Colombian Army on Killing Spree in Tolima Region

News from Colombia | on: Saturday, 29 March 2008

At least eight civilians have been murdered by Colombian soldiers during a military operation in the central Colombian department of Tolima. The killings, in the municipalities of Chaparral and Planadas, have been accompanied by death threats, harassment and intense persecution of residents in both municipalities.

Local people report that the army has accused entire villages of supporting the guerrilla insurgency and say soldiers have told residents that paramilitary death squads will shortly be arriving to "finish them off". According to Tolima-based journalist Nelson Lombana Silva "people are terrified, many are already leaving the region as the violence intensifies". Troops are also allegedly interrogating children about the whereabouts of guerrillas and their parent's political views.

Killings carried out by the army include the March 4th murder of peasant farmer Jose Ramiro Oliverio Torres in the village of Santa Barbara and the March 9th executions of farm workers Miller Vaquiro and Alexander Chila both in the Calarma area of Chaparral.

The 8th Mobile Brigade and the 'Caicedo' Battalion of the Colombian Army are both in the area, the latter of which is accused of perpetrating the majority of the killings. In most cases the army have dressed their victims in guerrilla uniforms after murdering them and then claimed that they were guerrilla fighters killed during combat. According to Lombana, at least 20 cases of this type have occurred in the region including the murder of two evangelicals and two coffee farmers on consecutive days at a place known as the Rioblanca junction in the La Marina area of Chaparral.

According to one witness to those killings, "Jesús Riano and Camilo Avila, the two evangelicals, were stopped by soldiers at Rioblanca who forced them out of the car to search them. When they finished they simply shot them and then took out some guerrilla uniforms which they dressed their bodies in. The same thing happened to the two men that were taking their coffee crop to market." The witness went on to describe another case "in the village of El Libano the army dragged a farmer out of his house, cut open his stomach and then killed him on the patio. All his children were watching. I think that the soldiers had been smoking drugs before as they have set up their camp outside the village right next to a marijuana plantation."

Residents have also reported that men wearing military uniforms but with balaclavas covering their faces are accompanying the troops on many of their patrols in the region creating yet more alarm. On March 15th a group of these masked men assassinated peasant farmer Ignacio Andradre in the village of La Laguna in Chaparral.

As well as the killings, reports say that troops are using civilians as human shields, are restricting shipments of food and medicine into the two municipalities and that they are indiscriminately bombing and machine gunning the area, putting lives at risk and terrifying children.

In one bombing a house on the outskirts of the village of Altozano was hit and the woman living there injured and all her farm animals killed. In another incident, on March 17th, troops of the 'Caicedo' Battalion indiscriminately opened fire near a group of civilians who were talking at a farm belonging to Mr Elias Garcia in the village of La Marina. 22-year-old farm worker Fredy Rojas Gonzalez, was shot in the leg and stomach.

According to Lombana, "The soldiers are humiliating people. Detaining them for hours on end, threatening them, accusing them of supporting the guerrillas, forcing their way into their homes and stealing food, money and farm animals. In one village called Aurora, a woman complained that the soldiers were putting her family at risk by camping next to her house. The soldiers simply burnt her house down along with all their possessions. It seems that their aim is to force the people to flee the region. People are terrified to speak out as the army has made it clear that anyone who talks will be killed."

According to the residents of the region the only person to have spoken out in defense of their rights was regional ombudsman Tito Acosta. However, the army subsequently detained Acosta, accused him of supporting the guerrillas and threw him in jail, where he remains as of writing.

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