Not the Bad Apple Story, Again! Why the Colombian Military Needs Immediate Reform

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The Colombian government says that security sector reform is off-limits at the peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).  The government may have its reasons, but that should not leave security sector reform off-limits for Colombian citizenry and the international community.

Despite the Colombian military’s ongoing corruption scandals, links with organized crime, and a longstanding record of gross human rights violations, President Juan Manuel Santos has vowed to protect the Army’s good name. In February 2014, he emphasized that any reform initiative would only take place after a successful peace deal and under a mutual understanding between the government and Armed Forces – no one else, he emphasized, “just us”.[1]

The desire to shield the military from public scrutiny is evidence of Colombia’s historically fraught civil-government and military relations. Even now, government and military experts question the true extent of civilian control over the country’s armed forces.  Every time military power has been put in check – whether in response to blatant insubordination, scandalous corruption or egregious offenses – the promise of the long-standing Colombian democracy shudders.

A long line of compromises has maintained a precarious government-military balance.  Civilian authorities get the military to play nice in the public sphere; and martial life is left to the military.   Occasionally, a few rogue officers or “bad apples” are sacrificed, and life goes on…or so the story goes.

In reality, criminal activity within the military is a systemic issue, not just limited to a few rogue officers.  Between January 2003 and October 2008, members of the Colombian Army killed approximately 3,000 persons, presenting their bodies as positive results of the anti-insurgent campaign.  Their deaths were not the result of combat; rather the hostilities were staged and people were murdered in cold blood.   The justice system was warped and perverted, in order to assist in the cover-up. In the meantime, the Army received national and international praise for its extraordinary successes against the enemy; its officers were decorated and promoted for their efforts.

Known as “false positives,” these killings have been reduced to incidents of individual initiative, and criminal responsibility has been pinned on hundreds of soldiers, dozens of non-commissioned and a few commissioned officers. But the “false positive” crisis is not on their hands.  The propagation of such a practice should not be seen as a tale of bad apples, but a demonstration of a rotten barrel, as Phillip Zimbardo has claimed in The Lucifer Effect (2007).[2]  As he argues, structural and situational forces explain why malevolent behavior spreads unimpeded through social organizations, particularly total institutions, like the military.

As the government of Alvaro Uribe Velez (2002-2010) pressed for results, they allowed the military to run unchecked, conducting operations we now know to have been blatantly illegal. The practice spread throughout military units, demonstrating patterns resulting from pressure by specific commanders or local dynamics. In the absence of guerrillas to confront, combat kills were simulated, sometimes with the help of local paramilitary bosses who would supply dead bodies for the Army to present as positives, thus accounting for the outstanding results in some areas, such as the department of Cesar. Captured guerilla members, suspected petty thieves, urban drug users, land peasants and mentally disabled youth, amongst others, were transported to the killing sites and murdered. Some regional schemes became so sophisticated that safe houses were set up to hold the human subjects alive and kicking, until the killing stage was set.  Local alliances with crime scene investigators, prosecutors and judges were constructed to ensure impunity.

The killers got cocky and sloppy, as the practice spread.  They euphemistically referred to their victims as packages, steers, dolls or puppets.  One of the confessed killers told me that, after a couple dozen kills at midnight in faraway isolated sites, they started killing 20 minutes away from the city, as soon as night fell, so that they could go out drinking after the crime scene investigators got done with the cover-up.

Several internal investigations were ordered into the denounced abuses; but instead of unearthing the practice, the controllers, accused the denouncers of waging legal warfare against the military.  For example, the Inspector General of the Army conducted, in September 2008, a secret review of a suspected execution in Santander.  Not only did he find that the kill was legitimate, but he warned that action needed to be taken to neutralize the purported legal warfare against the military.   This officially sanctioned-murder was later taken to court as the result of the unrelenting action of a determined prosecutor.  In a 2011 criminal sentence (now confirmed on appeal), a judge ruled the case to be an aggravated homicide and an enforced disappearance.  The decision clearly set out the criminal plan that involved the commanding officer of the battalion.  Against all odds, the conspiracy was revealed and official denial was challenged.

