Rights group urges Colombia to scrub 5 officer promotions
By CHRISTINE ARMARIO
Nov. 14, 2017
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Human Rights Watch is urging Colombia's government to cancel promotions for five military officers it says are strongly linked to the killings of civilians who were falsely reported to be leftist rebels slain in combat.
In a report Tuesday, the rights organization detailed the cases of four coronels and one general who were overseeing commands in which authorities were investigating so-called "false positive" cases.
Security forces killed several thousand civilians, many poor farmers, between 2002 and 2008 during the height of the military's offense against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Officers counted the civilians as guerrillas in order to inflate reported combat deaths and obtain coveted vacations and bonuses.
"Naturally, each of these five officers enjoys the presumption of innocence," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch. "But promoting them while they are still under investigation would signal that Colombian authorities are not serious about ensuring justice for false positives."
Among the five officers is Brig. Gen. Francisco Javier Cruz Ricci, who prosecutors are investigating for his suspected role in the killing of two civilians in 2004. Human Rights Watch investigators say they obtained access to evidence implicating him in the crimes, including the confession of a soldier who said Ricci may have ordered the civilians' deaths.
One of those civilians was Silvio Morales, described by his family's lawyer as a community leader who was abducted and tortured by paramilitaries and then handed over to a military sergeant. Officers later delivered his bullet-ridden body to a hospital in Putumayo, a southern state along Colombia's border with Ecuador, dismissing him as rebel killed in combat.
According to Human Rights Watch, a sergeant told prosecutors that Cruz Ricci was "informed" after Morales and the other victim were killed and awarded a trip overseas after reporting the deaths.
"This shows that justice has not worked," Alexander Montana, who is representing Morales' family, said.
While hundreds of mostly low-ranking soldiers involved in the extrajudicial killings have been convicted in Colombian courts, many senior army officers believed responsible have escaped charges and been promoted. Under international law, commanders could be criminally responsible if they knew or should have known that a subordinate committed a crime and did not try to prevent or punish it.
Ricci is slated to be promoted to major general. A document from the chief prosecutor's office shared with The Associated Press by Human Rights Watch confirms that he is under investigation. Colombia's Senate will soon decide whether his and 21 other promotions are granted.
The Defense Ministry did not have any immediate comment.
Also slated for promotion in the coming weeks is Col. David Bastidas, who was second-in-command of an army battalion where soldiers are suspected of killing dozens of civilians, including a boy who was picking oranges and a man with a mental condition who was visiting his grandfather.
Prosecutors are investigating 79 deaths that occurred in 2004 and 25 in 2005, years that coincide with Bastidas' time as the battalion's commander, Human Rights Watch said.
The government reached a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia last year to end Latin America's longest-running conflict. The final agreement includes the creation of a special peace tribunal to which both rebels and military officers involved in any crimes are expected to confess. Those who share information on serious crimes will avoid lengthy prison sentences that they might have received in any ordinary court.
Montana said families of "false positive" victims are pushing for the generals to be tried in Colombia's criminal courts in order ensure they are not given light sentences.