Military officials have given testimony over the killings of 127 civilians carried out by their battalion in the regional departments of César and La Guajira between 2002 and 2005.
Under the terms of the 2016 peace agreement, 12 former soldiers testified to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the agreement’s transitional justice court, over their involvement in the crimes. The JEP is investigating the so-called ‘False Positives’ killings, where civilians – who were mainly young and poor – were murdered and falsely presented as guerrillas killed in combat operations. Many victims were lured with fake job offers. The JEP has found that the military killed at least 6,402 people in cases of False Positives.
In a special courtroom meeting, army perpetrators of the killings faced victims’ relatives to give testimony about what they had done. The officials were Alex José Mercado Sierra, Carlos Andrés Lora Cabrales, Eduart Gustavo Álvarez Mejía, Efraín Andrade Perea, Elkin Leonardo Burgos Suárez, Elkin Rojas, Guillermo Gutiérrez Riveros, Heber Hernán Gómez Naranjo, José de Jesús Rueda Quintero, Juan Carlos Soto Sepúlveda, Manuel Valentín Padilla and Yeris Andrés Gómez Coronel. Some had killed people themselves while others had ordered subordinates to carry out the killings. They all belonged to the Artillery Battalion No. 2 ‘La Popa’ which operated in northern Colombia at the time.
The JEP provides reduced sentences of five to eight years’ imprisonment in return for evidence about atrocities committed during the armed conflict. Accused parties who do not submit to the JEP can face legal action under the standard justice system, which carries significantly higher sentences. Other JEP investigations include the murders of more than 5,700 affiliates of the Patriotic Union political party predominantly in the 1980s and 1990s, while in a separate case former FARC leaders accepted responsibility for hostage taking. The JEP aims to provide justice to victims and sentence those behind serious abuses, while also supporting the work of the Truth Commission to establish what occurred during decades of conflict.
Among the victims’ relatives to speak in the special meeting was María Faustina Martínez, who is of indigenous Wiwa heritage and whose sister, Nohemi Pacheca, was killed aged just 13. She said Nohemi, who was two months’ pregnant, ‘was not a guerrilla, my sister was a peasant farmer like I am, like all the Wiwa.’ Her family had been displaced by violence before Nohemi’s death. ‘Why did they end our lives, the future that we had? Why did they end an underage person, why did they murder her?’ she said.
The daughter of murdered Enrique Arias, Naila Arias, said her Kankuamo indigenous family were poor and that his killing had left her mother unable to raise their seven children. This forced the family to be split among relatives and others who could support the children. Another victim of Kankuamo heritage was Victor Hugo Maestre. His brother Lauro said their community was attacked by paramilitaries before the army entered the area a few days later and accused residents of being guerrilla collaborators.
Among the soldiers to speak was Sergeant Efraín Andrade Perea, who said that he participated in False Positives after noting that his regular army activities did not receive the same recognition or rewards as those who committed killings. ‘I want to say to these families who have come here to fight for the truth that their relatives were not criminals,’ he said.
Abelardo José Daza spoke about his father, Juan Enemías Daza Carrillo, who was transporting fruit the day he was killed. Juan had five children. Aberlardo asked the soldiers to publicly acknowledge that his father was not a guerrilla. The killing was carried out on the orders of Lieutenant Carlos Andrés Lora Cabrales. ‘He was not a guerrilla and he was carrying lemons in his rucksack,’ he told Abelardo. The lieutenant also gave evidence about the relations between the army and paramilitaries, who regularly brought people to the army to be killed.
In another JEP audience held in late April, soldiers based in Catatumbo, northeast Colombia, gave evidence of their own roles in 120 False Positive killings in the region in 2007-08. Most of the victims were young peasant farmers. In some cases, the bodies have never been returned to the families. This was the first time that a JEP case had had a public hearing.
Later this year, the JEP is due to announce its first sentences. Victims’ loved ones hope that the painful process can finally bring justice to some of the vast numbers of people who suffered appalling abuses during the armed conflict.