Though other high-level investigations have been announced against a few colonels and generals, most cases remain in preliminary phases.  Official rhetoric supports the prosecution of “the few bad apples,” but warns against the destabilizing effects of widespread prosecution.  The current Minister of Defense, Juan Carlos Pinzon boasts that persecution of the nation’s heroes will not be tolerated.  Veiled warnings and direct anonymous threats received by victims, victims’ legal representatives, prosecutors and judges also contribute to the lack of progress of the criminal investigations.  Obstruction and destruction of evidence by the military have also been commonplace.

Colombia’s current President Santos is in a prickly place: many of the kills – in fact, most – took place on his watch as Minister of Defense (July 2006 through May 2009).  He now claims to be responsible for having stopped the “false positives.” In October 2008, then-minister Santos backed an ad hoc commission with a limited regional focus that found many of the allegations against the military to be true.  The report was not made public, but, as a result, 27 members of the Army (including three generals) were relieved of their posts. The order to stop the practice was effective; criminal complaints against the Army came almost to a full stop.

So why had the order not come before?  Substantiated allegations had been presented in October 2006 by human rights non-governmental organizations.  They were shelved during Santos’ first two years as minister of Defense.

Santos cannot claim to have taken decisive action to confront etiological factors leading to the killing spree.  The bit of controlled acknowledgment went a long way in the media.  It helped Santos’ image, but nothing was done to address the causes of the phenomenon.   Left untouched, military culture and situational forces will, again, give way to egregious conduct. The much-needed reform of the Colombian military might not be a topic to be discussed with the FARC, but it should not be a proscribed topic while the war effort continues.

Blistering scandals and growing internal accusations of officer-alliance with organized crime should be sufficient proof of the need to quickly move forward on the reform of the security sector.  Several hours of legally attained wiretaps recently shed light on the extent of the criminal enterprise set up to plan, execute and guarantee impunity of the “false positives.”  The recordings implicate high court justices, military criminal justice personnel, prosecutors and top military commanders in protecting commissioned officers being criminally prosecuted.  The recordings led to the resignation of a high court justice that shielded a colonel by sending his case to the military criminal jurisdiction.  Their content also led to the February 2014 resignation of the Commander of the Armed Forces, Leonardo Barrero, who was caught on tape advising an imprisoned lieutenant colonel, who is facing several murder charges, to “(b)uild up a mafia to denounce prosecutors and all that crap” in order to get out of jail.[3]

The reform of the Colombian military is highly sensitive business, especially given that criminals have something to loose.   Setting up an independent and technical vetting process could be a good starting point, in order to ensure that commissioned and non-commissioned officers responsible for gross human rights violations do not continue to hold command posts.  Likewise, designing proper internal controls and ensuring independent oversight of military operations are central to recovering social trust in the military.  Moreover, military doctrine and training should be reviewed so as to prevent future misconduct.  Finally, given ongoing obstruction of justice taking place within the military in relation to the “false positive” investigations and corruption schemes, proper measures should be adopted to prevent further destruction of evidence and to ensure compliance with all warrants and judicial orders.

If resolute action is not taken to confront these killings, beyond the individual criminalization of those that pulled the trigger, the institutional integrity of the Colombian Armed Forces, and the purported good will of all foreign governments that supported the war effort during the killing mirage will be corrupted.

About the Author

Michael J. Reed Hurtado is a Colombian/US journalist and lawyer with over twenty years’ experience in Latin American human rights field. He is currently a Senior Lecturer at Yale University, associated with the Council on Latin American & Iberian Studies at the MacMillan Center.  He is on twitter at @mreedhurtado.

[1] “Palabras del Presidente Juan Manuel Santos en la ceremonia de reconocimiento de los nuevos Comandantes de las Fuerzas Militares, Bogotá, February 21, 2014,” Presidencia de la República, Colombia.  Accessed March 28, 2014,

[2] Phillip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect:  Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2007).

[3] The audio and the transcription are available at: “El general amigo”, Semana, February 16, 2014.  Accessed March 28, 2014.  The Spanish version of the quote:  “Hagan una mafia para denunciar fiscales y toda esa güevonada.”


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