda said: “If they don’t speak up, the peace process won’t work.”

Carlos Ruiz Massieu, head of the U.N. Verification Mission in Colombia, said it’s clear that Colombian institutions and international partners “needed to do a better job with the military.”

To family members of the victims, the hearing helped finally clear the names of their loved ones. But many felt the admissions didn’t go far enough.

Blanca Monroy, whose son was killed in 2008, said she hoped Herrera and others who testified could be an example for those who are “drowning in their own poison” to come forward.

The first call Herrera received after his testimony was from a former comrade who is scheduled to appear before the jurisdiction soon. He praised Herrera’s “honesty and clarity.”

But it didn’t take long for Herrera to receive other messages, calling him a traitor for speaking out. Some criticized him for publicly naming ex-general Mario Montoya, the former army chief who Herrera said pressured him to boost body counts.

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Herrera had been jailed for seven years before beginning the transitional justice process. He didn’t have much left to lose. But he still feared for his life, and for the safety of his wife and daughters, ages 17 and 13.

The walls of Herrera’s home office celebrate his decades-long military career. There’s the composite from his military school. There’s the photo of him and his three brothers, all in uniform, on the day in 1983 when he was promoted to second lieutenant.

That career came to an end over what happened in 2007, when he took charge of a brigade in Catatumbo. He says Montoya told him he needed to boost combat kills. “I’ll be back,” Herrera says Montoya told him, “and if you haven’t changed the results, get ready because I’ll relieve you.”

Montoya has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. His lawyer, Andrés Garzón, said Montoya followed army standards that measured operating results in seven categories, not just body counts. Garzón accused Herrera and other ex-military leaders of lying in their testimonies to reduce punishment.

Herrera soon started noticing unusual deaths, but he didn’t do anything about it. “In the degradation of the conflict, you no longer care about that,” he said. “You care about statistics.”

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When the killings came to light, Herrera and other leaders denied the extent of their roles. But the military soon came under intense pressure to hold leaders accountable. Colombian courts have described the killings as a crime against humanity, “a systematic and widespread practice” against civilians that frequently came with “acts of torture.”

After being held in pretrial detention for seven years, after hearing the stories of victims and meeting with former FARC members, Herrera started to acknowledge his responsibility.

“The arrogance of the power and the rank goes away,” he said. “Then you become much more human and begin to understand.”

Before the hearings, Herrera and other military leaders met with the families of victims. María Fernanda Franco Gómez was 7 years old when her father was taken and killed by soldiers. Now 22, she yelled at the former officers.

“How could you let this happen? Don’t you have children?” she shouted. “You’re worse than monsters.”

Herrera promised he would try to get her more information about her father’s death. She didn’t believe him, she said in an interview.

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But at the hearing, Herrera told Franco he had found more details. He gave her his number and said he would try to learn more.

The look on her face relaxed. Herrera asked whether he could give a hug. Franco politely declined. They shook hands instead.

“We all deserve a second chance,” he said.

“Yes, we all do,” she agreed, “but you have to earn it.”

Diana Durán contributed to this report.

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