Five years after the signing of the peace agreement, Colombia looks at the painful judicial truth of the war, with increasing determination. In particular, to clarify one of the worst crimes of the armed conflict, the false positives, the euphemism with which the murders of civilians by the military are known to present them as guerrillas killed in combat. In a new transitional justice milestone, a dozen soldiers accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity held for the first time this Tuesday a heartbreaking recognition hearing, face to face with their victims. “We murder innocent people, peasants,” admitted one of the highest officials in the first of two days dedicated to the phenomenon in the Catatumbo region.
The president of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), magistrate Eduardo Cifuentes, declared that “at no time had we been so close to the truth and to the possibility of administering justice,” in a message broadcast at the beginning of the hearing. “The tragedy into which the war dragged us must not be repeated, if justice shines, and if its shine is truth,” he noted. It was the preamble to an avalanche of testimonies from victims, interspersed with acknowledgments from the perpetrators. The stories, overwhelming, followed one after another. They coincided in complaining about the stigmatization of peasants as guerrillas. The event, at the express request of the victims, was moved to a theater in the municipality of Ocaña, in the department of Norte de Santander, where most of the relatives live.
“My brother, Javier Peñuela, was a man taken from a store, he was kidnapped, he was tortured, he was robbed from his house,” Sandra Barbosa, a farmer from the region who has spent 14 years seeking to recover her good name, vented. and recounted the many vicissitudes to claim the body. “I do want them to change the tactics of training our army, we don’t have them there to kill and assassinate us, we have them to take care of us and protect us,” she claimed on the platform to those appearing.
The exchange with Nestor Guillermo Gutierrez, a retired non-commissioned officer, accused of being one of the most responsible and considered by the JEP to be the direct executor of several homicides, was one of the most dramatic moments. “Javier Peñuela was a peasant, today I say it here, in public; like all his relatives, good people, ”said Gutiérrez. He recounted that his only “sin” the day the army captured him and then murdered him was going down to town to have a tooth pulled. He mentioned on several occasions the pressure from the high command for results, he spoke of alliances with paramilitaries and the blacklisting of supposed guerrilla collaborators, who in reality were not. “We murder innocent people, peasants. And one of my commitments when I met with the victims was to clarify it here before opinion, before the world, before the country”, he admitted. “I apologize to God.”
In another unusual case, Villamir Rodríguez, a surviving day laborer, recounted in a video how he was saved thanks to the fact that the uniformed men believed that he was dead after shooting him, he never lost consciousness, and was able to escape by crawling through the field, despite bleeding. profusely from one arm. “I want to know why they were going to do that to me. false positive”, he demanded from the military. “You were never a combatant, nor a criminal. I have come to clear his name,” declared Daladier Rivera, who was an army captain at the time. “I produced false intelligence documents,” he admitted.
The first substantive decisions of the JEP are imminent. The unprecedented recognition hearing, the first within the system, activates a new judicial stage in which the accused must acknowledge their responsibility and provide the truth. It corresponds to the sub-case in which the Recognition Chamber has accused 11 people –among them a brigadier general, two colonels, two lieutenant colonels, a major, a captain, two sergeants and a corporal, as well as a civilian– for their participation in the deaths of at least 120 defenseless people in Catatumbo, in Norte de Santander, a region bordering Venezuela, between January 2007 and August 2008.
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The calls false positives, perpetrated mostly during the two terms of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), have been a constant source of commotion in a society that seeks to turn the page on violence amid the polarization that has characterized the country since the peace negotiations. Its ramifications occurred throughout Colombia. As part of case 03 The JEP has documented at least 6,402 “murders and forced disappearances presented as casualties in combat by state agents.” Those that occurred in Catatumbo are emblematic for several reasons.
The 120 victims in Norte de Santander, who had a similar profile and obey a systematic pattern, sought to satisfy the official indicator of military success within the framework of the body count policy, the court detailed in its indictment. Incentives included congratulations, medals, furloughs, and vacations. There were two criminal modalities. In the first, they were young men between 25 and 35 years old, inhabitants of the rural area of Catatumbo, mostly farmers, merchants and informal transporters. This Tuesday’s day was concentrated in that stage.
When the complaints from the population of Catatumbo began to accumulate, the military began to murder young people from other regions, tricked into being transferred with the same purpose of presenting them as casualties in combat. This is how the country learned in 2008 of the story of the mothers of Soacha, on the outskirts of Bogotá, who were looking for their disappeared children and ended up finding them in a mass grave in Ocaña, after members of the army reported them as dead in combat. They will focus on Wednesday. The victims in the audience wore T-shirts with the image of high-ranking military officers and the message that the Soacha mothers’ movement has popularized: “Who gave the order?”
The process for false positives is one of the two great processes –or macrocases– more advanced in the peace court, along with the one that accuses the leadership of the extinct FARC for a series of crimes associated with the kidnapping, which will have its recognition hearing in Bogotá from May 31. If the appearing parties acknowledge their responsibility during the hearings, in addition to providing full, detailed and exhaustive truth, the first resolutions of conclusions must be produced in the next three months.
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