Army alleged to have killed six civilians before falsely presenting them as armed combatants

The army killed six people during a raid in southern Colombia before falsely reporting the victims as members of an armed group active in the region, according to social organisations based in the region.

The raid was carried out on Tuesday 28 March in Puerto Leguizamo in the department of Putumayo and claimed the lives of an indigenous governor, a community council president and his wife, as well as a 16-year-old boy, among others. The reports have stoked concerns over new cases of ‘False Positives,’ the phrase used to describe killings by security forces that target innocent victims and subsequently misrepresent them as armed combatants. Between 2002 and 2008, over 6,400 people were murdered this way, with the army claiming they were guerrillas killed in combat.

In a statement released on 29 March, the Peasant Human Rights Network of Putumayo said that soldiers had killed 11 people the previous day in the village of Remanso. Among the victims were indigenous governor Pablo Panduro Coquinche, community council president Didier Hernández Rojas and his wife Ana María Sarria Berrera, 16-year-old Brayan Santiago Pama, Oscar Olivo Yela and two people identified as Cuéllar and Pequeño. Those injured included Willinton Galíndez, Vanesa Rivadeneira Reyes and Nora Andrade. A number of people were also missing.

In a subsequent statement released the next day, the Network said that on the night of 28-29 March, residents held a festival to raise funds for local infrastructure and community projects. At around 7am, as the party was ending, 25 armed and masked men entered the vicinity and opened fire, injuring and killing several people. The organisation reported that, once the shooting stopped, residents attempted to attend to the dead and injured but were prevented from doing so by soldiers. The masked assailants and soldiers then loaded some of the bodies onto a helicopter, before boarding it and leaving by air.

The statement said that ‘the army knew that there were civilians among the people killed but they took videos and photographs in which they put weapons on the victims, such as in the case of the indigenous governor.’ It warned that a number of injured victims attended to in hospital in Puerto Asís were at grave risk as the army had falsely smeared them as members of an armed group. It labelled the attack a ‘massacre’ and a ‘state crime (False Positive).’ Subsequent press reports said that soldiers were reportedly preventing human rights defenders from entering the zone and that they were pressuring residents who witnessed the incident to sign blank documents.

Following the raid, President Iván Duque tweeted ‘The offensive continues #SinTregua (without respite) against narco-terrorist structures in all regions of the country. Operations by our security forces achieved the neutralisation of 11 FARC dissident members and the arrest of four more in Puerto Leguízamo.’ Defence Minister Diego Molano also tweeted about the raid. The term ‘dissidents’ is used by the press and politicians to refer to alleged former FARC combatants who have remained armed and outside the peace process.

The military has been implicated in multiple human rights violations and killings since Duque assumed office in August 2018, with Molano’s predecessor Guillermo Botero forced to resign as Defence Minister over an attack that killed several child victims of forced recruitment, as well as multiple other scandals.