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The Colombian state’s ‘murder quotas’

In its decades-long war against communist rebels, the government turned incentivised murder into an industry of its own, reports NICK MACWILLIAM

EVEN among the atrocities of Colombia’s armed conflict, the False Positives programme stands out for its cruelty.

Thousands of civilians — mainly young, entirely poor — were lured to designated locations with fake job offers.

Once there, the army murdered them and dressed them in guerilla uniforms. The victims were presented as enemy kills, demonstrating the state’s effectiveness in combatting the guerilla insurgency.

Soldiers were incentivised through financial rewards for kills.

Although several military officials have been convicted over the False Positives, the scale of the abuses has never been determined.

It is one of the cases under review by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the transitional justice tribunal established in Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement to establish truth and justice around the worst human rights violations committed during the conflict.

The JEP has logged 2,248 cases of extrajudicial killings, 97 per cent of which took place during the 2002-10 presidency of ultra-conservative demagogue Alvaro Uribe.

Despite his administration’s abysmal human rights record and links to paramilitary groups, Uribe remains extremely influential.

His hand-picked candidate, the relative unknown Ivan Duque, won last year’s presidential election, two years after Uribe had orchestrated the shock No vote in Colombia’s peace plebiscite.

The peace agreement between the country’s main guerilla organisation, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), and the government of Juan Manuel Santos aimed to move the country into a new era.

Under the agreement, the Farc reformed as a political party and entered Congress, while conflict-fuelling issues around land reform, drugs cultivation and rural underdevelopment were addressed.

Today, however, the peace process is faltering amid escalating violence across rural regions. Around 700 social activists and Farc former guerillas have been murdered since the agreement was signed.

Paramilitaries and other armed groups have occupied territories vacated by the Farc’s transition to electoral politics.

Community leaders, trade unionists and people working to implement the peace agreement at grassroots level are being systematically targeted.

Recent revelations have raised fears the worst state-backed atrocities of the armed conflict are resurfacing.

On May 18 the New York Times exposed shocking new directives emanating from military top brass.

Army officers had been ordered to significantly increase kills and captures of “criminals and militants,” while they should not “demand perfection” in conducting raids.

The report alleged that orders were given to lower standards in the drive to “improve” results and that this had led to multiple civilian deaths.

The article caused shockwaves and sent the government into damage limitation mode.

Its author, Nicholas Casey, was forced to leave Colombia after far-right senator Maria Cabal baselessly claimed he was a Farc sympathiser.

Defence Minister Guillermo Botero wrote to the NYT to challenge the article’s veracity.

General Luis Fernando Navarro pledged that military operations avoided civilian casualties.

Duque reacted with a swiftness unseen in matters pertaining to the peace process, announcing a new commission to monitor military conduct around human rights.

Duque’s public insistence on transparency has been negated by fresh controversies.

The head of Colombia’s armed forces, Major General Nicasio Martinez, who admitted issuing the orders for more kills, was promoted earlier this year despite being heavily implicated in the False Positives of the 2000s.

Another eight military officials suspected of involvement were promoted by Duque’s fledgling administration. With the JEP examining army atrocities, many powerful figures are keen to prevent the truth coming out.

The army killing of Farc member Dimar Torres in April increased scrutiny of state abuses. Dimar was co-ordinating reincorporation projects for former guerillas in Catatumbo, eastern Colombia, when he was killed by soldiers who subsequently tried to cover up the crime.

Phone footage shot by Dimar’s friends, who had gone looking for him after hearing gunfire, captured them arguing with nervous-looking soldiers, before another video showed his partially buried body with a gunshot wound to the head.

Although the army swiftly accepted responsibility and apologised — but only after being caught red-handed — the incident did little to alleviate the fear that many state and military factions continue to view the Farc as enemies.

With Farc members based in transition camps around the country, the state is responsible for their security.

Yet 135 former guerillas who willingly disarmed and 35 of their close relatives have been murdered since the signing of the deal. Eleven more have been disappeared.

Last month, the United Nations demonstrated its justified concern for the government’s attitude towards former guerillas. In a letter citing Dimar’s murder, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Agnes Callamard, and five other officials told Duque’s government “to stop inciting violence against the demobilised Farc-EP and to comply with the guarantees given to them during the negotiations in Havana, especially respect for the right to life.”

It is not only Farc members who face escalating violence. The 2019 report by the International Trade Union Confederation, published in June, documented a shocking rise in violence against trade unionists in Colombia.

In 2018, almost two-thirds of global trade unionist murders were committed in Colombia (34 of 53 cases).

These killings more than doubled the previous year’s figure of 15, which even then made Colombia the world’s most dangerous country for labour organising.

Yet rather than challenge Colombia over this violence, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, formed of over 30 of the biggest capitalist economies, invited Colombia to join, clearly violating its own founding charter on work conditions.

This negligence by the governments of the wealthiest nations makes a mockery of their avowed support of human rights.

But international pressure can ensure the Colombian peace process remains on track.

The Duque administration’s urgent response to the New York Times revelations demonstrated how global opinion sways a Colombian political elite that often discards domestic opinion, particularly with the country hoping to boost foreign investment and tourism.

When Duque visited London in June to promote business links with Britain, he was greeted by protesters holding aloft images of murdered social activists.

The rally, organised by the Britain and Ireland-based Defend the Defenders grassroots campaign (which the organisation I work for, Justice for Colombia, supports), made headlines in Colombia, shifting the media focus from Duque’s cosy chat with Theresa May to issues of human rights.

Foreign governments must demand implementation of the peace deal and urgent measures to tackle violence against trade unionists, social activists and Farc members.

For too long, they have turned a blind eye to Colombia, where the armed conflict involved state terrorism conducted on a massive and systematic scale.

Until those responsible for these crimes are held to account, many Colombians will fear that history could be repeated.

Nick MacWilliam is trade union & programmes officer at Justice for Colombia, which works with the British and Irish trade union movements and parliaments in support of human rights and peace in Colombia.

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